Friday, August 11, 2017

Who You Want In Your House: A Guide To Player Skill And Ability Scores

Whatever else your players are, they're people in your house.

Who is welcome in my house? While I don't turn away the sickly, the weak, or the clumsy, I don't want anyone over unless they're charming, intelligent, wise, or all three. I don't think I'm remotely alone in this: people like people they find likeable, and, really, who does suffer fools gladly?

Not only that, but in any conversation, I would hope everyone present was trying to be the most charming, intelligent, wise person they could be--whereas if they're holding a refrigerator up or have their legs behind their head that's purely bonus points.

So: if, in D&D, I devised a test that relied not on the character's Constitution, Strength or Dexterity but on the player's Constitution, Strength or Dexterity (catch the ball--kill the goblin,  etc) I'd be privileging athletic players over others. That, as my aunt used to say, is a job for games played outdoors or in the dark.

However, if, in a game, I devise a test that relies on the players' Charisma, Intelligence or Wisdom, I am judging them on precisely the qualities that got them into my house in the first place. And which, basically, all social life is a competition about anyway. The less-clever player may well do worse, but they will (if the test is fair) blame themselves and become thirsty to be better--which is the best kind of competitiveness. I know that's how I felt when I was dumb enough to stand right in front of that door that got opened in the Dark Tower. Then we fucking killed that lich.

So:

Dex, Str, and Con are off the table for Player Skill in D&D at my house. What can we do with the rest if we're determined to test as much player skill as possible?

Charisma

A player, by talking alone, can describe:


  • What a PC says
  • How they say it (depending on acting skill)
  • What logic they use
  • What they offer in exchange
  • etc.


So, being way into Player-Skill-Based-Challenges I'm going to always at the very least give a bonus (or minus) to a roll based on this stuff and possibly even award an autosuccess if the offer is such the NPC could not possibly refuse or an autofail if they say something the NPC is primed to see as an insult.

A player cannot accurately and totally describe:


  • Whether that appeal does or does not match the PC's appearance (some comedians can get away with some jokes because of their appearance that aren't funny coming out of older, younger, fatter, skinnier people etc) since the appearance only "appears" to fictional characters.
  • Whatever a "Charisma save" is supposed to represent in 5e--strength of personality?
  • Whether the NPC are in a mood to listen or have hidden factors that make them less or more inclined to suspicion


So the Charisma stat needs to exist to represent the PC's appearance and how their manner matches it, and the die represents the randomness of these last 3 factors (at the least) but can be modified by the other factors that the player can describe.



Wisdom

Wisdom is well-known to be goofy, encompassing willpower, perception, judgment, how much god likes you, etc.

A player can be reasonably tested on:

  • Noticing things the GM slipped into their description (verbal or in a picture)
  • Noticing their significance
  • Where a PC looks for stuff
  • Resisting temptations that would give the player something they'd like to see in the game (gold, a magic weapon, a plot twist the PC loves)
  • Deciding whether to follow the more shrewd course of action
  • etc.
(In the "perception" area these kinds of layer-skill challenges require a lot of prep from the GM.)


A player could not (without excessive use of special effects) use their owns skill to model:

  • Noticing hidden things that are, nonetheless, technically in plain sight (like if there's an arrow from a culture that doesn't belong lying on the orc vs elf battlefield)
  • Hearing things--or noticing any sensory information the GM cannot bury- or has not taken the time to bury-, in a verbal description
  • Resisting temptations the character feels but not the player (too easy: "I don't fuck the succubus")
  • Resisting magical powers that chip away at the will
  • Successfully sensing things despite some physical difficulty (smoke, distracting sounds, etc)
  • Sensing anomalies in how something moves--or otherwise in how they present physically in a way the GM cannot verbally describe without giving away the game.
  • etc


Intelligence

A player's intelligence could be tested about:

  • Applying real-world physics, chemistry, tactics, etc to analogous situations (like: use missile weapons against the dangerous, slow, melee-only opponent, etc)
  • Remembering lore the GM gave them earlier
  • Drawing inferences and deductions from facts discovered
  • Solving puzzles whose parameters are fully described by the GM
  • Etc

