On Skill Confusion: The Character Customization Conundrum

Often people comment that skills allow you to 'customize' your character.

My question is, how is selecting a limited number of options from a list a superior method of customizing your character compared to using a limitless number of verbal options (words) to describe what your character is like?

There are in my opinion several serious costs to the first, with little apparent benefit over the second. I will list my concerns below, and I am hoping someone from the pro-skill heavy camp can explain the specific benefit that the rigid customization provides.

1. Picking specific mechanical skills from a list takes time for new players and is a huge obstacle to actually starting to play for a new player.

I can take someone that has never role played before, immediately put dice in their hand, and they only have to make 2 easily explained decisions (race/class) before they can begin play. With a skill/feat system at a minimum I have to explain what each skill option their class has available does in at least a cursory manner, or 'customize' their character for them. This is different then just describing your character with words, because their are specific mechanical effects for each skill and feat.

Cost: Huge obstacle for new gamers.

2. Because skills and combat abilities are put into specific mechanical conflict, during play my actions cannot influence the result of skills outside of +2/-2 or the decision you made to sacrifice combat ability for skill ability is devalued.
i.e. If I pick the correct place to search and fail the roll, I don't find whatever even though I specifically described looking in the correct place. If I can bypass the search skill by choosing to look in the right place then my choice to put points into search/perception was useless, and why bother handicapping my combat ability to put those points into search?

This one is particularly frustrating for me in play, because in order to give weight to my choices during the 'build', my participation at the table is restricted.

Cost: Choices at table and player skill are discounted to maintain mechanical equity of choices.

3. In order to provide the full benefit of customization with these skills it is important to use them in a mechanically correct way.

However, the skills are each mechanically complex with a large variety of modifiers and edge case situations and rules. In my personal experience this has meant a much longer time referencing the rulebook at the table and less time actually playing the game.

Two examples to attempt without using the rulebook. What's the DC of the Diplomacy Check for attempting to alter the mood of an Unfriendly Orc? What's the DC to receive simple directions and convince the Indifferent Orc to reveal an unimportant secret?

What's the DC to climb a brick building?

If you are just making up DC's without referencing the books for a touchstone, doesn't that devalue my customization?
The answers are, in order
(Unfriendly DC 20 + (-2 Cha), Total DC 18)
(Indifferent DC 15 + (-5 simple directions) (+5 unimportant secret)(+5 additional requests), Total DC 20)
(A rough surface such as a brick wall DC 25, -5 for climbing a corner (unless your buildings lack corners), total DC 20)


Cost: Mechanical systems are complex and take up a lot of time to resolve.

Discussions of generalized benefits of the rigid system 'skill point' system are welcome (compared to a individual subsystem conflict resolution method), as well as discussion on how the above costs are addressed without devaluing their presence. (i.e. I could pick the skills for a new player, but since that eliminates the lauded customization, why have the rigid skill point system at all?)

Again, the question I am looking to have answered in the comments is how is selecting a limited number of options from a list a superior method of customizing your character compared to using a limitless number of verbal options? 



28 comments:

  1. I think you're doing the other side of the argument a disservice by putting all skills together.

    Talking your way past someone or feeling around for a trap are things a person could (should?) be able to narrate--so skills are more dubious here.

    But not all skills are equal in this regard--like driving, horsemanship, passive spot checks in the woods. "I run faster than the other guy!" is basically the plan in a footrace.

    Not that I use skills much in D&D--but there are a lotta systems where they make sense for certain kinds of tasks

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  2. As for new players--i think the ideal system would become slowwwwwly more complex as a PC levelled up and allow experienced players to chuck (good, non-crippling) defaults for (stylish) custom options if they start at level one.

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  3. Yeah, I wish there was an easy way to refer to general skills (that can be ruled on the fly using the rules-lite approach) and specialized selections. The examples in D&D are limited, but here's one - the players search the right area of the library for the right book (all handled via player skill). When they actually get the book, it's in archaic Latin!

    Did someone spend a language slot on an old language? Does the magic user have read languages? Those are "skill choices" where mechanical selection matters. (Chances are, if a player presented his guy as a scholar in old stuff, basic knowledge of a common dead language could be granted on the spot anyway).

