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

clearstream

(He, Him)
Just FYI - I don't feel like this conversation is going anywhere (in part because too many threads are being pulled at) and I'm growing increasingly perplexed by the conversation (if I'm wrong, I'm so far away from seeing it that I don't even know how to parse what I'm reading in opposition to my view...this is a bad place to be).

So I'm going to give the rest of the conversation a miss. I'll read any subsequent responses to what I've written, but I'm losing steam/interest in this.
I agree with you and have a hypothesis as to the why.

By using the term "skilled play," I am using it in a certain "jargon-y" way that differentiates between player skill and character skill.

My thesis starts by saying that in an important sense there are no characters in games, there are only players. Say I generate a character for 5e and do nothing further. What happens? Nothing. That character will not go on to explore, fight and carouse by itself. It can only act if I speak its actions.

The only skill that can exist in games is player skill. There are no character skills. Think of an example that came up - persuading the Queen - and compare it with your own discussion of skill. If players are smart enough to compare persuasion ability scores and let the Bard roll, then they have exercised some degree of skill. If the bard player chose expertise persuasion on levelling up, and played to it by pressing for negotiation over combats, then they are exercising some degree of skill. If "skilled play" is a broad church that only cares about players exercising "more skill" then we're not going to get anywhere interesting with it.

"More skill" is a synonym for "any skill" when I don't control the baseline skill of a group, what they count skillful, what the goals of their play are, what they enjoy. If I want to say that some games are harder, but I don't control the referees who enforce "harder", then I can't make any claims to that game being more skillful. In Chess you win by being more skillful than your opponent, but that doesn't imply that you are very skillful... only that you are more skillful than that opponent. Objective skill is assessed in Chess only through the metagame construct of the Elo that measures skill by looking across all games. Elo is a tightly defined construct: how likely am I to defeat a randomly chosen opponent? Our relative Elo scores tell us.

So back to why we are not getting anywhere. If "skilled play" means players playing skillfully, its meaning lands within each context of play. If we think about facets of that - choice of rules, player culture, chosen topics and goals - we find that RPG is highly diverse. Highly proficient play at one table could seem unskillful at another, because the tables prioritise different things.

I've several times suggested that "skilled play" is either a chimera, or it means a preferred style of play that must make some commitments if it is going to land anywhere. It may seem paradoxical, but it's going to have to exclude some types of skillful play. In order to be valuable, "skilled play" must be something I can do unskillfully. I must be able to attempt, unsuccessfully, "skilled play". Bringing more into the church just sets up another church.

Well, I am horrible at explaining things. I'm not saying that there is no such thing as "skilled play". Only that to conflate "skilled play" with skillful play can't go anywhere. If "skilled play" is only skillful play, it can't do interesting work: it has to make other commitments.
 

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pemerton

Legend
If "skilled play" means players playing skillfully, its meaning lands within each context of play. If we think about facets of that - choice of rules, player culture, chosen topics and goals - we find that RPG is highly diverse. Highly proficient play at one table could seem unskillful at another, because the tables prioritise different things.

I've several times suggested that "skilled play" is either a chimera, or it means a preferred style of play that must make some commitments if it is going to land anywhere. It may seem paradoxical, but it's going to have to exclude some types of skillful play. In order to be valuable, "skilled play" must be something I can do unskillfully. I must be able to attempt, unsuccessfully, "skilled play".
I'm not 100% sure I've completely understood the first of these two paragraphs, but I think I agree with it. I know I agree with the second: when I talk about "skilled play" I'm not just meaning play that manifests some reasonable degree of skill. I'm meaning play that given its goals and context, can be expected to answer to some reasonably strict demand that a certain sort of skill be demonstrated. If someone tries but fails, then we have (as you say) "skilled play" that doesn't manifest skill (ie the player engages in play that can be expected to answer to certain demands, and fails to answer to them: s/he plays poorly).
 

FrogReaver

As long as i get to be the frog
Imagine you are playing The Cleric in a DW game, and you have a bond with another PC that says you will 'show them what kindness means', and then a situation comes up. You can execute that bond, which is worth 1 XP, or you can turn them over to the town constabulary to face trial for their crimes. The later will make your life a lot easier and further your goal to become the town's high priest, and the former, involving getting the other PC out of town ahead of the law, will get you on the wanted list (this is an actual DW mechanic which kicks in whenever you do 'town moves'). It is pretty clear you cannot achieve all your goals and each one is mechanically rewarded and has thematic resonance. Now, this is basically just a dilemma,
So, making me choose which goal I want to advance and which goal I want to set back doesn't fit in the box of 'overcoming challenges to achieve my goal'. That's my fundamental problem with calling this skilled.

