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Howling Tower: The Tongue-Tied Bard

Howling Tower: The Tongue-Tied Bard

"Pericles's Funeral Oration" by Philipp von FoltzThe introduction of skills into D&D and its offshoots solved some important problems in the game, but those solutions came with costs of their own.

The earliest editions had rules for fighting and not much else. That’s not surprising, considering they were written by wargamers, for wargamers. No one yet understood what a roleplaying game really needed or how varied play could become. The first skill-based class, the thief, didn’t appear until the first expansion. Try playing the game for a while without a character who can pick locks or disarm traps and you’ll see why thieves were needed. (In some recent, nostalgic OD&D sessions, a common joke was when a character would muse dreamily about a far-off, mythical land called “Greyhawk” where there existed people known as “thieves” who could somehow open a lock without hacking it into ruin with an ax. It was even said that if they pressed an ear to a door, they could sometimes actually hear sounds on the other side!)

Once the fertilizer jug of skills was uncorked, a whole garden of possibilities blossomed. Characters were empowered to do all sorts of things they couldn’t do before. Bards had the skill to vitalize their comrades with song. Acrobats had the skill to leap over people’s heads. Assassins had the skill to kill with a single blow and manufacture poison. Barbarians had the skill to climb trees.

Hold it right there. If barbarians need a skill to climb trees, does that mean my fighter, who lacks that skill, can’t climb trees? He’s been climbing trees since he was 1st level. It happened every time I told the DM, “Thorstein climbs a tree.”

So skills cut two ways. They define what characters can do, but, by absence, they also define what characters can’t do.

It turns out that while skills are a great way to model certain situations, they are not a universal solution. Here are a few reasons why.

Inclusion = Exclusion. Already covered this one. If you make a rule that A is necessary for B, you are also making a tacit rule that B is not possible without A. That’s true in some cases but false in others. Anyone can throw a knife at a wall and get it to stick sometimes. The difference between trained and untrained throwers is how many times their knives hit point-first. Likewise, anyone can put a knife into a sick person and cut him open. The difference between trained and untrained surgeons is that the patient probably will be better after the trained surgeon cuts him or her, but certainly will be dead after the untrained one hacks him up. Throwing a knife and healing with a knife are fundamentally different types of skills. How many more types can you think of, and how many different skill systems do you want in your game?

The Ginsu effect. The sharper the knife, the more thinly the tomato gets sliced. Sometimes a thicker tomato would be tastier, but if the chef is into ninjutsu, you should expect tomato wafers. Are rowing and paddling two different skills? In real life, yes, they sort of are—except for where they overlap in needing to know something about moving on water. No matter where the line gets drawn, it will be right for some situations and wrong for others.

This is not your father’s +1. Skill systems are all about systemizing chaos. Life resists systemization with Herculean might (see the previous paragraph). This becomes most obvious when skills are relegated to bonuses on die rolls. Adding +3 to the die roll to see whether you win a kayak race is one thing. Adding +3 to the die roll to see whether you paddle your kayak to safety as Death Island sinks beneath you into the maelstrom is a different thing entirely.

Context is everything. If Thorstein is in a canoe, then paddling is the skill for him. If he’s in a dinghy, then rowing is the way to go. Today he’s lying flat on a log, trying not to get washed over the waterfall. Is he rowing, or paddling? Is using a log as the world’s worst boogie board “boating” in any sense of the term? Maybe this is a case of athleticism, or swimming, or plain luck. If the example seems silly, remember that a big part of being an adventurer is finding yourself in outlandish and unexpected situations. Those are, pretty much by definition, tough to prepare for.

No matter how much a game designer codifies, skills always will come down to a GM making a call. So why is one type of call better or worse than another?

One example gets bandied about endlessly in every discussion of skills: the tongue-tied bard. The argument goes like this: Some players are real-life smooth talkers and some are shy mumble-bums. An RPG is the perfect opportunity for a monosyllabic grunter to become a fantasy Winston Churchill. Give his character Diplomacy +20 and put a die in his hand, and the world is his radio audience. The GM knows that the queen’s biggest concern is her daughter’s safety. She tells players, “the queen looks dubious about your request.” The not-very-glib-in-real-life player says, “I tell her that her family is in danger if we don’t get her help.” The GM understands that’s probably the most impassioned plea this naturally inarticulate player can muster, mentally beefs it up to account for the fact that the character is a silver-tongued charmer, notes that it rang the all-important family gong, assigns a DC she expects the player to beat, and asks for a roll.

