Thursday, May 5, 2011

Skills and Situation

The question came up of how to steer an academy game away from Strength and Dex because of their importance for the Basic Attack action. Setting aside my personal inclination to just re-assign Basic Attack stats, the real answer is to lean much more heavily on skill rolls than combat for the bulk of challenges facing students. It might require a bit more GM creativity (especially since many of the things being learned are combat maneuvers), but porting skills into a combat mode isn’t too hard, and skills over combat is definitely genre-appropriate.

However, that got me thinking a little bit about how skills are used. In the abstract, combat is really just another skill use, but the skill is used over and over again. If I had a scene that demanded a player roll the same skill as many times as they make attack rolls in combat, that would be a hard scene to run. The idea of rolling the same skill over and over again seems like an invitation to boredom.

Historically, the reason for this difference, especially in 4e, seemed easily attributable to the fact that even though you’re rolling the same thing, you’re doing something different. It might be as explicit as using different powers, but even in non 4e games, things move and change. If they don’t, and the fight is just two guys standing there making alternating attack rolls, that’s just as boring as our multi-skill scenario.

So if it’s not a difference in outcomes, what makes the difference?

I think it’s two things. The first is that attacking is not explicitly called out as a skill. This is important because it means that when a player takes an action, they describe the action, not the skill. If they’re making an attack, they describe the attack or even if they’re not being terribly descriptive, they call out the power they’re using. In contrast, if they’re rolling athletics, it’s usually called out as rolling athletics. This has a subtle impact on player expectation. Because the language of combat is less repetitive, the imagining of combat seems less repetitive.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, combat is all about changes in the situation.

One of the big problems with re-using skills is that they are perceived as “one and done” sort of thing. You make the skill roll and you do whatever you need. This has a couple of big implications. First is that it’s in clear contrast to combat which is lots of rolls to resolve something. This is a big deal, and will be important alters, but today it’s a bit tangential, in part because it’s easy to make skills work that way, but more because it distracts from the question of why repeating combat rolls stays interesting and repeating skill rolls gets stale.

The key is in another implication of one and done. You are not expected to roll your skill again until the situation has changed in some way. You might roll to pick locks five times for five different doors (five different situations) but you don’t roll five times for the same door.

In combat, the situation is constantly changing. In fact, the example of boring combat I gave earlier is a direct result of a combat where the situation stops changing between rolls. Now, a lot of things can change in a fight, but the biggest and most obvious is position. Moving minis around a map is a simple way to dramatically change a situation.[1]

But so what? Does that help us with our skills? Well, yes and no.

The trick is that it’s not the map itself that’s critical, but the fact that it’s such an efficient method of providing information. The idea of changing your situation to re-use a skill is an essential real-life idea. When faced with a problem you cannot solve, you change something: do some research, get a tool, get help, try a different angle or whatever.

Doing this requires a specific understanding of the situation, but that level of understanding is not easily conveyed verbally. It requires incredibly detailed descriptions which, because they’re static, often skip right to the end of suggesting the right path. Coming up with the equivalent of a map is difficult.

But not impossible. I think, given the understanding that you need to support the ability to change the situation before rolling again, it is possible to create sequences of skill rolls (whether they be skill challenges or structured differently) that can make skill use compelling.

This becomes especially true if you change up how things are supposed to be described. If you can encourage players to act _within_ the skill rather than _with_ the skill, then you not only get more colorful descriptions, but you also implicitly broaden the situation.

How do I mean this? Let’s take the Harry Potter route and use a sport. If you’re playing a game, every action probably falls under the auspices of athletics, but you would not describe the actions that way. Events will unfold on the field (you’re chasing the ball, breaking through defenders, making a fake[2] - whatever) and provided the player is responding to those, they won’t be saying “I use athletics”, they say, “I feint left then try to punch through Henderson’s weak right side”. The dice become secondary to the situation.[3]

Now, I’ll fully cop that athletics is probably the easiest skill to illustrate this with, but the idea is workable for any skill that you think is interesting enough to include in your game. And if you’re including it despite the fact that you don’t find it interesting might suggest a different course of action.

