Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Skill Resolution

I've had a though inspired by Rob Kuntz over at Lord of the Green Dragons and the indomitable James Maliszewski at Grognardia.

One of the benefits of a well run old school game is that it requires more active effort on the players' part to interact with the game environment. For instance, if the characters come across a pool of water in a dungeon room, modern and old school D&D take two different approaches:

Modern D&D: The characters make Perception checks. On a success, they notice the skeleton deep in the pool, half-buried in the mud.

Classic D&D: The characters haul out a 10 foot pool, poke around at the base of the pool, and dislodge the skeleton.

In the first case, the players apply the game system to the environment.

In the second case, the players use their experience/skill, along with an assessment of the environment, to come up with a plan of action.

On the face of it, the second case is more immersive and engaging, but I think the first approach does have its benefits. It's faster, and it establishes a protocol of sorts between the players and the DMs.

When a player says, "I make a Perception check to inspect the pool" the intended outcome is clear. If there's anything weird in the pool, the player wants to know. The old school approach has the potential to short circuit that. Perhaps the DM expects a specific action (dredging the pool's bottom, as opposed to poking at it with a 10 foot pole) to uncover something of interest.

IME, that disconnect can undermine an entire game session, with the players stuck Zorking an object or NPC until they hit the specific action the DM is looking for. The skill system helps avoid that by creating an abstract level between intent and action.

I think a middle ground approach nets you the benefits of both new and old school gaming, but it takes a little work for a DM. Here's what I propose: the players make a Perception check, but success only points them to their next action, an action that requires them to approach the situation in a more immersive, engaged manner.

Here's an example:

The players enter a room with shelves of books along its walls. The players make Perception checks to search the room. One of the players hits the DC. What happens next?

Modern D&D: The characters find a secret cache of gems.
Hybrid D&D: The characters notice that four of the books on the far right shelf are clean, while the rest of the books are covered in dust. It's still up to the players to figure out what that means (there's a secret compartment in the wall behind the books).

If the characters poke at the books in greater detail, you can continue to make skill checks but only in response to the PCs' actions. For instance, one of the characters removes the books and flips through them, looking for clues. A History check reveals they are relatively new volumes on herbalism. Another PC pokes at the bookshelf, and a Perception check reveals the hollow space. Finally, a Thievery check allows a character to inspect the wall and points to how to open the space.

The overriding idea is that the PCs' skill checks give them information in proportion to the resolution level, as in screen resolution, of that check. Broad checks give broad information, while specific checks give specific data or overcome obstacles.

Now, like a lot of techniques this one has drawbacks. A bad DM can use it to hen peck the players with endless skill checks, and it can lead to some drawn out scenes. However, used correctly I think it preserves the strengths of a skill system while allowing for more immersion and more direct, concrete interaction between the players and the game world.

The important thing, though, is that this method forces the DM to insert detail into the space between "I make a skill check" and "This is the end result".


rdonoghue said...

What you call "modern" I would call "middle." Modern would be more about the idea of failure possibly being success with consequences (such as someone finding the skeleton because they slipped and fell in, or they found it but it did not come up intact).

That said, the granularity of perception is something that doesn't get talked about nearly enough. I think a lot of players would end up very frustrated by the hybrid approach because they explicitly don't _want_ to be solving puzzles in this fashion, but I can absolutely see other players really glomming onto it. But judging that for a random group is tough.

-Rob D.

DeadGod said...

That middle ground sure does sound a lot like a skill challenge . . .

Chgowiz said...

Funny, I just posted today on my blog about converting DCs to Xin6 chances.

I guess I take the classic approach, but not with the "Zorking". The only way I'm going to require precision is with a specific puzzle.

So for your example, if the skeleton is just decoration, the characters poke around in the pool. "You feel a strange shift. Peering over the edge, you see that your pole has dislodged a skeleton." No particular skill check. If they're not poking, there's no need to even notice it unless they want to look in the pool.

Now, if there was a requirement that the pole enter a specific eye socket, then we might enter into a negotiation of what they're doing to try and determine how to open the door. If someone is really struggling, I might have them do an INT or WIS check (roll under your stat) and give them a clue, or even a gentle prompt.

For more skilled players, I might not be so prompting, but I'm going to give them the layout and the description - they'll know to try things.

