Today, I wanted to write about the 5e D&D Player’s Handbook. But something else has a hold of me and I need to start getting it out of my system.

I’m still thinking about player skill vs. character skill but I want to take a slightly different tack with it. I want to take the “vs.” part out and replace it with something else – some way to join the two that makes the experience more seamless – perhaps player skill (+) character skill. Not quite there but getting there.

This is all in reaction to the fact that I’m plugging away at the diceless system I’m relentlessly tinkering with, some posts I’ve read recently in different places, some games I’ve read recently in different genres, and my current Star Wars (Age of Rebellion) campaign that I’m running. All of this together is like this stew that has invaded the gaming part of my brain and won’t let go.

It started with a weird combination of ideas/questions. The first is about player and character skill but the second was thinking about video games and the way that “Talky Quests” are really just not always very fun… When I say, “talky quest” I mean that type of quest where you get it from someone, then you run and talk to this guy, then you run and talk to that girl, then you talk to three or four other folks – maybe multiple times – and then run back to the original guy just to hear some dialogue that may or may not be interesting and ultimately just get to – I don’t know – go through a door or something. They frustrate me when I’m playing for multiple reasons that I’ll try to illuminate briefly:

  • They are often VITAL to making the game move forward (because in a linear game progression you MUST get through that door to access the next part of game play) but very low stakes (in the sense that even though failure stymies the action (but do you ever fail?) there is often little consequence to the actions/options you choose during the conversational gambits (because you can’t really be allowed to fail or linear game comes to grinding halt).
  • They are often repetitive. You just do this odd grunt work type moving around the screen getting little snippets from various characters who wouldn’t even rate a name in a movie script (Man at Chapel, Little Kid on Bus) yet you often need to talk to them multiple times to complete one of these quests. I find this terribly boring.
  • They are often very limited and yet (as mentioned above) entirely without consequences. This one is tougher. It’s a programmed game environment so there can only be some many variables. I get that, I’m not unreasonable (my wife is a programmer and we often talk about this particular limitation even in great games). The issue I’m sure you’ve all run into with those little dialogue options though is that often, you don’t actually want to say any of them. You want to say something else completely. But you pick one and you move on because – at the end of the day – it doesn’t matter. The game is going to make allowances for whatever you said to keep the story on track.

So let’s jump back to Pen and Paper RPGs now. In this environment, a more persistent environment in a campaign world, you have the issue that, if you piss off the head of the Assassin’s Guild (maybe she’s not the head yet but will be soon…) then the next time you go back to that city, you might find a very cold welcome waiting. A welcome that ends in dead PCs, in fact. Because presumably, the GM is going to treat the reactions of the NPCs as if they were living, breathing, thinking people with emotions and needs that are not bound by a single story-track. The game world is a more evolving, living entity.

Oh yeah, there is one more influence in play here for me. Season 2, Episode 7 of Justice League Unlimited (Patriot Act), is one of my favorite episodes of the show. I went back to watch it as I contemplated this problem because it pits a group of JLA members against a foe they cannot beat. And they get whooped. I mean seriously, spending time in the hospital, broken stuff beaten. And the crisis is resolved by a little old lady and some innocent bystanders telling the unbeatable monster to go away. Yep.

Thing is, she’s inspired by the actions of the JLA characters who are so badly outclassed. This could just as easily have been resolved by the Shining Knight (read, PC) making the same point while making his stand against the General instead of the woman (read, NPC) which is more satisfying in-game but the point remains the same. I highly doubt the player who made the Shining Knight’s character sheet put a lot of points into Charm or Persuasion. But the “player” did put some thought into the type of person the Shining Knight is, as well as a great backstory anecdote, which combined to provide the impetus for the normal people to step in and save him.

To me – that’s the Player Skill part of the equation. It also resolves a combat encounter without the need to ever actually do damage to the big, bad guy.

The problem for game design is this… How does that work in the “game” part of the equation. Because Shining Knight probably doesn’t have the skills to overcome this if it were a “Skill challenge” (apologies to 4e D&D) and it seems entirely unsatisfying to “one-roll” this (I make a speech, then roll persuasion, oh, look, he succumbs to my charm and verve!). I’ve yet to find a social interactions system that I am even remotely happy with in games. Turning social interactions into “combat” style encounters feels icky and we all know that keeping a running total of “points scored” in an argument only works in formal debate competitions because if you’ve ever been on an internet forum you know that people just don’t care about your glittering points of logic and reason. They just want to watch it burn (apologies, forums still set me off, it’s why I stay away).

I suppose that comparing my experience running Age of Rebellion to other gaming experiences (so far) has created a really weird sort of feedback for me. On the surface, it is a game designed to facilitate narrative play because of the nature of the dice rolling but I’m deeply struggling with making it work for me because I find it far more limiting than helpful. The encyclopedic nature of the rules doesn’t help but I’m stymied while running this game. But my group is fun so I don’t want to lose what we’ve started. I think I’m the only one really struggling – which sucks. But that’s not the point here.

I want to probe this more, to keep poking at it and make some suggestions but this is already a pretty long introduction to my thoughts on the matter. I’ll leave off with this for now. I think a concept that is brought up in a few games I’ve been reading (Ron Edward’s games mostly) concerning Stakes is a line of thought I want to address – and starts to get at what I’m chasing. My thoughts on this involve getting to intent accompanying specific action to create the narrative.

For now, I’d love to hear any of your thoughts on this and as always, thanks for reading.


2 responses

  1. You’re covering a lot of ground in this post, and I’m not sure I’m following it all properly, but one thing came to mind regarding your example of the JLA episode and Age of Rebellion. The “civilians” being inspired by the actions of the JLA characters feels exactly like an example of an accumulation of advantage results. As the GM you have the artistic license to extend the impact of those results beyond the immediate fray, to drive the story in interesting directions.

    We played Edge of the Empire for a year and I just started running an AoR campaign for the same group of players. We’ve found that for us the mechanics function best when the GM is able to elicit player intent and use the die rolls to play on that intention, making advantages help those intentions become realized, and using threats to make those intentions more difficult to realize. Character skill drives the die results, while player skill (in setting up and conveying their goals to the GM) drives the narrative.

    I’m not sure how much sense that makes, as most of these sorts of discussions can be difficult in the abstract.

  2. I think you got it. And you are right on track. The civilians being inspired could have been the result of advantage or triumph as presented in the game system. The second question that pops up for me though is more about what actually happens that convinces the General to leave? I think that’s the intersection I’m trying to get to.

    That said, it sounds like your way of handling AoR is about the same way we try to do it (most of the time) but the way the book presents the application of successes/advantage/threat are often inconsistent and applied differently, which I think is still leading to some confusion.

    Also, we may just be unlucky but we seem to have an inordinate amount of rolls that go something like, Fail but with 5 advantage or Success but with 5 threat. For my players this often leads to analysis paralysis as they try to decide what to do with all that advantage/threat and for me as the GM I find myself ignoring it sometimes because I really didn’t need all those layers on a simple roll. My players are great and have adapted well but I still find the system frustrating at odd moments.

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