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

jasper

Rotten DM
I don't understand why players in these descriptions don't have a standard process written down and given to the DM.

"What do you do?"

"Door Opening Pattern Alpha, with Mondo on point."

...
"How do you search?

"Search Pattern 2, and..."

"There's a chest in the corner Mary."

"Oh, right. Search Pattern 3, that's the one with the cleric in the hallway in case the object is trapped. Yeah we go with 3."

It's only tedious ONCE.
We did have SOP and they were. Hand written. Then Typed. Then word process and printed on dot matrix. Then Word 97 and printed out. Depending on what year it was. And there were not take backs. So if the Thief on step 5 b Rolled badly and triggered the trap. Then dead thief. But if 5B was not needed the player did not need to roll.
 

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jasper

Rotten DM
Skilled play = system mastery + master of the dm. Oh we playing in oofta dungeon. Fire ball the third room on the second level because it always oil and gasoline trap. Oh Jasper is dming. Every third dragon we meet is going to crazy but nice. Be nice to and let Jasper have fun playing the crazy guy. um Dragon.
 


Voadam

Legend
I think things like the following are fun:

Player "I go up and poke the chest in the otherwise empty room with my spear because its probably a mimic. If its not I will check the chest carefully for traps before opening it."

DM "OK, when you go up you trigger the concealed pit in front of the chest."


Ok, think that through. What are they going to do the time after that?

And when the pressure plate in from of the chest triggers the spear trap in the ceiling, what are they going to do after THAT?

All you are doing in that case is starting an arms race. This will result in one of two things; Paranoid timid pixel-bitching players, or (to borrow the apt term above) the Leroy Jenkins Effect. Where players just assume you are going to GOTCHA! them no matter what you do, so fine, just bring it and lets move on.

Skilled play needs to be meaningful; you need to assume at a certain point that they do all the obvious things, and that doing the obvious things works most of the time, and that non-obvious challenges are where you need to test them. And in order to test them, there has to be some element of the environment that you describe that would allow them to make a smart play (or not) or some circumstance that means they CAN'T do the SOP.

Sure it could be me as DM making up the challenge on the spot to gotcha them.

But I've used a lot of modules that have decoy side routes with traps, or defined traps in the vault. I've had players think of one thing but not the actual predefined thing that was there and so it came into play and hit them. I've had a PC in my game charge into a module's predefined hut to get the evil winged trickster faeries roosting in the eves and fall through the branches covering the pit in the hut.

As a PC I've rushed ahead as a fast monk to engage embedded missile fire enemies in a ruined fortress and fallen straight into an illusion covered pit.

I didn't feel that I was screwing over the PC or being screwed over by the DM as a PC, it is a challenge in D&D that hit and was fun. I didn't feel dumb for not perfectly avoiding every trap even though I was actively working to play my smart tactical character smartly, my monk went "Doh! Nice one." got to use his slow fall and then jump up the other side.

Neither my players, nor I started to pixel bitch the dungeons in response.

For my preferences as a player I found it more fun to fall into an illusion covered pit from me taking the bait to engage those well set up enemies rather than from my character failing a roll.
 

The OP insist on the tactical aspect of DnD, but what if a player make a bold move with role play motivation. The move may be poor tactically but perfectly in line with personality, bond, flaw of the character. Does this move is skilled play?
 

ph0rk

Friendship is Magic, and Magic is Heresy.
The OP insist on the tactical aspect of DnD, but what if a player make a bold move with role play motivation. The move may be poor tactically but perfectly in line with personality, bond, flaw of the character. Does this move is skilled play?
I've rarely seen such a bold move pan out if the player didn't have the charisma to make it entertaining. So, I'd argue that sort of stuff is much more about the personality characteristics of the player than skilled play.
 

Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
The OP insist on the tactical aspect of DnD, but what if a player make a bold move with role play motivation. The move may be poor tactically but perfectly in line with personality, bond, flaw of the character. Does this move is skilled play?