The comment about "modern" I don't quite agree with - I've found many clues by screwing up or missing rolls, all in older versions. That was, I believe, DM skill coming to bear and not anything inherently mechanical.

thanuir said...

"When a player says, "I make a Perception check to inspect the pool" the intended outcome is clear. If there's anything weird in the pool, the player wants to know. The old school approach has the potential to short circuit that."

This is, I think, the only possible shortcoming of not using precise rules. It also applies to other skills.

My solution (for all gaming) is to always ask "Why?" in some form, especially if the actions seems pointless. Establish intent of the action, to use Burning Wheel terminology, where I picked the habit from.

Robert Fisher said...

IME, that disconnect can undermine an entire game session, with the players stuck Zorking an object or NPC until they hit the specific action the DM is looking for.

In my experience, you only end up playing “guess the verb” if you’ve got a very inexperienced or very immature DM.

Drop the die rolls, and you’ve described how—in my experience—this really happens. The DM’s response to a broad query contains clues to any more specific queries that the players can pursue. Finding things is often a series of progressively higher resolution queries and responses. (With some dead-end side-tracks.)

I’ve experienced both “guess the verb” and die rolls undermining sessions. The fix for the first is to make your DM play some text adventures or replace him. The fix for the second is to roll the dice less.

IMHO, of course.

Randall said...

I have to agree with Robert, the only time I've seen regular pixel-bitching in old-school style games is with new or bad GMs. New GMs soon learn. Bad GMs are soon without players.

Of course, Mike's idea on using skills is a decent middle ground between new school "make a roll" and old school "tell me what you are doing." I deal with skills somewhat differently in games that have them (see Old School Gaming and Skills on my blog). However, it's really just another "middle way."

Dar said...

Funny. I've always ran things where I would ask them what they were doing. So they'd tell me about using the pole to inspect the bottom of the pit, then the roll would inform me how well they did.

I don't think I've had complaints. I will say that I've missed a ton of interim rpg history, I stopped playing at the begging of 2e and only started up again near the end of 3.5. So maybe I'm missing something, I don't think my players expected anything different.

Banesfinger said...

Another advantage of the New School approach is the difference between 'Player' skill and 'Character' skill.

For example, you have a player who isn't too bright, yet he is playing the world's most observent rogue.

Using the skeleton in the water example, the 'Player' might not have a clue where to start looking, but his Rogue should...

yeloson said...

Then there's the flip side of that:

Players decide to start looking at the books up close, so you give them a +2 (or even +4 if they're specific "Any of these less dusty?") to their Perception check.

I've started adding a few "auto-success" actions into Skill Challenges if players do the right thing, or at least bonuses.

If intimidating the Duke is an auto failure, no reason that bringing up the history of the last invasion (which they researched earlier in play) might not just be a perfect reply for an autosuccess.

I see it as an extension of the "Say yes or roll the dice" maxim.

kaeosdad said...

I use a hybrid approach. It's situational and depends on the flow of the game. Sometimes I will slow things down and do the old school approach. If it feels like we need to quicken the pace I ask for perception rolls.

My general rule of thumb is imagination first, if a player wants to use a skill allow it but ask how or what they want to use the skill on.

Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages so why not use both as the situation and flow of the game dictates.

Scott said...

Hm... I've never played it quite the "modern" way, it seems.

I actually have a post coming up on this, but the gist of it is that I do something similar to Thaunir. If my player said "I make a Perception check to inspect the pool," then my reply would be, "What are you doing?"

In this case, dredging the bottom would be an automatic success, while prodding with a pole would get a bonus to the roll. Just standing outside the pool and looking in might be a normal roll, or might carry a penalty, depending on how clear the water was.

The key, I think, is to make your players describe their skill checks in terms of what the character is actually doing in-game... yet to be flexible enough to allow a wide range of "close enough" actions.

jrl755 said...

I guess I'm just not buying in to the second example in the library. To me and those that I've gamed with over the years, even in a skill based system, the hybrid example is the way that we've always gone, so that's what seems modern to me. The idea that the modern way is roll the dice and find the treasure seems more like playing a board game than an RPG and a rather broad interpretation of using skills.

