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."
I AGREE WITH ALL OF THE ABOVE BEING NEGATIVE BECAUSE THEY HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH SKILL BASED PLAY.
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.
*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.
** 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.