Saturday, July 18, 2009

So, why skill checks?

Chgowiz, a rather old guy with an rpg blog asks the question: Why Skill Checks?

In doing so he points out that I'm kind enough to solve his insomina. So I figure that as he's kind enough to plug my blog, I should at least attempt to answer his question.

He's already received a number of good answers in his comments. So I'll deal with the history behind the question.

Chgowiz as I understand it is something of an Old School type of guy. And that explains to some degree where he is coming from. Original and early D&D didn't have skill rules as they are commonly thought of these days- they had classes with a list of abilities.

It just happens that the list of abilities given to a class is also a list of skills. Chgowiz even notes this, but presentation is often everything. By bundling them up in a set of class abilities, skills become transparent to player in a way. You don't speak of your OD&D Thief having Pick Lock skill at 6th level or 'Expert' level or stuff like that. You have a 6th level thief, nuff said.

Now back in the day, that was good enough for most people (and I assume it's good enough for most of the Old School crowd today).

But not for everyone. Some wondered why all 6th level thieves were basically identical in many of their abilities, and why they all had the same ones. They asked questions like, "can my Fighter create poems?" and they weren't happy with the DM saying "roll under your Intelligence" because it meant that everyone with a high Intelligence could now write excellent poems and they knew that wasn't the case.

Some just hated the idea of classes themselves as too limiting and 'unrealistic'.

In any case, a growing number of gamers were calling for more detail and more customization of their characters.

So the first skill systems in early rpgs (Rune Quest, Traveller, etc) did away with classes completely. In effect they took all the skills D&D rolled into their classes and made them into a buffet line. To this they added tons of other stuff, like writing poems. After all, adding stuff was easy you see because they didn't have to fit it within a larger Class structure.

People now built up their character abilities piece by piece to make exactly what they wanted. Too more effort, more time, and more rules (as you had to define each skill, its effect, and its 'build cost').

Things grew from there, and D&D grew with them. It looked at these newer games and saw that customization was good. First it add a simple tacked on skill system, then a full blown one in 3.X, finally expanding into Skill Challenges (sort of a mini-game in a way for skills) in 4E.

So common are Skill Systems now (either in pure form, or hybrid class/skill), that people like Chgowiz ask: "Is this just me not seeing something that I'm missing? "

So, is Chgowiz missing anything? I'd have to say that unless he or his players are interested in the things that skill systems bring (customization, detail, individualized characters)- the answer is no. One doesn't need what one wouldn't use.

For my part, I couldn't do without them. I don't want all Intelligence 17 characters to be equal in everything I'd lump into that stat. I might want one who's a great doctor, and another who's a great Engineer- but I don't want them to be able to switch roles at the drop of a hat.

That said, I do want simple skill systems, and that's reflected in the two games systems I use. Age of Heroes is a roll under your skill level after modifiers, and HERO System is the same thing (the difference is d100 vs. 3d6).

So while Chgowiz doesn't need skills at all, I need them- but I want to make a roll and get it over with and back to the game.

Others however consider skills to be the game (thus things like Skill Challenges and other highly complex skill resolution systems).

It would be interesting to hear from someone in the last camp, as I'm about as confused by them as Chgowiz seems to be by me.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Missing in Action

One of the problem with the web is web rot, one tends to lose interesting sources of information almost faster than one gains them.

The latest example of this that has come to my attention is Ryan Dancey's blog, which now seems to be replaced by an ad for online poker. The primary loss IMO was a nice summary of one of the few professional studies of gamers and table-top rpgs. Not all is lost however, much information on it can be found here. Still, Dancey provided some insights there not found elsewhere.

Perhaps it's a passing technical issue, or maybe it will turn up somewhere else. If anyone sees that happen, let me know.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Dealing with Refusal

One of my players actually reads this blog. He considers it somewhat entertaining- mostly some of the comments I get. Being a theology major plus a professional (if part time) improv guy he often has insightful takes on various things.

Last Friday I did a post on the Hero's Journey and offered that perhaps players attempt to emulate elements of that unconsciously, including 'refusing the call to adventure'. There I make the statement that I haven't dealt with the problem myself or if I did I didn't notice.

So at this weekend's game he took great pleasure in do exactly what I describe, refusing the adventure and then stopping the game and pointing out that I was dealing with it as it happened. Rather embarrassing in it's own way. I'm told that it's actually quite common in my campaigns. So much for being aware of everything- at least consciously.

Reviewing my actions it seems that I attempted to engage the actual character's mindset. For example if the issue is character skeptism, I have in-game events undermine it (as in the game last weekend). These are often entertaining in and of themselves and are great for further exploring personnalities of both the PCs and NPCs involved.

One thing I would try to avoid is just burning down part of the character's background (like killing his family) unless I know I have player agreement for that. Some blockages are more tricky than others, and more care would be needed. Communication OOC between the player and GM are important in such cases.

In general however I think that a good player will work to meet the GM halfway. If it is a genre emulation issue- they are likely looking for its resolution as much as you are (even if they don't know it). Thus tossing something out there will generally receive as quick bite.

You have a completely different issue with those people playing the character 'because that's what the character is'. The only real way of dealing with that is to make sure at character creation that the players make characters certain not to refuse the call.