    Like I said, it's not frequent in D&D, so I'm on board, but some degree of mechanical differentiation matters more to other systems.

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  4. As far as I'm concerned, the skills heavy versions of the game were made for new (read: teen) DMs. I think this would be most of the DM's in the 80's.

    When I was DMing for my middle school and high school friends; I was relieved to be able to point to the black and white skills rules in 2nd edition because I thought it prevented a lot of arguments and hard feelings.

    Adults seems far more comfortable with my decisions about what skills their characters were able to learn earlier in their lives. Maybe I'm making better such decisions as an adult, or maybe I'm just more confident now about telling players what their characters can and cannot accomplish.

    In short, I get the sense that older DMs are more comfortable with abstract skills, and on-the-fly rulings. Younger DM's worry more about stepping on their players toes, so they appreciate having such things predetermined.

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  5. This seems very similar to me to the divide between salon-style live action games (e.g., White Wolf) and boffer-style fantasy games. I've frequently heard salon-only LARPers complain that they shouldn't have to be good at combat to LARP. The counterargument is why should they get to throw their personal social skill and intelligence around but get to rely on game mechanics for combat?

    There's ultimately a continuum between total narration and roleplay (where your success is based entirely on what you choose and think to do as your character and whether the GM accepts it) and total mechanics-based play (where everything your character can do is defined by some kind of stat and you're expected not to roleplay anything that can't be backed up mechanically). Since there are a lot of game effects like combat that are totally impractical or at least less fun to handle via narration, most games can't sit on the total narration end of the continuum. And once you've admitted that some things have to be handled by mechanics, it's arbitrary where you put your dividing line between things handled by narration and things handled by mechanics.

    IME, a lot of people figure it's a slippery slope and begin pursuing a (probably just as impossible) game where everything can be mechanically represented in some way and you're meant to roleplay your character according to what skills you've purchased (e.g., use no knowledge about monsters you've haven't encountered in play if you have no Knowledge skills). This can work okay, for certain levels of "okay," in games that were intended to be skill-based from the ground up. But D&D's skill system is fundamentally grafted on in all editions (in that it doesn't work mechanically similarly to combat at all and is full of special-case rules), so the disconnect is bigger.

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  6. There is one good thing I can say about the list approach: A list of abilities can provide inspiration where a blank slate can create mental paralysis. There’s an easy way to get the best of both worlds, though. Have a non-exclusive list without mechanics behind it.

    I think I’ve mentioned this before: The complexity of a character build system for newcomers can be mitigated by templates and the like. The trouble is that a good many newcomers, in my experience, beg to dive into the full system. (Even if, in hindsight, they admit that they probably shouldn’t have.)

    @Quibish: I like to say that rules can’t make a bad referee a good referee. Only experience and maturity can do that. (There are those who have said that they’ve seen rules make a bad DM a good one, but I have never seen it.)

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  7. Quibish - I think this has definitely entered into the marketing strategies of the larger game companies. For a long time the teen market has been far larger than the adult market. One reason is that as people get older they accumulate more responsibility, and it's harder to justify an expenditure on gaming stuff when they have bills to pay.

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  8. I'm my current OSRIC game, the skills known by a character are particularly important, given the campaigns survivalist aspect.

    So I told every character, pick a career. If you want to do something and your can justify someone in your career knowing how to do that task, then you can do it.

    Nice and simple. My campaign has a gladiator that's good at sizing up opponents, an oracle that gets to have a vision once per day, a bronzesmith that can make and repair weapons, an armourer that can make and repair metal armour, a slaver that can capture and tie prisoners securely, a sailor that can navigate by the stars and so on.

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  9. @migellito

    I think that is a mistake on their part. I spend far too much every month on role playing items, and none of that is going to WotC. Maybe they don't want my money.

    @Zak

    Clearly their are "skills" in OD&D (surprise, searching for secret doors) and AD&D - what I'm talking about are pathfinder/4e editions that put skills in opposition to combat abilities.

    Also, that system does seem ideal.

    @Robert

    Agreed about the list. Option richness produces selection paralysis.