If there's somehow a 'correct' answer to such a scenario then sure. But my understanding of DW is that the whole point is that scenarios like this aren't supposed to have a correct answer.

skill might amount to taking the best course narratively, with the understanding that later mechanical consequences or rewards will follow (IE you get busted the next time you carouse in this town).
But this 'skill' of choosing the 'best' course of action isn't helping you achieve your goals. No matter what you pick it seems 1 of your goals are advanced and 1 set back. Or at least if there's some correct choice you can make such that you can ultimately obtain both goals, you aren't actually explaining the process of how that works.

@Manbearcat gave an example of DW play where mechanical skill was evinced too. Something like picking a smart time to use Discern Realities so you can get 'hold' which can give you a mechanical bonus on a later check is very definitely skill. The time and place you use it may well relate to thematics, which ties to more mechanics (IE I use it to save the wizard, which gives me XP and tells me something about my character).
What player goal is this helping to achieve? What would unskilled play that results in failure look like here?

Assuming there is a goal and a failure state - what player goals does using your resources here prevent you or lower your chances of achieving (later)? You see, I'm really afraid this procedure comes back around to being a somewhat less overt way of having a player choose between competing goals.
 
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FrogReaver

As long as i get to be the frog
I am wondering if the magnitude of the impact of 'skill' on whether you achieve your goal or not factors into what we perceive as skilled play.

I would say that is there's a fundamental difference in games where skilled play can slightly improve your chances of achieving your goal (say by 5%) and ones in which skilled play turns your chances of achieving your goal into nearly 100% success.
 

FrogReaver

As long as i get to be the frog
The idea of overcoming the obstacle while maintaining roleplay constraints seems to me to live within the second of the two perspectives @Campbell identified above. It's not inhabiting the character and asking what do I do now? It's analsying the problem-space and asking what should this character do to solve this problem within these constraints.

As I posted, most of the play of The Green Knight that I GMed yesterday occurred in this second space (the constraints being the game's economy of Honour and Dishonour) but at a few key moments the perspective changed.

It seems to me that 'inhabiting the character' is mostly just a much heavier form of Roleplay Constraints. As long as the character has a goal or goals then the player taking into account those goals and all the facts about the character (both stated and unstated) and asking himself what 'would this character do', that yields exactly the same character actions as 'inhabiting your character'. The only difference as far as I can tell whether you are pretending to be the character and what emotions doing so elicits.
 

clearstream

(He, Him)
I am wondering if the magnitude of the impact of 'skill' on whether you achieve your goal or not factors into what we perceive as skilled play.

I would say that is there's a fundamental difference in games where skilled play can slightly improve your chances of achieving your goal (say by 5%) and ones in which skilled play turns your chances of achieving your goal into nearly 100% success.
Posit three players with three skills each.
  • RP (ability to grasp themes and navigate emerging story)
  • MP (ability to grasp written rules and apply mechanics)
  • CP (winningness at Chess, their Elo)

P1 has RP10 MP1 CP0 (where higher is more skillful)
P2 has RP1 MP10 CP0
P3 has RP0 MP2 CP10 (Elo re-scaled for sake of this discussion)

RPG gaming group A are story-focused and count P1 as a wonderfully skillful player, and P2 and P3 as woefully unskillful.
RPG gaming group B is mechanics-focused and finds P2 wonderfully skilled, and P1 and P3 woefully unskillful.
Chess club C doesn't play RPGs and only cares about winningness at Chess. They find P1 and P2 woefully unskillful, but wow - P3!

If "skilled play" means playing skillfully, then your rubric cannot apply across the gaming groups: it can only apply within the gaming groups. We might ask - why don't we let each group define skill, rate it on a common scale, and then say that the most skillful player is whoever is best-overall. In this case, we end up saying P3 is best-overall (12pts of skill), even though P3 has zero skill at RP.

To give a real world example of a skill construct: generalised intelligence or IQ. Factor-based analyses suggest that generalised intelligence is made up of several contributing components - short term memory, working memory, attention, visual-spatial processing, and depending on the model a few other things. A set of tasks have been found where score on one task in that set is predictive of scores on other tasks in that set. That's what IQ is. It's not meaningless, but its limits should be borne in mind. Elo is many times simpler: it just counts wins at Chess. More specifically, who wins (or loses or draws) against whom. It is a ranking algorithm for a single dimension.

