Skill vs. Skill (Part Two)

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.

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4 responses

  1. Honestly, I’ve always downplayed (or outright ignored) character-based social skills. My reasoning is that we are telling some kind of story when we play RPGs, and particularly so during social interactions in game. “I ask the king to use his army to kill that dragon for us. *rolls a 90* *looks at me expectantly*” is just too boring. If the player lacks the ability to make a half-way reasonable argument, or to use any in-character knowledge to leverage an NPC’s motivations, then they (the player) probably should have made a different character.

    Yes, we are creating a simulation, but a minimum level of player competency is needed to make the game worth it.

    1. I suppose that for me simply ignoring the skills invalidates decisions players are making that the game system is encouraging them to make. If I don’t like that, I should run a different game.

      I completely agree that players need to make an effort and I would certainly say that – in the case of your example – I would require that player to make a halfway decent effort to explain to the king (perhaps not in the “actual” words the character uses) but at least working from the assumption that the 90 they roll on Diplomacy must relate to arguments which would actually sway the king. The mistake the player is making is that the king is just a “rules construct” and not a living, breathing part of the story just like their PC. Sure, a 90 Diplomacy roll is fantastic and will probably persuade just about anyone but there is a big difference between, I say, “Hey King Whatsit, I want you to mobilize your army.” *rolls 90* and “I sit down with the King and his council and spend an hour laying out these three arguments why it is in the best interest of the kingdom to take this course of action.” Then that PC rolls a 90.

      My point I suppose is that players cannot assume that social skills are magic powers which compel others to follow them. Most games have actual “magical” powers which accomplish that feat. Social skills must be considered just as in real life. A great con man or politician can usually get a mark to make an easy snap decision on the fly but in order to persuade even weak wills of something larger requires an investment of time and energy.

      So should negotiating the terrain of social skill interaction in games.

  2. By this point, my preference for dice versus GM fiat as a determining factor. I don’t want there to be any expectation of talent to determine outcomes. I don’t want my player’s ability to social-fu me, or rather, pull the undergraduate trick of writing to the professor’s biases as the primary determining factor. When I realize that is the actual solution to a conflict, I’ve thought about saying flat out, “Instead of us bumbling about for the next 3 hours trying to find one of the solutions for this problem that you’ll accept, why don’t you give us options, and we’ll try implementing that?” The PCs will still bumble around.

    The section regarding guns and true player knowledge is part of the reason that I prefer the dice to answer – my day job is security in a variety of realms. That means that your standard B&E job planned by players is dependent on the players doing things *I* think are wise or correct.

    Instead, I come up with some sort of planning and tactics roll. If it succeeds that means the plan they have will by and large work. There will be complications along the way, but the plan was fundamentally good – I like presuming competence. Hence, why I frequently go with “movie logic” for my problems – if it would work that way in the movies, then it’ll work that way at my table, whether it is combat or an impassioned plea for help.

    As far as a single roll to convince the king – we wouldn’t usually allow a single roll to kill the dragon or the king, at least not without a lot of set-up before hand, and I’d treat the social conflict the same way. Minor action – single roll and done, major actions? Back and forth dueling and competing for a success at some cost.

  3. I usually work by the same standard at my table… dispense with “real world logic” for something like planning a B&E or a casino heist and instead consider what would work on Leverage or Oceans 11 or a million other options. The standard that I set with player skills though – and the reason I consider their value as points in the negotiation so vital is that often the characters don’t actually have the necessary skills to pull of what they work into their plan… they just assume that the dice can save them because they can push resources into the middle (metagame currency of some sort, like Fate Points, etc.) which allow them to simply bumble through (or relying on player skill as you mention) rather than actually planning to the skills they wrote down on their character sheets.

    And I work by the same standard as your point above – we don’t use one roll to decide a major combat – so why would we use one roll to decide a major social interaction?

    That said, I think consequences play a major role here. If the talky part isn’t as “dangerous” as the fighty part then why even worry about it?

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