    I see a lot of this discussion seems to be about what actually requires a resolution system.

    I am a bit disappointed no one has come to discuss option 2 or defend option 3.

    Is there anyone for who the game is improved by having the book open to calculate all these DC's? Do most dungeon masters just wing these DC's? Do you feel this devalues player choice?

    What about the skills in conflict with combat abilities? Do you feel it necessary to restrict player skill in that situation?

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  10. This reply is going to be immense, so I'd like to start by addressing the specific issues you raise, and end by summarizing my response to your primary question.

    First, you point out that a skills system is an obstacle for new players. This I agree with. Skills heavy systems contribute to a lengthy and daunting process of character creation. Ideally, a skills heavy system would provide new players with an alternative method, which automatically filled in a player's skills based on their class & ability scores (or something to that effect.)

    That having been said, the severity of this obstacle is consistently overstated by skills light advocates. In my time as a GM for 3.5/Pathfinder, I've helped literally dozens of new players start their first character. And I say that as a person who knows what the definition of "literally" is. Helping a new player assign their skills rarely takes more than a couple minutes. I simply mark the class skills on their cheet, tell them how many skill points they have, and instruct them to divide their points among the checked skills, placing them in the "ranks" column, and not exceeding whatever the system's max skill ranks are. I then tell them to ask me if they have questions about any of the skills, but that the skill names are relatively self explanatory. Then, I turn to another player, help them select their level 1 feat or something, and by the time I'm done, the first player has finished selecting their skills. Easy peasy.

    As a last remark on the matter of skills being an obstruction to new players, it must be pointed out that players are only new once. So while I agree that skills heavy systems can be overly complicated for beginners, I would strongly disagree with the sentiment that being "newbie-friendly" is a significant factor for the "ideal game." There are lots of simple "pick up and play" RPGs out there. They're great for old and new players alike. That doesn't mean games which require more experience are necessarily lacking.

    Moving on to your second point, I feel it is important to point out that you're oversimplifying somewhat. The rules say that the options are +2/-2, +4/-4, or larger ponuses/penalties as appropriate. I know this doesn't address the issue you are concerned with, but I think it's valuable to note. I understand that you prefer to discuss the benefits of systems as though all of their rules are played as written, so I think we should be clear about what the rules say on circumstance bonuses and penalties.

    To actually address this point, I have to say that I don't believe I've ever heard of a Pathfinder/3.5 GM who uses the perception check the way you suggest. If I've got a magic sword hidden beneath a pile of bones, and a player tells me "I would like to dig through the pile of bones," then I don't ask for a roll. I tell them they found a sword. If, however, the player enters the room and, after my description, says "I would like to search the room," then I have them roll a perception check. If they meet the DC, then I tell them something like "you see something glinting from the nearby pile of bones." Some players (including myself) prefer the former method of searching, whilst others prefer the latter. Systems need not use an either-or approach. Skills heavy systems easily accomodate both.

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  11. Furthermore, you've only addressed active perception checks. What about passive uses of perception? Spotting/hearing/smelling/feeling/tasting something out of the ordinary when the character had no reason to be paying attention is one of the great benefits of the perception check. The GM can make secret perception checks for the characters to determine if they see the orcs sneaking up on them, or hear the giant spider in the treetops, or smell the treasure-laden corpse a few yards off the trail. This is a dynamic and exciting mechanic, because in most cases both failure and success result in something interesting. Noticing the ambush before it is sprung is fun, but being ambushed is fun as well.

    But I've still failed to address your main point: mechanical balance, though I'm afraid I don't quite understand why it's relevant. In D&D 3.5 / Pathfinder, the skill points can't be invested in talents which are combat oriented. Certainly, many skills have the potential to be used in combat, but none of them are so useful that a character who doesn't take them will be left behind. Perhaps I'm not fully grasping your meaning when you say ".skills and combat abilities are put into specific mechanical conflict."

    Regarding point three, here we are again in agreement. Dice Check numbers are too difficult to recall. I typically use a system similar to the one used in West End Games Star Wars. There was a small chart which gave number ranges for very easy, easy, normal, hard, very hard, and impossible. Memorize the number ranges, and you can easily pull out a mechanically consistent DC any time one is required. It's far superior to every skill having its own rules, as 3.5 & Pathfinder do.