Again (without extensive use of props) player could not use their own skill, and would need to rely on their PC to model:

  • Knowing stuff about the setting an inhabitant would but that hasn't come up in the game
  • Casting spells via remembering and casting magical formulae 
  • Successfully completing tests of knowledge and reasoning that take a lot of in-game time (crafting a magic item, for instance)
  • Research
  • Interacting technically with objects that don't exist in real life (tinkering with golems, for instance) or which, again, would take a long time to verbally walk through ("put the third cog on the right strut" etc)
  • Deciding how quickly the PC picks up a new skill (a language, for instance) the player does not have
  • etc

So...yeah, there's that. PCs, viewed this way, are hybrid beings: they physical stats are theirs alone, but their mental ones are half theirs and half their makers.

I haven't really talked about how players can or can't model other things that define characters on paper: experience, class, skills, maybe we'll get to that later.
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34 comments:

Unknown said...

Do you just ignore any mismatch between a smart/wise/charming player with a dumb/foolish/antisocial character? Can Joe the grad student use his knowledge of math to solve a problem while playing Throg the Simple?

Zak Sabbath said...

As I hope the post made clear:

Throg can draw on Joe's intelligence for

Applying real-world physics, chemistry, tactics, etc to analogous situations (like: use missile weapons against the dangerous, slow, melee-only opponent, etc)

Remembering lore the GM gave them earlier

Drawing inferences and deductions from facts discovered

Solving puzzles whose parameters are fully described by the GM

Etc

But Throg is left on his own when it comes to:

Knowing stuff about the setting an inhabitant would but that hasn't come up in the game

Casting spells via remembering and casting magical formulae

Successfully completing tests of knowledge and reasoning that take a lot of in-game time (crafting a magic item, for instance)

Research

Interacting technically with objects that don't exist in real life (tinkering with golems, for instance) or which, again, would take a long time to verbally walk through ("put the third cog on the right strut" etc)

Deciding how quickly the PC picks up a new skill (a language, for instance) the player does not have

etc

Zak Sabbath said...

(this is all assuming Joe wants to play Throg as smart as he can get away with--which frequently Joes do not want to do. They make dumb characters for a reason, and the reason is they want the fun of playing them dumb.)

Unknown said...

I follow you (and was also assuming Joe didn't choose to play dumb. He just rolled a low Int), I was just wondering if there was any extreme beyond which you'd say "no, Throg with Int 3 can't channel you doing calculus." Sound like not.

Zak Sabbath said...

there might theoretically be, but it's never come up in practce

Michael Ståhl said...

But why should the smart player be allowed to have their dumb character solving the puzzle? Isn't it better for the game to instead let the smart character solve the puzzle or in the case none such exist, let the group of dumb character approach the problem in a different way?

Zak Sabbath said...

"better for the game" is a terribly abstract phrase.

The game is not an entity with rights or desires.

So:

Could you rephrase your objection in terms of negative consequences you see

_for the real human players involved_

if they employ player skill mixed with character skill rather than exclusively character skill?

JDsivraj said...

So the mental stats are a buffer that mitigates the information vacuum players often face in RPGs?
I know GMs often gripe because players often don't seem to pay attention but really they are just trying to find information worth grasping onto that will improve game play and can learn bad habits. Does using the mental stats a buffer betwen realities really mean GMs should skimp on time wasting details?

Angus Warman said...

Would you include knowledge of the source material beyond what has already been given out as "player skill"?

As far as I can see, metagaming is one of the few situations where player skill is being examined but the test isn't 'fair', as mentioned earlier.

G. B. Veras said...

Could you give an example of Wisdom checks in play?

Specially these situations:

Noticing hidden things that are, nonetheless, technically in plain sight (like if there's an arrow from a culture that doesn't belong lying on the orc vs elf battlefield)

Hearing things--or noticing any sensory information the GM cannot bury- or has not taken the time to bury-, in a verbal description

Sensing anomalies in how something moves--or otherwise in how they present physically in a way the GM cannot verbally describe without giving away the game.

