Monday, May 2, 2022

The D&D Style of Fantasy and Skills

One of the criticisms during the Satanic Panic of the 1980s against D&D was one we actually agreed with, that D&D was mostly about killing things. We sort of grew bored with D&D's combat-focused gameplay and shifted away to more skill-based games such as Aftermath, Space Opera, Traveller, Star Frontiers, and others. We liked the idea of characters being more than just hit points, attack bonuses, an AC, and a pile of spells and magic items.

To be fair, classic D&D is more about problem-solving than combat, and combat is best avoided anyway. The stigmas stuck though, and we saw a lot of other games with a better skill resolution mechanic, so we jumped ship on both D&D and AD&D by the late 80s.

The game got stigmatized by a lot of religious and parent groups, and to be honest, a lot of wounds were self-inflicted. You try to push a game with devils, naked demons, spellcasting, thievery, evil, and the concept of killing things for their money - to kids - and you are going to get some heat. College kids? Okay, fine. Yes, we played this game heroically, and it was about defeating evil, and our mom got it and loved our hobby.

There was this shift back to "story XP" and "roleplaying XP" in AD&D 2nd Edition that attracted us back to the game, and that seemed like a huge innovation for us at the time. There were non-weapon proficiencies, but still, they did not hold a candle to fully-robust skill systems in other games such as GURPS, Rolemaster, Runequest, Palladium FRPG, and others. Still, the notion of a more story-focused D&D had us playing back in the OG Forgotten Realms (pre-novels) and having all sorts of pulp action adventures there.

Skill is a one-syllable word. Non-weapon proficiencies are seven. Why they just didn't call them skills is a mystery. I know, because they had weapon proficiencies, but it is a terrible name. Do people really need to be told these are like weapon proficiencies but for these, they don't require weapons? I swear these games were so much about killing things even the internal logic was screwed up, but I digress.

Our game ended in over-powered wizards being nearly invincible, so the same old problems came back to haunt us in this edition as well. The changes they made to make the game less "killing things" oriented and more "story and roleplaying" oriented were a success for us.

More Skills

With D&D 3 and Pathfinder, a skill system was back in the game, and we had fun with this. We did not like that some classes got fewer skill points, but it felt like a step in the right direction. I am still having fun with the Pathfinder skill system, and I am always pumping up those INT scores to get more skill points per level. Skills are fun, but Pathfinder is still a legacy D&D-style game, and skills do not feel like the central focus of the game. They are still very much an add-on system, and there is a balance between killing, looting, story, and roleplaying that feel well-represented with XP awards.

Skills are very fun. With my Aquilae solo playthrough, I found that skills are most of the fun of my game. Social skills, survival, figuring things out, searching, managing towns, crafting, navigating, and using skills to get around the world and live within it are how I interact with the world.

Without skills, it is hard to do solo play and figure out, "What happens next?" Solo play is what is really giving the skill system a workout, and it always feels good to improve a skill you are using heavily, you are developing through interacting with those in the town, or you need just to survive.

And this is where Pathfinder sort of falls short. The game has a good skill system, but it isn't a great one. I sit at my game table with my solo play rules and wonder what a great skill system could do for me, and I start looking for alternatives.

It is hard to give up on Pathfinder, as I have two shelves full of toys to play with there. However, a lot of those books introduce parallel systems that could be done away with if the game's core was a cleaner design. I look for a game with a great skill list and a unified core design mechanic and I am considering switching to GURPS or Dungeon Fantasy for my playthrough now.


Well, do I need all those toys? I can convert monsters in pretty easily. Classes and powers have parallels in Dungeon Fantasy. A lot of the books, if I were to really sort them out, I don't need once my system is unified. Books that add class options? Not needed. Books that add horror or occult systems? Not needed, I have these rules in the base game. Magic items? Dungeon Fantasy has plenty. NPC stats? Got them. Honestly, really just monster stats and variety are the things I need.

If I need this much.

There are times Pathfinder feels like too much information.

But with GURPS/DF, I get an advantage and disadvantage system that affects solo play directly with strengths and weaknesses. These can change social interactions. I can pick and choose them. I also get one of the most detailed skill systems to play with, so my fun of picking skills, improving them, and letting a character develop naturally is about 10 times better than in Pathfinder, since this is a point-buy system. And if a character gains magical mutations and extra powers? Bio-Tech or superpowers can be added to a character easily. I don't need to hack it or say it is so, there are already rules support for all of it, and no extra books are needed beyond the few I have.

The D&D 4 Tangent

While we liked D&D 4, one of the odd notions is the skill system got massively simplified and also shorthanded. The whole notion of "passive" skills got rid of rolling as this assumption of atomic failure was ignored. We always assumed atomic failure for skill rolls in our games, if you failed the skill roll once, that was it, no retries for the day. With d20, there is this "roll until I do it" assumption built into the game, which ignores critical success and failure by "taking a 10" or "taking a 20."

Pick a lock? You should roll, because a critical failure may mean you break your tools or the lock itself and no further tries can be made. We hated the whole "take a..." rules and never used them since they seemed to justify bad player habits and weak DM-ing.

