On Ignorance of Skill Based Play

Many of you don't even understand what skill based play means.

Why do I think that? Here are some comments made on my blog that make it pretty clear many of you might be in the dark about it.

  • "We have players who want to have fun and be part of a story, but are perhaps not well-spoken enough to role-play social encounters. . ." 
  • "This system also relies to a great extent on the ability of individual players to convince the DM." 
  • "If not, why would you tell a player 'I'm sorry; you're not charismatic enough in person to play a smooth-talking rogue'?" 
  • "Fiat success on the first try is not RPing or puzzle-solving; fiat failure isn't either, and is frustrating to boot; it feels like the GM is arbitrarily making you play a guessing-game to find the proper solution."


So what is skill based play?

I've already discussed about  Pixel Bitching, and DM Fiat, and how they have no place in skill based play. And while I cover a lot about what is and is not pixel bitching and DM Fiat, I haven't discussed what skill based play is.

Two things to get out of the way first.  
ONE Character skill play is about how well you build a character before throwing him into conflict to see how well your build fares. (Did you account for will saves, perception checks, etc.) There is an element to 'reading your DM' so that you don't put points into skills he doesn't favor. (Don't put points into Ride if he doesn't like mounts.) The primary skill you exert is rules mastery when creating your build.

TWO Narrative or 'Story' play that many people are conflating with 'player skill based' play involves intangibles I'm not interested in when playing D&D. These include 'is the player being entertaining', 'what is the story arc for the character', and 'what tools does the player have to set and control conflicts and the world'. I'm down with those types of games (Mouse Guard, Dogs in the Vineyard) but I'm not interested in trying to turn Dungeons and Dragons into that.

What is player skill based play?

  • It isn't punishing people who are anti-social or poor at social interactions.
  • It isn't based on convincing a capricious GM of anything.
  • It isn't arbitrary playing a guessing game to find the "proper" solution.

Well, What is player skill based play then!?


It's playing a game about your ability to gather information and make decisions to survive and succeed at both planned and random encounters.

You don't roll a die to determine if you find and open a secret door, you gather information by asking questions and using your personal smarts to make choices to test the situation to discover the door. Then you make choices about how to open the door.* There is one specific way to open the door. There isn't a 'proper' solution to the encounter because there is no reason you are entitled to find the secret door and no reason it is necessary to find the secret door..

When you encounter an NPC you need to convince, you don't just judge the players on arbitrary and capricious standards.  You present the NPC as a puzzle like any other. He has needs, traits, and desires that investigation (i.e. talking, to him, other people, or context clues) can discover. Then the players make choices about how to handle the situation - choices that if the investigation is done properly they will have a good idea about the results. You present these choices explicitly to the players.

When you encounter a monster, you use your skill to try to avoid being surprised by making choices about how you travel through the dungeon, how you use your light sources, and your marching order. If you discover the monster before it discovers you, you make an effort to destroy it by overwhelming force or avoid it to get its treasure. All of these things are choices that the players are making, and making good choices is representative of their skill.

Each situation in the game is an "Encounter". An encounter is constructed**. It has hidden information and open information, explicit choices and consequences for those choices. The information is given to the players based on their choices: in play, in the past, how they describe or customize their character, and because of which races and classes they have selected. A game is a series of encounters. A series of games is a campaign.

There is no 'performance' in player skill based play.
There is no predetermined outcome in player skill based play.
There is no requirement for the player to be a master at something the character is good at - just that they be skilled at gathering information, problem solving, and making choices. And that's what D&D is about.

Caveat I
*But what about searching for secret doors, talking with monsters, and bashing doors? Situations that are common but just use some random game system to determine the result? How is that player skill?

Unlike modern systems where there is no consequences for failure, each of those is a choice that must be made. Do we risk one turn searching and increase the chance of running into a monster? Do we give up surprise to attempt to parley with the monsters? Do we risk the chance of monsters hearing us bash this door? Each is a choice, weighed with consequences for the attempt and for failure. That is why those are examples of skill based play.

Caveat II
** But what about improvisation? How can an encounter be constructed if the scene is improvised?

Singers often improvise, but that doesn't involve some hideous warble - they are still following certain structures and playing notes! You are constructing the encounter in real time! It doesn't change the fact that it's constructed.

Any questions?


  1. Very nice. One could use your four encounter elements (hidden information, open information, (likely) explicit choices and (associated, common) consequences for building and annotating encounters.

    1. I think number of modules did something like that ... Chaosium did something like that with RQ adventures -- keyed areas had 'obvious' info to read aloud, 'hidden' info to make available if an areas was searched/NPC questioned, -- the consequences and choices maybe not keyed, unless you count treasure/monster stats.