I understand what you mean but see an example right the way... The light bulb in my mind is dim...

FM Geist said...

Weird askew question (why not?): by drawing intelligent, charming and witty players (and assumably they utilize these talents/skills/qualities in play), does this not shift the locus of the game? (Which isn't a bad thing obviously, lacking those qualities is a great way to devolve into rote combat) but it adds the (admittedly often charming) tendency for plotting before a citycrawl/"dungeon as mystic underworld"/sandbox as they are prone to engage with and draw in elements of:
- social engineering (identifying factions and exploiting a Yojimbo gambit of playing their wants against each other for a maximization on goods for task & a conservation of resources rather than commitment of them to tasks that become central fixations for the characters)
- utilization of knowledge beyond yours (my background is philosophy my table has currently: a high school math teacher, a physics grad student, and a computer scientist) their mcguyver potential is pretty hard to account for
- perception of cultural more (technical capacity to exploit the cultural lore and area details for maximization of tactical advantage)

None of this is bad, but it seemingly shifts the game because typical obstacles (factions likely to betray, scarcity of goods, etc.) become lesser factors (this is also a "rich person problem" since the DM task is setting the table for people who are smart/insightful/charming/etc rather than a more rote application of rules/refereeing).

I am perhaps unclear (I have trouble sometimes articulating things) but it seems like the challenge game nature (regarding your previous post) brings up additional challenges to consider for a DM?

Or maybe I'm off? (I haven't had enough coffee)

FM Geist said...

Curious: what is the situation where it is necessary to do calculus in your game? I.e. Regardless of if the referee rules one way or another (Throg can/cannot utilize your knowledge of calculus) what is the situation where you envision this as a situation?

Zak Sabbath said...

1st question: Yes.

2nd: No-one should ever do "time-wasting" anything.

However: when you talk it should be for a reason and when it doubt let the players talk.

Zak Sabbath said...

The first example you asked for literally accompanies an example, so not sure why you asked for an example --Pereption check...you see this arrow

2nd one: Perception check--"You hear a low whistling sound bend you"

3rd: "Perception check" "Your father's arm movement seem to be strangely rigid, it only goes up and down"

Zak Sabbath said...

"does this not shift the locus of the game?"

Shift?

All those things you list have always been part of any D&D game I've seen.

But then I always play with charming clever wise people

Zak Sabbath said...

"The modron gives you this equation and says you cannot pass until you solve it"

Zak Sabbath said...

I would call it "player skill" --but it can be the least interesting kind--similar to system-mastery.

It's partially testing whether someone's sat alone reading D&D books, which is usually not what I want to reward, since they're doing that more than other players bc they think that's more fun than the other players think it is--not because they are cleverer.

I want to reward being smart, more than being nerdy--and familiarity with any source material (including, say, having read the edgar allan poe story you based your dungeon on) is always right on the line.

The person has read something (not smart, just nerdy)

Remembered it (smart).

Noticed it applies here (smart).

tl;dr:

It's always player skill, not always the most interesting kind

Unknown said...

Is the idea that the characters your players are playing are also channeling the knowledge of the people playing them relevant to your game?

Like in the above example does Throg know he's being played by Joe or is the idea of the characters being vessels for the players a factor, or is that not "real" in the internal world of the game? And if it's not real than why can an idiot like Throg answer the Modron's question? Like what's the point of pretending to be Throg if half the time Joe is just going to solve the puzzle because he's smarter than Throg? The disconnect throws me.

FM Geist said...

