D&D General On Skilled Play: D&D as a Game

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I lost my last topic, so I am taking a brief detour into a topic that has lurked in the background in quite a few recent threads (especially given the number of topics we've had regarding D&D & OSR). A few threads have discussed how difficult D&D should be, and what consequences there should be in the game (such as death, level drains, etc.). Underlying a number of these topics is the shared concept of skilled play.

NECESSARY DISCLAIMER (PLEASE READ): By using the term "skilled play," I am using it in a certain "jargon-y" way that differentiates between player skill and character skill. This is not meant to say that people that do not prefer "skilled play" as a style are "unskilled," nor does it mean anything pejorative about any other style of game. I am only using this term because it has a common currency. As a general rule, I prefer to avoid jargon.

Dave Arneson was prepared for Wesley's Braunstein game. It was a simple scenario ... a banana republic in the throws of revolution. Arneson would receive his points for distributing leaflets. But Arneson convinced other players, using his fake CIA badge, that he was an undercover agent and easily "won" the scenario by stealing all of the money of the country, boarding a helicopter, and casually throwing down all the leaflets on the riots and burning embers below.


1. What is Skilled Play? D&D as a Game.
I don't even have any good skills. You know, like nunchuck skills, bow hunting skills, computer hacking skills.

I wrote above that the usual use of "skilled play" is what differentiates player skill from character skill. To use an easy example of this, think of the reliance in old-school modules on puzzles. My avatar is from the Pharoah series- both Pharoah and Martek were known for their puzzles, and even have a Sphinx with riddles. These types of things were common tests of player knowledge and ability. To think of the difference, and make it simplified and clear:

The Sphinx asks the party, "I disappear when you say my name. What am I?"
Skilled Play: Does anyone playing (the players) know the answer?
Otherwise ... : Do you have something on your character sheet that would let you know the answer? Intelligence check?

The assumed model of play for early D&D was skilled play.

Although he was a storyteller, there was no effort to thread a plot through his dungeon. Keep in mind that this was the dawn of role-playing and some concepts of 2020 gaming weren't known then. It was entirely find the monsters, fight the monster, and take his treasure. Some of the dungeon chambers were filled with surprises. There were creatures hiding above the doors, there were creatures looking like tables and chests, and there were surprises in plain sight that would attack as we moved in the rooms. It got so that I would say upon entering any new area, “Gary, I look up, and down, and all around the area before I walk in. That stopped a lot of ugly surprises from happening.

We learned to be very cautious in Gary's dungeon. We started tossing torches and then lanterns into dark rooms. It wasn't too many burnt scrolls and broken potion bottles to have us change our ways. Soon, we were tossing in coins with Continual Light tossed on them. This caution had consequences as wandering creatures would be attracted to the magical light.

-James Ward

The reasoning behind this was, well, fairly simple. D&D was a game. Like any game, you could play it well (or poorly!). While there was definitely roleplaying, it was rarely the full-on RPing we sometimes see today. To put it in terms of acting; some people prefer to think of RPing like Daniel Day Lewis- to fully inhabit a character. But early RPing was more like being a movie star, like Tom Cruise. Sure, he's playing a role, but he's also, always, Tom Cruise.


2. Cool cool. But ... what about Metagaming?
I think it's wrong that only Hasbro makes Monopoly.

"Metagame, in Dungeons & Dragons, refers to the use of information by a player whose character would not have that information or perspective. Using metagame knowledge is referred to as metagame thinking or metagaming, and is often discouraged."

So now we get into the more contentious area of skilled play; the issue of metagaming. If you look above to what James Ward wrote (and what others say), you will see that there is an evolution in play. Bob I might get killed by traps below him, so Bob II looks down, but gets killed by traps above him. Bob III looks above and below, but gets hit by traps to the side. By the time Bob IV is rolling through the dungeon, he's looking up, down, and all around.

But wait- why is Bob IV doing that? Because that's how Bob I-III died! And how does Bob IV know that? Because the player knows that. Sure, you can retcon some sort of reason ("And the news of the deaths of all adventurers shall be read out in the Ye Ancient and Hallowed Halls of Bob...."), but in reality it's the acquisition of player skill- when Bob IV dies and Legolas I is created, Legolas I will also be looking out. This is similar to the age-old "troll debate." When a character see a troll regenerating, does the character know what to do to end the regeneration?

