On Skill Deconstruction: Why Skill Light is Not Pixel Bitching, Nor DM Fiat

I figured I'd start with a big one.

I have seen multiple complaints that a skill light or skill free system somehow devolves down to DM Fiat or Pixel bitching.

Let us define terms before we begin.

DM Fiat: In the pejorative, when the Dungeon Master arbitrarily disallows logical character actions from either occurring or having effects. clearly some examples below are literally fiat, but we are concerned with the pejorative use.

Pixel Bitching: In old Sierra games, the prevention of progress in the game because you have not located the specific pixel you must select to progress. In role-playing, playing a game of mind reading or 'guess what the DM is thinking' in order accomplish your goals, that is 'saying the magic phrase'.

My position is that these two items are not related to the presence or absence of skills.

Both of the above effects occur for the same reason on different sides of the screen. That reason is an investment in a predetermined outcome.

The DM would institute fiat when the DM feels their actions would 'destroy his plan'. He can't handle the actions of the players so he outright forbids them.

Complaints of pixel bitching occur in two places.
First, when DM's have only one path forward to the 'completion of their adventure' and all progress both forward and backward is halted until the solution is guessed.
Second, when the players feel as if their must be a specific outcome, and they feel as if they have to guess the magic words to force that outcome to occur.

It is not DM Fiat to say that a specific plan won't work. There could be a number of reasons why a plan won't work.
It is DM Fiat to prevent a reasonable plan* from working.
It is DM Fiat to only allow one specific plan to work.

It is not DM Fiat to decide how a monster or NPC reacts without a reaction roll.
It is DM Fiat to decide that 'this monster/NPC is unconvince-able/unbluffable'.
It is not DM Fiat to decide the result of an action (like crafting etc.)
It is DM Fiat to not let the player influence the result of an action (like crafting etc.)
It is not DM Fiat to use class as a base for player skills and knowledge.
It is DM Fiat to prevent the player from characterizing their PC outside of the class parameters.
It is not DM Fiat to adjudicate the consequences of a player action.
It is DM Fiat to attempt to dictate what actions the player attempt (by either saying no to everything or not engaging the players in a dialog about what they are attempting to accomplish).

It is not Pixel Bitching to have a gem in the stomach of a creature, or a door that is only opened with the key in ogre lair near by.
It is Pixel Bitching to trap the players in a room and make them find the one specific thing to progress. (Or in the above example, if the door is necessary for the progress of the game).
It is not Pixel Bitching to suffer miscommunication at the table. Miscommunication happens and is resolved universally by discussion and dialog.
It is not the result of Pixel Bitching when a poor choice is made, when treasure is missed, or when a plan fails.
It is not Pixel Bitching to be lacking information about the game world.

As DM Fiat relates to skill light play, it is very important to realize that results of actions are decided primarily by discussion and agreement! *The root of the reasonable decision is one agreed upon by the participants. The DM can make decisions about the results of actions, but when those results are arbitrary (i.e. without meaning or purpose) then the ability of the DM to make decisions becomes a problem. Results being arbitrary is not the default state of skill light systems.


As Pixel Bitching relates to skill light play it is exclusively dependent on predetermined outcomes. It is not subjecting the players to Pixel Bitching to hide treasure in the stomach of a monster or in the false bottom of a foot locker because missing treasure is a completely reasonable occurrence. The supposition (or compulsive desire) that players should find every secret is the predetermined outcome that is self-evidently unreasonable.

Not knowing the results ahead of time, not knowing what a monster/NPC is thinking, not knowing how to solve a problem 'correctly' are also not Pixel Bitching. That is the great thing about tactical infinity! There are no correct solutions, just many many things you can try that can be impartially adjudicated. There is no 'secret phrase' to guess, no 'mind reading' to be done, because there is no predetermined outcome. The players have to gather information from the DM, decide on a course of action and deal with the consequences. It is impossible to need to Pixel Bitch because the DM has no investment in the outcome.

Of course, this assumes a good faith gaming environment. If you don't have that, the presence or absence of skills will change nothing. One is playing a game, and I know as a DM I construct those games to always provide some information to plot hooks, hidden treasure, the motivations of NPC's, etc.

It is equally as easy for DM's to create the above negative situations in skill heavy games as it is in skill light games. The reasons for these things occurring have nothing to do with the presence or absence of skills.  Because any of these can occur in either a skill-heavy system or a skill-light system, skill heavy systems provide no protection against DM Fiat (arbitrary decision making) or pixel bitching (making the players guess the next action they can take).