    Also, I'd just like to take this opportunity to point out that "Climb" is right up there with "appraise"
    and "Swim" as one of the most stupid and useless skills. Pathfinder did a good job cutting down the number
    of skills and making each of them more general, but I think this needs to be taken further. Appraise should be treated as a barter-type mechanic, and merged with diplomacy. Things like Swim and Climb should be merged into athletecism, and 1 point should be enough to perform those tasks under any normal circumstances without a check.

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  12. So, having now addressed the three individual issues you raised, I'd now like to speak to your main point. As this comment is now longer than many blog posts, I'll try and keep these remarks breif.

    Selecting a limited number of options from a list a superior method of customizing your character compared to using a limitless number of verbal options because your abilities aren't left in the hands of what the GM thinks is "reasonable."

    Consider a magic user. This magic user wants to climb up the wall in a small hallway, hold himself up with his legs on either wall, then land silently behind foes after they pass underneath & cast a silent spell at them. The player describes this to the GM, and the GM responds "Well, I'll let you climb the wall, a character with your dexterity could pull that off. But dropping down silently isn't really going to be possible, particularly given your dexterity. So you'll make some noise when you land."

    Consider now a wizard. The wizard wants to do the same thing the magic user wanted to do. This wizard has +12 to his acrobatics checks. The GM asks for a check to climb the wall, and then for a check to drop down silently. (after the bad guys fail their perception check.) The wizard either pulls it off successfully or not, despite what the GM may hold redarding the abilities of that class/character/dexterity score.

    This is officially the longest comment left on a blog ever.

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  13. I generally let people switch up things on their characters, even to the extent ot changing class or race or something, and especially in a skill-based game. This goes on until they have a good handle on the game, generally eight or so game sessions. Beyond that, if they take something, I am sure they are able to weigh the choice against other choices competently. After all, this is the first time you've played the game! This helps prevent choice paralysis: if you know you won't be completely stuck with your choice, and that you won't be wasting your time improving a character that you might not want later, it's much easier to "just choose something".

    That said, if a player comes to my game having played some form of D&D for a year or so, I expect he can grasp this stuff, but I still offer the same "learning curve respec" period. It just typically doesn't get used to the same extent.

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  14. As to the value of a skill system vs. a skill package system (such as classes), there are pros and cons.

    Skill packages offer archetypal characters that have skills that work together well, are useful, and if desired can be balanced against other package choices. There are few choices, reducing choice paralysis. You can have a strong theme to the game by offering only certain packages.

    But the packages are complex, and it may be difficult for a newcomer to weigh one package against another. You also do not get to play exactly the character you want. Best you can do is pick the closest package and roleplay the rest. If you want a game that spans more than one milieu you need two or two dozen sets of packages (think Standard, Oriental, Arabic, Dark Sun, Dragonlance, etc.).

    Skill choice games offer the inverse benefits and hindrances.

    It's easy to weigh one skill against another. You get to create your unique and beautiful snowflake (or at least your Thief who just does locks and traps). It's easy to create characters of multiple different milieux with the same skill set.

    Downsides include the ability to create a worthless character by choosing skills that won't get used on the adventure. So many skill choices might induce choice paralysis (more than 7 +/- 2). There is no strong theme. Your character is unlike others, which means you must forge or choose an archetype even though you don't exactly fit it. "What do you do on the adventure" should have an easy answer!

    To conclude, it's more about what the players enjoy. Remember that the players might want complex PC rules but the DM's rules (for monsters for example) should be ridiculously simple. That's because the DM must manage hundreds of different monsters while the players each manage only a single character. If the players don't like so much PC manipulation then classes might be better for them.

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  15. @LS

    Your response is awesome, and I agree with a vast majority of your comment. Your examples are very much how I run low level pathfinder - some of your 'house rules' turn it into a game I'm much more familiar with.

    Some points:
    Your example of the search check (rolling if you don't want to search the room verbally), in my opinion, seems to be allowing players to use skills to either avoid play or bypass player skill. I consider this a negative consequence. Can you perhaps speak to the advantages of this?

