This topic is fairly well-tread in gaming circles but this post is emerging from the response I started to write to a comment on my last post.
Of all the dubious debates in the gaming community about how to play, what to play, and a million other theoretical discussions, one issue remains compelling to me because of how hard it is for me to come down clearly on one side or the other. And that is the issue of Player Skill vs. Character Skill.
I think many old school games were highly focused toward player skill – though I find that to be a somewhat slippery position, for reasons I will get to later. The middle generation of games to follow Old School – even though some of them were concurrent with old school offerings chronologically, attempted in various ways to emphasize character skill and some took it farther than others. I think the current generation of games, from mainstream offerings to some of the so-called Story Games, offer a wide range of answers (or reactions) to this debate and provide compelling thoughts about the myriad ways people play.
The particular question/comment which kicked off my most recent round of thinking about this issue primarily focused on the idea of social skills/social interaction in games and at the table. The contention is that social “skills” on character sheets are fairly meaningless and present a difficulty because it seems odd or even impossible that simply by maxing out a number a player might be able to argue that their character can do things with just a roll of the dice (I may be selling this argument short in this very generalized statement but I want to get past this to what I consider the meatier part of the debate).
I want to focus on social skills because I think they provide the strongest window into the player vs character skill debate and because they represent an area of adjudication which offers a fertile ground for considering the debate. Because adjudication is a really important part of the problem – specifically GM adjudication. Let’s put forth a situation and posit a few options for resolving it. Note that each of these is intentionally one-sided and not my “best foot forward” for how I’d resolve this issue.
Let’s say it’s a fantasy game, players are face-to-face with a noble, in his own court, and they are trying to make a case for something…
With completely player-skill-driven interaction it falls to the DM to sort out the issue primarily by either having a pre-determined script that the noble intends to follow regardless of character arguments. This script can have a series of branches and may not be “formal.” That is, the DM may have anticipated and allowed for a series of possible outcomes and may not have actually written it all down but rather, be adjudicating it on the fly which branch the noble will move toward based on what the players (in character) say. This scenario presumes the exclusion of dice/traits in the process because the whole point is that the characters are beholden entirely to their players’ ability to influence the GM in the role of “Noble.” (Note that these examples also lack context of “what has come before” because the initial position is meant to be that the PCs go into the situation from a basically neutral position).
A DM might also use a “reaction roll” on a chart such as D&D or GURPS which sets a baseline of interaction decisions for the Noble. Does the NPC start off already unhelpful to the PCs or somewhat friendly? Is this influenced by non-skill based traits such as “Attractive” or “Charisma” as it would be in GURPS? If so, these character traits, combined with an initial reaction roll, provide a GM with something to hook into the scene. Perhaps the reaction roll puts the NPC in a friendly mindset and it was tipped by the Appearance trait of one of the characters because that PC is Very Beautiful (+6 to reactions!). So now this Noble will treat well with the party but show an inordinate amount of attention to one PC. This kind of thing tends to offer a range of options because, now the GM has a baseline to work from and the PCs have some clues they can garner from the NPC’s behavior which allow them to shape the conversation based on their individual traits. (This, for me, precludes the “Charisma as dump-stat problem” to an extent because it allows non-rolled traits to shape interactions in both a mechanical and narrative manner). Ultimately though, the outcome of this social interaction comes down to players talking to a GM and the GM deciding how much the NPC is willing to bend or change their position.
The next interpretation involves “rolled skills” to determine the outcome of social interactions. It is difficult to boil down all the many, many options for skills in games but let’s just go simple and talk about something like the Pathfinder (3.5 D&D) Diplomacy skill. Now, when facing down the NPC Noble, instead of an initial reaction roll, the reaction roll is set by the player rolling a D20 and modifying it by character skill to set the NPC’s initial mood. (As an aside, I’ve always wanted a group modifier to this roll because it seems so unlikely that a group would be judged by just one member.) The NPC Noble is not resisting in the Diplomacy example – but opposed social skills create the same issue, which is, it is easy for the results of this skill roll to become a sticking point between the players and the GM because the biggest question that starts to linger is – how beholden is the GM to respond to the result of this roll and how much effort must a player be willing to exert as part of the interaction? That is, should a player be required to actually play out the effort or is a roll and a simple description (or just a roll) enough?
There are other scenarios I could elaborate but these tend to hit the most common points. I don’t really want to indulge in specific answers at this point as to what I think is right or wrong with any of these scenarios but the two things which always stand out to me are the sliding scales of effort and interpretation (specifically GM interpretation). That is, how much “work” is required of the player and how much GM adjudication goes into the final outcome of the social encounter.
I think I’ll leave it there today and give others a chance to chime in with comments. Over the next couple posts I want to explore a few more aspects of this – how social skills create awkward situations when considered in character vs. character contexts and how social skills create a safety net for players such that a quiet, reserved player can still take on the role of the party “face” and how this interacts with other parts of the system – like how players can explore playing “very smart” or “very strong” PCs based on stats but because of the social vs. game dimension of the rpg experience, social skills are always the roughest sticking points of systems and interactions at the table.
As always, thanks for reading and please keep in mind when commenting that I am fully aware that the scenarios above are both without context and without moderation… something I intend to address at the end of this rumination.