Stream of Consciousness Ranting - Roles, Playing and Games

I did try other titles for this post, but this one seems the most accurate. It may help to read some of this post in the voice of an annoyed John Hurt, as seen most recently in his role as The War Doctor on Doctor Who.

Every now and again I'll run into someone online in the role playing game community that espouses something that goes against everything I believe about gaming. I tilt my head to one side like a confused Schnauzer and read and re-read the sentence, hoping that it will make sense upon a second or third try.

This rarely helps.

I was directed to a post about skills in games the other day, where the poster asserted that a skill used for disarming traps and other mechanical puzzles was inappropriate, and should be handled entirely by player skill. Even just typing that sentence there was enough to make me look around the room in bafflement - those are all English words, and the sentence structure is grammatically correct, but there's no sense to be made of the result. We don't arm-wrestle to determine the outcome of an attempt to lift a rusty portcullis and we don't force mages to actually incant at the table or carry small pouches of bat guano to cast spells. I can't remember a time that we had an actual person of the clergy at the table to perform faith healing, either.

So why on god's green earth would you think it appropriate to rely on player skill to disarm a trap, trigger a secret door or repair an ancient dwarven mechanism? If I'm a genius (and I'm not saying I am, but it's kind of you to suggest... oh, you weren't thinking that? I'll move on...), it should have little bearing on my character's ability to handle these sorts of tasks - especially if my character is the axe-wielding savage Grogmund of the Oppressive Stench, and I've made intelligence and wisdom my dump stats!

Now, don't get me wrong - I think that it is important to play out what you do when you're disarming the flaming oil trap, or restarting the ancient perpetual motion machine. But don't think that just because you, as the player, have a clever idea about how that's supposed to work you should just have it happen. If you're playing a character who would never figure that out, then you're breaking character, and deserve to earn no XP for that part of the session. If, on the other hand, your character is skilled at such things, then just because you don't have the puzzle figured out for yourself should have no bearing at all on your character's ability to figure it out.

But, I hear some of you asking, what about the enjoyment of the players at figuring out the puzzle for themselves? My answer? Perhaps they're playing the wrong game. This is, after all, a Role Playing game. If they got into it to solve Rubik's Cubes, well they may be barking up the wrong tree.

This sort of play was depicted recently in an online cartoon about Role Playing versus Roll Playing (lord, I rolled my eyes so hard just typing that out that I severed my optic nerves...) and I'm not espousing the opposite side of that argument, either. Lock picking, trap setting, princess wooing, puzzle solving, code breaking, computer hacking - not one of these should boil down to the results of a single roll of the dice. Every one of them is an opportunity for actual role playing to occur, and every one of them can benefit from the wee added complexity of making them into a more formal long-form challenge that requires a series of successful rolls against appropriate skills. This is, again, a Role Playing game. You don't get to do anything without actually playing the role.

Am I the outlier here? Is this concept so foreign to other players of the games we all love?


  1. There's deep history here, or at least as deep as this hobby has. In the early days it was all about your playing skill: if you're playing chess, you use your knowledge of the game to play as effectively as you can, and if you were playing Gary's game, you used your knowledge of that to play as effectively as you could. If that meant memorising a sequence of things to check each time you opened a door, well, so be it. As far as I can tell, what we now tend to consider the core elements of RPGs, the creation and play of a consistent character who isn't the same as the player, were very much afterthoughts to the miniature wargame. (Take a look some time at the D&D4 advice on role-playing. It won't take long, there's less than a page of it. Basically it comes down to "say funny things that make your character more distinctive than just a level 4 fighter with a +1 sword". There's no suggestion that you'd ever role-play anything disadvantageous.)

    So when people get onto an OSR kick, they tend to follow that principle and resist any later innovations, just as they like to stick with the original rules that say all elves are "elf" rather than "fighter" or "M-U".

    Here's a trickier one: social skills. For many players, it's much more fun to give a little speech than just to say "I roll against Diplomacy". How much benefit should they get from making a good speech?

    Incidentally, I'm blogging at .

    1. I definitely put social skills on the same list as any of the technical or combat skills. Of course I want you to speak your mind and play the role to the hilt. But it will still come down to your roll to determine how well your *character* delivers the lines. I am a bit of a hard-ass when it comes to this - I don't give any real bonus for what you say, any more than I'm going to penalize the player who at least tries, and sounds like a bumpkin or an ass in the process, but has the 18 CHA and twelve ranks in Diplomacy. The key element there is that you try - you say *something* and take on the role you've devised for yourself.

      If all you want to do is roll the dice, you should be happier with a board game or wargame. If all you want to do is act things out and have your real world intellect and charisma be relevant, I'm pretty sure there's a LARP out there with your name on it.

      Oh, and consider yourself added to the blogroll. Thanks for your consistent patronage. :)

    2. I think this is a player expectations thing, really. The people I usually game with are quite happy to have a talk and then roll the skill, and don't necessarily expect "+2 for a really good speech" as a formal modifier — but being convincing in person does potentially alter the GM's mood.

    3. I won't lie, I'm actually a big fan of applying something from my other post yesterday - declare broadly what you intend to do - "I'll lay on the flattery and try to get her to come back to my room" - then roll the dice to see how well you do - "Ooh, a 4, that's not going to go well" - and then play out the results, including the seduction attempt - "'Hey, baby, you come here often?'"

  2. I let my players go either way. If they are talkative and want to actually give the speech word for word and I like it at all, bonuses abound. If they aren't type A and more introverted and just want to roll public speaking, okay with that too. Depending on the table I have and is composition, I tend to bounce around. Sometimes forgoing the roll altogether.

  3. Speaking of acting out spellcasting, there was a game kickstarted not long ago that had a similar mechanic.


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