Well, back when the game was still new, it was just assumed that players would know these things, such as information about monsters, and use them. In 1977, Dragon Magazine published an article in Dragon #10 about how to generate random monsters, because "the players always know too much. ... The answer is to occasionally throw a monster at the party that keeps them on their toes, one that they have never seen before because it is unique. No rules cover it, so they have to find out the hard way what it’s like."

This doesn't mean that certain activities were not considered beyond the pale; for example, I am hard-pressed to think of anytime when (for example) a player buying a module and reading through it prior to playing it wouldn't be considered poor form, if not outright cheating. But while roleplaying was always part of the game, a key differentiating component, there wasn't the same issue with metagaming because with the skilled play paradigm, it was assumed that you were playing a game and act accordingly.


3. Who Cares? What Does Skilled Play Have to do with the Price of Licorice in Scandinavia, Anyway?
All I ask is the chance to prove that money can't make me happy.

D&D relies on dice, and a certain amount of randomness, in order to allow for unexpected and emergent stories through play. Skilled play is an attempt to stack the odds in your favor. To use an analogy, which, while not perfect, may be illuminating-
Poker is a random game, and you cannot choose what you will be dealt (just as you cannot choose if you will roll a 1 or a 20). It is possible for someone who has just learned the rules to win a single hand of poker. Or even to win multiple hands of poker. Over time, however, a person who is skilled at poker, who understands the rules of the game, the odds, the statistics, and how to read people and bet will win more often.

And an important part of poker, for many people, is the risk and the reward. Yes, sometimes people get together and play "penny poker" or they can practice no-stakes poker against a computer opponent; but there is something fundamentally different about playing poker when there are actual stakes involved.

Fundamentally, this is in many ways similar to certain models of "old school" play. Because of the nature of the game and the randomness, even skilled play cannot reduce your risk to zero. You can prepare, you can research, you can load up on protection, and you might just have that one unlucky day, that one bad beat. But the enjoyment of the game and of skilled play comes from the success despite the risks. Even moreso when the success is not merely due to your character (your cards), but due to your play.

So when there is a conversation various issues in D&D revolving around risk, whether it's death, or level drains, or traps, or "save v. death" or any number of other ways that some people have to increase the stakes and consequences in the game, it's not about bringing back a rule that is unfun any more than someone would say, "I like playing poker with money because I find it fun when I go all-in and lose everything."

Instead, it's a desire to have stakes and consequences that matter to skilled play; not just narrative consequences that matter to roleplay.

Anyway, those are some thoughts after reading through some threads. I want to emphasize that I am not advocating for any style of play, but I found the topic itself to be interesting, and I am sure other people will have more interesting things to say in the remainder of the thread!
 

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Occasionally a player will say something like "Is it metagaming if we stop to talk through this?" when faced with a thorny situation. I generally tell them that that's okay, it's not metagaming - there are just places where the gamist and simulationist elements bump together. Total immersion vs. playing a game. Trying to figure out a puzzle, or strategizing how to deal with a prickly NPC, those are some of the places.

I love old-school play, but hours of poking things with ten-foot poles can get old. There's something to be said for a bit of that fearful spice, but something eventually has to happen. A skilled player might come up with a way to avoid the trap that causes all those skeletons to rise up and attack, but you know, sometimes the whole group just wants the action to happen. Sometimes the best thing can be an unskilled player just doing the impulsive thing. It's a weird balance.
 



Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
You know, sometimes when I'm playing a bard, I look over at someone at the table and think to myself "that PC is never getting bardic inspiration from me." ;)

Ha! That's how the Bards get you. They're the drug dealers of D&D.

"Hey, Warlock ... how ya doin'? Want some bardic inspiration, buddy? C'mon.... you'll like it! Just a taste .... the first one is free!"
 

