Monday, March 16, 2009

Conan Could Indeed Climb

Amityville Mike over at The Society of Torch, Pole, and Rope, an individual whose insights I hold in high esteem, has made an interesting observation about the risks in introducing any kind of skill system into an OD&D game:
My problem was that by defining concretely what a character CAN do, you’re also defining what he CANNOT do, or at least not do well, and I, for one, have grown very tired of falling off horses.

As both a player and a referee, I have very little interest in the words, “You can’t.” I don’t like being told it and I don’t like telling it to my players. I much more prefer the words, “Give it a shot.” By introducing skills, in whatever form, to D&D you’re beginning the trek down the slippery slope that leads to metagaming; where people (and their characters) aren’t willing to try to perform actions outside of their narrow field of expertise simply because they didn’t put points in a certain skill or spend a slot to get a certain proficiency. To me that’s a very boring way to play the game. The victories are always that much sweeter when accomplished by someone who had the slimmest chance at success.
Strangely enough, I agree with his reasoning and concern, but I think that his implied solution--to avoid any kind of non-combat skills system altogether--is also very limiting. Certainly, everyone should have a chance at succeeding in attempts at physical interactions like climbing walls, hiding, sneaking up on opponents, riding a horse, finding food in the wilderness, etc. But that doesn't mean that every character should have an equal chance of doing so. Every character has a chance of hitting an opponent with a weapon, but obviously some (fighting-men) will be better at it than others (wizards). Not having a fighting-man's proficiency in force of arms doesn't keep the wizard from engaging in physical combat, but it does make other options more attractive.

In the same way, literature--pulp and otherwise--is filled to the brim with characters who have special skills above and beyond those held by most. Conan could indeed climb, and could climb walls that civilized men thought impossible without special tools. Strider was a tracker and survivalist par excellence, though Frodo and Sam were able to sometimes find food in the wilderness. A Mongolian archer will have a skill with his steed that few others can match, and so on.

The problem with non-weapon proficiencies in AD&D1 and 2 was not their existence, but their implementation. The rules simply didn't give comparative odds for a non-proficient character making attempts at climbing, riding, etc. The d20 system does, but it still links one's non-combat ability (ranks) to one's combat and magical skill (levels) and breaks down at higher levels due to a lack of skill caps to reflect the limits of mortal ability--a person without a skill maxed out will find himself "unable" to use his skills in high-level adventures as the DM tries to find ways to challenge those with 20 ranks tucked away in Move Silently.

In any game, the referee has three options when it comes to skills:
  1. Simply declare everyone to be equally skilled at everything not covered by the rules. The city-bred wizard has the same chance to forage for food in the wilderness as the barbarian.
  2. Take character backgrounds into account and simply ad hoc any bonuses or special ability in play.
  3. Set up some sort of non-combat skills system.
Option 1 is as limiting to play and character development as the most math-addled skill system. Option 2, which many OD&Ders seem to favor, is perfectly viable in certain groups, but as I know from personal experience can result in either the loss of good playing time to haggling or complaints of referee bias. Option 3 removes a lot of potential for referee bias (or accusations thereof), but does have the effect of making players feel more limited in what their characters can do.

Some OD&D referees might resent the "bias" argument. However, there's a very good reason for having an established rule for adjudicating non-combat actions: OD&D tends to be on the lethal, gamist side of role-playing:

An interesting side effect was that West Marches put me (the GM) in a more neutral position. I wasn’t playing any scheming NPCs or clever plots, so I wasn’t portraying intelligent opposition and didn’t have any ulterior motives. The environment was already set, so instead of making up challenges that matched the party I just dutifully reported what they found wherever they went. When I rolled I would freely tell the players what bonuses or target numbers they were up against, so the players looked at the dice to see the result, not me.

In many of the West Marches games it really felt like the PCs versus the world with me as an impartial observer. The players didn’t “see” my hand just the game world, which is about the most any GM can hope for. --Ars Ludi, "West Marches"

My own attempt at house-ruling secondary skills is by no means perfect, but falls somewhere between 2 and 3. I tell my players up front what the "base" odds of accomplishing an action are, and let them negotiate the use of their backgrounds and acquired skills. By having quantifiable bonuses for their skills, they feel that the time their characters spent on training those skills and/or received as a reward for the completion of some adventure was worthwhile.

The keys, I think, are found in two elements of the system:
  1. Skills provide bonuses, not ability
  2. There is no systematic list of skills, so one cannot "lack" a skill
Whether the system will work in the long run or will break down at higher levels remains to be seen.

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