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.