If "skilled play" is to mean playing skillfully, and say we limit this to RPG, then as @Manbearcat attempted, we will need to analyse factors in common across all games, player cultures, topics and goals. We will have to exclude anything that is private to just some RPG - because that which isn't in common cannot be used to construct a common measure! This will be orders of magnitude more complex than the Elo. It will be closer to generalised IQ (and refer to the literature to get a sense of the complexity and confounds for that!) A skill construct must - and can only - be predictive of results on tasks that are found to be significantly correlated. In the case of IQ, those were identified through decades of task ideation and controlled clinical trials.

And in the end, it will offer us very little, because gaming group A only cared about RP anyway. If I tell them their players are not best-overall they will shrug and say - you know what, we never cared about how good we were at Chess.
 

FrogReaver

As long as i get to be the frog
Posit three players with three skills each.
  • RP (ability to grasp themes and navigate emerging story)
  • MP (ability to grasp written rules and apply mechanics)
  • CP (winningness at Chess, their Elo)

P1 has RP10 MP1 CP0 (where higher is more skillful)
P2 has RP1 MP10 CP0
P3 has RP0 MP2 CP10 (Elo re-scaled for sake of this discussion)

RPG gaming group A are story-focused and count P1 as a wonderfully skillful player, and P2 and P3 as woefully unskillful.
RPG gaming group B is mechanics-focused and finds P2 wonderfully skilled, and P1 and P3 woefully unskillful.
Chess club C doesn't play RPGs and only cares about winningness at Chess. They find P1 and P2 woefully unskillful, but wow - P3!

If "skilled play" means playing skillfully, then your rubric cannot apply across the gaming groups: it can only apply within the gaming groups. We might ask - why don't we let each group define skill, rate it on a common scale, and then say that the most skillful player is whoever is best-overall. In this case, we end up saying P3 is best-overall (12pts of skill), even though P3 has zero skill at RP.
I don't see the problem with skill applying in relation to the game being played. As you've just argued - you can have 3 players at different skill levels for varying games.

To give a real world example of a skill construct: generalised intelligence or IQ. Factor-based analyses suggest that generalised intelligence is made up of several contributing components - short term memory, working memory, attention, visual-spatial processing, and depending on the model a few other things. A set of tasks have been found where score on one task in that set is predictive of scores on other tasks in that set. That's what IQ is. It's not meaningless, but its limits should be borne in mind. Elo is many times simpler: it just counts wins at Chess. More specifically, who wins (or loses or draws) against whom. It is a ranking algorithm for a single dimension.
In life we don't get to choose which 'games' we play. Everything gets thrown at us. So a generalized IQ (assuming one buys that statistic has merit) is useful to know.

In gaming, we choose what games we play. So a generalized assessment of skill across all the various games isn't actually useful.

If "skilled play" is to mean playing skillfully, and say we limit this to RPG, then as @Manbearcat attempted, we will need to analyse factors in common across all games, player cultures, topics and goals. We will have to exclude anything that is private to just some RPG - because that which isn't in common cannot be used to construct a common measure! This will be orders of magnitude more complex than the Elo. It will be closer to generalised IQ (and refer to the literature to get a sense of the complexity and confounds for that!) A skill construct must - and can only - be predictive of results on tasks that are found to be significantly correlated. In the case of IQ, those were identified through decades of task ideation and controlled clinical trials.

And in the end, it will offer us very little, because gaming group A only cared about RP anyway. If I tell them their players are not best-overall they will shrug and say - you know what, we never cared about how good we were at Chess.
The model offers us alot on it's own without trying to combine things into some generalized form as you are attempting here.

It's enough to know that there are different skills that different games value and that players particularly good at the kinds of skills needed to be 'good' at one game aren't universally good at all games.

Or to put it another way - you make a very good argument for why we shouldn't generalize game skill over many games into a single metric - but a very poor argument for why we shouldn't talk about game skill over different games in the first place.
 

pemerton

Legend
It seems to me that 'inhabiting the character' is mostly just a much heavier form of Roleplay Constraints. As long as the character has a goal or goals then the player taking into account those goals and all the facts about the character (both stated and unstated) and asking himself what 'would this character do', that yields exactly the same character actions as 'inhabiting your character'. The only difference as far as I can tell whether you are pretending to be the character and what emotions doing so elicits.
I don't agree. I think the key difference is the decision-making process.

I wonder if @Campbell has a view.
 

pemerton

Legend
A tangent, that was prompted by @AbdulAlhazred upthread: this is from the Dig spell (PHB p 76):


Any creature at the edge (1’) of such a pit uses its dexterity score as a saving throw to avoid falling into the hole, with a score equal to or less than the dexterity meaning that a fall was avoided. Any creature moving rapidly towards a pit area will fall in unless it saves versus magic. Any creature caught in the center of a pit just dug will always fall in.

