On Skill, Character V. Player

Armando wrote "I was wishing for someone to Finally point out how one does handle 'player skill vs character skill'." as if it was obfuscated. And it somewhat is.

I talk a lot about the upside of presenting agency to players. But agency is often called another thing. Uncertainty. You have agency when you are presented with a choice that you are uncertain of the correct option. That is agency. You are free to make the choice and accept the consequences.

This also means you are free from making the 'correct' choice. The burden of being certain and right has also been removed.

You see, there is nothing wrong with 'character skill' based play. You want your character's skill to affect something, then roll. Simple enough.

The problem with defining character skill based play versus player skill based play is evidenced from the very question itself. How do I use player skill in opposition to character skill? Don't I just listen to what the player says and make a judgement call? Isn't that just being a wishy-washy Dungeon Master? Aren't I just arbitrarily allowing the player to succeed?

Tell me how you paint the picture. No,
no, more detail.
Well, that's the problem. You see, you don't use player skill for task resolution.

Player skill is used when given a variety of options (like a dungeon corridor, a city, or other complex environment) and free choices are made - choices with agency.

The player skill is about which choices are made, about how the problem is approached. Sometimes this will involve activating a portion of the character's skill (such as an ability or check) but a skilled player will have made that decision with that in mind.

This means, yes, that if you are a terrible player, if you are bad at the skills required, that character skill may not save you. That's the idea behind save or die, low hit point total classes, and other numerical weaknesses. The idea isn't that there shouldn't be threats - the threats are what allow player skill to be meaningful.

This is a spectrum, we do have characters in front of us, with many of their abilities represented mechanically. So your skill comes in creating situations where your strengths are applied and your weaknesses obviated by your choices.

You see, people like to associate personal social skills, quick thinking on your feet, a silver tongue with actual mechanical stats in the game. How does the person who's a social reject play the high charisma person? That question is secretly entitlement in disguise.

The game already takes into account stats and how they manipulate social situations. I've even written about a substantive expansion to this type of system. The characters charisma (or bluff etc.) handles their player skill based choices just fine - without any hoop jumping ("If they do it in a good way I'll give them a bonus").

But how do you play a super skilled player when you're not a super skilled player?

You don't.

It's a game. You can lose it. You can be bad at it. This sounds harsh, but think about the question. How can I play someone good at a game if I'm not good at the game? If I just give you +10 everything and stick you in a group of 1st level players, that doesn't make you 'good at the game'.

So, Armando. Player skill is about the choices players make when given complex situations in game. Character skill is how challenges are resolved. Player skill doesn't have anything to do with resolving the individual tasks. Character skill doesn't have anything to do with assisting your judgement or decision making abilities. It can't save you from yourself.

Hack & Slash


  1. Interesting... I'm a pretty "new school" player so I was expecting to disagree with you here. But either we agree or I'm reading this wrong:
    In micro-scale situations -- those where character skill is the deciding factor, like telling a lie or swinging a sword -- roll. Do not give bonuses for player charisma.
    At the macro scale -- matters of preference or personality, forks in the road or moral dilemmas -- it's up to the player to make a choice. Rolling makes no sense.
    I'll bet we still disagree on where perception and traps fit into these guidelines .')

    1. Maybe. Perception is a real problem skill, and I've written about it extensively on the blog before. Check the Index

    2. I was trying to be playful; I know we disagree.
      I would also argue that your discussion of perception checks -- at least the one you have linked from your index -- is more of a straw man than a thorough treatment of the issue. You apply perception checks to a scenario tailor-made for immersive poking and prodding; of course they are unsatisfying!
      There certainly are people who make sloppy use of perception checks, but the mechanic on its own can be a potent tool when used mindfully.

    3. Yes, but that wasn't the article I was talking about.

      This is the one you read? On Perception and Observation?

      This is the one I was referencing On the Epic Failure of Perception and Stealth, A Skill Deconstruction post.

