Thursday, October 25, 2012

Devil's Advocate Theater: Skills

Welcome to the first installment of Devil's Advocate Theater, where I argue both sides of an argument, because I'm ornery.

The first item up for debate is Skills.  A fairly divisive topic in the OSR, there are no shortage of folks ready to line up and argue one side or the other in this debate, but how many are there that will argue both for AND against them, eh?

Introducing our two debaters today, we have the Grognard and the Munchkin.

Grognard:  I'm pleased to be here today, and would like to thank From the Ashes, and James MacGeorge in particular, for moderating this debate.

Munchkin: I would like to thank them both as well.  But more powerfully.

Moderator: Well, we're off to a good start - both sides agree.

Grognard: Technically, he doesn't agree with me, since he felt it necessary to emphasize the magnitude of his agreement.

Moderator: Yes, well let's get to the matter at hand - Skills.  Valuable tool or bane of all that is good in life?  Grognard, you won the coin toss, so you get first response.

Grognard:  Bane of all that is good.  Hands down.  Role Playing is meant to be a challenge for the player.  Skills act like cheat codes, allowing you to take shortcuts, and dumbs down the game overall.

Moderator: Well, a very strident answer, direct and to the point.  Munchkin?

Munchkin: We're playing a game called Dungeons and Dragons, where people throw fireballs and call down the might of their gods upon those that anger them.  There are already cheat codes built into the game - they're called spells.

Grognard: Exactly my point - spells were built into the game from the beginning.  To borrow a phrase, "I must not use skills.  Skills are the game killer.  Skills are the little-death that bring feats."  Skills were the first step away from dudes picking up swords and venturing into dungeons and the first step towards the superheroes in chain-mail in 4e.

Moderator:  I'm hearing a presupposition there that 4e is an inherently bad game.  Which  is a different debate from this one.  So leaving that aside, we'll say that 4e is a different game than the original, and move on from there.

Grognard: Okay, consider this.  Skills remove the need for player involvement with the game.  It removes all incentive for the player to actually participate in the game itself.  The game changes from a game of skill to a game whose outcome is determined by the roll of the dice.  Chess becomes craps.  Many of the best traps conceived for D&D involve the player working out the mechanism and disarming it, based on observations, asking the right questions, etc.  With Skills, it just becomes, "Roll a perception check".  You got it?  Great, the trap is disarmed!  Where's the fun in that?   Where's the skill?

Munchkin: Look, if I wanted to be a master trapsmith, I would have gone into a life of crime.  I play these games to relax and have fun.

Grognard: You can have fun and still be involved!  If all you want to do is roll dice, there are board games and dice games out there for you.

Munchkin: Those games don't offer the narrative content that I crave.

Moderator: Sounds like we're veering off track again.  Let's refocus.  Munchkin, why do you believe that Skills are valuable tools?

Munchkin: Because not using them is discriminatory.

Grognard:  Discriminatory?  What???

Munchkin: Yes, discriminatory.  If the most your character is able to do is what you as the player can do, then you have certain class skills that just cannot be played by certain players.  How do you play someone with an Intelligence score of 18 if you yourself aren't all that smart?  How does a slovenly, abrasive jerk play someone with a high Charisma?  Nobody would ever be able to play a Paladin, because all the people who already have Paladin-like attributes are out there doing heroic things in real life, not playing games about them!

Grognard: Well first of all, I take exception to your characterization of gamers.  I'm sure there are some paladins in our ranks.  Secondly, that's just ridiculous.  Attributes are different from skills.  Higher attributes allow you to mitigate shall we say... shortcomings within the player.  They enhance what is already there.  Skills allow you to create, whole cloth, abilities which the player does not possess.

Munchkin: Do you know how to use a sword?

Grognard:  I hardly think that's relevant.

Munchkin: Moderator, will you instruct the Grognard to answer the question?

Moderator: This isn't a trial, Munchkin.

Grognard: I'll answer.  I can swing a sword, which is a step towards using a sword.

Munchkin: Okay then, let's go back to casting a spell.  Isn't casting a spell allowing you to "create, whole cloth, abilities which the player does not possess"?

Grognard: Yes, but again, it's a presupposition of the original game.

Moderator:  We're veering off point, gentlemen....

Grognard:  For the record, by the way, I'm not in favor of ability scores trumping player ability, either.

Munchkin: What???

Grognard: Your character is your avatar within the game.  If you're trying to talk your way past the guard, should you get a Charisma roll when you tell him, "I am Vecna, here to destroy you, stand aside little man!"?

Munchkin: Of course!  Maybe the guard doesn't know what Vecna looks like, and if you have a high enough Charisma, maybe you can sell it really well!

Grognard: What if you're a halfling?

Munchkin: I've met some pretty terrifying halflings....

Grognard: The point is, what you say matters, and skills or attributes shouldn't take the place of role playing and common sense.  If you're spouting nonsense, you shouldn't expect that a number on a piece of paper will mitigate that.

Munchkin: But that's ridiculous!  Your rule only makes sense when applied to social and mental attributes.  Should someone prove they can lift a gate in real life if they want their character to do so in game?

Moderator: Again, we've lost sight of our original topic, but unfortunately we're out of time.  I'd like to thank the reading audience for spending time with us this evening, and remember: if you can't be Good, be Neutral!

1 comment:

  1. I prefer a few basic classes and a list of skills to many classes, feats, separate skill system for thieves all with different resolution systems - my skill system is pretty 2nd ed with some skills being more like feats. Ive had players play their first fighter and thief characters in years under my rules as these classes benefited the most. Likewise i use stat based saves - the less systems the better. Oriental adventures and dungeoneers guide were great. Mind you we used to play in a club with rolemaster and Runequest being the main dnd rivals. The biggest complaint about skills i hear is they give too many choices so i provide examples players can just grab: hunter, cavalier, pirate, gladiator, barbarian etc under fighter. The post 2nd ed skill systems are an awful add on - yet another system, very uninspiring. Having a skill makes you able to do something with some certainty - good role playing can beat a skill most days.


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