I've always considered perception checks to be more along the lines of "notice something out of place and let the players go from there". I've never been crazy about the idea of skills like spot and such simply solving problems for the players. I want my players to interact with the environment, touch things, break things etc. But then, I've generally been blessed with players who enjoy that sort of thing and appreciate my love of scattering random useless things around in my adventures just to see what they will do with them. OK, now I'm just rambling. :-)

Chgowiz said...

I've always considered perception checks to be more along the lines of "notice something out of place and let the players go from there".

Awesome point. That's how I interpret thieve's skills, specifically, for 1E. A thief listening and making his roll on "Listen" is likely to hear every word, be able to tell how many are talking, who is standing where and maybe even the brand of mouthwash. A simple listen check tells you that someone(s) are talking behind the door. Extraordinary things may take rolls. To see/feel the skeleton in the pool takes only the effort of the player to say "I'm looking in the pool."

Lizard said...

Heh. Apparently, I've been running hybrid style for years without realizing it. :)

I really don't like the old style "pixelbitching" school of gaming, because it very often leads to player-vs-DM style play and "Gotchas!" like "Well, you didn't say you were checking your boots for scorpions, so you're stung! Save vs. poison at -4! Ha!" I also don't like "You rolled a 17, so you found the hidden skeleton." I have always done as you describe. "You roll a 17? There's definitely something down there under the water, covered with muck and coral. What do you do?" They might reply "Look more closely" or "Hit it with a ten foot pole" or "Run screaming". Generally, I use Spot/Perceive type checks as a means of establishing "There is something worth examining here", and let the players decide how to examine it. I didn't know this was a "playstyle", it's just "what you do".

Lizard said...

(As a side note, if it is at all possible, if the players look for something, I usually let them find it. That is, if I had nothing hidden in the pool, but the players really think there is... well, fine. There's a frakkin' skeleton in there. And it's got a ring. Maybe it's a signet ring... yeah... which they can match up to some old documents or return to the current baron or something... )

MJ Harnish said...

In 26 years of GMing I don't think I've ever required players to provide a precise action or wording to find something. I've only seen that happen with a bad GM or somebody who's running a pre-written adventure. If the item in the pool matter...they find it if they look. That's the essence of "Say yes or roll the dice."

The perception roll approach brings all kinds of problems including the fact that the players may blow the roll and miss the vital clue. I'd agree with Rob Donoghue in that the "modern" method in my mind is one in which the players "fail forward" and a failed roll leads to interesting consequences rather than a flat out halt in progress.

Aside from that, calls for perception/search/alertness/etc. rolls also tend to telegraph to the players when something bad or important is about to happen which I don't particularly like - you lose half the impact of the event.

Lizard said...

The problem with no perception skill (or, in simpler games, no active player search), is that it becomes all too easy for the game to become "We'll go home; you can write us and tell us what happened to our characters." It also becomes difficult or impossible to build a character who is "perceptive" - if anything important will be flat-out stated by the DM, then why waste skill points/feats/whatever on improving perception?

(One little bit of "Magician's Choice" I use if the PC's HAVE to see something vital is to have no set DC -- whoever rolls the highest, sees it. This means, on average, the one who puts the most points in perception will see the clue most of the time, making him/her feel it was worth it. And, of course, there in D&D, there are other uses for perception, such as opposed hide checks.)

It's also good to design plots so that failing a search check just takes you down path 'b' instead of path 'a', rather than freezing the game.

Kiltedyaksman said...

I'll take old school versus checks any day in my game.

Leave the checks to the hockey players, not the D&D players.

Cam_Banks said...

I'm going to have to agree with various other posters here and say that the "hybrid" style is the more common in my experience, and with most games (not just D&D). As Lizard says, "I roll a 17, I find a skeleton" is like a board game resolution.

Rewarding players for creative approaches to actions should always be a possibility. Simply asking them to roll and then feeding them the results requires absolutely nothing from the player other than a die roll.

Noclue said...

Another approach is to roll the perception check and, if successful, let the player narrate how they found the hidden gem or whatever. If they "fail," let the GM narrate the consequences of that failure. The nice thing here is the GM doesn't really need to know how the eyesocket thingy works at all.

Windjammer said...