Now consider the alternative. The GM knows that the queen’s biggest concern is her daughter’s safety. She tells players, “the queen looks dubious about your request.” The not-very-glib-in-real-life player says, “I tell her that her family is in danger if we don’t get her help.” The GM understands that’s probably the most impassioned plea this naturally inarticulate player can muster, mentally beefs it up to account for the fact that the character is a silver-tongued charmer, notes that it rang the all-important family gong, and says, “the queen accepts your offer.”

Are those two examples any different, really? Both involved a player declaring an action and a GM judging the likelihood of success based on flexible conditions. In neither case was the player penalized for not channeling Pericles in his speech, and he was rewarded for pushing the family button. I’d say they were about the same.

Are skills necessary? Is it better to slice them thick or thin? Define them tightly or loosely? I’d like to see the opinions of others on this important question.

16 thoughts on “Howling Tower: The Tongue-Tied Bard”

  1. I prefer the evening-out effect that skills bring to the game; that said, the 2E “roll under” system and the 3E “progression unto the heavens” system each had their quirks; I prefer the Traveller “here are the worst bonuses ever, roll on them and see what happens” system.

    Now that I’ve given you an answer, can I ask your opinion of D&D Next bounded accuracy? (No pressure.)

  2. I’m relatively new to tabletop gaming as compared to the vast majority of folks who talk about them in this kind of depth. I started with free form, text based role play on forums at 11 years old, developed my own very simple dice systems throughout junior high, graduated to D&D 3.5 just a few years ago and have moved on to Pathfinder since. Despite my lack of experience with these system though, I realized (quite early on) the point you make about inclusion = exclusion.

    Our DM would allow us to perform unusual stunts in combat by rolling various skill checks in succession, but when Skill Tricks showed up on the scene, we suddenly had to spend feats to be able to perform those stunts that made combat exciting.

    Expounding on the varied uses of certain skills has always been a goal of mine, just not one I’ve had an easy time of. I like the idea of using various skills as pseudo-Knowledge skills, such as using Acrobatics to explain to someone how a villain might have been able to ‘parkour’ his way out of the crime scene, or making a Disable Device check to aid another who is using Craft (trap) by pointing out design flaws. Having a list of such ideas formed from lateral thinking would help less creative players, I think. I know MY players do not think to use their skills outside of RAW .

  3. Though I enjoy 3.0/PFRPG immensely, I’m of the mindset it is too skill laden. I much prefer skill resolution when we played Basic/Expert D&D. These were handled within ability checks, modified by the character’s level. The game moved along. It prevents customization, as a character, but granted more latitide when presented with a situation.

    One aspect of customization/generalization. When there are 20+ skills vs. 6 abilities, the chance for a player becoming a spotlight hog are, of course lessened. A single player has a better chance to shine/fail. Of course, that can mean the game gets stuck in the event of a failure. But when everyone’s character has a chance at success, things won’t bog down. Weighing the two, I prefer to keep the game moving than appreciate the fact the fighter has Profession (cook) +4 in his skillset. I’d rather just say he’s a professional cook on his character sheet and accept that.

  4. I personally love skills, and my favorite element of 4th ed, which kept me in it longer than almost anything else, was skill challenges. In my opinion the best system was Alternity because it revolved around its complex-but-approachable skill mechanic.

    In the end, is your THACO or BAB any different than a skill? Is wielding a rapier in an intricate duel really all that similar to firing a crossbow or smiting a dragon with a double headed axe? Or aiming a scorching blast (whatever that’s like)? You could just decide whether a player succeeded on any of those roles by listening to his descrptive action and character background, as you described above. But at that point you’re just collectively storytelling, and you’ve dropped the game from the roleplaying.

    Once you introduce mechanics into the system, you owe it to your players to make that system as comprehensive as possible. How complex that comprehensiveness is can vary, but the premise of roleplaying games is to simulate the challenging aspects of roleplaying with random chance modified by circumstances that are at least partially under the players’s control.

  5. Caleb: Traveller is an interesting example. Despite its quirks, Its skill system is in some ways among the best I’ve used. It tells the GM up front to be creative about applying skills. The best example is that skill bonuses have different values in different situations. If you’re examining a used vacc suit to see whether it’s worth buying, then each point of Vacc Suit skill gives you a +1 to spot flaws. You’re doing a relatively simple thing, and even someone without much training can spot a rip. If you’re picking your way across the airless surface of a high-g planet covered with razor-sharp volcanic glass, then each point of Vacc Suit skill might be worth +2, +3, or even its squared value on the roll. Knowing what you’re doing in that situation makes a huge difference. More games should adopt that flexible model.

