Monday, March 16, 2009

“Conan Could Climb” Syndrome

In the halcyon days of my youth, it wasn’t uncommon for my friends and I to spend long summer afternoons debating the finer points of D&D. That is, when we weren’t actually playing the game itself. Those debates covered the topics that any long-time gamer is familiar with: the best monsters, the coolest character classes, the magic items we most wanted our characters to possess, etc. In addition to these topics, the one that figured in some of the longer and most heated of debates was the fact that the rules to D&D were obviously broken in places and that somebody at TSR really needed to “fix them.” Oh, the follies of our youth.

To my friends and me, the most obvious example of these broken rules was the fact that they didn’t take into account the varied abilities of classic sword & sorcery figures who displayed talents beyond those given to their individual classes. Thus we uttered the refrain: “Conan could climb.” In D&D, only thieves could climb, so how did that account for the superior mountaineering abilities of a certain bi-polar Cimmerian who was so obviously a fighter? (This was before the release of Unearthed Arcana and the official barbarian class.) Another example of debate in this field was the well-known fact that Gandalf had a sword, which, as we were all aware, was not an allowed weapon for magic-users. How on Oerth could TSR be so obtuse to ignore these “facts”?

In retrospect, our way of thinking was completely ridiculous of course, but many of you probably have some personal experience in the way the minds of twelve-year-old boys work and can relate. This was serious business! At the time we were unable to distinguish the difference between literary creations and game mechanics, righteously thinking that they must each conform to the other. When Unearthed Arcana, Oriental Adventures, and the two Survival Guides were eventually released, we breathed a collective sigh of relief. TSR was finally fixing what had been broken for so long with the introduction of the proficiency system.

For many years I embraced the proficiency system. When I heard older gamers complain that it had disgraced D&D, I could only shake my head and wonder why they couldn’t see how this was an obvious improvement to the game. It made characters more realistic and allowed you to play a role that was each a unique creation, much like we are in real life. The irony of this school of thought does not escape me, seeing how I’ve now gone back to the older and simpler way of gaming.

Despite this initial acceptance of the proficiency system as an improvement to the rules, I would eventually begin to question their inclusion. The reasons for this doubt were myriad. They didn’t increase with level like other in-game skills, such as thief abilities. They slowed down character creation. They were, in many cases, too specialized. Did I really want to waste a non-weapon proficiency slot on Slow Respiration? But the real deal-breaker was going to be two elements to the proficiency system that I couldn’t quite put my finger on until much later.

The first factor was that no matter how much they tinkered with non-weapon proficiencies, they always seemed to be a poor fit with the rest of the rules. The fact that they had been grafted onto a set of game mechanics that was originally built with no consideration for skills couldn’t be completely hidden to my eyes. It was like looking at a car where someone had replaced one of the tires with an old wooden wagon wheel. It served the same purpose but didn’t look quite right. I think that, mechanically, the skill system in 3.5 works much better and doesn’t suffer from this problem simply because it was built into the d20 system from the beginning. I expect, and have been told, that the same applies to 4th edition as well.

The second element was something that I hadn’t been able to pinpoint until recently. This tenuous problem was summed up quite succinctly in the latest version of OSRIC, which featured the following statement:

Certainly the authors could have included a skill system covering activities such as “horse riding” or “swimming”, but doing so is actively detrimental to heroic gaming. Had we included a “horse riding” skill, characters would start falling off their horses.
Upon reading this, the factor that I had been dancing around for so long suddenly came into crystal clear focus. 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.

Although I’ve become a firm believer in a more simplified version of D&D when it comes to the rules, I’m not so much of a curmudgeon that I can’t appreciate the effort made to accommodate those players who wanted to have a concrete system for deciding on what their characters can and cannot do, as well as the option for making each one of the characters unique. In my opinion, it was done with the right intentions – to give the players what they asked for. Despite these valiant efforts, I feel that the concessions to the “Conan could climb” school created too many limitations on the original spirit of game. For me anyway. I now see in attempting to give the players what they wanted, TSR and WoTC proved that the customer is not always right.

