How Character Skills Can—and Should—Encourage Roleplaying

I know this topic might not be necessary for anyone who frequents the Rolemaster Blog, but, as I’ve moved from an Original “Skill-less” style of play back into an RM derivative, I’ve made some observations that might be of interest to some of us here.

In case anyone needs a reminder, Original Dungeons & Dragons (often referred to now as the Original Game) doesn’t contain rules for Skill use. AD&D (1e) might have something in the Dungeon Masters Guide (since I’m currently a player in a Classical 1e game, I’m willfully not privy to this) that provides the option of Secondary Skills, though it should be noted that these are not the detailed “Secondary Skills” we as RMers know but something fuzzier about what a character might have done before leading a life of adventure—a background that might prove relevant for roleplaying in-game situations. I’m going to breeze over AD&D2e, confessing I know nothing about this system, right on to 3e, which is the first version of D&D I ever played. Since my own initial rpg had been Middle-Earth Role Playing, and since I had moved onto such skill-heavy systems as Champions, I didn’t so much as blink at the 3e Skill list and its system of developing these qualities through—wait for it—purchasing and assigning Skill Ranks. If there ever had been any dispute among the more factious in the gaming community, then it would appear that RM had “won”*: Skills were the way to game. 

But it appears that something started to happen at about this time, a quiet movement that—at least for me—didn’t make itself known until Pathfinder had taken over for 3/3.5. Many gamers were discovering that they preferred the “old” way of roleplaying. Many were utilizing the Open Game License to write and distribute “retroclones” or revisions of pre-3e iterations of the d20 system. Whether these systems are “simpler” than other forms of gameplay is debatable. Certainly many of them present a less granular and sometimes entirely absent Skill system.

Why? Well, the thesis of Matt Finch’s Swords & Wizardry (which is Finch’s version of OD&D) is that all questions outside of the core rules (and even those very core rules) as presented in 1974 should be settled at individual gaming tables according to the preferences of the participants in those groups. It is understood, I imagine, by most of us here that this is precisely the process through which Rolemaster was birthed. Many people have a preference for granularity in their gaming, and, for many years, this appears to have been the direction of the core industry. The Old School Revival is a standard for those who began to say, “We liked it better before.”

A particular power gamer at my table while I was running Pathfinder caused me to look with more interest at the OSR. “[B]ring the balance back”—a lyric from Led Zeppelin—adorns the back cover of S&W’s second printing. The Pf culture was my first experience with a gamer who actively researched “builds” to defeat the GM. Defeat the GM, you say? Since a GM is often described as the “God” of the rpg, how can that even be possible? Well, some of the standards in Pf appear to protect gamers from bad GMs. It’s generally considered uncool—or the equivalent of a “broken game”—to present the PCs with a combat encounter in excess of Epic rating (CR+3). Noncombat encounters, you say? Well, now we’re back to the subject at hand: Skills.

With problem players (and I don’t intend for this to be a rant about this unsavory topic; we’re leaving this in a moment) Skills can “break the game”: “Well, my Perception is +32. Can I get a roll?” “I want to leap over that wall. My Acrobatics is +28.” As a GM, I wanted my power back. I wanted to decide if it made sense for a character to notice something. I wanted some walls to be unclimbable. I wanted this because I wanted a satisfying story and because I wanted my players to feel challenged.

This can be accomplished without removing Skills altogether, of course. My point is that I explored a Skill-less game in order to start from scratch, to “make the game my own” at its Origin. I quickly found myself reintroducing Skills through mechanics of my own devising. Then, in the course of moving from a “homegrown” system to the MERP derivative Against the Darkmaster, I realized—with a bit of surprise—that Skill systems can encourage better roleplaying.

Skills define the character. This seems obvious in hindsight, but, without that list of capabilities in front of them, some gamers have difficulty making in-game decisions. A list of skills provides ideas and parameters for the gamer, shows the player what his character is good at, and telegraphs goals towards which the character can work through skill development. If the gamer imagines that her character should be good at picking pockets, then he sees that as a clear goal and puts points into that at Level advancement. Perhaps, more importantly, say that within the midst of a campaign a character realizes that she really should be better at tracking. Well, he makes a note and at Level advancement puts ranks into that Skill because, in game, the character realized that skill was important enough to work at it, to improve it.

What shouldn’t be forgotten is that, even if Skill attempts are resolved at the table with die rolls and modifiers, the action should be roleplayed. A criticism that is made by some in the OSR community—most of the time unfairly—is that later, Skill-heavy rpg systems replace roleplaying with mechanical resolution. Even if a Skill Test is involved, a player should describe specifically how a character is performing an action, taking into consideration the GM’s scenario, then the dice should be rolled with modifiers subject to how competent or ludicrous the PC’s intention might be. This isn’t as obvious as it might sound. About a year ago, a friend of mine played in a Starfinder game at a con. He said that the experience felt like a lot of “roll to see what you get.”