LoganRan

Explorer
I love old-school play, but hours of poking things with ten-foot poles can get old. There's something to be said for a bit of that fearful spice, but something eventually has to happen. A skilled player might come up with a way to avoid the trap that causes all those skeletons to rise up and attack, but you know, sometimes the whole group just wants the action to happen. Sometimes the best thing can be an unskilled player just doing the impulsive thing. It's a weird balance.
I am a big fan of the "old school" style of D&D but I definitely do not enjoy tapping every bit of the dungeon with a 10' pole. Nor do I enjoy the style that Jim Ward was describing wherein players are terrified of everything that the DM might throw at them.

As I stated in another thread, for me, the greatest enjoyment I get from D&D is the exploration of the unknown. Particularly, if that unknown environment has a lot of riddles, puzzles or just plain odd bits n' bobs.

Metagaming has never been a "bad" thing in my view as it is precisely why I play the game: to challenge myself (the player) to overcome obstacles in the game. The modern game with its heavy reliance on character skill trumping all else has never held great appeal for me.

I would like to follow Snarf Zagyg's lead, however, and stress that I don't believe that one way of gaming is better than another. Deep character immersion and/or story heavy campaigns aren't my cup of tea but I wish anyone who does enjoy that way of playing the game nothing but good times. Roleplay the heck out of your character and have a blast!
 

By using the term "skilled play," I am using it in a certain "jargon-y" way that differentiates between player skill and character skill. This is not meant to say that people that do not prefer "skilled play" as a style are "unskilled," nor does it mean anything pejorative about any other style of game. I am only using this term because it has a common currency. As a general rule, I prefer to avoid jargon.
Haven't even read the rest, but I want to comment on this bit:

The player skill in a character-skill focused game is in making an effective character. It's a bit like winning MtG by having a better deck. A really good deck doesn't need a lot of skill at the table to win, just a good deck, knowledge of how to use it, and not getting hosed by the shuffle.

So in a challenging but-not-OSR game, the pc's win because the players built optimized characters and ran them correctly. Which is, I assume you'll agree, a skill.

Whereas an OSR-ish 'player-skill' game would be more like blind decks - the skill happens at the table as you work with the hand you got. (If I understand correctly.)

And now back to your regular programming.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
The OP would love the Rage Against the Giants campaign I'm in where we all had to take at least 1 level of bard. It's exactly as silly as everyone expected it would be.

I've always looked at D&D as a skilled play game. I don't find this to be incompatible with "roleplaying" since you're just playing the role of an adventurer, determining how the character acts and thinks. I just do not expect players who are interested in success for their characters to play in a way that makes it harder to do that (e.g. pretend not to know the troll is harmed by fire). This is counterintuitive play in my view. They can play it that way, if they want, but I would never demand it as a DM or a fellow player. It doesn't make sense to me to have that expectation when playing a game.

What I can do as DM is to change things from time to time and tell players that I'm doing that. This creates an incentive to verify their assumptions before they act on them. They might or they might not - as above, they can play how they want - but at least they've been warned so that when it turns out the troll is actually healed by fire, they have only themselves to blame.
 


Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Haven't even read the rest, but I want to comment on this bit:

The player skill in a character-skill focused game is in making an effective character. It's a bit like winning MtG by having a better deck. A really good deck doesn't need a lot of skill at the table to win, just a good deck, knowledge of how to use it, and not getting hosed by the shuffle.

So in a challenging but-not-OSR game, the pc's win because the players built optimized characters and ran them correctly. Which is, I assume you'll agree, a skill.

Whereas an OSR-ish 'player-skill' game would be more like blind decks - the skill happens at the table as you work with the hand you got. (If I understand correctly.)

And now back to your regular programming.

I am not sure if I agree with this; I avoided this specific topic in the OP even though I considered it. One aspect of skilled play (pace Gary Gygax, Role-playing Mastery) is knowledge of the rules. I would agree that knowledge of the rules is a part of skilled play, and therefore creating an effective character is also a part of it.

But this is where we get into the "terms as jargon" as opposed to terms in their natural usage. I wanted to make sure that people did not think that other types of play were "unskilled." But I think that when I think of the term "skilled play," as it applies to early D&D, it would not apply to those areas where you optimize the character so that you can avoid using player skill.

It's not that it lacks skill, it's just a different use of the term. Know what I mean?
 

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