  2. Awesome statement of the differences in approach - nice job.

  3. Great post, BTW.

    Those 'common questions' are indeed commonly raised on forums etc., often rhetorically. :( It's good to give them the benefit of the doubt though -- what you are calling 'skill based play' seems totally foreign to a lot of newer players. This post does a great job of breaking it down for them.

  4. [blockquote] ...involves intangibles I'm not interested in when playing D&D. These include 'is the player being entertaining'[/blockquote]

    I do not understand this. Do you mean to say that it doesn't matter if the player is having fun or do you mean entertained to mean something else here?

    1. I mean that the ability of the person sitting at the table to be witty or make me laugh does not impact their performance at playing the game. i.e. Non-witty funny people are not penalized because they aren't as witty.

    2. Wow, I really should wait till I've had my coffee before commenting on blogs. I apparently can't see the -ing suffix first thing in the morning.

  5. Well put but it doesn't really remove the "ability of individual players to convince the GM" objection--and you make that point in your thesis. Here are two example statements:

    "choices that if the investigation is done properly they will have a good idea about the results."

    "...and making good choices is representative of their skill."

    "Good" and "proper" aren't mathematically determined, they're subject. The GM in most games would be who is subjectively determining this, so players do have to convince the GM. If not with performance then with there arguments--which is, in a sense, a metagame performance.

    I'm not objecting to this element of the game at all, I'm objecting to the idea that "convincing the DM" doesn't enter into it. In a very real sense one of the "skills" your discussing here is knowing the mind of your GM.

    1. I have two points.

      First, that these encounters are constructed - each with predetermined ways to engage with different qualities of outcomes.

      Second, that it is not the GM that dictates what is acceptable it is a negotiation between the GM and the players.

      This is a key component, and difficult to understand. Some elaboration.

      yes, the DM is the final authority on the game world.
      no, the DM does not instantly arbitrate an idea without input. He is the final arbiter.

      Player suggests an idea not part of the per-constructed encounter.
      DM asks questions to understand the idea.
      DM asks players about their opinions of the idea.
      The group and the DM come to consensus.
      If no consensus can be reached, the DM makes a ruling, and the issue is researched after the game.

      When my players wanted to know about drugging and animal and if it would drug a stirge that drank from it - they didn't have to convince me, we looked it up and came to consensus. If it wasn't acceptable to them - it wasn't acceptable to me.

      Things I might say:
      "What do you think is reasonable?"
      "What do you think is fair?"
      "Would you be ok if that's the way it works for the monsters?"

      I can elaborate more?

    2. I think the questions you are pointing to here are pretty critical and worth some emphasis.

      While it seems self-evident to me that negotiation (as reasonably intelligent adults) would trump the need for comprehensive rules to bound in a GM, we've all seen how much that mantra gets repeated over and over.

    3. It seems to me that doing something 'properly' and 'right' is often simply doing things that bring results, independent of GM fiat or group negotiation (though those certainly come into play at other times).

      In other words: you may trigger the trap, but it's a good choice in that it had an effect on the world.

  6. Great post, very nicely put.

    I would like to expand slightly on this point though:

    There is one specific way to open the door.

    My players often come up with creative ways to solve problems that I did not foresee. I don't think you actually meant to preclude such possibilities though. And it doesn't change the fact that I don't consider players entitled to necessarily bypass any particular challenge.

    1. You are correct. The torch sconce when turned opens the door. But, opening the door is not crucial to play.

      They can choose to bash down the door with a consequence of wandering monster checks.

      They can search for tracks to see where people in the room stand.

      They can hide and wait for someone to open the door.

      They can leave the door behind.

  7. @-C: No you'eve elaborated plenty, but that really doesn't obviate my point. The DM is the final arbiter and so must be "convinced."

    Unless your suggesting that you use strictly a democratic process (majority rules) in which the players can override the DM?

    1. I think that this is presenting a false dichotomy. It is not either "The DM must be convinced" or "The players vote".

      What is actually happening is I am in a room with my friends engaged in social play.
      A non-prepared for situation occurs, input is given and taken from all parties involved.
      If it is not a pressing issue, research may be done by multiple members of the group and a consensus is reached.
      If time is pressing, and consensus cannot be reached then as a final resort, the person designated as DM has the responsibility for making a decision.
      This decision can be reviewed, changed, or overturned after more thought, perhaps after consulting more resources.

      I feel very strongly that "The DM must be convinced" is a gross, malignant, misrepresentation of this process. The DM is responsible for making an impartial adjudication and therefore cannot take a stance. He will have experience, opinion, and knowledge that will affect his judgement of course, but his primary purpose is to facilitate play.

      Now, saying that in all issues the DM has the final call, doesn't really reflect the burden that is undertook. In any situation in which he 'must be convinced' he presents his adjudication. Without choice he gives the players an implicit choice.

      "Is this acceptable".