Skill rolls should drive the story. This one might be less obvious than the previous considerations. It only came to me after I adopted VsD and started using its Action Resolution Table. There are two very important results in VsD’s chart: Critical Failure and Partial Success. Critical Failure means that a character made the situation worse. For example, in my play-by-post game, a character trying to talk a horse-trader into a good price for his steeds actually convinced the businessman to attempt to steal all the PC’s stuff and hold him hostage. In my tabletop game, a PC led an NPC into the city and then tried to lose him: Partial Success. Okay, maybe on the way back the PC is mobbed by an excitable crowd who never has seen an Elf before, or a nefarious somebody else notices the maneuver, or the dodge brings the PC through an ominous back alley. All of these are exciting, spontaneous, new features in the narrative.

Pf, as written, has a Pass/Fail mechanic. The Original rules set I most recently was using had no mechanic. VsD Skill resolution introduces opportunities for plot complications and narrative twists. I’m not sure if I would be GMing this way had I adopted the RMu playtest instead of VsD. The language in the RMu Maneuvers table, despite its variation, reads very much like Pass/Fail—except for that magical 66, of course!

Anyway, those are my thoughts: Skills give players something measurable to define their characters by and Skill resolution mechanics should contribute to meaningful storytelling.

*I’m not sure that there had been factions: the pre-Internet late-80s/early 90s seemed to be a different time, and all the D&Ders I had known were politely interested in and perhaps secretly envious of how I claimed to understand and play something as arcane as MERP.

8 Replies to “How Character Skills Can—and Should—Encourage Roleplaying”

  1. I have a very experienced player who absolutely detests the whole idea of game mechanics. When he runs a game you can go days without picking up your dice. He is one of those people with incredibly strong preferences for language skills but very strong aversion numeracy and math.

    The last time we were playing together we were both players. I had created my PC, my Lay Healer, and the GM asked me to help this player create his PC. This was about 7am so before breakfast I suggested we go for a run as we are both leisure runners. On the run we talked about his bard character. He asked what skills were the best ones. I explained that he needed probably Body Development for hit points, perception so he could spot things and probably a weapon. He came back with was that all, as he had lots of points to spend and there were loads of books of skills.

    I told him to just imagine his characters life up until the moment play started, create that back story and all the things that the character could do in that story were the skills that should appear on the character sheet.

    We got back from the run and he wrote out a backstory, looked up all these skills and then found he couldn’t afford them all. C’est la vie…

    On a different point asking players to describe how they use a skill has to be done well or not at all. I played in a game where I had to describe in detail how each skill was being used. I was playing a thief and as all my characters capabilities were skill based this was a constant theme. The GM then told me that I couldn’t not roll a pick locks skill test to pick a lock as the way I had describe would not open that lock. This wrankled. I have one skill rank in pick locks, I taught myself from youtube videos last year. My PC has a total skill of +112.

    At no point did the GM ask the mage’s player exactly how he cast the spell or for the fighter to him to show how he was going to do an E critical. I came home from a frustrating session and wrote an entire post on what I called the Thief Tax. How players of skilled professions were being penalised by this OSR way of thinking.

    In a recent post on here I talked about pass/fail and partial successes. I have started to see games as being on an imaginary spectrum that goes from Fail Backwards to Fail Forwards.

    Some games have that concept of Did you find the secret door? Roll, No you didn’t. The end. That is failing backwards. It does not advance the story and if the villain had just escaped through the secret door then the characters can no longer succeed.

    Failing Forward on the other hand using the graduated success. In the question of the secret door, you roll, the better the roll the sooner the door was found. A poor roll and the villain has a big head start, a good roll and the door is found sooner and the characters are hot on the villain’s heels. Failing Forward keeps the story moving. It is not that there is no chance of failure, there will always be consequences. Maybe if the villain is sufficiently far ahead he will get to his ship and cast off. But as the PCs are in pursuit there is always the chance that the players may think of something really clever that will catch the GM out and allow them to make up the lost time.

    1. I’d posit that the failure you’re describing with your thief has more to do with a (in my opinion) capricious GM who doesn’t really understand how to use skills or their associated tables. The much-cussed and discussed RM2 maneuver tables (static and otherwise) all make use of the “failing forward” idea (to varying degrees), as did the bulk of stuff from FGU’s games. Top Secret used skills (Areas of Knowledge in their lexicon) as a competency bar more or less, although there were some rules (vague) regarding skill checks. RMU’s tables are tolerable, though I’m not crazy about the almost random proliferation of tables for every other skill (as well as the categories some skills have been placed in, but that’s another story).

