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    On 5E Skills (aka How Game System Affects Immersion)

    This is a topic I've found myself discussing in various forms over the last couple of days. I'm not sure why it's come up so much right now, but I've found myself discussing it in more than once context - a couple of threads here at EN World, an extended Twitter conversation last night, and more. So this is an atempt to compile my thoughts on the matter, partly cobbled together from my previous, scattered, incoherent posts both on Twitter and in the following threads:

    I think this may be a contentious discussion; it's important to understand this is just my opinion on my games. I'll also note that I know no more than anyone else, and less than many - I haven't seen any playtest material or been given any special insight into D&D Next. So this is all conjecture based on the little we do know.

    The subject, in broad strokes, is the way a game's rules and how they're presented can influence the very way a player interacts with a game and a game world. One just has to look at the many different fantasy RPGs on the market to see that different rules structures directly influence how a game is played - not just in terms of the rules being used, but also the way players immerse themselves, the language they use, and so on. These things are all subtly nudged - sometimes intentionally, sometimes not - in one direction or another by the way the rules are presented to you.

    Now, of course, I know that this is not a universal rule. I know that you, reading this right now, are a superlative DM and none of the following examples would EVER find their way onto YOUR game table. You're just that damn good! I, unfortunately, am merely average. Maybe I'm the only average DM in a world of DMing geniuses (which I guess makes them average and me poor) but I suspect that what I'm about to talk about is not a rare occurrence.

    One common criticism levelled at D&D 4th Edition is that the game tends towards the "gamist" - by that, I mean that players all too often think in terms of the game rules rather than in terms of their actions within the game world. So, rather than threatening the orc by crushing a mug in your hand (an example Rodney Thompson used in a recent column), the player "uses the Intimidate skill". This extends beyond skills into the power structure of D&D 4th Edition, but in my mind it's to do with a particular aspect of player psychology: that when presented with a list of things you can do, you are instinctively predisposed to simply choose an option from that list. You're not interacting in an immersive sense with the game world; you're choosing an option from your character sheet.

    Moreover, you're not choosing an action, you're choosing which rule you will use. You're deciding to use this skill or that power. This is exacerbated by a list of skills which are - on the whole - almost verbs in their naming convention. So by extension you're choosing from a finite list of actions defined by the skills on your character sheet.

    I don't think this is limited to 4E, by the way, although it tends to be exaggerated by finite power lists and skill challenges in that system. 3.x suffers from it, too. I think (if I understand what I'm seeing in recent blog posts and columns on DDI) that the structure of 5E will tend away from it, though, as I'll explain shortly.

    As I mentioned earlier, the usual response to this is "never at MY table!" - and if that's your response, then I envy you. You're a better DM than me. If you're immune to the effect of rules structures, I suspect you're a rare beast, albeit a lucky one. It also probably doesn't matter which game you buy; for many of us, though, different game systems result in different styles of play.

    So why do I think 5E is going to improve this aspect of gameplay? I think the two following things combine in a subtle way to affect that trend:

    1. Skills are ability checks (with modifiers for an open-ended list of things you might be good at), not a finite list of 20 "doing words" like "Intimidate";
    2. A check is not always needed, depending on the ablity score.
    I think there is a difference between "I use Intimidate" and "I make a Charisma check". Most of the skills in 3.x/4E are presented as actual verbs - they sound like actions. "Intimidate" sounds like an action; "Charisma" does not. In addition, "Charisma" is much broader than "Intimidate". So the mechanic you use does not have the same name as the action you're taking, meaning it's less likely that you'll simply conflate the two.

    It's a subtle difference, but I feel it can tie into how a player sees and interacts with the rules structure. I'm not saying it magically overrides a particular group's playstyle; just that it has a net average little nudge towards descriptions rather than skill names.

    But - and here's the kicker. None of that matters; it won't often come up, because this structure makes it difficult for players to declare when ability checks are needed. This ties in to the other clever part - not every action needs a check: some of it you can do automatically with a good ability score, and therefore the player himself doesn't know whether a check is required unless the DM tells him so. This is a change from 3E/4E, where easy actions just had a low DC - technically a check was still needed, so the player knew he could declare he was making a Climb check and that the DC was (probably) 5. In 5E, the check is dispensed with for certain actions, but the player doesn't know.

    This means we have a player not being able to say "I make a Strength check". He doesn't know that a Strength check is needed. If ability checks are only called for by the DM in response to appropriate input from the player, the player has no choice but to say "I crush a mug."

    He can't say "I make a Strength check" because the DM replies "I'll decide when you need to make a Strength check, thank you very much; now what are you doing?"

    Player: "Oh, I'm crushing a mug."

    DM: [knowing the character has 17 Strength and the mug is flimsy] "You're a strong guy; the mug crushes easily."

    In the latter case, no check was even needed. In some cases, a check might be needed. But the player is no position to determine whether or not an ability check is required, so is unable to declare he's making one. All he can do is describe his action and wait for the DM to either tell him what happens or ask for an ability check. The player doesn't say "I'm making an ability check", because unless the DM specifically asks for one - he's not making an ability check.

    Don't get me wrong - it's not absolute. It wont' magically change peoples' speech patterns. It's a nudge, not mind control. Things like "I'm using STR to indimidate him" - while of course you could still utter those words, presenting the rules in this way will help tend to encourage people to say "I'm crushing a mug" instead.

    That's gotten a bit rambly. A shorter version is to say that I think that the system is being designed to encourage players to take an action in the game world rather than select a game mechanic.

    I fully realise that the games currently advise you to do the former; that that's how they're intended to be used; and that good DMs may not be as affected by it as, say, people like me. But I strongly feel that the game system itself has as important - if not more important - an effect on how the player approaches the world as does the DMing advice in the book (and the examples of play and so on).

    That's why we like different game systems. They feel different. Otherwise every fantasy RPG would feel exactly the same, and we all know that's not the case.

    Now cue responses full of people describing the superior - correct! - way in which they do it, and why anyone who doesn't is dumb.
    Last edited by Morrus; Wednesday, 2nd May, 2012 at 08:16 PM.

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