This is bonkers. Or at least weird. It's clear that running towards a pit is meant to be more dangerous than just standing near one. But there's going to be quite a range of characters for whom saving vs Magic is easer than saving vs Dexterity - eg a 10th level Cleric saves vs Magic on an 11 which is easier than rolling a Dexterity save if the ability score is 9 or less. And given that Dig is a 4th level spell, so a caster will be a 7th level or higher MU, it's not out of the question that a 10th level Cleric will be targeted.

And why the use of Dexterity at all, as opposed to a Magic save with, say, a +2 or +4 bonus?

It's poorly conceived.
 

The idea of overcoming the obstacle while maintaining roleplay constraints seems to me to live within the second of the two perspectives @Campbell identified above. It's not inhabiting the character and asking what do I do now? It's analsying the problem-space and asking what should this character do to solve this problem within these constraints.

As I posted, most of the play of The Green Knight that I GMed yesterday occurred in this second space (the constraints being the game's economy of Honour and Dishonour) but at a few key moments the perspective changed.


@AbdulAlhazred is talking about (i) choosing loadout and then (ii) deploying loadout, where both operate under fairly strict constraints.

If, like all good B/X and AD&D players, I've basically memorised the spell list, then a putative character who can use any spell at any moment is much easier to play: all I do is run through my catalogue of powers and deploy the one that will work here! (In combat, probably Sleep or Web but occasionally Charm or Magic Missile; out of combat there's more variety but again it's really just reviewing the constraints.)

But the realities are different, and both when I choose and when I deploy I have to consider what I know I need, what I conjecture I might need, what the future still holds, what other non-spell resources are available and what their limitations are compared to spells, etc.

The constraints generate the problem, but they don't resolve it except in the obvious sense of limiting the elements available that constitute a solution.

Whereas the role of theme/emotion in facilitating choice is quite different: it narrows the range of salient choices without any calculation being necessary. If I'm pledged to protect Frodo, come what may, then the fact that there are 10 or 100 moves available is no cognitive burden at all if all but 2 of them mean casting Frodo to the winds!

What you describe here seems to me to resemble the way that my friend tends to approach Burning Wheel. To me it seems to live in @Campbell's second perspective - what should my PC do in order to overcome this problem while earning XP for thematic play.

I think there are some RPGs which must be played in this way for the players not to lose. Classic D&D would be an example. When you introduce alignment with teeth into classic D&D, it introduces a thematic incentive (though mostly of avoiding punishment rather than gaining rewards, in the way that @AbdulAlhazred mentioned upthread). Now that becomes a further part of the optimisation space. If you play in Campbell's first perspective - what should I as my character do? - you'll end up hosed. Eg the first time you stand up for your friends against the bullying ogre you'll be crushed by its d10 damage club.

I think there are other RPGs which do not need to be played in this way for the players not to lose. I regard Burning Wheel as one example, and Prince Valiant as another (it's thematic incentives are to extent in relation to character improvement, and probably just as much in relation to bonus dice for action resolution). These games can be played in Campbell's first perspective without the player just setting him-/herself up to lose. The contrast with 2nd ed AD&D is that it invites players to play in that perspective, uses the same action resolution processes as classic D&D, and then tells the GM to sort it all out via fudging of dice and manipulation of fiction; whereas Burning Wheel and Prince Valiant use principles around framing, and consequence narration, and allowing players to push hard for what they care about and thereby earn augments, etc to ensure that the action resolution process won't crush those who adopt first-perspective play.

Wikipedia gives me this sub-entry on sociopathy an account of sociopathy in its entry on psychopathy; I've bolded what I had in mind in my post:

Psychopathy, sometimes considered synonymous with sociopathy, is traditionally a personality disorder characterized by persistent antisocial behavior, impaired empathy and remorse, and bold, disinhibited, and egotistical traits. . . .​
The term sociopathy may have been first introduced in 1909 in Germany by biological psychiatrist Karl Birnbaum and in 1930 in the US by educational psychologist George E. Partridge, as an alternative to the concept of psychopathy. It was used to indicate that the defining feature is violation of social norms, or antisocial behavior, and may be social or biological in origin.​
The term is used in various different ways in contemporary usage. Robert Hare stated in the popular science book Snakes in Suits that sociopathy and psychopathy are often used interchangeably.​

This is what I had in mind when I suggested that "an actual human being who treats emotional parameters as further points of optimisation, rather than as markers of salience that narrow the decision-space, is probably a sociopath." It is what underpins standard criticisms of act utilitarianism as demanding that people be monsters, because instead of acting on (say) their love for their family it requires them to consider their love for their family as merely one source of utility in a a complex network of sources of utility that are to be optimised through every human action.