I guess; and I'm articulating this badly (or I can't find a way to articulate this & hard agree these are better aspects to have and always implicit in the game as aspects); I feel like playing with charming, clever & wise people: the "dungeon as mythic underworld" shares space with "the space around the environment with the (exp generation) as space which is mined for material"

I think one of the sorts of "rich people problems" I've seen looking at ASE (and shameless fangirl statment: I imagine when I get around to running Red & Pleasant Land although the "concern" would be articulated differently because the castles are not the purpose of the setting) is getting the characters to actually delve into the dungeon when the surrounding world has so many intrigues to get wrapped up in (proof of statement: Dungeon of Signs work to add gameable areas outside of the ASE because the players drift there)

This seems like it generates a sort of exponential production of challenges being run into outside of the core challenge thing the DM dropped on the map (again I guess this falls more into observation than question because I'm having trouble putting it together in a sensible way)

FM Geist said...

At risk of using my totally useless philosophy education: you could argue PCs are ostensibly Platonists (they have the ability to, in Platos example, develop the Pythagorean theorem despite lacking any formal education in geometry) BUT why would many characters end up engaged in these situations and how would they actually articulate it (let's say throg has some sense via the player of how calculus works, I don't I'm a humanities major but let's say this is a thing) this seems like a roleplaying challenge and the rest of the party being itchy to move on as someone tries to convert it over into an Int 3 expression (since I assume a dungeon doesn't have a mordon asking AP Calc questions as a sort of sphinx of math)

Zak Sabbath said...

@unknown

Throg doesn't know he's being played by Joe.

But Throg knows some stuff despite being an idiot.

Like, for example:

The current president, Donald Trump, has Int 3 but he can still dress himself and read and use a remote control.

He's an idiot, but he's not helpless against all tasks.

Zak Sabbath said...

@FM Geist

Nah, he's just stupid despite knowing math.

Lots of stupid people are good at math--have you ever read an RPG board?

Zak Sabbath said...

ok..let me know when you've figure dit out

Unknown said...

Okay so for you the sort of bounds of the ability scores are pretty negotiable and just kind of bend in the face of your player being a smart, charming and/or wise person, with the hand wave of "Hey turns out Thorg's weirdly good at math." (Which I now realize was basically what you were defining with the entire post)

And I guess if the player wasn't interested in playing Thorg that way they just wouldn't. Like if they want to play a guy who's dumb as a bag of hammers than they're not gonna answer the modron's question, or they'd answer it wrong. Makes sense.

As for Trump I doubt he could or would be willing to answer a complex math question, but who the fuck knows with that guy. I swear sometimes he seems like he's being operated like a puppet 'Being John Malkovich' style and his personality changes based on who's currently in control. Except they all seem to be assholes.

I kind of do like the idea that being operated by players is actually a part of the reality though. It's undoubtedly not that original, but I like the idea of PC's being "chosen" by extra planer entities(us) and that's why their lives are so strange in comparison to the normal Npc's. I guess the DM would be the GOD of the reality of the world and the players would be attempting to exert their will to modify that reality. Or something. And so character death would really just be the player and PC losing connection. And ability scores would be just the parameters of the vessel of the players consciousness. I wonder if there's a game that directly uses that idea in play.

FM Geist said...

Ok I guess best phrased (and trying not to trip down tangents)
1) obviously love having a table of charming, wise, intelligent folx; have run a table without those qualities and there isn't much saving Throgs with math skills who want to min-max and masturbate to spreadsheets
But
2) it constrains some content, even some good content
2a) I keep coming back to ASE but I think it's true of many mega dungeons, it's hard to get them to commit to somewhere where they lose *some* of their advantage (cities, towns, hamlets, etc where they can map out tactical and interact with NPCs) and where content is pretty constant (unless you ignore stocking rules and every single room has something in it)
2b) which leaves some content that needs many floors or a lot of space off the table
2b-1) admittedly I love D&D as picaresque
BUT
3) sometimes it's nice to be able to plot a space that eats a few solid sessions
Because
4) sometimes (exhaustion, work, stress, everyone's an adult) you don't have time to really generate some of your own content with some procedural generation populated area hooks in case they don't bite
AND
5) there isn't as much content for immediate drop in that's simply drop & hit the ground running for smart players (bad content: most sewers, Orcs in a hole, things you could generate yourself with the OD&D DMG) & there is the desire to be able to have the sort of major space (dungeon as sandbox) for them to eat some sessions in so you don't end up losing your job for slacked productivity and missed deadlines

Which I guess brings the question (other than a lot of designers assume your players are stupid) of why there is so little no fuss option around?

