On the Creative Crocodile Conundrum

Are modern gamers objectively less creative than old-school gamers?

Here over at Monsters and Manuals, Noisms discusses some of the agency-sucking, mind-reading, poorly presented, 'Gotcha!' ideals that make up some of the 4thcore adventures.

Noisms postulated a problem that could be solved creatively in a variety of different ways. A treasure hoard is on the other side of the room, with a channel in the middle filled with crocodiles.

One of the posters responds:
"Conversely, any realistic solution to the crocodile problem is going to involve someone being fast enough or strong enough to do something at some point - it's also a skill check scenario (even if it boils down to the good old OSR dodge of the GM rolling a percentage chance - that's still a skill check, just a very arbitrary one)."

I do not think this point of view is uncommon—that the only solutions for problems are skill solutions. A short word about old-school play.

A dice roll in an old-school game is only made when the outcome of an action absolutely cannot be decided by agreement or fiat.

You don't roll to climb up to a ledge or a wall, get out of a pit, ride the horse up the mountain, tie up the prisoner, or jump off the horse; YOU DON'T NEED TO ROLL TO FEED THE CROCODILES POISONED MEAT or have your unseen servant bring the treasure over, you don't need to roll to climb over the channel, or to throw the bag across the channel or any one of a hundred different solutions.

Some actual dice rolls may be required for some of the solutions—but they will most definitely not require only strength or speed. Sure, if you cast web or sleep, the crocodiles will get a save. Sure, if you have the ranger attempt to calm the beasts, they may get a reaction roll.

A roll for discovery is different than a roll for allowing the player not to play.

I know the cliché of the young player looking at his sheet and going "There's nothing on here that lets me solve this problem" is a cliché because it occurs often, but the comment above got me thinking. It occurs a lot—personally—to me—in many of the games I ran. Players who only want to follow the main hook, players who wonder how they can tie someone up without the use rope skill, and even players who can only have relationships with NPC's if there are rules for romance. (No, not my current groups)

So are new school players just objectively less creative? Is it part of the generational issue of millennials having a fear of doing anything that's not explicitly permitted by authority sources? Why is the above sort of response so common? And really, as DM's, what can we do about their lack of creativity in problem-solving without holding their hands and giving them a half dozen ideas for solutions? Is this the same lack of creativity bemoaned by Gygax and Kuntz after the publication of classic D&D, or something different?

But thieves need to make a skill check to climb walls!

No, they don't. Anyone can climb walls. Just like anyone can hide or move around quietly. Thieves can climb unclimbable walls or normal walls unreasonably quickly. They can hide in the very shadows themselves and move so quietly that you never hear them until the knife enters your back.

Just because there is a resolution method for an action doesn't mean you need to use it—you don't make your players roll to kill unconscious opponents.

But if you don't make them roll, how will they ever fail?

The problem here is that you want the game to be a railroad. You don't want your players to decide what to do or how to solve a problem; you want to call for a skill check.

If you take off the safety rails and give them some freedom, you will be astounded at the bodies and rooms they forget to search and the actions they neglect to do. How many monsters or NPC's they leave on the ground unconscious to get up and get revenge another day.

I've got a post up about treasure generation. I put the opportunity for about 50,000 experience, 45,000 of which is treasure, to give the party the 10k total they need to reach the second level. Why is that? because they miss a full third or more of the treasure in the dungeon.

The fact is, if you don't lead them by the nose, player skill is a real thing they will need to have, and if they don't have player skill then they will fail.

The whole skill system is a crutch because it allows them to fail without feeling personally responsible, among other reasons.

Then you're just playing a guessing game! The whole session becomes about "Guess what the DM is thinking"!

If you tell the players what they need to know to solve the problem, they don't have to guess. They still have to solve the problem.

How come it's ok to use 'skill checks' for combat and not for something like talking to opponents?

Because at the table, I can't use my personal skill to swing an axe, but I can use my personal skill to convince a crocodile to let me pass.

Well, then how about I make my players lift something heavy when they want to bend bars, huh? Isn't that player skill?

Nice strawman, but as above—if we cannot agree or decide by fiat that you can't lift the gate, then a roll is required isn't it? This is a situation like "do I hit the monster" that is best decided by a die roll. Of course it's a continuum. I may know that the gate is latched closed, and no matter the level of your strength you will not be able to lift it, but you might be able to bend the bars.

If you use your skill to talk to the crocodile and there is no skill roll, then the DM just makes a decision—But you don't have any control over the DM's decisions! Without the dice to protect you, you'll just be railroaded into guessing what he's thinking all the time.

This is of course, another strawman—a misrepresentation of the actual process of play. The process of the DM making a decision comes down to discussion and agreement.

What does the party know about crocodiles in a skill light system?
The DM starts by asking if anyone is a druid or a ranger, but that's just where it begins.

Here is the important part - if anyone can come up with a reason that they would know something about crocodiles that is reasonable, then they do.

Reasonable how? By table consensus, but as always, the DM has the last word.

If your problem is that the DM can be unreasonable—let me assure you that more rules is not a solution to that problem.

How many solutions can you create to the Crocodile Conundrum problem?

Originally published 10/7/11


  1. I've all but eliminated 'skill' rolls in my current game. Only when there is doubt do I bother making the players roll for success, and I find that it works wonderfully. They're a lot more creative, less restrained, and also having much more fun.

  2. You explanation of why you can use your personal skill to convince a crocodile, but not to swing your axe is false at face. You are no more "convincing a crocodile" with your "skill" at the table than you are swinging an axe. There is no crocodile actually there to convince, anymore than there's any axe to swing.

    You're convincing the GM, if indeed anyone is convinced. The process is no different than allowing the GM to determine if you hit with an axe.