Thanks, that was an excellent blog entry. It expands nicely on something you write years ago over on RPGSite on the topic of how to make 3.5 more like "old school" D&D:

"The key is looking to player skill instead of character skill. You get there by making the players be more detailed in what they want to do.

In 3e, if you want to find a secret door, you make a Search check and the DM says something like, "You notice that if you pull on the candelabra a secret door will open." In 1e, you had to specifically figure out that you had to pull that candelabra.

IMO, the key to getting there is to pull back the autopilot nature of skills. For instance, the Search check might reveal a secret door in the area, but it doesn't show how to open.

Same thing for Listen and Spot. You might tell the players, "You hear a weird, grinding noise from up ahead," and leave it to them to figure out what that means."

Lizard said...

I think some people might have overly rosy memories of early D&D. As I recall, elves had a 2-in-6 chance of detecting secret doors just by walking past them, and people playing elves were very insistent about getting that roll. The thief had a "detect traps" %age with a gazillion modifiers. There were plenty of 1e games run with the "The thief checks for traps... 12! I find the trap!" gameplay, and in some games, no one BUT a thief could find the trap, no matter what they did. ("I *looked* on the altar!" "Sorry, you're a magic-user. You can't find traps.")

EastwoodDC said...

Not that I've DM'd in years, but ...

I always like to use the hidden perception check, so I can control the amount of information given out. If I roll and the player succeeds by a strong margin, they detect the hidden door and the trap that will trigger when they open it. Make (or miss) the roll by a small margin and they only know about the door and not the trap. Miss the roll by a lot, and they do not find anything, but still do not know if there is anything to find or not.

Of course, you have to throw in the occasional perception check for no reason at all, just to mess with them ("Hmmm ... well you didn't find any trap on the door. Are you sure you want to open it?"). ;-)

mxyzplk said...

Hmmm, interesting. Lizard makes a very good point about true old school not being all that immersive in parts too.

Are *any* game rules an enemy of immersion? It seems like whether it's Perception, Bowyer, or Hitting in Melee you have the same challenge. Is this a "player" or "character" skill and if it's "character" how do you maintain immersion; if it's "player" how do you deal with someone who is not an expert in that field but their PC should be?

Back when I was predominantly DMing I used the hybrid model. It was immersive but slow.

I will say that my groups tend to not be so interested in minute problemsolving of this sort nowadays. Searching a room can be turned into extensive manipulation of any object in it, but often it's more fun (ah, dreaded fun) to just say "We toss the room, taking our time", roll a Search check, and be done with it and go on to the next bit. Is that not "immersive?" Well, few of you roleplay every bowel movement a character requires either. It's really about what stuff you want to gloss over and what you don't, and there is no such thing as 100% in one direction or the other.

I guess the happy medium I've come to is - if someone wants to take the time to probe the pool with a pole, they will automatically find the skeleton. If they want to roll Search and be done with it - that's fine too.

Lizard said...

The counterpoint is that I, the player, might not be able to find a trap if it was under a neon sign reading "Here Is The Trap", but I want my *character* to be the finest thief in Darkshadowmoon. I don't need to describe my exact swordfighting technique, or, fantasies of Jack Chick aside, recite "real" magic words to cast a spell -- why should I have to say how my thief looks for traps?

AzaLiN said...

Lizard makes a good point: What 'skills' do is distinguish between character knowledge/abilities and player knowledge/abilities.

However, if skills completely define how a character interacts with the environment, then a player has nothing to do during a session because the character makes all the player's choices for him/her, based on the character's best guesses. That's no fun!

I think i'm going to think about this a bit more and write a post about it on my blog... its a tough one!

PlanetReuse.com said...

I believe you can hybridize these two methodologies, particularly in the case of the Perception check to check for the skeleton.

I always require my players to describe their actions; meaning, they cannot simply "spot" something in a murky pool unless they have something to stir it up with. If they grabbed a piece of driftwood, they would have a 'tool', which would enable them to engage in a Perception check.

For an example in a social encounter, they cannot simply approach Duke Dunderhead to parlay with him to lay down his arms. They have to have a 'tool' to engage their skill use of Diplomacy; they must bring gifts, graft guards, wear their finery and so on.

This enables players to be descriptive, engaging and break down their actions into a metamechanical way.