    "passive" perception has been around since OD&D - it's the surprise roll and the secret door roll. I don't have a problem with it because games run without it aren't as fun as D&D (it turns into monster closets, the game) - it's also a moot point in pathfinder, because someone always pays the skill tax in order to max perception. This ability is free in earlier editions.

    The mechanical issue is the crux of the situation. They are put into conflict because of class selection and feats. Also, in pathfinder, many skills have combat uses. (Acrobatics, Bluff, Fly, and perhaps others).

    See, If I play a skill light class like paladin because of awesome saves and damage vs. evil and fightan/healan goodness, and then try to compensate for my character's lack of skills using player skills, then I'm breaking the system. If I spend my feats on combat abilities instead of skill focus, then I'm left with few skills. i.e. If I'm allowed to use my player skill to bypass search rolls by looking in the right place for something with a DC22 search check then I'm achieving something without a cost. This means that the choice I made to focus on combat wasn't made at the expense of skills. (This example works for every skill that can be by passed by player skill, appraise, diplomacy, search, animal handling, heal, etc.)

    As to your example and it's a good one - but it comes from a perspective of a restrictive position. The position I am advocating is not restrictive. In that situation I cannot imagine saying anything but yes? In fact yes for anything they want to try? Couldn't they just make an agreed upon roll if there was some question about silently? Is consensus at the table that hard to achieve?

    This is the problem with the white room examples. They aren't accurate representations of the process. You left out all the dialog (well, what are you carrying? What kinds of shoes are you wearing? What are the walls like? How far apart are they?) If there is no physical obstacle (i.e. the walls are 14 feet apart. The player is wearing metal boots and carrying 15 pots tied together with screeching rats) then the answer is yes.

    This often gets countered by the slippery slope accusation of "Why not just create a character that knows how to do everything!" I say ok to this! It might be fun once. And since we're being reasonable, it could be a jack of all trades type situation.

    Or, if someone does something that we allow and it turns out to be 'broken' for whatever reason, then we just agree that it was a bad idea and stop doing it.

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  16. I think there's a big excluded middle between Pathfinder-style skills and something like OD&D. Although I have some problems with the specific mechanics, I think the level of detail in (say) the Rules Cyclopedia optional skill rules work fine. Just roll skills when the DM doesn't know the answer or when they don't impinge on player skill and lots of times just let players do X if they have the right proficiency (say navigate by stars if they chose a relevant proficiency without rolling).

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  17. I have to say that D&D 3.5e is not a “skills heavy” game. I know we’re speaking in relative terms here, and I don’t mean to be a pedant, but when I talk about the problems of “skill heavy” systems, I’m coming from the perspective of games like, e.g., GURPS.

    I’d disagree that you’re only a new player once. Our group plays a lot of systems. With the more complex systems, if you haven’t played it in a year or more—which may be a single campaign for us—then you can practically be a new player again.

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  18. In regards to Objection 2, your basic premise that player action can only bring about a +2/-2 modifier to a skill check roll is false. In delineating the task, a player can point out favorable conditions that will both improve character competency and reduce task difficulty, resulting in a standard bonus to the roll of +2 and standard reduction in task DC of 2.

    Note that I'm discussing a standard modifier. In the 3.5 DMG, and IIRC in the 4E DMG, "going beyond the rule" is specifically discussed for extremely favorable or unfavorable circumstance. To quote from the 3.5 DMG:

    "It's certainly acceptable to modify this rule. For extremely favorable or unfavorable circumstances, you can use modifiers greater than +2 and less than -2. For example, you can decide that a task is practically impossible and modify the roll or the DC by 20. Feel free to modify these numbers as you see fit, using modifiers from 2 to 20."

    Player actions can also create additional modifiers by working cooperatively with other party members, generating magical bonuses, and applying specific equipment bonuses. Taken all together, it is usually fairly easy to swing a skill check by a +6 modifier; clever players can frequently go well beyond that.

    And then there's the whole element of "taking 10" or "taking 20", which can generally resolve most tasks, if cleverly delineated.