Therefore whether a system is skill light or not is irrelevant to the degree to which Pixel Bitching and DM Fiat occur.

DM Fiat and Pixel Bitching are not the natural results of skill light systems. They are the natural results of investments in the outcome of play.

Just a reminder for the comments. If you disagree with something written above, state what you disagree with and why. Avoid 'white room examples', personal attacks, and most importantly only respond to what is written in the post above - not things not said.

23 comments:

  1. I am a player and DM of 4E (which I really enjoy), but I have been the victim of pixel-bitching and fiat (and perhaps a perpetrator too...) so you are absolutely correct that it is not a natural result of skills-light systems.

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  2. It is not subjecting the players to Pixel Bitching to hide treasure in the stomach of a monster or in the false bottom of a foot locker because missing treasure is a completely reasonable occurrence. [...] There are no correct solutions, just many many things you can try that can be impartially adjudicated. There is no 'secret phrase' to guess, no 'mind reading' to be done, because there is no predetermined outcome. The players have to gather information from the DM, decide on a course of action and deal with the consequences. It is impossible to need to Pixel Bitch because the DM has no investment in the outcome.

    This deserves clarification. Pixel-bitching can come about as a result of a DM, even one without any investment in the players' success or failure, setting up a problem and then coming up with a specific solution or list of solutions and waiting for the players to hit upon one, arbitrarily disallowing solutions not on his or her pre-approved list. I've talked with people who've assumed this is how skills-light gaming naturally goes; it's not, of course, it's just bad DMing.

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  3. This is an interesting point, and the crux would be in what we call "Setting up a problem."

    The second part of your statement doesn't really parse, because IMHO the DM should not come up with a specific solution or a list of solution - that's not his job. He just creates the environments and the situations.

    Are people playing like this?

    Also, the word arbitrary is a keyword - that is why I'm such a fan of transparency. If the reasons or setup is known or clear, things seem to have more meaning and purpose.

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  4. You may have misread me. Coming up with a specific solution or list of solutions for an obstacle or situation is an example of bad DMing.

    Railroaders do something similar, because they want the PCs to choose an outcome that will match their pre-planned story. I don't know if anyone who is genuinely impartial plays that way, but I know that there are people who assume I play that way because I don't use a formal skills system. That implies to me that they do something similar, because otherwise why would they make that assumption?

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  5. Right, and this post is the explanation.

    If they accuse you of playing by Fiat or Pixel Bitching because of a skill light system then they are wrong.

    Explicitly why needed to be written so we can focus on what skills do, instead of the fantasy of what they prevent.

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  6. I have not seen these multiple complaints. Do the people who make them follow them up with any kind of argument linking skill systems and pixel bitching, or do they just assert the link?

    The DM fiat one I think I can understand: it probably comes from a general discomfort with being free to make up your own actions, if you're used to a skill-check-lead way of gaming.

    I have a thought, to help bust those players who are addicted to rolling dice out of their habits. Make the first game they play one in which their characters have no special abilities whatever: they are, perhaps, playing children who've only just stepped into Narnia or who are the sole survivors of a gas attack - they have no distinguishing skills. Their character sheets state a name, age, sex and maybe the contents of their pockets. I reckon a couple of sessions of that should stop them thinking of themselves as specialized chess pieces.

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  7. @richard: Confanity made those complaints as part of the lengthy argument he and -C and I had recently, so if you want to see an example of that argument in the wild, it's in several of his comments here.

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  8. As a Pathfinder advocate, I find nothing objectionable in this post.

    Though I will reiterate that skills heavy systems can serve to protect the GM from accidentally falling into arbitrary decision making. It's not foolproof, but if the GM wants to be fair, then having a system of numbers in place can help a GM avoid their own biases.

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  9. @richard: Also Faustnotes made similar claims in the comments on this thread here: http://monstersandmanuals.blogspot.com/2011/10/what-am-i-thinking.html

    LS: Thank you for commenting - I'm particularly interested in your analysis of some of the coming posts.

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  10. @-C, And I'm quite eager to read them. On my list of upcoming topics to write about is a breakdown of all the skills. Which are good, which are bad, and how the system needs to be improved. I have no doubt that your upcoming posts will influence the way I write my upcoming post.