In a post from an earlier date in this blog’s history, I stated that I would be including a streamlined proficiency system in my games. My thinking has since changed. Originally, I had intended to run under the AD&D rule set but will each passing day I grow fonder of the simplicity of Labyrinth Lord and B/X. My belief is that any skill system to those elegantly simple rules is not only unnecessary but detrimental to them as well.

I have some ideas on how I’m plan on adjudicating matters in-game without a concrete skill system. These ideas are nothing new or groundbreaking, but the journey to arrive at the house rules for them has taken a bit of time and a lot of thought. I’ll cover those house rules in a future post but I wanted to lay the ground work for them first. I also want to cover another topic that’s been hot in the blogosphere as of late – character background and history – as my opinions there tie into my house rule systems. Look for a post on that subject next, with the house rules presented in the third part of this series.

23 comments:

Lord Kilgore said...

It sounds like your progress through the various stages of skills/no skills is quite similar to my own. My guess is that a lot of players had the same experience for mostly the same reasons.

I look forward to seeing what you come up with for LL. I'm currently at a bit of a loss as to how to deal with some things, and all of my ideas begin to look like they'll evolve into a full-blown skill system. Which is exactly what I don't want.

Banesfinger said...

Check out the "skill" system in the 'Barbarians of Lemuria' rpg.

Instead of individual skills, you pick 'careers'. For example, Conan might be a: Barbarian-2, Thief-1, Mercenary-2.

The GM (and player) judge if that career would have the necessary skills for the task at hand.

For example, if Conan needed to climb, the GM would probably allow either his Barbarian career (mountain climbing) or Thief career to apply (which ever is higher).

Badelaire said...

Good call on BoL, Banesfiner. Been reading the revised PDF this weekend myself and it is a thing of beauty.

As for D&D "skills", maybe try a variation of TLG's SIEGE System; a "skill" attempt is a roll modded by a relevant ability score modifier, plus the PC's level if it is appropriate for that PC's Background. i.e., Conan gets to add his level for climbing and stealth, but not for trying to fast-talk his way past some palace guards. The Grey Mouser adds his level when fast-talking some rube on the street or fencing some stolen loot, but not when he's trying to find food in the wilderness.

Chgowiz said...

Backgrounds and "implied" skills are what I've been using. For instance, my wife's character has been a fighter and of nobility based on the few ideas she gave me at the beginning of our game. So if she tried to do something that a thief would do, or a mage would do, I'd give her the same "chance" as an "ordinary person" would get - maybe 1 or 2 in 6. If it's regarding something of a fighter, martial, physical or nobility, social aspect, I give her the benefit of the doubt and move on.

If there is something specific in my game (plot, encounter, event) that relies on a "skill" or knowledge, I'm going to either give my players a way to gain that knowledge/skill (NPC, quest, etc) or I'm going to make it that "ordinary Joe could do extraordinary things" and see what happens. I don't want my game to hinge on a successful skill check of Horse Riding... I want to hinge on player skill of RPG or character ability to play through something and do what they can do.

Herb said...

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.

The trick is not to define what a character can do but what he is BETTER THAN NORMAL at. Take a look at the talent system for T&T 7.

T&T has always had a core mechanic of Saving Rolls. Tell the GM what you want to do, he decides how hard it is (the SR level which maps by a simple formula to a number) and what stat controls it, you roll two dice (doubles add and roll over) and try to beat the target number.

In 7th edition talents were added. They're a free form skill system where you add a random roll to that stat when creating it. Then, when you need a SR if that talent fits it you use it instead of the stat. Just like stats talents can be increased.

I've adopted this for my LL game although with some changes. Anyone can still try anything, like climbing and riding a horse, but great feats of climbing like Conan or great feats of horsemanship like Ivanhoe will now be easier for someone built like those characters while the guy who specialized in "convincing people to do things against their better judgement" (which one player has actually taken) won't do so well but damn can get get info out of the one armed man in the tavern.

Andreas Davour said...

But! Conan is obviously not a Fighter! He *is* a Thief, so of course can he climb!

Andreas Davour said...

What Herb said. Look outside the (white) box!

