Sunday, October 19, 2014


I've commented in the past about my unease with Social Skill rolls in roleplaying games. When I do this isn't a slam against their use or people who like them, it is more about a personal difficulty I have in gaming, particularly as a GM when it comes to drawing a line between skill rolls and interactions. Anyone who has played any of the games I've helped develop knows I use Social Skills and other mechanics that get into this territory; I recognize their utility, I just find some of the trade-offs inherent a bit irksome. 

Let me start with an example to illustrate what I mean. Let me also say that I understand this is just my own personal experience, I am sure a more clever GM than myself could find a way to resolve or imagine this without running into the issues I do. Suppose you have a character named Aedra who walks into a mysterious tower on rocky hill near a small village. Perhaps Aedra is there to investigate the recent disappearance of a wagon of gold ingots that had passed by the area and never reached its destination. After speaking with locals she is convinced the ingots are in the tower. She sneaks inside in the middle of the night through a window on the second floor and eventually works way down to a chamber below on the ground floor. There is a secret passage in one of the walls with a shaft leading deep into a series of tunnels below the tower. Aedra does not know this but suspects such things may exist in the structure. 

At this point Aedra's player says one of a few possible things. She may simply declare that she searches the room and want to roll a Detect Skill (or equivalent depending on the system). She may describe what she does, explaining how she conducts her search, then make a Detect Skill roll (possibly the GM would give modifiers based on her description). Or finally she might go into excruciating detail and say exactly what her character does in very specific terms (i.e. I nudge the fourth brick from the right). 

This is all fine. Where it creates problems for me is when the character does something rather specific that should work based on what I have written down, but botches the roll. In this case there is too much disparity between the result the mechanic yields and the facts of the interaction. How I have come to deal with these circumstances is to always give the players a chance to specify and resolve things first without a roll. For example if Aedra's player correctly deduced that the fourth brick from the right was the means of opening the secret door I would let her find the door without having to roll. If the player was vague, I might ask for some more details just to get a sense of what she is trying to do (assigning modifiers as needed) then ask for a roll.

Obviously in this case, it isn't quite that big an issue. The example is oddly specific about the brick with no relevant clues to point anyone in that direction (though Aedra could have encountered something earlier in the adventure to make her think this brick was the right one, or arrived there by asking a series of questions about the room). 

I should also say it is mainly in these investigative/exploratory moments that I find I encounter such issues. Perhaps more than secret doors and hidden chambers, the problem for me rests more with NPC interactions. In those instances, I find something like a Persuade Roll (or Diplomacy or whatever the skill happens to be named in the system you are using) really creates this mental hiccup for me when I run games. After the fact I can usually think of the best way to implement it smoothly with my style, but while I am running the thing, I tend to trip up just a little over skills like this, primarily because I like to focus on in-character dialogue and I like what is said in character to have weight and impact. 

With Social Skill rolls I tend to apply the same principle as above. My concern with social skills is two-fold: one I don't want that disparity that sometimes occurs between in game events and the roll result (a situation where Aedra clearly said things that should yield the information she is after but the dice say 'no'), two I don't want the Social Skill roll to replace the interaction itself (particularly in an investigation). While Social Skills don't necessarily do this in all cases, my experience with them has been they can. I noticed this especially when I ran a game without any such skills after years of playing with them. The difference in play was enormous. I am not saying this will be true for everyone or even most people, just that for my group and for me as a GM it was. 

Like I said at the start of this post, I don't dislike these kinds of skills and mechanics. I use them in pretty much all of my games and they are standard features of the games we publish (though we do try to pair them with GM advice concerning some of the issues I've raised). This is something I simply keep coming back to. 

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