If skilled play is our primary priority than you just treat it like any other moment and follow the internal logic of the fiction/world. Poor play means poor results.
 

pemerton

Legend
The OP insist on the tactical aspect of DnD, but what if a player make a bold move with role play motivation. The move may be poor tactically but perfectly in line with personality, bond, flaw of the character. Does this move is skilled play?
Not in the meaning being used in this thread, no.

For a system where the sort of thing you describe works well, you need a decidedly non-old school system. 4e D&D is one. HeroWars/Quest is another.
 

I've rarely seen such a bold move pan out if the player didn't have the charisma to make it entertaining. So, I'd argue that sort of stuff is much more about the personality characteristics of the player than skilled play.
As we play 5ed our table seem to improve being less cautious, more able to play in character and with the story building. It makes session less boring, more unpredictable.
Otherwise if you play as a military tactical team, as years go by, you learn more and more every little trick, and you steamroll every encounter and challenge.
 

Not in the meaning being used in this thread, no.

For a system where the sort of thing you describe works well, you need a decidedly non-old school system. 4e D&D is one. HeroWars/Quest is another.
I understand, but for 4ed it was maybe the edition the more focus on success, team work, math optimization.
Encounters were not meant to be stop in the middle, skill challenge interrupt or change meaning. 4ed was really skilled play like the OP describe.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
The OP insist on the tactical aspect of DnD, but what if a player make a bold move with role play motivation. The move may be poor tactically but perfectly in line with personality, bond, flaw of the character. Does this move is skilled play?

Great question! Building on what @ph0rk and @Campbell already said, I would answer like this-

First, please remember that in writing the OP, I was being descriptive, not normative. I am not advocating for any particular play style. Instead, I was looking at the origins of "skilled play" because I think that the assumptions inherent in it underlie a few conversations I see that keep popping up here.

Second, "skilled play" is jargon- a term of art. It is describing a certain approach to TTRPGs, and does not mean that other ways of playing are not skilled.

Third, it's not about combat (or not just about combat), so it isn't really about the "tactical" aspect of D&D. In fact, certain aspects of skilled play are very hard to translate from the origins of D&D through 5e, because of the differences (at least arguably) in lethality.

Now, I think that your question is incredibly interesting because it goes to an issue that I wanted to include in the OP, but didn't because of the Wall of Text issue I tend to have. Call it the "intelligence" debate. In early D&D (with skilled play), intelligence was often then dump stat. Remember- with skilled play and reliance on player knowledge, and the ability to solve puzzles and riddles (for example) with what the player knew, the character's intelligence didn't matter much.

Going away from the skilled play model to one where you are playing your character not just to your flaws, bonds and ideals, but also roleplaying to your abilities, can present a challenge when it comes to dumping mental statistics- which is why we can see debates between people who look for ways to validate skilled play (playing with a role-played high intelligence) despite having a character with a low intelligence.

But to answer your specific question- No. In a pure skilled play scenario, roleplaying would be seen as being subordinate to skilled play. You would try to come up with a RP reason for your skilled play, but you wouldn't do something "stupid" (aka, bad for the prospects of the party or your character) solely because of role-play reasons. Aspects of this continue today, when you still have tables acknowledge meta rules in D&D (like no PvP).

Does that make it more clear?
 

I think things like the following are fun:

Player "I go up and poke the chest in the otherwise empty room with my spear because its probably a mimic. If its not I will check the chest carefully for traps before opening it."

DM "OK, when you go up you trigger the concealed pit in front of the chest."


Ok, think that through. What are they going to do the time after that?

And when the pressure plate in from of the chest triggers the spear trap in the ceiling, what are they going to do after THAT?

All you are doing in that case is starting an arms race. This will result in one of two things; Paranoid timid pixel-bitching players, or (to borrow the apt term above) the Leroy Jenkins Effect. Where players just assume you are going to GOTCHA! them no matter what you do, so fine, just bring it and lets move on.