      If it is not - they should leave and find another campaign or take the mantle upon themselves.

      I cannot countenance this interaction being described as 'the DM must be convinced'.

    2. I cross-posted your comment and my reply to G+ because I think you make a good point and am curious what other people think.

  8. Brilliant post. With the recent thread on combat styles and 'being responsible for your own orgasm' this covers many other play-style issues nicely.

  9. In SOME ways, being the DM is similar to being the driver of the car. If your passengers are your friends, you would never just ignore them as to destination, comfort (roll down a window, turn up the heat), or needs (food, drinks, reststops).
    On the other hand, you would never let a passenger just grab the wheel or slam his or her foot on the accelerator/brake.
    And great works, -C. I'm still in the process of reading through your older articles.

  10. This is an excellent post. I think that I now really understand where you are coming from with skill light play.

    I will say that this style of play presupposes a number of intangibles. It assumes that everyone at the table is mature and engaged. It also is strongly capped by the skill of the GM to build good encounters, describe them appropriately, and play fairly. (Of course, many gamers will state, as you have, that they only play with mature players. If you have a full table of mature players with similar agendas and playstyles, and a GM who is skilled enough to support this playstyle, you are decidedly outside the norm. Very, very lucky indeed.)

    OK, I want to dig into your secret door example. There is a secret door in the room, and turning the sconce opens it. There are faint scratches on the wall around the sconce from it being turned. The scratches are very difficult to see. How do you determine if the PCs see them? How do you communicate to the players that the key is in looking at that sconce?

    I will also say that this post, more than any of your others, illustrates that you and I are not playing the same game. I have no problem with the Quantum Ogre. I also really, really don't want to negotiate with the GM to resolve every encounter. I'm at the table to engage in a story, not solve problems. I'm not saying that your gaming style is wrong. I think I've just finally put my thumb on why I disagree with it.

    1. You enter from the south a room approximately 20' square. There is an empty bookcase against the west wall, flanked by an empty torch sconce. An irregular light coating of dust covers the floor. There is another exit opposite you on the north wall.

      What do you do?

      Examine the bookcase: (roll for secret door chances - on success they note the fact that the bookcase is a secret door, not how to open it) The bookcase is empty, long disused and falling into disrepair. There is a copper coin on the top shelf, and several small tacks and nails scattered on the bottom shelf.

      Examine the torch sconce: When you look at the torch sconce you discover that there are faint circular scratches on the wall behind it, as if something were pressed against the wall and turned.

      Examine the irregular coating of dust: You see that footprints have disturbed the dust in the room, but you notice that they appear to head towards the bookcase where they suddenly end. No traffic appears to head towards the north exit.

      Examine the other exit: A corridor exits this room to the north.

      To answer your questions. The PC's see them if they examine the sconce. As to 'how you communicate', imagine the above encounter only add in the possibility of monsters, treasure, tricks, traps, or nothing and the question of what to look at and what to do becomes a little more high stakes.

      If you're familiar with old school play, then you know it isn't about telling a story - it's about adventure that becomes a story when it's told. I find a style of play based on avoiding interacting with the DM (and other players?) uncomprehensible.

    2. Examine the bookcase: Isn't "roll for secret door chances" a skill use? I realize I may be building a straw man here, but what is the functional difference between this and a Search check?

      Examine the torch sconce: So any character who looks at the sconce will see the scratches? It doesn't matter if it's a ranger who is an expert at tracking or a mage who is half-blind from reading ancient tomes by candlelight?

      Examine the irregular coating of dust: So if you choose this option, you automatically succeed at your "detect secret doors" roll? Is there any chance for a character to notice the footprints without closely examining them?

      My "how you communicate" question had more to do with one of the old DM dilemmas. If you have a key clue in the room, you have to either mention it, or not. If you mention it, it flags the players that it is important, even if their characters might not have picked it out of the background. If you don't mention it, the players have no chance of knowing it is there. Your solution seems to be a good one.

      And that is precisely one of the reasons I dislike old school play. I want to tell a story, not live someone else's life.

      Skill-heavy play doesn't avoid GM-player interaction. It just creates a common construct with specific levers for both GMs and players to interact through.

    3. In order:

      Examine the bookcase: It is a diced resolution mechanic for determining things not easily resolved or modeled by consensus. See this article for the in depth explanation. It is not a skill in the sense that it is not selected - rather a natural ability based on race.

      Torch: Any character, yes. Doesn't matter, that's correct.

      Examine the dust: Your perception is from the DM side of total knowledge. To the players it could be because that's where the ceiling monster kills people or the location of a pit trap.

      Yes. Key clue: I talk about this in my Empty rooms, Tricks, and Trap Design document. Any encounter can contain one of five things. Nothing (the "Red Herring"), a Monster ("antagonist"), A trick ("plot twist"), Trap ("Punishment or penalty"), or treasure ("reward").