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  11. I play Pathfinder currently, but prefer skill light or skill-less systems. I'm excited about this series of posts, as the more I play Pathfinder the more it reinforces my preference for fewer or no skills.

    That being said, I'd just like to second LS's comment and extend it a bit. When a DM creates a problem (monster, trap, hazard, etc), she inevitably also thinks of a range of solutions to that problem. So the DM failure isn't NOT coming up with possible solutions, it's holding hard and fast to the solutions she came up with in designing the problem.

    So I guess I am in slight disagreement with "There are no correct solutions, just many many things you can try that can be impartially adjudicated," depending on how one defines "correct". Correct is not "the stuff the DM thought of". (I think we agree there). Correct is more along the lines of "what works given the present problem and the rules parameters".

    I hope that makes sense.

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  12. Professor Pope reminds me of a recent occurrence in one of my games, which serves as an example of the point I believe he's trying to express.

    A wizard was testing my PCs with a series of intellectual challenges. One of the rooms the characters entered had a single piece of stone on the floor with a line painted on it, and the writing on the wall said that the door could only be opened by characters standing behind the line (the line being 10 feet away from the door)

    The stone with the line on it was loose, and under it was a rope. My thought was that the players would either tie the rope to the door and pull it inward, or use the stone to push the door outward. Instead, my players moved the stone with the line on it until it was right next to the door.

    Not only was this solution not what I had intended, but it went against the basic spirit of the puzzle. However, it was a creative solution so I allowed it to work.

    So yes, having a single solution in mind at the outset of an adventure isn't pixel bitches. I don't subscribe to the "Never make puzzles. Just make obstacles" school of game design. I do think players should be rewarded if their "incorrect" solutions seem like they could reasonably work, though.

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  13. @Professor Pope

    It's not an inevitable or necessary part of the design process for the DM to come up with a range of solutions as she designs a problem. I frequently place obstacles with no clear idea of how the players will circumvent them. On occasion I've designed a puzzle with no idea how the players could circumvent it and they've succeeded regardless.

    But otherwise, yes, we're in agreement. In play a situation should be treated as if real and actions adjudicated based on how well they could be reasonably expected to work, not prioritised based on whether the DM happened to predict them beforehand.

    @LS: There's nothing wrong with that so long as you're not restricting the players to the solutions you came up with. But it's probably a bad habit to have expectations about how the players will solve a puzzle, because in my experience they'll usually break those expectations.

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  14. @John Lets define some terms here. A puzzle, as I define it, is a man-made obstacle with a predefined set of perameters for bypassing it. Whereas an obstruction is an obstacle which no one was intended to pass, such as a collapsed tunnel or wall. Puzzles, like traps, are most often archaic devices built in ages past to prevent interlopers from entering certain parts of a dungeon. The only real difference between a puzzle and a trap is first that puzzles require a solution, wheras many traps do not have a bypass. The second difference is that while a trap most often is intended to cause harm, puzzles are most often intended to block something. Whether it's an alcove filled with treasure, or progress to another area of the dungeon. Since the solution is a necessary element of the puzzle, and since puzzles were designed by someone, there is a "correct" method of getting past the puzzle. At least within the continuity of the game world.

    I have difficulty conceiving of a method for constructing a puzzle without the GM having at least one possible solution in mind. With an obstruction it's easy: there's a wall, stone, 1ft thick, 10ft high, iron spikes at the top. The description is simple, and the GM need not ponder in advance whether the players will attempt to go under it, over it, or through it. Puzzles, though, are more complicated. Take for example a door with no knob. Written on the door it says "None shall pass in darkness." Across the room, a beam of light falls on a large mirror. This is a simple puzzle, but I think it demonstrates my point: the only way this puzzle could have been designed is if the GM had an solution in mind. (using the mirror to redirect the sunlight.) That doesn't mean that the GM needs to pixel bitch over the solution. If they players have a sunrod, that works. Hell, if my players tried holding their lantern up to the door, I'd have the door budge a tiny bit. And if they chose to try and solve it by lighting a dozen lanterns and holding them up to the door, I'd let that one work too.

    There is a school of thought, as I mentioned before, which says a GM should never create puzzles, only obstructions. But that, in my most humble opinion, is bullshit. I'm not interested in any GMing philosophy which marks a complete subset of encounters as "off limits," simply because some GMs are bad at implementing them.