Skilled play needs to be meaningful; you need to assume at a certain point that they do all the obvious things, and that doing the obvious things works most of the time, and that non-obvious challenges are where you need to test them. And in order to test them, there has to be some element of the environment that you describe that would allow them to make a smart play (or not) or some circumstance that means they CAN'T do the SOP.

A good point. Players should be reasonably specific about what their characters are doing in the fiction. And DMs should seek to eliminate GOTCHA!'s from their games by being reasonably descriptive about environments and telegraphing potential dangers.
 
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pemerton

Legend
for 4ed it was maybe the edition the more focus on success, team work, math optimization.
Encounters were not meant to be stop in the middle, skill challenge interrupt or change meaning. 4ed was really skilled play like the OP describe.
I'm not sure what you mean by your second sentence. But I GMed a fair bit of 4e and it was never skilled play in the OP sense. The GM techniques I used were borrowed from Burning Wheel and HeroWars/Quest.

(It was good for me that it was not skilled play. That's a style I've never been very good at as a GM or player! I'm too impatient and invested.)
 

GSHamster

Adventurer
Most of the comments are about how players play in skilled play, but it's also worth looking at how the DM "wins" in skilled play.

In my mind the DM is like a handicapper in horse races. She doesn't win if the players lose. That's too easy to do. She wins if:
  1. The players almost lose.
  2. The players lose, but agree they lost because of a mistake they made.
I'm disregarding fudging here. In my mind, a DM fudging in skilled play is kind of like conceding that she lost the game, that she misjudged when setting up the scenario or adventure.
 

Great question! Building on what @ph0rk and @Campbell already said, I would answer like this-

First, please remember that in writing the OP, I was being descriptive, not normative. I am not advocating for any particular play style. Instead, I was looking at the origins of "skilled play" because I think that the assumptions inherent in it underlie a few conversations I see that keep popping up here.

Second, "skilled play" is jargon- a term of art. It is describing a certain approach to TTRPGs, and does not mean that other ways of playing are not skilled.

Third, it's not about combat (or not just about combat), so it isn't really about the "tactical" aspect of D&D. In fact, certain aspects of skilled play are very hard to translate from the origins of D&D through 5e, because of the differences (at least arguably) in lethality.

Now, I think that your question is incredibly interesting because it goes to an issue that I wanted to include in the OP, but didn't because of the Wall of Text issue I tend to have. Call it the "intelligence" debate. In early D&D (with skilled play), intelligence was often then dump stat. Remember- with skilled play and reliance on player knowledge, and the ability to solve puzzles and riddles (for example) with what the player knew, the character's intelligence didn't matter much.

Going away from the skilled play model to one where you are playing your character not just to your flaws, bonds and ideals, but also roleplaying to your abilities, can present a challenge when it comes to dumping mental statistics- which is why we can see debates between people who look for ways to validate skilled play (playing with a role-played high intelligence) despite having a character with a low intelligence.

But to answer your specific question- No. In a pure skilled play scenario, roleplaying would be seen as being subordinate to skilled play. You would try to come up with a RP reason for your skilled play, but you wouldn't do something "stupid" (aka, bad for the prospects of the party or your character) solely because of role-play reasons. Aspects of this continue today, when you still have tables acknowledge meta rules in D&D (like no PvP).

Does that make it more clear?
At bit more!
I found strange that you want be inclusive for various style of play, but in the meanwhile you restraint your definition of skilled play to old gygaxian play style.
Skilled play can be open up to being good at the play style(s) your table focus on.
Make voice and good punch line require player skill.
Anticipate dungeon crawl traps require other skills.
Resolve puzzle, complex plot and intrigue required other type of skills.
Use at best game mechanics require other skills.
 

I'm not sure what you mean by your second sentence. But I GMed a fair bit of 4e and it was never skilled play in the OP sense. The GM techniques I used were borrowed from Burning Wheel and HeroWars/Quest.