      Related reading:
      On the Trick of the Trap
      On Why Skill Lite is not Pixel Bitching or DM Fiat

      The point is, I agree the mechanic can be worthwhile. I think the fact that it's a increaseable skill is a travesty, and that it is poorly implemented across the whole of 3.X and company.

    4. Yeah, that's the one. It feels kinda like your complaint is largely with the mess of a skill system in 3.x. How do you feel about other systems? Fate, Savage Worlds, GURPS, or whatever all else you've tried?

    5. I've also reviewed several other systems, Rolemaster, Hackmaster, Fudge, 4th edition, 2nd edition, and several others.

      I think skills can be useful, and exciting, and a key component to play, but often aren't.

  2. My problem is with the classic argument that trap detection and removal should be handled by player skill instead of character skill (as in before the thief class was added to D&D).

    I for one do not have the time to learn detailed trap engineering and how it interacts with the magic of your game world.

    1. Well, I've written a lot about traps.

      You might work under the assumption that a trap doesn't have anything to do with in world physics or trap engineering and has to do with burn marks on the wall and dead bodies on the floor.

    2. Yeah, all you need for a good trap are triggers, effects, and clues. Everything connecting those things can be black boxes.

  3. Overcoming a trap by character skill is a pretty boring thing. There could be a trap - role perception. You've found a trap - role disable device. Zzzzzz
    Overcoming a trap by player skill is interesting, when the trap design challenges the players knowledge and abilities without getting out of league. So not every trap is suitable for every player.

    Interestingly enough, same can be sad about social encounters. If they're done by character skill (roll diplomacy), they're just boring as a (social) trap.

    1. What if player skill doesn't match character skill? Then what? Why bother having mental attributes and skills in the game if it all comes down to the player?

    2. Seriously, have you read the article above?

      Let me explain it to you with an example. Assume we play a game which has rules for tricking and seducing a person (say, a skill roll mechanic). It requires player skill to decide when to lie or seduce someone; it depends on character skill if it's successful (i.e. how high my character's appropriate skill rating is).

      In another example, assume we play D&D 4E. It requires player skill to decide which attack power to use (i.e. tactical skill of the player); whether it hits and how much damage it deals depend on character skill (i.e. how great the attack bonus and damage are).

    3. Well, I don't know about Bjorn but the article above is a little confusing. Kind of all over the place. That said, I agree with you completely.

    4. It's funny, because the answer to your question is directly in the article above. Like it explicitly answers your question of "What if player skill doesn't match character skill?"

      If anything was unclear, please ask. I think it is quite straightforward.

  4. This reminds me of a discussion if traps, adventure design and GM philosophy I was having last night.

    In the character skill light rulsets I seem to prefer there appears to be the following consensus about traps

    1. Traps are cool, and should be about & often deadly.

    2. Traps should be hinted at, so that players have clues

    3. Traps should have a logic that allows them to be bypassed or disarmed without character skill use

    What happens of course is that with players who are well practiced traps hardly ever kill a character, but with incautious players its a bloodbath.

    Sure having a thief along helps, but more as a way to remind the party that they should be on the lookout. With a less then 50% chance of mechanically disarming that trap a thief player really just has a save for traps that he can't figure out.

  5. There can be a good argument either way, and I even like both in different ways.

    I like skills as a way of character customisation. This character is good at being athletic, but it's a gentle man who doesn't lie, thus intimidation and bluffing are low.

    But on the other hand, during play I don't like to roll a check to search a room, or to convince a duke of a well crafted lie....I like to do those things myself. I don't want to spew this complex tall tale to only roll low on a bluff check.

    I don't take sides,I see the good in both....but I think there could be a better way to handle skills.

    What I do in skill based systems is this: if you roll a good bluff, you will get a "good idea" that will help you with your bluff. If you get a good search check you notice something that might help you in your search.

    That's honestly the only way I have found to get players to not just rely on rolls. Which fine, if you like a microcosm simulation type game, that's fine, but I think it's less fun that way.


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