T&T have the solution! :)

I'm a die hard T&T fan and didn't see that one...

Chris said...

Even though I'm currently using the 3E SRD as the chassis for a 3.5/Diminutive20 mash-up system (the players broccoli dogged at the thought of 'old D&D') I find that pacing and aesthetic requirements are dragging me slowly in the direction of a skill-less system.

I'm honestly thinking of kicking skills into touch and just using ability checks (which have been around since the year dot).

Juampa said...

I agree with Mike on the CAN/CANNOT do reading of non-weapon proficiencies. We simply didn't pay much attention to NWP, and I don't know how I'd design a system to replace them.

I also agree with Herb here: "The trick is not to define what a character can do but what he is BETTER THAN NORMAL at."

IMHO, 3E manages this quite decently. However, I'd rather have a binary skill system (where you are either trained or not) and fewer and broader skills. 4E skills come closer to what I'd prefer. They don't allow much simulationism, but they work pretty well for a game.

Al said...

Great post! I agree wholeheartedly. There should be nothing a PC *can't* attempt because of a lack of "skill points", etc. Far better to let the players' in-game description of what they're doing rule the day, with an ability check for the direst situations...

Justin Alexander said...

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 [...] The victories are always that much sweeter when accomplished by someone who had the slimmest chance at success.

So you're tired of having a chance for failure, but you think the victories are that much sweeter when accomplished by someone who only had a slim chance at success?

'Fraid you're screwed. ;)

I can understand the desire to have a game that doesn't say, "You can't climb." or "You can't use a sword." It's definitely a limitation.

But the conclusion that the 3rd Edition skill system is the root of that problem seems ludicrous to me. With the exception of a few Trained Only skills (which I dislike for precisely this reason), 3rd Edition's core design says: Everybody can climb. Everybody can ride horses. Everybody can wield swords.

But some people are better at it than others. (Which has always been the case with the game and always will be the case, unless you're seriously suggesting the abolition of all leveling mechanics.)

(And I won't deny that some feats from the supplements -- particularly third-party feats -- tended to expand this list. Those are badly designed feats.)

OD&D, on the other hand, is the game obsessed with saying "you can't do that". The introduction of the thief class in '75 certainly expanded the "you can't do that" list, but even in '74 examples of that design ethos can be found all over the place.

Chgowiz said...

@Justin OD&D, on the other hand, is the game obsessed with saying "you can't do that". The introduction of the thief class in '75 certainly expanded the "you can't do that" list, but even in '74 examples of that design ethos can be found all over the place.

I'm not sure how you see that in OD&D. In any game I've run, a sanity check of reasonableness and then an attribute check to do some "extraordinary" is what I use. I've learned that from the early versions. I'm curious where you see specific mechanics that say out and out "you can't" versus mechanics of "It's up to the DM to figure out how to adjudicate this"? Can you point them out? I'm really honestly asking this question, it's not a snark.

Randolph said...

Something I posted on Dragonsfoot a few years ago

Thought this up late last night and am going to test in a Moldvay/Cook B/X campaign. In order to maintian the free form style of B/X but give the charaters chances to do and know things I will have each player write the following on their character sheets:

Noble

Urban

Rural

Wilds

The following x in 6 chances will be assigned by each play as they desire

5 in 6, 4 in 6, 3 in 6 & 2 in 6

Some races (at least NPCs will favor some "skill" areas over others such as Elves favoring Noble & Wilds, Dwarves favoring Urban & Wilds and Halflings favoring Rural & Wilds.) Each category is assumed to encompass various skills and knowledge areas that I will likely judge as situations arise. For example: Courtly Dancing would be a Noble skill check. Mountain Climbing or Survival definitely Wilds. Butchering or Tailoring would likely be Rural. Gathering Info Might apply to Urban or Rural. Let me know what you think.

Amityville Mike said...

I'm going to hold off commenting on this subject until the entire series has run. I knew that skills, like alignments, always tend to polarize people and spawn homebrewed systems. I expected that many people might have something to say on this matter. Hopefully, by the time the series is finished you'll see where my concerns, considerations, and reasons lie and how I addressed them. I'll freely nitpick the comments then.