1 - That this is so explicitly the case in 4e is a big reason many players who otherwise eschew minis and maps have embraced them.

2 - Yes, this might be a different skill, and bringing an oddball skill into a larger skill challenge can be fun, exciting and thematic, but that’s another topic for another time, especially given point [3].

3 - One other advantage of establishing these “skill contexts” is that, like in combat, the player knows what to roll. This may seem obvious, but consider that many skill roll situations have an element of checking with the GM to confirm that the skill is appropriate and it’s OK for the player to roll. In combat, players know what to roll and when to roll it, and it’s the GM’s job to deal with that. Creating situations where players have similar comfort and authority with regard to skills (such as a skill context where all rolls are assumed to be Athletics) can really free them up to focus on the situation.


  1. Ok, this just ate a long comment so I'll just sum it up.

    The other aspect of combat you're missing is the win/loss condition check that ultimately makes combat a game of degree of success. The "20 points of damage, leaving me with 30 left" conveys a lot, and is ultimately the reason for the multiple rolls. This is further enhanced by the fact that life and death is on the line in combat, not necessarily the case in other situations and not something most games want to be handed out in one roll.

    Finding a way to engage a player on that level I think is key. Yes, the situation has to change, but also the possibility of being defeated by the obstacle. Not just failing to overcome, but actually being defeated.

    Between the two, you have the problem with multiple skill rolls being boring. Skills are generally viewed as binary, where as combat is a work in progress. Most skill tasks don't have a condition where you can be defeated by the obstacle. Athletics against another team is an example where you could, but even that can be done fairly easily with a map and normal rolls.

  2. I think it's actually far more simple than that. A roll to attack results in damage, which can have a very tangible result on the combat. Skill rolls don't generally have damage, even if they have a mechanic to track incremental bits of progress it's not as riveting because the task you're working on can't turn the tables and make the same progress against you in return... potentially.

    I guess what I'm saying is that it's that direct competition that stimulates interest.

  3. This is further enhanced by the fact that life and death is on the line in combat.

    I think this is the reason combat gets so much more player and dev attention than skills. Which leads us to what I think is the biggest difference between combat and all other challenges in 4e: rolling a skill check (or several) is a test of character skill, while combat is a test of player skill.

    Combat is exciting because of all the decisions you get to make: do I attacking this adjacent minion, or do I provoke an OA to deal my damage to a target that really matters? Do I blow a daily to make this guy goes down right now, or do I hope that my encounter power takes him down?

    Skills are relatively boring because they require no strategy. Good description can help, but at the end of the day it's just a player rolling a d20 and then a DM saying "you succeed" or "you fail." So that's what I'd change to make non-combat more engaging.

  4. I believe that it has more to do with the presentation. When your character attacks something it is presented as the character having a direct influence upon the game world as a hero. When your character uses a skill it as presented as your character being unable to influence the game world until he or she gets past this obstacle that was put in your way first just like a normal person would face.

    Let's face it - most games are about combat and not skills. You want to have the character in combat. That is what you built the character for. Skills? That is too close to reality where I am not the hero of the world but another fellow human being making their living with the talents and abilities that I possess.

    This does not have to be the case. I played a game of Dread where my character was a doctor, and I had great satisfaction in using my skills to save people in the story. I'm sure the fact that Dread uses the same game mechanic for combat and skills (pull from a Jenga tower) had a lot to do with that though.

  5. Imagine a combat encounter in 4e, with all the tactical movement and rules intact, in which players, for whatever reason, were forbidden from using powers, and had to rely on skills. How does that play?

    Does it look like stunts?
    Does it simply substitute the concreteness of powers for abstract skill description?

    I'm not sure exactly, but it might be interesting.

  6. Perhaps alongside all the regular combat actions, there's time to teach useful skill trappings?

  7. This is, in effect, exactly how Leverage works. In other words, it's a series of dice rolls made to express an intent to change the situation in one or the other agency's favor. Even when one side wins an exchange of dice (like in Contested Actions), that's not the end of the scene. It just means something has changed, so now let's roll more dice, or call an end to the scene and go to somewhere else.

    This is, I admit, how I like "combat" to work.


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