  6. Tolin: I agree that a character’s attack and defense bonuses are skills, too, just under a different name. Many games treat them exactly that way; a character learns to fight by spending skill points, the same way he or she learns paddle a kayak or interpret ancient magical runes. In fact, that was the rationale for early editions of AD&D not having skill subsets. If you were a fighter, then it was assumed you’d spent your adolescence learning to fight. The raw farmboy picking up a dropped sword and becoming a great hero through on-the-job training was not the standard model that it’s become. A 1st-level character was already better than most people at his craft, and that was the result of years of study and practice. Thorstein had no time to learn the art of cooking, because he was busy full-time learning the art of killing. Anything that could be considered part of military training, such as scaling a cliff or swimming in armor, could be assumed to be part of his repertoire.

    I disagree with the notion that using skills without dice rolls isn’t a game. I’ve heard people criticize it as 20 Questions D&D, with players trying to deduce what’s in the DM’s head instead of leveraging their characters’ skillsets (a jargonoid I particularly hate, though that’s a different story). But I like 20 Questions. It’s a game, too, and an enjoyable one. Plus, it’s a better model for negotiation and person-to-person interaction than rolling a die. I consider the 20 Questions aspect to be a strength, not a weakness.

  7. I dislike skills for D&D. Thieves are pushing it too. Anybody can climb a wall, try to pick a lock, or hide. I grew very tired, very quickly of people playing off of their character sheets.

  8. simon the overthinker

    I would start with a question; who has actually played any version of an RPG 100% by the book? I would suggest the honest answer is going to be very slight. One of the bigger reasons is the idea of skills. Any system needs to accomplish two contradictory goals with skills (or any other mechanic for that matter). Define specific rules of engagement for taking a story action and applying a numeric outcome impacted by a dice roll. And, encourage creative problem solving in the course of action for the players. By creating limits, it is very easy to make the game a dice only game and hamper the joy of a creative idea. Without limits, the game can quickly evolve to the ridiculous (spring loaded punji sticks still brings a grin to my face!). The solution, though not simple, is the GM laying out his approach to the players at the outset and then consistently adhering to it. Let the developing story dictate whether the players words and deeds suffice or if a random element of the dice is needed. In short, the GM should have an idea of how they want to run it, define it for the players, and let the story play out. No right or wrong way, just the way your personal game and style flows.

  9. Does “throwing a knife” and “healing with a knife” REALLY need to be two different skills? I’m sure if both were trained skills that there would be SOME probability of healing a person by throwing a knife at him.
    Now if only we had an infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of knives…

  10. Skills are neither necessary or a problem, as long as you play the game “right”. And with “right” in this context I mean that both the DM and the players will give each other some latitude, cooperate constructively – you know what I mean…

    So where does the need come from? For certainly there are other games were they feel necessary, were there would be no game without rules for everything.

    One widespread theory seems to be that they got invented, little by little, and once there it was impossible to un-invent them, and them we were stuck with them and somehow they limited our way of thinking. But that is only true if you have a strict D&D-centric perspective.

    I grew up in Sweden and started out on a translation of “Basic Roleplaying”. Basic Roleplaying has skills. Lots of skills. (And for good measure, the Swedish publisher added even more skills in later expansions…)

    Yet I know that in those first glorious years we weren’t so encumbered by these rules that we couldn’t let our imagination run free. In fact both me and some of my friends made up our own games when we needed to – some using skills, some don’t. We certainly didn’t depend on them to much.

    After a few years we had tried a lot of other published games as well – not least D&D which we stuck with for years to come. And THEN we had that problem, more and more frequently no matter whether it was about skills (if the game had those) or some other mechanic.

    So I think there are other factors as well. Many games published expansions, additional rulesets – and somehow many games, more or less at the same time, started to become more and more streamlined, resistance became more and more “level appropriate” and the notion of balance appeared.

    Now, if you expect balance between the players and their opposition – then you wouldn’t NEED to think up super-exceptional deeds to survive. That’s what balance is! Those crazy stunts might even be considered upsetting the balance – they might take a perfectly balanced encounter and turn it into a stroll in the park.

    I think the expectation of balance, was the back door were rules-lawyering in general crept in. Before that, if you came up with a good idea or if you found a loop hole to exploit – good for you! (But don’t expect the loop hole to work again…)

    And when it was in, it stayed in. We guarded our treasured capabilities, because they were now part of the resource management, like spells per day or charges or stuff like that. It became part of the infrastructure of the game. We weren’t relaxed about it anymore.

    So – no, you don’t need skills. (Unless you want to use their mechanic in a certain kind of game.) There’s a lot of things you don’t need. Preconceptions about a balanced setting is certainly one of them.