(It was good for me that it was not skilled play. That's a style I've never been very good at as a GM or player! I'm too impatient and invested.)
I don’t want to start a word fight, but my feeling about my years of 4ed are that in 4ed you are encourage to be good at game mechanics to have fun. In term of skilled play, the use of power in right order at the right timing, positioning your pc at the right optimal square,makes you better at the game.
In 4ed I was playing a game all the time.
In 5ed in some occasion I can forget I play a game.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
At bit more!
I found strange that you want be inclusive for various style of play, but in the meanwhile you restraint your definition of skilled play to old gygaxian play style.
.

It’s not a term that I invented. That’s why I made sure to have the big disclaimer in the OP for people who hadn’t seen the term before.
 

Pauper

That guy, who does that thing.
I'm leery of the concept of 'skilled play' as described here, because I think RPGs have evolved past their initial Gygaxian origins and the best ones are no longer about what those old-school games focused on.

It's certainly possible to incorporate win conditions into RPG play; it was done in the olden days in tournament play (where the core win condition was frequently 'how far into the dungeon did you get in the allotted time?'), and you could still do a game like that today -- I distinctly remember doing Delves at GenCon during Fourth Edition days where the goal was to get through a three-encounter dungeon in an hour, and you got tokens based on how far you got through that dungeon that you could cash in for prizes. In this sense, you could argue that 'skilled play' is the trait that gets you most consistently to the end of the Delve. But even then, what counts as 'skilled play' changes based on the conditions of the Delve -- if all the PCs are pre-generated, for example, then jmartkdr2's definition of player skill doesn't apply, or applies only peripherally (in the sense that you could arguably use a skill in building characters to identify the most efficiently-built pre-gen and play that exclusively).

Most games are not Delves, though, and as noted in the various SOP-stories, trying to impose such a condition on a game tends to warp it in directions that take it away from being what I'd consider an RPG. Let me give you another example:

A fairly common 'win condition' for exploring dungeons back in the day was the goal of liberating all the treasure that the DM had secreted in the dungeon when designing it. It makes sense why PCs would want to do this -- heading into dungeons in search of treasure was pretty much the point of the game back then -- but as soon as the DM accepts this as a competition, with the players 'winning' if they find all the loot and the DM 'winning' if significant caches of loot remain undiscovered, then the arms race begins. The DM hides treasures in secret compartments, in secret treasure rooms, behind impassable obstacles, in rooms at the end of miles-long passages that can only be traversed by creatures the size of mice, on the Ethereal plane, in other extra-dimensional spaces. Eventually you get to the point where you can only find the treasure by passing through the dimensional portal that can only be reached if you're swallowed whole by the tarrasque.

I could see someone saying 'yes, exactly, that's what I'm talking about -- player skill is the players learning how to defeat their DM's plans to hide treasure from them and extract maximum loot from every dungeon'. But what does this mean for campaigns that don't do this? Are those players somehow 'less skilled' because they don't have to jump through all the hoops that the old-school DM requires of his players? Is a game where SOP-style door opening tactics aren't required less satisfying than one that does?

Is a game where you don't have to tap ahead of you with a ten-foot pole when walking down every dungeon passage, somehow a game where 'player skill' isn't as important? Does this mean that games that focuses more heavily on 'player skill' are necessarily less fun?

My feeling is that players have developed the concept of 'player skill' as a justification for going through these kinds of hoops, to make them feel as if they're doing something well by doing these things that don't actually need to be done at all to play a satisfying and engaging RPG. And while I can accept that there are people who recall that style of old-school play who either miss it in modern play or deliberately choose to play older games (like OSR games) that feature it, it doesn't surprise me that this style of play has been deliberately de-emphasized in modern RPGs to help them appeal to a larger cross-section of potential RPG players.

Based on the above, and taking those implications to their logical conclusions, I say that 'skilled play' in the Gygaxian sense doesn't really exist. It's just your DM being a dick and then, when you complain about it, responding with 'git gud' and you end up agreeing with him.

