What is Player Skill?
This comes up a lot. Player skill vs. Character skill. I think about this way too much sometimes and it seems like, at the end of the day, it is the most important question for me when I sit down to philosophize about gaming (which despite two and half years of this blog is not actually something I really enjoy). In my opinion, gaming is an active activity – pondering too much means you’re missing out on the good stuff.
But seriously – player skill is an elusive concept.
Part of my thinking is that I see Player Skill both contrasting and overlapping with another concept that I hear bandied about a lot in those contentious forum discussions in our little hobby – System Mastery.
What’s the difference between Player Skill and System Mastery and what does that understanding do for a designer when they sit down to work on a game? How do the two thoughts interact to produce a particular play experience? Can they exist side-by-side or are these two concepts on a continuum?
It seems to me that one similarity the two have – on the surface – is that both are actually about metagaming.
System mastery is about doing stuff “outside” the game experience as well as “inside” the game experience. System mastery takes character building and makes a kind of mini-game out of it where you see how much you can squeeze out of every decision point. Inside the game, system mastery tends to turn in the direction of “playing the right way” and “maximizing” everything so that you always gang-tackle monsters and focus fire and work to synergize your Strikers and Leaders for ultimate DPR… (to use 4E as my example). But the thing is, at the end of the day, this IS player skill. It might be a different kind of player skill but it’s still a matter of a player building knowledge and aptitude to improve their game experience both during and outside of actual play. Of course, anyone who knows me is aware that I really, really don’t like playing this way (or thinking this way) myself – but I want to give the players their just due… This is player skill.
But what about the elusive, other kind of player skill that can’t be quantified in feat choices or power synergies? What is that kind of player skill that “old schoolers” hold up as so important to the experience? I often hear it discussed in terms of “knowing what to do” in the dungeon or wilderness. It’s about asking the right questions when looking for traps and searching for clues, figuring out who carries the oil flasks for burning down the hordes of kobolds, knowing when to run away, and always carrying a 10’ pole. How is this any different from system mastery as I described it above? Except in this case the player is less involved in learning and mastering the system in use and more invested in learning and mastering the Game Master at their table. But it’s still about optimizing your chances by using learned techniques to minimize risk in any setting. This feeds directly into a critique of old school gaming I often hear (to the point that I’ve stopped even trying to defend the position because it’s so wearying) that ultimately, old school play is just a bunch of people sitting around playing “guess what’s in the GM’s brain.” And seen through the lens I just presented I think I start to see how people get to that idea. But I’m not sure that it’s the right idea… by which I mean, I don’t think that what is seen as the end result is what was meant at the beginning. Who knows, I could be wrong…
As I set out to write this, I went back and took a look at Matthew Finch’s, A Quick Primer For Old School Gaming. It’s an interesting read and even though I’ve looked through it before I find it offers up something new to consider each time I read through it. And one thing I always come back to – and that I feel is vital, a part that I have incorporated into my gaming since the very beginning, intuitively as a kid and more deliberately as I grew up as a gamer – is the idea of asking questions.
Player skill is not all about asking questions, but I think it starts with asking questions. The game of questions is sorta my favorite part of gaming (though I’m not sure I’ve always been faithful to it, which might explain my gaming malaise). When I’m GM I just know that I’m doing something right when players are asking excited, inventive questions. And rather than having a set of predetermined answers that I know I’m going to stick to, I tend to build off of what players ask me. Some would call this the “Art of Winging It” but I think of it as the core skill set of a GM I want to play with. A willingness to have a back and forth with players that builds the scenes, adventures, and eventually campaigns.
I’m like a five year old when I roleplay (in some ways). I ask like, three million questions every session. And that’s whether I’m the DM or a player. I want to learn stuff, to explore (and not just in a physical sense). I’m constantly pestering the DM with wanting to know something, or clarify something, or do something… because I tend to be highly invested in my RPG time. And when I have other players (on either side of the screen) that are equally invested – well, that’s a synergy I can get behind.
And the art of asking questions is about more than just finding stuff out. It’s also about filling stuff in. When I ask my DM, “Hey, I look out the window of the Inn, is the outhouse red or gold” I’ve just included the outhouse. My DM can say to me – there is no outhouse – if that’s the way he wants to go, but I’ve made a reasonable assumption about the world around my character and asked for clarification. (Yes, this is an intentionally absurd example. No one actually goes to the bathroom in RPGs.) But that’s my point. The art of asking questions shouldn’t be about, “what’s in the GM’s head?” It should be about building up impressions of a game world and a game experience through a constant back-and-forth of information.
But what about the rules? Well, I’m a poor person to ask that of. I’ve GM’ed everything from B/X D&D to GURPS Fantasy, to Call of Cthulhu, to Star Wars D6, to… well, all points in between. And I’m not much one for rules in my games. I tend to like the idea of rules being a set of expectations we can collectively use to frame our play experience rather than as strictures to strangle on. This is why I’m so in love with Amber Diceless and where it’s true genius lies.
Amber DRPG takes full advantage of asking questions. The GM constantly has to ask players for input in that game because the characters can actually manipulate their own reality. And the stats, powers, and good/bad stuff provide just enough to allow for a reasonable approximation of how any given situation might go down. I’ve always loved the example in the book where a PC group is asking for information about something in Shadow and the GM builds responses based on the character’s builds. Lots of bad stuff and no Shadow related powers? Probably not getting much. Advanced Pattern? You know this stuff. Advanced Pattern and a lot of Bad Stuff? Now that gets interesting and creative. Barbarians of Lemuria has a similar play experience with the Careers system. Yes, there is rolling involved, but honestly, if a guy with Pirate 4 wants to ask something about the local sea lanes, is there really a reason to make him roll? Better yet, if a guy with Pirate 4 wants to make up something about the local sea lanes and the GM hasn’t already explained it, is there a reason to say no? To my mind there isn’t.
And that’s the thing. I’m not really an “Always say yes” type. I think that’s actually terrible advice. But I am very much a “say yes as much as possible” type… because then good things can happen (and honestly, it makes less work for me as the GM). I could explain the narrow but important difference in my thinking between “always say yes is terrible” and “say yes as much as possible is good” but it’s off-topic here and gets long.
And this is already kinda long… and I’m not really sure if I’ve actually gotten to the heart of anything (not that it matters, this is just a rumination anyway). I suppose the take-away, for me, is that the true art of Player Skill is Asking Engaged Questions. Not just questions, but invested, engaged, enthusiastic questions. As a GM, that’s the best way to game me.
Thanks for coming along with me on this one. I promise to be less wordy on Friday…