Skill vs. Skill

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.


5 responses

  1. Thank you for this compliment, Mike! It is nice to be engaged by thoughtful ideas.

    ***** If so, these character traits, combined with an initial reaction roll, provide a GM with something to hook into the scene. *****

    This turn of phrase gets at the heart of it! The GM is the only role-player who does not personally own any character. The GM’s the slave. The dice guide his or her dispassionate (read: nonadversarial, collaborative) base performance. After this, the outcome of the social interaction in character would be determined by how well the players understand the story and the strings to pull on the NPC. The GM is reactive to the players and responsive to the story.

    A shopkeeper interaction NPC might be as simple as a reaction roll; a henchman situation might be influenced by other factors that make this NPC one step above a hireling and Main NPCs directly representing power bases (the players’ Castellan, the members of the government, the villains and villainous henchmen, etc.,) as well as specific NPCs with a higher player interest (the princess everyone wants to “get it on with” who needs rescuing, the employer of questing players, level-up trainers, etc.,) also require character pre-development [possibly using the base ability scores as a guide.]

    A comment on douchebag control. The target number in games like 3.x, though sounding official, is still an arbitrary number whose authority dances to the GM’s tune/whim. Also, there is an artificial arms race between the numbers the player needs to roll and the player’s build up of modifiers (e.g. Ranks) to defeat those numbers. This cold war between players sounds adversarial because it is.

    Then we get to the player who can charm everyone BUT not another’s player character. He can fight that player character normally (meaning using stats from his sheet,. target numbers and dice) but he must not do the same using his PC’s social skills. IMHO opinion this is a confusing exception that most roll players agree to at the table that is, actually, the rule of role-playing games and not its exception. This accommodation is made to roll players at the expense of role-playing.

    There is also something else to this: player agency – specifically the GM as player. While the players personally create their roles (party function and character traits) in game, the GM responds impersonally to the dice mechanic (reaction table, Charisma and Morale modifiers, etc.,) and story, which a dice roll does not connect to. The GM is not permitted the agency to play a King who wants the PC dead in an audience where the player out rolls a target number.

    Aside from breaking all players’ subjective engrossment in the story game, the roll is arbitrary. The roll is X because the GM can justify it so. And if he has to justify it to his players, there is no trust. So much for controlling douchebag players with an official sounding arm’s length bit of jargon: a target number.

    It would improve player enjoyment if trust could be im-mediate-ly developed between the players at the table without mediation of simulated target numbers everywhere – effectively treating social interaction as nothing more than abstract combat with some window dressing. That’s the roll play message.

  2. ***** 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. *****

    A happy game IMHO is when there is an algebraic equilibrium between the above equal to (balanced by) GM game preparation work and player story interpretation.

  3. I find it rather interesting that social skills seem to cause such a concern in our games. When matched against their combative counterparts, their presence seems quite logical to me.

    If you intend to have social “challenges” for the characters to overcome, you must allow for the inclusion of social character skills. Because to do otherwise places an unfair burden on the player that isn’t done for other, less social capabilities.

    Most gamers couldn’t hope to overcome a dragon (or a handful of orcs) in reality, but with the help of stats and skills and some luck with the dice, their character just might. in like fashion, to send in a horde of orcs while demanding that the player demonstrate how to best them in combat would be just as absurd as asking them to play out an argument with a noble.

    I think the difficulty many players and GMs have with social challenges is to rely on a single dice roll (pass or fail) to indicate and all or nothing return from the interaction. That alone is somewhat boring and cheats the game of both flavor and interest.

    The best solution for this type of interaction is the middle road of allowing both player skill (how can we set up a situation where the deck might be stacked in our favor) and character skill (make sure to send in Bill, he’s the best at talking his way out of things.) Then, a good concept is to allow social skills to work much like a social combat with give and take and tactics (do we go for the brass ring and demand our freedom now? Or should we spend some time buttering up the dragon with complements on the magnificence his prowess and vastness of his treasure horde?)

  4. I’m on record somewhere (cannot find it right now), 30+ years ago, saying that players are just folks playing a game and shouldn’t be expected to have the skills of a professional adventurer. So we use game constructs.

    On the other hand, if almost everything is easily determined by dice rolls and statistics, there’s likely to be little role-playing. This suits those who are daunted by the effort of acting a role, but makes for a less story-like game.

    Some statistics are related to physical abilities such as sword-swinging and climbing, others are related to social skills – the ones that some people want to role-play, and others do not.

    In the end, it’s up to a “negotiation” between the referee and the players to determine how much role-playing occurs in a game. The game rules also matter, if there are few statistics, then more has to come from the players; if there are lots of statistics (such as skills), then the ref/players can choose to rely on those statistics.

  5. Hey all – just wanted to let you know that I am not ignoring your comments – just wanted to say that I intend to address most of these points in today’s post – which is going up in the next few minutes. Thank you all for your comments and you’ve helped me shape today’s post even further.

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