Undoubtedly. But generally this involves treating others' emotions as parameters for optimisation, not one's own. Not always: training to overcome fear and build up physical courage, for instance, involves treating one's own emotion of fear as a mere parameter rather than inhabiting it. I think that taking the same approach to one's emotions of love and friendship and joy - eg so as to become a more ruthless decision-maker - might seem a little cold at beset, and I think it is the fact (as Weber wrote about 100 years ago) that this is the practical result that many modern institutions are set up to achieve that leads to the contemporary genre of economic and political criticism of corporations (and maybe some other bureaucracies too) as psychopaths.

Sure. This seems unconnected to my remarks about the actual emotional life of humans, though. The player who is doing this is fully engaged in the game, and playing with his/her friends, and in fact is not treating those things as parameters in an optimisation process but is playing for the fun and joy of it.

But I would add that in Burning Wheel there is no "setting up" of failure. Or at least there need not be. On the first point: when I declare an action, I may anticipate failure, or may not. But all I do is decide what my PC is doing and how hard s/he is trying (the latter is measured in artha expenditure). I as a player know that I may fail; I may even know that failure is likely, just like Sam knew that failure was likely as he helped Frodo trudge through Mordor. But I am not "setting up" failure: I am playing my character, not curating the story.

Now on the second ("need not be") point: there are certain occasions in BW play where is is particular opportunity to manipulate one's dice pools so as to optimise the chance for PC improvement. I am not good at that and pay it very little attention in play; as a result my PC doesn't advance much. My optimiser friend is first-rate at this, and does it a lot, and hence his PC advances at a rocket-like pace. Even then he is not "setting up" failure; but I think sometimes he is alienated from his character or at least very much adopting Author stance as characterised by Edwards - he makes a decision about what is the best move to make based on optimisation considerations, and then he retrofits a motivation for his PC's behaviour.

There are features of the game that tend to ensure my approach is also rewarded - eg I think I'm more of an artha-generating-battery than my friend is - but part of what I love about the game is I don't need to set out with artha-accrual as my goal to accrue it. (This is quite different from, say, how you accrue GP and hence XP in classic D&D, where that has to be forefront in your mind at all times if you're to succeed at it.) I certainly wouldn't say I'm exercising any gameplaying skill in earning my artha! I'm just inhabiting my character, and the game engine is doing the rest.

I think this is all true. I often operate in words rather than images, but when I think of me as my PC it's probably more often film or comic-panel like than "through my eyes"-like.

But the inhabitation I'm interested in, which for me is the pleasure in RPGing, isn't so much that sensory aspect as the motivational and emotional aspect. When my PC is not making decisions based on optimisation, nor do I want to. Different RPGs support this to different degrees; the ones that do are the ones I don't think of as "skilled play" RPGs.
This whole post makes me realize we are talking about THREE stances here!

The GAMIST player is simply making moves with his character in 'pawn stance' where his goals are @Manbearcat's 'win cons' for the particular game being played. Maybe you are implying your 'spreadsheet expert' (we all have one) friend plays this way, at least primarily. This is the stance which is most rewarded in GSP, presumably. Even alignment penalties being mostly a minor additional constraint abstractly based on 'character' (but so abstract it rarely produces really strong constraints). Samwise in this stance obtains the ring from Frodo's corpse, goes back to the shire (enstaving Saruman on his way) and rules it as a dread king.

The DRAMATIST is playing his character in '1st person', that is inhabiting the PC's mental and emotional state and deciding her actions based on that understanding/empathy. This seems to conform to what you claim to be doing with your BW character. You've already noted that BW supplies some mechanical rewards for this, although your gamist stance friend seems to be managing to reap at least as much, maybe more (my understanding of the details of the BW rules is a bit crude). This Samwise stands by his master's 'corpse', come what may.

The NARRATIVIST is playing in a stance where they make decisions based not on what their character 'would do' nor on mechanical considerations, but on what furthers the overall story itself. This is a different stance. This is the Samwise who marches across the threshold into Mordor, and then only rescues Frodo when he happens to find out he's still alive (which obviously the narrative should facilitate, maybe he gets to pick this via some meta-game actions).

I make no claim that this is an all-inclusive list of possible stances, but each could support its own game system, surely.
 

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