    You're free to prefer to roll for one thing on the other, but there is no objective reason (other than "that's the way the game's written") to apply a roll to one and not the other.

    This bit I don't understand:

    "The whole skill system is a crutch because it allows them to fail without feeling personally responsible, among other reasons."

    Why is it desirable that anyone feel personably responsible for failing?

  3. @Trey, Zak S has a wonderful theory of dice rolls and when they are needed.

    "(1) trying to do something quickly, (2) in competition with someone else, (3) with death (or "failing-to get to play with the PC you patiently levelled up") as the consequence, and (4) successful performance isn't remotely model-able at the table "

    You "convince" the crocodile with "skill" by finding out what it wants, and solving the problem in any manner you see fit. That is dependent on player skill, and can be shown at the table.

    Those are the objective reasons to apply the roll to one and not the other.

    As to the second part - because they are responsible for their success or failure in play. Knowing that your fate is dependent on you makes it mean something real.

  4. Convincing a crocodile presumably has death as a potential consequence (rule 3). Also, does the crocodile wish to be convinced? If not (and I assume not), you're in as much competition against him as you are against a bugbear you're slapping with a sword.

    Now, I'm assuming here a relatively quick interaction. If this is a "ask the crocodile what he wants and go on a quest for it," then that's another situation entirely.

    Your "fate" (your game fate) is as much dependent on your player skill rolling the die here as it is rolling a die in combat--and I have never encountered any player's who didn't seem to experience a sense of victory from winning a challenging combat, so I'm inclined to say you're overreaching here.

  5. As an addendum, I would say my thoughts on this definitely depend on how the encounter with the crocodile is framed. I certainly agree that die rolls aren't neccessary or desirable for mundane tasks or incidents to the meat of the adventure.

  6. This system also relies to a great extent on the ability of individual players to convince the DM. That means that regardless of what character you are playing - you're only ever playing yourself.

    I've experienced this issue in groups many times. The persuasive communicator gets a lot more done without rolls than the person who is shy, or who had difficulty communicating.

    By emphasizing player skill, and by largely relying on it, you're creating a situation where certain players 'game' the system. The DM might not think he's being unreasonable, he's just being more reasonable for people he likes or gets along with.

    Dice and modifiers - they don't make subjective decisions, and they allow for results outside of a players knowledge but within the character's knowledge. I don't know bugger all about how to find a trap, but my thief characters always have.

    So I walk a line in my games. I'll encourage the discussion/negotiation side of it, but I'll let the player roll the dice if he wants to. Gives me the best of both worlds.

  7. Or the worst.

    By emphasizing player skill, and by largely relying on it, you're creating a situation where certain players 'game' the system.

    The game favours people who are good at the game, in other words. I don't see why many people have a problem with this in D&D but not in other games.

  8. Are modern gamers objectively less creative than old school gamers?
    I've been playing a 3.5 game for the past month or so with people who've pretty much only played 3.0 or newer. I have to say, based on the limited experience with these folks, yes, new-school players seem to be less capable of creative (or even critical) thinking.

    I used to be somewhat skeptical that a codified, comprehensive skill system (such as that used in the 3.x system) somehow limited player imagination, but playing with this group, (and in thinking back, with the last group I played 3.5 with as well) makes me think I was wrong.

    An example: One of the party members playing a thief (sorry, rogue who steals stuff) has taken a feat to make all Knowledge skills class skills. The player himself has little familiarity with the game setting, and isn't sure which of his selected Knowledge skills will help him to know something about the history of the area we're in (to which his character is a foreigner). The player struggles and struggle, thinking he took the wrong skills. I mention to him that my character is from the area and knows there's a city with a University some distance away but within the same region; perhaps his thief could go there, beg use of their library, and do a little research. I'll accompany him, as my spellcaster could likewise make use of the library there. The player in question was stunned by this, I kid you not, like I'd offered him up some pearl of great price or something.

    During character creation, without fail every character was assembled with statistics, skills, and feats to meet the prerequisites for prestige classes. We are playing 1st-level characters, and these folks are pre-building their characters for the day they hit 5th or 8th or whatever. I guess they're just biding their time until then, expecting the DM to keep throwing monsters and loot at us (but never more than we can handle!) until we've hit that level. I was the only player who picked up a hireling, and I was the only one who had (and still has) no end-game planned for my character beyond the standard gold/power/knowledge acquisition that all first-level characters need.

    Man, and that thread on noism's site? A trainwreck. Great job making your points there, -C, but some of those people would rather argue then debate, if you catch my meaning.

  9. @Frotz Self
    Thanks for the comment. I think it's a harsh thing to say, but I think harsh is gonna be the new politically correct in the coming years.

    I am classically trained in debate, and don't mind a debate or an argument - even against people who haven't codified their thinking or augmentation into ordered rational ideas.

  10. I think this was a great article and frotz comment was a great comment. I'm tired right now so I can't say much else, but skills definitely make players less creative.

    No matter what the DM asks the answer now is, I roll a die. How do you deal with a crocodile, by rolling a d20 and letting the numbers or DM tell you what happened. Your just pretending your being creative by picking a skill. And maybe being moderately creative by describing how the skill works.

    Without skills, you can come up with far more ways to deal with anything. Hmm I guess I wasn't to tired to add more.

  11. Perhaps it is best to remember that we are talking about a game. And however these other people who are less creative enjoy playing said game, they should be allowed to do so. Imaginative people will grow out of leaning on skills and die rolls to generate an outcome and instead rely on their own abilities as a player. Or they won't, and they'll either enjoy the game and rolling the dice or they'll stop playing. Either way, play with the type of people you prefer to be with, and I don't really think anything less of the people who aren't as artistic as myself. (Or at least I try not to, right?) I am well aware that there are other people who are infinitely more creative than myself, and I can hope they don't think less of me for it.

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