    It all boils down to a player's skill at task delineation and a GM's ability to adjudicate it in a fair and accurate manner. When the d20 skill system is used with greatest expertise and fluidity, it actually becomes something of an OSR-type approach to task resolution.

    Here's an example:

    A couple PCs are chasing a goblin. The goblin runs into a room with tapestries, an empty wardrobe, the ruins of a bed, and an open window. The goblin decides that it will hide in the wardrobe. PC 1 stops in the doorway and "spots", rolling a modified 15, which falls short of the goblins modified 21, resulting in PC 1 not noticing the wardrobe door's subtle movement.

    PC 2 doesn't stop in the doorway but enters the room and decides to check inside the wardrobe for the goblin. Barring weird circumstances, it is impossible for the goblin to escape notice as it crouches in the corner. PC 2 has a +20 to his "spot" check and the goblin has a -20 to its "hide" check.

    Does that help clarify the subject? Now, I'm not defending the skill point system here. In fact, my example shows how it become unnecessary through clever play. But it certainly isn't guilty of your Objection 2. :)

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  19. I would caution all commentators be careful when presenting white room examples.

    @LJR
    If you going to modify the DC to the point where it is an auto-success, then why have the skill? Or, what I mean by this is if there is a chance to fail something related to player skill (I shine my light and look in all the corners and on the ceiling for anyone hidden there) then you have the first problem (player skill being stymied) if you can fail and if you give auto success then you are bypassing the skill system completely.

    The size of the modifier is somewhat irrelevant, but my personal experience and opinion is that once the DM moves away from the modifiers in the book, it is much easier to set a DC without a process of discussion and interaction with the players then it is to come up with a way on the spot to resolve the conflict.

    Regarding your example:
    I do not feel as if your example is particularly edifying.

    I believe PC one is engaged in 'bypassing actual play', and I believe PC two is 'engaged in actual play'.

    The situation you describe in my table would not be handled with dice, because it involves player decisions at the actual table.

    I interpret what you are saying as "The characters made a decision at compile time (when distributing skill points) and during run time (actual play) we are going to disregard the elements of play (negotiation, problem solving and discussion) to randomly determine the results of action."

    For combat this is acceptable (Because of chaos and time constraints, dramatic tension, significant consequences, and inability to model the situation at the table)

    In the example you describe, none of those are true. PC one can take as much time as he needs to gather information from the DM (or you can even only allow him to ask a limited number of questions in order to represent needing to make a quick decision) by asking questions about what he sees, and then he can make an actual decision, with the consequences of the goblin striking from an unexpected position if he interprets the information incorrectly.

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  20. In regards to your statement regarding the utilization of autosuccesses given to player action as bypassing the skill system, I think you are correct. But I think that is a feature and not a bug.

    If a player can delineate a task in such a manner that failure is not possible, then I see no reason why the GM should not award the automatic success. The +20/-20 rule modifier is specifically mentioned in the 3.5 DMG to set up a coherent system for auto success or failure. At least in D&D 3.5 this is a "rules as written" situation. IIRC, it's not as clearly expressed in Pathfinder or 4E, only an implied situation.

    I disagree with the distinction that you make regarding "bypassing/engaged in actual play" as regards my hidden goblin example, although I share your preference towards the PC 2 style. I would describe the different approaches that the PCs take to finding the goblin as:

    PLAYER 1 wants to "make a gamble" relying on the pure fortune of a die roll to determine success.

    PLAYER 2 wants to "solve a problem" utilizing his personal player skill in gathering relevant information to make an informed choice to determined success.

    In OSR style play, we generally use the "solve a problem" method. However, the d20 skill set allows players to select the style that they prefer: gambling or thinking or a combination of both.

    Does that make sense? I'm certainly not trying to sell you on d20, but I think your Objection 2 is not an accurate description of the rule set as properly applied.

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  21. @1d30 I think you are broadening the definition of skills overmuch. Based on the traditional meaning of proficiencies, skills, feats, and similar systems in D&D, classes are not just skill bundles.