I've seen worse cases of this online, where the player states that can't pre-create a character- it has to happen in play. And the result in play can end up completely counter to goals and style of the campaign. In this worse case, you may need to get rid of the player. The ones I've seen online have never been able to resolved their problems.

Friday, July 3, 2009

More Good and Evil Confusion

And people wonder why I have such a low opinion of many online bloggers/message forum members.

Here's one reason.

Alex seems to want to ditch worrying about the concept of Good and Evil completely, and just get on with the game.

Ok, Alex. Whatever floats your boat.


You go on to list Hecate as a Goddess of Evil Magic. In your own list. Which you than claim is muddled and meaningless. Maybe she shouldn't be on the list then?

And to say "I’m keeping the definition of good and evil muddied on purpose. All the powerful people in my worlds have strong Machiavellian tendencies. It’s all about power, and keeping it."

Italics mine.

Hey Alex, here's a clue. The pursuit of power for power's sake is one of the definitions of Evil. You've just in effect said that rather than worrying about Good and Evil, you've just decided to make everyone Evil.

That is a solution I guess, but it wasn't the one you were claiming.

In fact I'll go one step further, anyone saying they are ignoring questions of Good and Evil is lying (perhaps even to themselves). They've sided with Evil with such a statement out of the gate.

The Hero's Journey and RPGs

A couple of posts back I referenced the Hero's Journey with respect some movie comparisonsand as a marker that most often the traditional approach is the best approach. It wasn't really used in terms of rpgs themselves.

It did however start me off thinking about it in those terms. It doesn't really matter if one agrees with the concept itself (and there's a lot of baggage there to agree with if one goes down that path), the simple truth is that the concept has influenced story-telling and many of the movies that have impacted what people expect in adventure settings.

I wonder if some of the common issues found in rpg campaigns are an outgrowth of this.

For example, it is very common in such arcs for the Hero to at first refuse the call to adventure (which means something in most fiction and movies than it does in that wkki article).

To use the previous movie examples: Star Wars' Luke refuses to go with Obi Wan until the death of his uncle and aunt, the new Star Trek movie sees Kirk starting out rejecting Star Fleet until convinced by Pike, and The Matrix's Neo is dragged kicking and screaming into his adventure before really accepting it.

Using that for a template, I wonder if many players don't unconsciously set their character up for the same dynamic. But since it's unconscious, the player can't state his intent or even what he's looking for. The result leaves the GM feeling as if the player is rejecting his campaign and adventure.

Thus we get all the online exchanges about this problem, and what to do with it. And I wonder if people are missing the point. Perhaps the player is only trying to emulate favored heroes, but neither he nor the GM has thought through what that means or needs.

I haven't dealt with this problem myself (or if I have, I managed it without notice), so I don't know if this is a possible condition let alone a common one.

But it was a possibility that occurred to me.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Villains should be Villainous

We live in morally confused times, so I really shouldn't be surprised that it's very common to see people expressing the morally confused idea that killing Orcs is murder.

I commented on one such occurrence recently here, where Zzarchov from Unofficial Games goes on a crusade declaring that killing villains is murder. One doesn't have to try in order to find more examples, even Jeff Rients gets into the act with a new blog entry tossing out "orc-murdering" while defining all characters as bastards.

Jeff's entry is likely something of a parody, but it serves to illustrate just how common this mindset is. It seems one born out of modern Moral Relativism (which states that no one is evil, just different) and Kindergarten rules ("Don't hit, that's always wrong").

Thus orcs aren't evil, they're different but equal to you. And killing (i.e. hitting) is always wrong. The perfect combination of abrogating one's moral responsiblity while replacing it with a mindset suited to a five year old.

Taking this viewpoint to rpgs is silly in the extreme of course. For one thing, the recommended age for rpgs is higher than five.

For another, it's typically done by the exact same people who claim that rpgs don't reflect (or affect) their real views or real life (thus they can steal from other players, rape various characters for fun and otherwise run evil characters etc), but for some reason still want to define rational and moral acts in rpgs as 'murder' and attempt to act against them either in 'moral' rants or game mechanic driven punishment. Interesting mix of thoughts there isn't it?

The following shouldn't be neccessary for anyone who has a basic grounding in morality, but here goes:

1. Villians by definition are evil. They are not just a simple law abiding folk blocking the desires of your characters. They are someone who is presenting a clear and present (or near future) danger to life, limb & property of innocent people.

2. In the fiction upon which most rpgs are founded, the heroes have the moral requirement (and often legal right) to deal with the villain.

Quick Examples:

Magnificent Seven- Normal law is completely missing and the bandits are in control, so the heroes intervene in effect as 'law for hire'.

Robin Hood- in most versions is a landed noble and supporter of the rightful King acting against injustice.

Star Wars- Luke and the entire rebellion are acting against tyrannical rule.

Known and accepted heroes, likely cheered on even by those writing articles like those linked above. And yet by their reasoning Chris, Robin and Luke are all murderers for killing bandits, Gisbourne , and stormtroopers.

Yeah, right.

People can play Teletubbies the RPG if the like, but stop calling my characters murderers when they're defending innocent people from death and worse. It ticks me off, and makes you look like the amoral five year old you are.