K. Bailey said...

Er, well, D20 skills do a workmanlike job of actually trying to wrap specific rules around stuff like climbing and jumping and riding, if you want that sort of thing. At the core it is okay.

But as implemented in 3E, the meager skill point allotment, the complexifying tie in with feats (jeez, those stupid '+2 to two skills feats'), the cross-class hosing penalty, the level caps on stuff like Craft, the hugeness of the D20 range compared to reasonable skill levels, the way at high levels skills effectively become binary (either you have them maxed out or don't bother), the annoyance of Take 20 and Take 10 covering for that making DC assignment complex, every skill being a little subsystem to memorize/slow down play despite the "core mechanism", the roleplay-destroying social skills...

I just can't really let any "3E did skills right" comment go by without a spit-take. I'm not looking to start any fights though.

@Randolph: I saw that Dragonsfoot post, great idea! I added something to it as well (link from here.

Pere Ubu said...

Eeesh. I started a whole kefluffle over on Vin's T&T Trollbridge by linking to this blog post. Evidently people took issue with my worry that fretting about skills is what turned the simple OD&D character creation into the 1040 Long Form it is for 3rd, and I didn't want to see T&T fall into the same trap.

I'm endeared more these days with the idea of Cliches from RISUS instead of a Master List of Official Skills. Seems to me that way you can have the predictability of a character class AND the versatility of a set of abilities that goes with it - so Conan might be able to use "Stern Northern Barbarian" to climb a wall OR "Stealthy Cat Burglar".

clovis said...

i have a revised and simplified skill system (that factors in race)
that i use for my dnd home brew
if you are interested; send me an email at
louisL2@cox.net
and i will send you the word file

Justin Alexander said...

@Chgowiz: I'm curious where you see specific mechanics that say out and out "you can't" versus mechanics of "It's up to the DM to figure out how to adjudicate this"?

"[Fighting-Men:] They can use only a very limited number of magical items of the nonweaponry variety, however, and they can use no spells."

"[Magic-User:] The whole plethora of enchanted items lies at the
magic-users beck and call, save the arms and armor of the fighters..."

"Magic-Users may arm themselves with daggers only."

"Clerics gain some of the advantages from both of the other two classesI Fighting-Men and Magic-Users) in that they have the use of magic armor and all non-edged magic weapons (no arrows!)..."

"Clerics are limited to men only."

"Dwarves may opt only for the fighting class, and they may never progress beyond the 6th level..."

"Should any player wish to be one, he will be limited to the Fighting-Men class as a half ling. Half lings cannot progress beyond the 4th level (Hero)..."

Chgowiz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Badelaire said...

"...especially since the concept of racial/class limits are already in most RPGs. I don't think this is anything peculiar or bad about OD&D"

This comment speaks volumes about this whole discussion.

I don't mean that as an insult, BTW. It's just an observation from someone who's read/played a lot of RPGs that, well, have no such thing as "racial/class limits".

Chgowiz said...

This comment speaks volumes about this whole discussion.

I don't mean that as an insult, BTW. It's just an observation from someone who's read/played a lot of RPGs that, well, have no such thing as "racial/class limits".


I'm sorry, Beldaire, I'm definitely not the be-all, end-all expert - my "readings" are definitely limited to a few RPGs that I've enjoyed playing over the years. I don't take it as an insult, but at the same time, that's what I have observed from most of the RPGs that I've played.

Chgowiz said...

Justin, I thought you meant with regards to action adjudication, not class/racial limits. These limits have been in almost all versions of D&D - so I'm at a loss why this is significant or particular to OD&D, especially since the concept of racial/class limits are already in most RPGs that I've played . I don't think this is anything peculiar or bad about OD&D.

(Original comment deleted and reposted to add the disclaimer that I speak from the experiences I have with the few RPGs that I've played and loved.)

Robert Fisher said...

I travelled a similar road as well. The big difference was—having started with Traveller—the NWP system seemed like a sad kludge to me from the start. I still happily embraced it as better-than-nothing at the time, though.