Wednesday, October 18, 2017

OSR Project #2: The Danger of Skills

There's an argument floating around that will claim that skills expand what your character is capable of by letting you invest in a bunch of different things, rather than being confined to an archetype like a class. I'm here going to have to argue that the opposite is true.

Skills by definition impose limitations on what your character is capable of.

When OD&D was released, there were only three classes - Fighting Man, Cleric, and Magic User. All of these characters were assumed to be dungeon-delving adventurers and have all the skills and abilities appropriate of such. Later, Greyhawk was released as the first D&D supplement and it added Thief as a class. Suddenly, the dynamic of the game changed.

The thief is essentially a class based around having skills. Climb walls, hide in shadows, move silently, pick locks, disarm/detect traps, etc. The Thief as originally written is Dungeoneer: The Class. This creates a lot of weirdness compared to how the game was played before. If you listen to Arneson talk about his early D&D experiences, everyone acted like a thief before the thief showed up. Everyone was sneaking around, picking locks, hiding and setting up ambushes, disarming traps, etc. The creation of the thief changed the way the distribution of abilities was perceived. Because the thief has a mechanical means of doing these things on their sheet, suddenly those things became the domain of the thief. Worse, because the thief had a mechanical ruleset for doing these tasks, it gave the implication that because no one else had access to these mechanics the thief was the only one who could do it. (There is a very interesting argument to be made that the nature and wording of the thief's abilities was supposed to imply a slightly supernatural character to them, thus everyone could sneak but a thief could literally disappear in a shadow. I actually prefer that interpretation, but it is outside of what I want to discuss here.)

When there is no mechanic for a thing, it's in the common domain. Anyone can attempt it by navigating the fiction. When you introduce a mechanic for a thing, you codify it and ultimately limit it in some way. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's an inherent side-effect of having a mechanic for it.

Now to make this less esoteric, consider for a moment Aragorn as a Ranger. In OD&D or AD&D, I can stand on the wall at Helm's Deep and make an impassioned speech because there is no Oration or Speechcraft skill. I can get up there, do my thing and feel pretty damned heroic about it because of course I can do it. I'm a big deal adventurer. The GM might nod and approve. The GM might even let me roll something to see if it has a mechanical impact on the fight. Who knows.. But it's entirely within my wheelhouse. Because there is no mechanic for it, it's up for grabs.

Now pretend we're playing 3.5e instead. Now there's a Diplomacy skill (or whatever it's called in 3.5) that exists for trying to influence NPCs. The existence of this skill means that in order for my character to be good at the thing governed by the skill, I need to invest mechanical resources into making them do so (in this case, skill points). What was something that I might have done and could have done because I thought it was cool and might have made a memorable scene becomes an area of the game I can no longer meaningfully interact with unless I spec out my character specifically to do so. I have to buy back the thing I could have done before, had the skill not existed.

Worse, because there is now a mechanic attached, if I do give an impassioned speech at the walls of Helm's Deep, the GM might make me roll for it anyway and because I don't have the skill I've introduced a risk. I might botch the roll and the GM penalizes the troops for my good intention. The GM might decide that I get up there and somehow drop my speghetti because a lot of games are written with the assumption that a bad roll means the character fucked up.

Where before this was a fun and optional thing that at worst would have been neat to play and at best might have given me some kind of fun bonus from a GM trying to encourage such things, I now have to weigh the risks of even attempting a thing that the game says I'm mechanically bad at because I don't have skill points invested in it. At best, I look unheroic and dumb, at worst, I might accidentally penalize my troops for having tried.

In the 3.5 ranger's case this is even more punitive because I've spent all of my skill points buying the abilities that previous editions gave me just for being part of my class.. And we'll not even talk about how different classes in 3.5 don't have access to certain skills and thus you have to invest even more character resources if you want to do something like be a fighter who also knows how to talk to people.

If you want an even more banal example.. There is no AD&D, B/x, or OD&D character who can't ride a horse. And yet, in 3.0/3.5/pf, Ride is a skill. You can technically ride without it, but if you want to do anything with the horse or avoid any perils of said horse, you now need to drop points in ride.

Making something a skill inherently walls the thing off from the open domain of play. If there's no cooking skill and you want to cook something, you are generally assumed to be able to do it because it's beneath what the game cares to simulate. The moment you create a cooking skill, you are mechanically a shitty cook until you invest resources in being able to do something you otherwise would have been able to do for free.


  1. I understand your point, but take the Cooking example.
    You have 6 years to invest in skills and knowledge; suppose each year represents 1 skill point.
    You can drop 2 years in cooking, 2 years in horseriding and 2 years in swordmanship, becoming above average in those 3 areas.
    Instead, you could put 4 years into hunting and 2 into archery: you would be exceptionally good in hunting, above average in archery, but just average in cooking and horseriding.

    In real life, we work just like it.
    You can become a Chemist by investing 4-6 years, but then you'd need more time to become quite as good in Cooking. You'd need more experience and more levels.

    1. You're not wrong, but then it comes down to "what are we trying to simulate?" If you're trying to do a completely accurate simulation of the real world, then sure. On the other hand, if you're trying to simulate sword & sorcery fiction as a genre then that's probably beneath what the game needs to or should be concerned with modeling.

  2. I think the problem lies in the need for checks and the difficulty class.
    Suppose any skill at 0 level is the average for your class. Read "average" as anything a level 1 character is supposed to know the basics. Any bonus above +1 shows your expertise.
    Say you don't have the Ride skill, but you're a ranger/fighter (which is expected to know how to ride and fight on horses). If you just want to ride a mount in a normal place, you don't have to roll a check. Even if you're riding into battle with a warhorse, you're not supposed to make checks, it's a normal drill. You have to make a check if you want to ride across some obstacles to charge against a target, avoiding fires and traps: it's above normal circumstances.

    This argument acknowledges your reply, about what the scope of the system is about.
    The problem isn't about walling up the skills, it's about we as GMs and Players not knowing when to roll and when NOT to roll.