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  15. Under those definitions, I agree.

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  16. I had an experience with this recently. How I handle searching for secret doors is that your search check (1 in 6 for Humans searching or for Elves who pass by, or 2 in 6 for Elves searching) means you were tapping around and found a hollow sound. Now you need to do things to the environment in character to figure out how the secret door triggers open.

    I like this because it encourages attention to the environment. It helps the players imagine the area.

    But I can see how that might be called "pixel bitching" because in a game with a Search Skill, the expectation usually is that the skill success means you found the secret door and the means to open it. There's no need to roleplay. The secret door is an object on the game board and you interact with it using the Search stat on your character sheet.

    In my case, it was a tower with a short "murder-holes" passageway with arrow slits, leading to a false metal hatch at the end. Beside the hatch is a secret door leading into the tower.

    Upon first inspection, the PCs decided not to enter the passage, and instead climbed the roof and broke through with Warp Wood and much labor. After coming down the tower they found the backside of the secret door, opened it, saw what was going on, and moved on.

    Later they returned and tried to go in the secret door. I explained that "it sounds hollow when you tap on it, but you don't see any obvious mechanism". Finally after several game sessions someone decided to feel around in the arrow slit where the secret door should be. He found the hidden catch and opened it. I had even described the hall with arrows slits "including one where the secret door is" every time they checked it.

    So here is why it still worked, and wasn't "pixel bitching":

    1: There were other ways into the tower.
    2: They could have just bashed down the secret door, though that would have ruined it.
    3: This is one of four dungeons available, so they could have gone somewhere else if stymied.

    Usually, there is a #4: this isn't necessary. When I have a puzzle or riddle, or magic door that needs a certain key, or secret door, it doesn't stop progress forward. It just guards a shortcut or hidden treasure or something else that's not required.

    For puzzles and riddles with only one answer, the DM must demand only that action. In most cases this doesn't make sense. After all, if I have a sphinx in front of me and she wants the riddle's answer to let me pass, I can always just blast her with a spell. Or if there's a magic chest that can't be opened unless I answer the riddle, I should still be able to Disintegrate the lid, Wish it open, or finally use Anti-Magic Shell and have the Thief pick the lock. If the DM says none of those work, I certainly know what kind of game I'm playing in.

    ---

    As for DM fiat, I think it works well for us to have the following:

    1: Impartial referee
    2: No unchangeable plot
    3: Player trust in the above two

    It sounds like some groups try:

    1: Referee follows the rules
    2: The rules are complete and understandable

    Although #1 is hard to do and I haven't found a game that has #2.

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  17. @1d30

    I agree.

    It is my understanding many people have a serious problem with your example (requiring the one specific action to open the door).

    But sometimes that is the way the world works. There is only one action that can cause a certain reaction.

    As I said in the article, and as you restated, as long as it is not impeding progress, then it is ok for there to be things that have a specific solution. Just because one specific thing is required does not mean that you are playing a game of pixel bitching.

    What's more - a players ability to understand and interact with the environment is pretty much the basis for 'player skill'.

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  18. @1d30: I have played games where the rules were complete and understandable, or at least could be found empirically - if you write a computer game this has to be the case. Alas, then you inevitably lose tactical infinity, which is one of the main things that attracts me to RPGs.

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  19. I look forward to -C's post on the failings of Search/perception checks. I often see them derided more than other skill checks, but I'm not quite certain why.

    There seems to be a belief that they preclude player interaction with the environment.

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  20. My belief that search/perception checks preclude player interaction in the environment is based on my experience. My players were in the custom of simply saying "I search" and rolling instead of asking "what does the wall look like?" etc.

    But D&D has had these from inception: the 1d6/2d6 roll to find secret doors. The difference is if they are a "save" mechanic (ie, even if you don't search or if you do and don't get the pixel bitch right, you get the roll to find the secret door as a 'save') or if they replace the environment interaction.

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  21. Maybe Robin Laws is reading your blog: he's just written a post obliquely about perception checks.

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  22. @Red

    Hah. Isn't this whole post about how that isn't a pixel bitch?

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  23. @Red: The idea of perception/search checks as saving throws is something I've been strongly looking into recently. Player descriptions of a search that hit elements I have always succeed. If they don't they get their save.

    I also tend to use them as "save versus surprise" if they haven't taken precautions that would prevent surprise.

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