I.e. There is plenty of good product that requires adopting a whole place but it seems harder to assemble a well hooked dungeon that isn't a 1-2 session space

Which I guess is a design-ish problem of sorts and I still think I'm having trouble quite communicating it but this is the best shot I've got; maybe it's just... not particularly graspable to communicate or I lack some vocabulary to get it across

Zak Sabbath said...

2) I've never seen it constrain content at my table so i can't help you

2a) my players go where they want? so again i can't help you, maybe because there *is* something in every room. I don't go with "constant content"

2b) don't know what this means

2b-1) ok

3) Then lock some doors after they go into the dungeon

4) That's what Vornheim is for

5) There's SOOO MUCH FREE FAST DUNGEON CONTENT right here ont his blog and int he rest of the osr blogs.

SOOOOO MUCHHHH

FM Geist said...

I knowwwww! I mean I just like spacing things out (ie I run into I want to throw this in here but if I have Tower of the Stargazer right next to Hated Pretender proximate to Feathered Swine it diminishes weirdness by making it commonplace; this is probably a personal foible); def have a photo of Vornheim with an estrogen needle somewhere, def makes throwing some city hooks in way easier

Zak Sabbath said...

that sounds more like a pacing issue

it doesn't matter how close together the weirdness is in a place, so long as they are well-spaced enough in time at the table

FM Geist said...

That's... a very good point I guess I end up feeling like it *should* be some arbitrary far distance and get myself all wound up in that and... well thank you that unvexed something bothering the hell out of me

G. B. Veras said...

Thanks, Zak.

It is just that I am intrigued by how you handle Perception skills.

I'm still in doubt if I banish it from my house rules or not...

FM Geist said...

(Obligatory Liggoti quote that you *are* a puppet and the horror is knowing you are) juxtaposed with the question of why a PC should be different?

Zak Sabbath said...

PCs are different than players in a lot of ways--in nearly every case because it's more fun to play that way.

Unknown said...

@ FM Geist

Oh god, you're right! I am a puppet. What infernal force drives me? My new life quest is to discover how I can reassert control! Except... my desire to assert control is doubtless but the result of the continued machinations of the being that tugs upon my strings! By experiencing this existential crisis I play right into its hands/probably tentacles! Curse you FM Geist for enlightening me to this dark truth! All of my choices are meaningless and always have beeeeen!

But in a game the Pc's are always different than everyone around them because they are being controlled by intelligences other than the one who controls everything else. PC's are always more real to the DM than NPC's because they do things the DM never thought of.

Greg Perkins said...

Good distinctions and debate.

On the Charisma tests in particular, if someone makes a reasoned or clever argument to an NPC, but their character's Charisma is sub-optimal, just think of all the poor guileless people out there who have great ideas to share with people, but manage to botch the delivery.

"You get nervous and start mumbling."

"You realise, too late, that you're standing too close to them while talking, and they're visibly annoyed."

"You try to put your hand on their shoulder but they find the action too familiar."

"You find it difficult to maintain eye contact and come across as untrustworthy."

"You accidentally refer to them as 'you people' and their eyes narrow."

"You find yourself staring at their {insert attractive feature}, which annoys them incredibly."

"You find yourself staring at their {insert unattractive feature}, which annoys/discomfits them incredibly."

"You accidentally make it sound like a threat."

"You accidentally bark it like an order."

{Persuasion}"Before you realise it, you've tagged on, 'If it's not too much trouble?', but they clearly decide it is..."

"You accidentally interrupt them while they're still talking."

Then there's body language; body odour; drunkenness; dialect, dress and social standing; and any number of things the character may not realise makes them unconvincing or unappealing.

"You only realise when you've made your impassioned plea that you've had your finger intently mining your left nostril the entire time."

You get the idea...