      Since you don't know which of those things each item is, you can mention everything. It is up to how the players choose to gather information and the choice they make to determine the outcome of the encounter.

      The idea of telling a story is really anathema to old school play. Do you railroad players? Have plot immune NPC's? Preplanned story arcs? 'telling a story' is poorly supported by D&D's framework.

      That 'common construct with specific levers' consists of rolling a die and adding a number. I find that activity much less engaging then the activity it replaces.

      I'd prefer to interact with my friends directly.

  11. "I will say that this style of play presupposes a number of intangibles. It assumes that everyone at the table is mature and engaged. It also is strongly capped by the skill of the GM"

    This depicts the requirements for successful skill-based play as being more strict than they actually are.

    If there's a gray area between immature and mature, then being within the gray area is quite sufficient for skill-based play. And even the notion of "maturity" is probably the wrong notion. My 6 year old son is definitely immature, but he still succeeds at skill-based play.

    And not *everyone* needs to be engaged. As few as *one* engaged player can lead to successful paths through a skill-based situation. And even if nobody happens to be engaged enough at the particular moment, the session itself can still be successful; it's not like the players are expected to succeed at *every* skill-based situation, anyway.

    And finally, DM skill is always important. Thankfully the relevant DMing methods for handling skill-based play are pretty easy to master. Virtually every social human practices them on a daily basis through totally non-rpg interactions.

    The presence and use of these player-skill methods may not necessarily be *obvious* to people (especially gamers used to systems where player skill isn't as useful), but they're trivially easy to develop. It is within the ability of the vast majority of gamers to be successful at skill-based play. Whether or not they'd *want* to do so is another matter entirely.

    1. I will say that my experiences to the contrary are one of the reasons I dislike games that rely on player skill. Just because you have a knack for those methods doesn't make them easy to master. (As I constantly yell to the designers on HGTV.)

      IMHO, skill light systems have a potential for achieving higher highs, but also come with a much higher potential for going horribly wrong as well. I'll stick with the more moderate, safer path of relying on robust skill systems.

    2. To be clear: I won't pretend to tell you what you like or dislike, nor would I assert that one individual's knack necessarily implies a broad truth.

      I'm curious what could go "horribly wrong" within the context of rpg play (of any sort) that isn't simply a deeper underlying issue, where the rpg was a happenstance trigger?

      Shifting gears for a minute: Assume you hired me to take care of your house/apartment for the weekend, while you're away. Hopeful of getting a big tip, I want to unload and put away the clean dishes that are currently in your dishwasher. (Sounds weird, but go with it...) First I look in your dishwasher. How many different sorts of dishes (plates/bowls/cups) are in there? Are there multiple patterns in there, like something plain/everyday vs. nicer china type stuff? Ditto with silverware, and cups/glasses. Is there anything else that stands out to me while I'm looking in there? Do you put pots & pans in your dishwasher?

      (If you already consider yourself to have DM mastery for skill-based games, we can skip this exercise. If not, I'm going to get you mastered in a couple exchanges between us, plus maybe one or two principles afterward that transcend this weird example.)

  12. @guy


    My game has talking with NPC's. It has dramatic combats. It has deadly traps. It has everything other games have that people consider fun, and it's extremely interesting for new players.

    Here's what player skill based play doesn't have.

    * Player's trying to guess how to word something so the DM will let them do it.
    * Players looking at their character sheet for solutions.
    * Players arguing how something should work (My response is usually "Oh. Certainly. That seems reasonable. What does your character do?")
    * Rolling a die to bypass game-play.
    * Waiting for other people to take their turn (a combination of party initiative and play that's highly engaging.)

    1. * I think you are going to get this regardless of style. Skill-light systems don't magically prevent DM fiat and pixel bitching, either.

      * I grant this one.

      * I strongly dispute this one. IME, I see far more arguments in play the farther we stray from what is laid down in the rules.

      * This is just bad play. No matter how skill-heavy the system, rolling a die should never be a substitute for taking an action. However, it can be used to bypass game play that might otherwise be boring or tedious.

      * I don't see how this is at all related to player skill based play. It may be a result of party initiative, but that is an entirely different animal.

    2. You might have a look at the comments higher up in the thread and in the linked G+ post for a very in-depth reply to why I don't have problems with arguments in play.

      'convincing the DM of something' isn't something that is occurring at my table. That phrase is not descriptive of any interaction that occurs during play.

      I concede, as my girlfriend pointed out, that people have clearly had problems with arguments in the past, but it's pretty clear that being a dick is not inhibited by 'more rules'. It also isn't encouraged by less rules. People who are dicks are that way regardless of the game.

      Having a rule written in a book you can point at and say "You have to stop being a dick" doesn't solve the problem.


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