    Also, speaking for myself, it is much easier to compare two classes than to try to make sense of the huge combinatorial explosion of possibilities presented by feats and skills. Assuming the class list is not ridiculously long.

    In defense of the skill-heavy position, example 2 in the original post presents something of a false dichotomy. For example, I often allow the two methods to coexist (as LS). If a player describes exactly what they do, then I may not need to roll any dice to tell them what happens. If they just say that they search the next section of the passage, then I roll their skill. One benefit is that it allows players with different styles to play in the same game (reloading the page, I see LJR has said more or less the same thing since I started writing this comment). Though player skill is important, I don't generally play D&D as a competitive game, so allowing a player to partly bypass the need for skill is not a huge negative (though I can understand how it might be for some people). This is not the optimal situation from my point of view, but I play with players who want to use systems that have skills, so this is the way I have reconciled our game styles.

    Incidentally, I allow the same sort of play during combat; sometimes, creative player action obviates the need for an attack roll (for example, flooding a room full of enemies that they otherwise would have needed to fight). Using player skill to avoid the roll of the dice is always going to be possible.

    My favorite recent innovation is to have characters start with no skills or languages selected. As the campaign progresses, I allow them to take skills and languages on the fly as they become useful, until they have filled all their slots. This also has the advantage of building a character's backstory slowly and within the action of the game, so people actually pay attention to it.

    The biggest problem I have with skill-heavy systems is not balance with regard to player skill vs. relying on the dice and bonuses, but rather increased PC complexity (which includes, but is not limited to, chargen). And the fact that many of my players start out encounters with "I roll diplomacy" now. :-P

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  22. I suppose that picking skills & languages during play sort of derives from the LotFP language rules. I just noticed that, and even if it was only a subconscious influence, credit where credit is due.

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  23. @LJR

    Ok. That is a really excellent point. I see two logistical problems with it, and my third problem which is still devaluing the conflict in the build.

    The first is that if the skill is there, it traps a great many people (I would say nearly all) into thinking the only way to accomplish anything is to make the gamble.

    My second is that in order for it to be a gamble something important has to be at stake, and too often the general utility of the word used to describe the skill means they are often used in situations where nothing is at stake.

    The third issue I have, and what my objection 2 really is, is that the player will only choose to make that gamble when it's in his favor, and not choose to make the gamble and use his personal skill when it's not in his favor. The ability to do that breaks the balance of the game (because I can then dump all my feats into combat instead of into skill focus/characterization feats since I no longer need those skills).

    However, I think I could get behind a skill system where the skills were just that - a choice to gamble. There would have to be something equilivant at stake to, say, taking a hit in combat that could kill me for it to be a gamble.

    The je ne sais quoi of rolling a saving throw verus a poison or mind affecting effect is what I would like to replicate with the 'gambling' approach.

    (As an aside, many saving throws, like 'save to attack this person using sanctuary' suck.)

    And in case you missed it above, "gambling" is a really compelling argument to me, because it involves interesting decisions that the player makes (i.e. it is like playing a game).

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  24. @Brendan

    My concern is less about the size of the bonus, and more that if you don't limit player skill then you devalue the decision to choose a combat feat versus a skill focus.

    And I want to explicitly address "D&D as a competitive game" because unless you decide to not kill your player's characters ever, then they can not help but be in competition for their survival.

    At no point when I talk about "player skill" or "bypassing play" am I referencing the players being in competition with each other. I'm talking about the players using the rules to avoid playing (For whatever reason, because they are lazy or bad or whatever).

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  25. @-C

    I am in total agreement with your critique. Too often, skill "gambles" are without consequence. So, they become ways in which to "handwave/bypass" encounters, like the infamous Diplomacy checks.

    To an extent, the 4E skill challenge system establishes a strong conceptual framework to create significant gains and losses. However, the implementation mechanics require notable GM expertise, if the goal is to have fun rather than inflicting randomized harm upon the PCs. :)

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  26. What if it's not about devaluing any decision, but more about hard mode vs. easy mode? Example, only tangentially related, but should give some idea about what I mean.

    Zak said gave a list of powers he might give to a warlord class in his version of D&D 5 (details are not germane).