      I like skills, but I’m also not dogmatic about making players describe exactly how they’re using one (though they do need to say where they’re searching for secret doors), nor do I roll every time they want to do something.

  2. To clarify any opinions I have expressed in this entry, yes, I also don’t require a player description for every Skill test, particularly for some of the more procedural aspects of the game. If a character is trying to Track, for example, the onus is on me, the GM, to describe what was found and the PC’s manner of discovering it. Descriptions of other Skill uses (e.g., “I bind his wounds”) might be ignored entirely.

    Secondly, if “failure would not be interesting,” I likewise don’t require a Skill test. Most things, particularly when no time constraints are involved, PCs can just do, whether they are Skilled or not.

  3. This was a topic in another thread. PC’s have skills that the human world counterparts don’t have. PCs do things that their human world counterparts can’t do. There is a GM who made the players SOLVE the math problems presented to them.

    Nope. I bought a skill in Advanced Mathematics… I roll the dice.

    Do you expect me to sever your artery with a deadly slash to the neck to demonstrate how I managed the 97 E-Slash crit?

    Do I have to walk across a tightrope to show how my PC will walk across a tightrope? Do I have to actually tie the knots to allow my PC to use Rope Mastery?

    The whole point of RPGs is to escape the real world for a bit, to have an alter ego, to do things we cannot do in real life. I shouldn’t have to explain how the third tumbler in that particular, imaginary, non-existent lock is prone to failure when pressure is applied to the 2nd tumbler.

    The PC has the skill… I roll the dice

    1. I totally agree, nothing wrong with adding colour and playing the scene out but at the end of the day I am not a gifted public speaker nor a bomb disposal expert or whatever the PC is capable of doing.

  4. Skills define the character…

    YES! Absolutely yes. That is 75% of the PC. Skills and Stats define the PC. The stats are set and usually don’t change, but the skills can always be improved through out the life of the PC.

    Without getting into a separate debate about Min/Maxing stats, the PC is defined by the stats first as they are usually rolled up first. The player then looks at what skills will benefit from the good stats and what skills will need extra ranks to compensate for lower stats. The player can decide that the good stats tend towards a better Thief or Archer or Mage and subsequently may change to that profession, or the player can still make an archer, but also be very good with a dagger or at picking locks. Hence, the PC is defined by stats and skills.

    It’s very helpful to have a list of skills in front of the player in instances when the player just feels stumped. They will often look through their list of skills and a little light pops on.

    “Hey… Can I use Alpha skill to try to do Beta instead?”

    Sure, give it a shot. That’s a good idea..

    I’m not a fan of ‘everyone can do everything’ games. PCs should be different. Some should be better at some things while others are better at other things.

  5. “As a GM, I wanted my power back. I wanted to decide if it made sense for a character to notice something. I wanted some walls to be unclimbable.”

    That’s the opposite of what I want. I mean, that’s fine if you write the sort of adventure where the players have to do X, Y, and Z. But that’s not how I want to plan the story. I give the players situation Q and they figure out a way, given their resources and abilities, to resolve it. I assume there will probably be a solution but I’m not going to waste my time guessing what they will try. Like Spectre says, let the players come up with ideas I never thought of, using the tools they have.

    The randomness of rolls means not just that I don’t have to decide whether X is the right answer and T is not (an approach that invites bias and favoritism to the table), but also that the story can go in totally unexpected directions. Fail forward vs fail backward? I want “fail sideways” where failure forces the players and me as GM to come up with something unexpected. Just failing forward so they achieve the same outcome they would have with a success, that’s a gimme, boring, their achievements are illusionary.

    As for descriptions of how you use the skill, those should be a collaboration between the player and the GM. If the character is an expert and the dice are happy, but the player’s description is totally wrong, this is the time for the GM to step in. If the player is wrong about the way the world works, a successful skill roll is a great time to communicate that, and the GM can provide the description:
    “You try to appease the bear by staying small and low to the ground, but this seems to only embolden it. As it moves closer and you think you are bear food for sure, you remember what your mentor used to tell you. You take a chance and stand up, holding your cloak as wide as possible to make yourself look large, and it begins to hesitate….”

    Of course if the player’s description is great, the GM should just run with it. Validate the things the players do well.

    1. I tend to see things in the same way JDale does on that point: I present my players with a challenge or a situation and let them work it out in whatever way they think best. Of course, if someone wants to try to do something ridiculous, they are going to face insanely high penalties. But I’ll at least let them make their case, and a roll, however unlikely success is.

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