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