    I said this:

    Oh, and based on that warlord power list, the fighter should kill him and take his stuff. Seriously, what is the point of that class?

    Zak said this:

    The point of the Warlord is to provide a class that's like the fighter, but less powerful on purpose--for smart, experienced players who like a challenge. It' the same reason video games have a "hard" setting.

    Jeff said this:

    Thank Grodd there's someone else who understands why sucky classes are such a hoot. For similar fun, try this: Play a game with point-based chargen and use only 50 or 75% of the points. It drives the minmaxers crazy when you can still run the board.

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  27. I will try to reply to -C's original points.

    1. The conflict here is between characterization up-front versus characterization on the fly. As Brendan suggested, it's possible to postpone the selection of skills until the play begins. However, there are also problems with that. With up-front characterization, the player spends some time deciding what her character might be like and codifies that on the character sheet, just as she selects what equipment the character starts out with. If this is left for later, it would be very tempting to come up with character traits that will perfectly fit the situation at hand ("Umm, Juanita's father was history buff and used to tell her about historical events instead of bedtime stories, so Juanita should remember what happened to Fernando VI."), just as it would be tempting to conveniently "find" that grappling hook at the bottom of their backpack.

    2. It was already pointed out that the modifiers can be greater than +2/-2, although once again I feel like the issue at hand is actually whether certain skills should be skills. If saying "I shine the light in every corner of the wardrobe" can negate the usefulness of someone's Perception skill, that skill ought not to exist or not be applicable in this situation. On the other hand, no amount of player skill will make it easier to decipher a scroll written in an unknown language without resorting to on-the-fly characterization.

    3. I definitely agree that looking up obscure rule cases detracts from the game. When I GM, I tend to come up with DCs based on how difficult I perceive the task to be. Since I announce it to the players, they are free to argue that the task is less difficult than I make it out to be. That said, I find that this does not say anything about the benefits of skill-light or skill-heavy systems, since it is very possible to have a codified set of skills without mechanical complexity, instead arbitrating each situation based on table discussion.

    And to answer your overall question, I see no difference between a limited set of codified skills and "limitless number of verbal options" as long as the comparison is consistent, i.e. the characterization happens up-front or on the fly in both cases. In the case of up-front characterization, whether my character sheet says "Knowledge(history) [1]" or "Father used to tell about historical events before bedtime" makes no difference, but in the case of the latter the chargen process would become even more involved, since then a narrative background is required before play can begin, which would likely take even longer than the typical Pathfinder chargen. If both happen on the fly, whether the player says "Father used to tell historical tales, so I should know about X." or saying that and adding "Knowledge(history) [1]" also makes no difference.

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  28. For those who agree with LS's statement: "In D&D 3.5 / Pathfinder, the skill points can't be invested in talents which are combat oriented. Certainly, many skills have the potential to be used in combat, but none of them are so useful that a character who doesn't take them will be left behind."

    The mechanical trade-off does exist. Some of it is intentional, and part of game design, and some of it is not.
    1) Intentional: Rogues have a 3/4 BAB progression, but begin with 8+INT modifier skill points. They made a trade, lose the full BAB progression and get way more skill points. This is not as much of a problem, but it does make one thing clear: combat skill and out of combat skill are codified as exclusive. There is not character who has full combat skill and full "skill-point" skill. Even more obviously there is no full-caster who has a large number of skill points. You can be good at melee, magic or skills, but according to the codified balance of the game, you cannot be good at two, only decent at two, and maybe mediocre at three.

    2) Unintentional. The advice I use, and many offer is that you give the players options to use player skill, and then use the dice-roll as back up. A natural born rhetor can use his skills from real life to help negotiate with a city guardsman, but for those who cannot, there is a d20. This advice furthers the codified dichotomy of fighting, magic and skill prowess. According to my own system, I would pick Barbarian (for the hit dice and full BAB). I could sink my INT to 7 and my CHA to 7 (using the guidelines for PF's prefered point buy rules), and I could even sink my WIS to 7 if I was daring. Now, I replace my own rhetoric with my CHA, and I replace my own player skill for my INT. I am breaking the intention of the game.

    This is why the skill system and the combat system conflict.

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