--
Pauper
 

It’s not a term that I invented. That’s why I made sure to have the big disclaimer in the OP for people who hadn’t seen the term before.
We are almost in 50 AG (after Gygax), I think some concept like skilled play can evolve.
You have well describe the origin of the concept, but what do we do with it in 2021?
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
I'm leery of the concept of 'skilled play' as described here, because I think RPGs have evolved past their initial Gygaxian origins and the best ones are no longer about what those old-school games focused on.

It's certainly possible to incorporate win conditions into RPG play; it was done in the olden days in tournament play (where the core win condition was frequently 'how far into the dungeon did you get in the allotted time?'), and you could still do a game like that today -- I distinctly remember doing Delves at GenCon during Fourth Edition days where the goal was to get through a three-encounter dungeon in an hour, and you got tokens based on how far you got through that dungeon that you could cash in for prizes. In this sense, you could argue that 'skilled play' is the trait that gets you most consistently to the end of the Delve. But even then, what counts as 'skilled play' changes based on the conditions of the Delve -- if all the PCs are pre-generated, for example, then jmartkdr2's definition of player skill doesn't apply, or applies only peripherally (in the sense that you could arguably use a skill in building characters to identify the most efficiently-built pre-gen and play that exclusively).

Most games are not Delves, though, and as noted in the various SOP-stories, trying to impose such a condition on a game tends to warp it in directions that take it away from being what I'd consider an RPG. Let me give you another example:

A fairly common 'win condition' for exploring dungeons back in the day was the goal of liberating all the treasure that the DM had secreted in the dungeon when designing it. It makes sense why PCs would want to do this -- heading into dungeons in search of treasure was pretty much the point of the game back then -- but as soon as the DM accepts this as a competition, with the players 'winning' if they find all the loot and the DM 'winning' if significant caches of loot remain undiscovered, then the arms race begins. The DM hides treasures in secret compartments, in secret treasure rooms, behind impassable obstacles, in rooms at the end of miles-long passages that can only be traversed by creatures the size of mice, on the Ethereal plane, in other extra-dimensional spaces. Eventually you get to the point where you can only find the treasure by passing through the dimensional portal that can only be reached if you're swallowed whole by the tarrasque.

I could see someone saying 'yes, exactly, that's what I'm talking about -- player skill is the players learning how to defeat their DM's plans to hide treasure from them and extract maximum loot from every dungeon'. But what does this mean for campaigns that don't do this? Are those players somehow 'less skilled' because they don't have to jump through all the hoops that the old-school DM requires of his players? Is a game where SOP-style door opening tactics aren't required less satisfying than one that does?

Is a game where you don't have to tap ahead of you with a ten-foot pole when walking down every dungeon passage, somehow a game where 'player skill' isn't as important? Does this mean that games that focuses more heavily on 'player skill' are necessarily less fun?

My feeling is that players have developed the concept of 'player skill' as a justification for going through these kinds of hoops, to make them feel as if they're doing something well by doing these things that don't actually need to be done at all to play a satisfying and engaging RPG. And while I can accept that there are people who recall that style of old-school play who either miss it in modern play or deliberately choose to play older games (like OSR games) that feature it, it doesn't surprise me that this style of play has been deliberately de-emphasized in modern RPGs to help them appeal to a larger cross-section of potential RPG players.

Based on the above, and taking those implications to their logical conclusions, I say that 'skilled play' in the Gygaxian sense doesn't really exist. It's just your DM being a dick and then, when you complain about it, responding with 'git gud' and you end up agreeing with him.

--
Pauper
So no. RPGs have not evolved past anything. New RPGs with new goals and areas of focus have come into being, but the old RPGs are still present and doing well. Nor is anything wrong with playing the old way if that's what is fun for you. You aren't being a dick by playing the old way. They are still an RPG if you play that way. It's just something different than you like, which is fine. You can play the newer RPGs that you enjoy.
 

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