I don't need to think of another way around this problem, I will just keep rolling this d20 until it is round and I get the number I want! And I cannot critically fail! You do not get to break that lock or my tools!

So as a result, we disliked passive perception and passive everything else. If you failed, you failed, and these were our Vancian skill checks, one try, for one thing, per day. Miss something and you do not get to re-search until you find it. Blow a social skill roll, and that person is likely not going to listen to you if you keep repeating the same argument.

"But I wanna! But I wanna! Give me a discount shopkeeper! Come on! You are being unfair! I wanna!"

The above happened at our table once. A player thought with each thing they said, even if it were just drivel or repeated statements, they were entitled to a skill roll. To us, the entitled player rolling until they got what they wanted, became the poster child of taking a 20.

Vancian Skill Checks & Fail Forward

From that day on we instituted the Vancian skill check rule. Skill levels mean something. A die roll means something. There should always be a chance of critical failure or success. And we saved just as much time since we were not allowing dozens of rolls.

And we didn't design our adventures so a missed skill roll created a dead end. We did the fail-forward thing, where a failed check usually meant things got harder or more complicated, but it never stopped progress.

You absolutely need to pick that lock to continue and you failed? Perhaps you picked the door, but when you open it you failed to notice the ear-deafening screech the rusted hinges made. Maybe you opened it but busted your tools. You get a dead-end skill check in a poorly-designed adventure, and you automatically fail-forward it, roll once, and move on. It is not worth killing your game over and pissing your players off.

In fact, fail-forward eliminates the need for passive anything and is a simpler rule. You don't have six players at a table with a bunch of passive skills each acting as a radar for the DM to miss something, and then you are rewinding the session multiple times because "we shoulda..." If they did not think to make a check, they did not think to do it. If there is a secret door in a hall they walk right by, they miss it. I know, then players will be wasting time searching everything! Well, no, the adventure could just suck for putting a secret door there with no clues. Make a clue yourself and throw it into your description of the hall, "A long hallway with many loose flagstones on the walls."

D&D 5 continued and expanded passive skill checks, and we were not really impressed by that part of the game all that much. We did not like offloading all of the skill tracking onto the referee with the passive system (X skills times Y players), and it began to remove player agency with a person deciding, "My character does something..."

System vs. Content

If I continue with Pathfinder for my Aquilae campaign, I have Hero Lab, tons of content (spells, classes, monsters, and items), and a rules system that works good but is less focused on skills and character building. The sheer quantity and variety of content are amazing, and the system is good. Part of me feels I have so much content I will never use it all or hope to. The ability to solo is good. I know the system well and it works.

If I use Dungeon Fantasy, the character is king. I have GURPS Character Assistant 5, and while not as easy to use as Hero Lab, it has far more power. There is still a lot of content, and probably more than I will use, but Pathfinder 1e dwarfs that with a metric ton of things to play with. I would put the system on par with Pathfinder 1e in complexity.

Where GURPS-based systems shine is in versatility. I have infinite options to put together a unique character, and I can go the structured Dungeon Fantasy route or completely freeform - or mix and match. The advantage/disadvantage system (not the same definition as 5E) for character building is mind-blowing. The skill system is huge and one of the best - not the easiest or simplest, but your skills define you.

That last statement, "your skills define you," makes a huge difference in solo play. A lot of the time when I am soloing I ask the solo-oracle questions directly related to skills:

  • Is the door locked?
  • Is the NPC hostile?
  • Are there guards nearby?
  • Is the device broken?
  • Is the weather turning bad?

A lot of these questions directly set up skill rolls. Yes, there are guards, what is your stealth skill? Yes, the door is locked, do you have lock picking? If the machine is broken can you fix it? If the weather is turning bad do you sense that with your survival skill?

A solo-play system takes a deeply skill-based system and makes it ten times better. Without solo play, my brother and I liked systems that aggregated skills into broad categories, because at the table we wanted faster play and simpler resolution. For me as a referee, more general skills and less of them were easier to manage.

Solo Play

When I am alone, my tastes change. I tried solo play with B/X and it did not captivate me. The characters felt too simple, and I was asking broad questions with easy answers - are their goblins patrolling? Yes! Fight. The answers were mostly, do you fight something or not - since the game's roots are mostly in combat and combat resolution.

With a skill-based system, I am asking questions like, is this a problem related to a skill I know? You just don't want to be narrowly focused on your character sheet, there are problems out in the world my characters will know nothing about - and they will need to find NPC experts. If the problem is in my character's set of skills, what logically is it?

With Pathfinder, the solo play was way better than B/X because all of a sudden problems relating to specific knowledges started to come up. My character started to feel like an expert, and I wanted to start buying and improving skills related to the problems they were facing.

GURPS has advantages and disadvantages, like being hunted by enemies. These can create more solo-play situations easily, the chances are built into the character sheet, and they come in all types and categories, even social situations. GURPS also has a deeper skill system, and I can imagine my solo play getting even better as these items come up and I am problem-solving with them. I get that excitement of being able to drill down, improve my character in specific ways, and spend points on new skills and abilities as I go.

I do have less content by an order of magnitude, but what I gain is a depth and flexibility of character building that the solo play will feed into and enhance.

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