This is a follow up to my last post concerning the nature of character skill vs. player skill at the gaming table and the various interactions that entails. Several comments on my last post raised specific points I intend to address as I write this, Part Two, and I have some additional ideas I hope to develop here.
First, there is the notion that old school play is more player-skill driven than modern games/play. While I won’t dispute the notion that certain skill rolls create odd points of contention at the table (Perception checks, knowledge checks, social interaction checks), I think it is disingenuous to ignore combat in this discussion. After all, how easy is it to watch a group forego roleplaying altogether when the battle is joined and simply engage in a series of rolls to determine the outcome? I recognize that some groups do a lot of improvising in combat and allow for all kinds of action not detailed by RAW, but my contention remains that groups willing to engage in that sort of imaginative play will be willing to do so in whatever system they are playing.
That said, I will admit myself to stumbling when combat begins (both as player and GM) due to a lack of real world knowledge/comfort/experience with fighting. I’m not inclined to try and graphically describe my character actions and try to detail the way a duel breaks down because I don’t have knowledge of these things and I don’t intend to join the SCA any time soon to begin to figure them out… so I default to a descriptive style that is either simplistic or grudgingly cinematic to fill the narration and otherwise rely on rolls to tel me how things are going for my PC.
And I get it – combat is a different animal. We can all communicate with one another at the table but we aren’t going to get up and swing swords at each other in my living room. So of course combat has to be abstracted and social skills don’t, right? I struggle with this notion though because social skills are just as difficult for some people as swinging a sword might be for me.
As a brief aside in to my mindset, I’m always (always) annoyed by folks who treat old school dungeon delving like they are a SEAL Team breaching a terrorist hide-out. After all, we hold our characters to their character sheets when the numbers matter (like combat) and we argue in the blog- and forum-sphere all the time about the agency robbing power of GMs changing numbers on the fly in combat to make adjustments but then our assistant pig-keepers and 4 Constitution wizards who have spent their whole backstories in books want to act like they can “Michael Weston” any situation because their players have the luxury of sitting in a living room drinking a Bold Rock and thinking about it for hours on end.
The point of that aside being, what on your character sheet or in your lovingly-crafted back-story (depending on which end of the player base you cleave to) makes that a reality for your character? My point is, we rely on the abstraction of the game as system of mechanics for so many things but it always tends to be overlooked when it clashes with some other priority at the table.
The skill vs. skill argument hits me the same way. Whether we are talking social skills, perception skills, knowledge skills (which I have previously written about and why I feel they are failures from a mechanical point of view) we still have to accept that ultimately, everyone at the table brings their own desires, comfort-levels, and personal skills to the group. For a time I was blessed/cursed to play with a guy who was actually quite knowledgeable about firearms. I hated playing Shadowrun with that guy because he couldn’t separate his “real-world” knowledge from the storytelling experience of the game mechanics and how “guns” work in the world of Shadowrun.
Let’s go back and focus on social skills again. As one of the comments to my last post mentioned – and I have also written about in the past – a roleplaying session should, in a good group, be a trustful negotiation between player and GM. It should also be a trustful negotiation between player skill and character skill.
Pick up a lot of “Modern” superhero games and you’ll see whole discussions about how to let players get the most out of playing PCs with super-intelligence. The suggestions are almost uniformly meta-gamey because they are intended to simulate that PCs ability to think ahead.
I’ll take the example of Amber again – my favorite game to GM – and point out that the advice section in the book basically flat out tells the GM to cheat when playing the Elder Amberites because, you know, they really are just that much better than everyone else. Really.
And when looking at social skills – how many readers out there actually know the etiquette of Bespin street gangs (or real-world street gangs for that manner) and the Elizabethan court? I don’t. So we make it up. And that should include some genuine attempts at RP but it should also take into account the traits on a character sheet.
I think sometimes we use the term “character skill” as shorthand for “lazy.” That is, we just want to make a Fast Talk roll and move on. That is certainly a possible outcome and it is certainly a difficulty that many GMs may encounter. I don’t think the solution though is to forego any attempt at providing those skills or allowing players to build characters who are meant to be more capable of those things than they themselves are… Heck, I’ve played with a lot of really shy folks who enjoy RPGs because they get to play the party face or the bard or whatever and it actually supports them in taking on this role through mechanics. That’s empowering in my book.
But not to get preachy about it… I suppose my takeaway is that whatever system you are playing and whatever your expectations about balancing roll-playing with role-playing, that is part of the initial discussion which needs to happen between a mature group of people sitting down to engage in a social exercise together. If the system includes social skills that go on the character sheet then those are guidelines to how “good” at something a character is and should be part of the equation of shaping the at-the-table experience. Get that player to describe their elaborate story they spin and then roll.
I will admit to another pet peeve here though, and one that is driven by my own expectations and which I will confess to not being as transparent about as I should be. And that is the opposite of the normal player skill vs. character skill debate. If you are a computer security expert at your day job and you come to my game to play Thrugged the Troll, please don’t tell me constantly that the party hacker is “doing it wrong” during game. And please don’t act on your player knowledge or ask me to let your character do things they clearly have no idea how to do just because you know how to do them… That’s player skill and you know, if you want to use that in constructive ways to make suggestions to the hacker’s player about some other options they can use, or if you want to engage in some after-game chat about it and offer some genuine knowledge to the other players so that next week’s session is more awesome… then please, go right ahead. But for me, you had your chance to tell me what your character’s capabilities were during character creation – and just like you are going to feel worse if the hacker is always better at combat than your troll guy, so I’m going to feel awful if you are constantly pushing the hacker out of the way to slap at computer keys with your big, knobby, troll fingers.
That last bit was dangerously close to rant territory so I’m going to sign off. Thanks for reading and I look forward to responding to comments directed toward both posts over the weekend.