  11. With my group of players I like the skill set to stem from the character and the character’s background. A character from a barren desert isn’t going to know how to paddle a canoe but he may well know how to find water. If the player can make a reasoned argument and justify the use of a particular skill based on our previous knowledge of the character I think it’s a good thing to allow it. It gets the player’s thinking and role playing. I have a player with a character that has herbalism as a skill. The player has taken the time to research both the mythological and real world applications of a variety of herbs. As a result we have extended the use of the skill so it benefits the rest of his skills. Small bonuses to spells, saving throws and the like. These are relatively minor but they reward the effort and make for good roleplaying.

  12. John The Philosopher

    I was given to understand that all skill checks were in essence ability checks with modifiers. Hence, the absence of a skill did not forbid the attempt. Any fool with arms and legs can try to climb a mountain (dexterity check). Putting points into the climb skill just means that you stand a better chance of making it to the top.

    On the subject of balance:
    Balance is there to keep the game playable and fun, not to limit the creativity of the players. If gamers find a loophole that solves almost every encounter, the game looses challenge and ceases to be fun (see “couter monkey squirt gun wars” on youtube for example). However, you can work around loopholes without limiting player options. If they make a poison, don’t limit how often they can use it. Make an antidote. You get the idea.

    I do agree that RPGs are an exercise in systemizing chaos. That is why it is important to understand the ideas behind the rules. Don’t just memorize lists of rules. Try to know why they were put into place, so that you will understand when they should be applied.

    Each edition of d&d has wrestles with new rules and game mechanics, each with valid reasoning and ideas behind new changes or additions. From Ghostwalk’s option of playing your character after death, to 4th edition’s application of at will spell powers that kept mages in the game the whole time.

    My brother tends to think that the rules of any RPG represent the physics of that world, based upon inspirational literature. This leads to the conclusion as is stated in both d&d 3.5 and PFDRPG: Use the rules that are appropriate for the stories you are trying to tell. Use what works for you and leave the rest. If your stories say that all mages know a limited number of spells and cast them from memory, then use the sorcerer class and eschew wizards.

    Never forget that it is the gamers who play that make any game work, not the developers.

  13. John The Philosopher

    I forgot to mention,

    Personally, I prefer to use skills as I described in my first paragraph. However, skill checks are not always required or appropriate.

    Yes, it does come down to a judgement call by the DM.

    It will vary from challenge to challenge, game to game, with each story that is being told.

    That is why it is important to understand the ideas and concepts behind the rule and its application. That way we make judgement calls as are appropriate to the setting, game, and inspirational sources in each instance.

  14. Hmmm, complex question.

    A while back someone wrote that players in “the olden days” would look at the ceiling and engage their imaginations when confronted with a non-combat situation, but ever since 3E just the opposite happens. Now players look down at their character sheets, checking their laundry list of skills to see if they have an answer. Once it was pointed out in the forum, it only took until my next game for me to confirm that it was true.

    For players (and GM’s) who aren’t good at thinking outside the box, this might be a comforting way to play. However, I think most RPG players are pretty happy to get outside the box – that’s why we favor RPG’s over Monopoly and Risk.

    So I guess I’m clever enough to see that there is need for improvement, but not clever enough to actually bring about that improvement.

  15. Ah the eternal question are skills useful or not. Well for me this is simply a matter of personal taste. Some love to got into details other like to stay at the basics. What your and your group like is what matters – nothing else.
    Best is to build or use a modular-system which allows you to swap from one level of detail to another like zooming in or out and then go with the situation.

    I personally love to go into details and so we developed a very detailed skill-system but we still use from time to time a less detailed version.

    I never liked the idea of classes and their exclusion of certain skills for others. So in our system each one knows EACH SKILL on some basic level, depending on his attributes – even if he never used them in life before the situation arises where he must use it. You can say each one may be more talented in one or other skill but each one can use any skill.
    When your character knows rowing he gains a raise to his skill of paddling, simply because he knows how to behave on water. So his paddling skill will be higher than the one of the Mountainman who paddles for the first time – even when their basic skill in paddling will be the same.
    Ah I just love when things work smoothly and players have the liberty to do what they want to do without getting crushed to death with tons of rules.

  16. +1 John the P. re: skills as modified attribute checks.

    I love skills because they provide nuanced story control tied to the wargaming part of the game. In your case about the fighter floating on the log; there are several approaches that the fighter could take. Knowing padding or canoeing (for example) is one approach to the problem. A swim check is another, while a raw strength check provides a third. Each is a different nuance on the solution. “You wrap yourself around the log and propel yourself to shore with mighty breast strokes” vs. “your mad kicking somehow moves you out of the main current and you float safely to shore.” Obviously a knowledge of astronomy isn’t going to help here, which is a good thing and helps build the back story of the pc into the encounter itself.

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