Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Character Skill vs. Player Skill

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 30, 2011


I’m going to get a little basic right now, since not everybody who reads this blog is a computer role-playing game expert. But mainly because I’ve been putting in 12+ hour days for the day job the last two weeks, and then working on the game instead of sleeping, so “basic” is about all I have the brain power left over to talk about. Besides, it’ll probably still generate some interesting discussion in the comments, which is really where the good stuff can be found in almost every post. So I want to talk about the concept of character skill vs. player skill.

The mix of player skill and character skill is a defining element of an RPG. In an RPG, you are playing one or more characters – characters who have defined (but dynamic) abilities and limitations that change over time as you make progress through the game.

If success is principally dictated by your actions and skill as a player, then it’s not an RPG. So if your character is supposed to be a mediocre shot, but as a player you are lining up and endless stream of head-shots for critical hits, then chances are that at least that aspect of the game is really not very RPG-ish. An RPG may blend the two elements by making your hits based on player skill and your damage based on character skill to try and strike a balance, which may satisfy many players. But there has to be some kind of cooperative give-and-take going where the actions (and skills) of the player are filtered by the character’s abilities and limitations.

These days, that’s a really, really fuzzy area, and not much of a dividing line. Are better weapons and armor an attribute of your character? Many games include “RPG elements” including some kind of upgrade mechanic. It’s not a hard-and-fast delineation. It’s a spectrum.

On the flip side, a game can’t be all about character skill either, or it’s not a game. It’s Progress Quest.

Sometimes you will get rants by inexperienced gamers who argue that there is no player skill involved in in turn-based RPGs. I don’t know if they are just trolling or truly ignorant, but they do say this. I can only assume said kids have never played a game of Chess, let alone completed the original Pool of Radiance. Or read the CRPG Addict’s account of tactics necessary in the original Wizardry. I guess I do understand a little of where they are coming from. I used to think NetHack was all about luck, not player skill. Then I saw guys who knew what they were doing playing the game. Yes, luck still plays a significant roll. Skilled play was all about risk management.

In a turn-based tactical game, it may be about adequate preparation, choice of battles, and of course making appropriate tactical decisions during battle. In an action game, it may be about speed and accuracy and knowing when to down healing potions or turn tail and run. It’s always about making choices, based on either  role-playing preferences or careful gameplay considerations.

Ultimately, role-playing games are about a synthesis between a player’s skill and that of the character he or she is playing. So what we really come down to, next, is what kinds of player skills the game demands, and how we mix those with the character’s abilities to get interesting and challenging gameplay.


Filed Under: Design - Comments: 10 Comments to Read

  • Mart said,

    I believe all games have always been about player skill. Of course, the debate to determine what contitutes as “skill” can rage for all eternity.

    For RPGs, I think part of a player’s skill is in determining that a character has the appropriate skill level to be successful in most encounters. This is, I believe, tied to game difficulty.

    Just to sidetrack a bit, I usually classify the difficulty of an RPG as to how forgiving the game is when a player makes poor choices. As an example, I think Fallout 3 is a pretty easy game. I have to make an effort to jeopardize my character in order to fail. On the other hand, the Eschalon series will punish me pretty quickly if I don’t spare a thought in my character’s design.

    I think those arguing that turn-based games do not require player skill aren’t necessarily “inexperienced”, I think they’re just impatient. Games, for them, are defined as blood-pumping, twitchy-fingered, button-mashing affairs. They cannot fathom a game where the players require to sit, concentrate and contemplate before making a move, usually perceived as “boring”.

  • Silas said,

    This is one of the reasons I cordially detested Oblivion’s lockpicking system; so far as I could determine, it was based solely on player skill, with the character’s lockpicking “skill” only used as a gatekeeper to prevent players from attempting harder locks, and it demanded excruciatingly high levels of player skill.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Oh, hey, you just hit the nail on the head there for me, too. I didn’t really think about it when I was playing, partly because I wasn’t sure if lockpicking did or didn’t have some effect on the ease of the mini-game. But I could never really tell the difference, and I think I ended the game with a lockpicking skill of 100. (It’s been a long time with a lot of lock-picking characters since then).

    BTW, Frayed Knights lockpicking is definitely character skill based with some player choices. Hopefully not always obvious ones.

  • Marcus said,

    I agree with the sentiments for the most part. Player skill can be twitchy or it can be mental, but it is still something that a player possesses, regardless of what you’ve given to the characters. I hear both sides of the player argument.

    When the 12 year olds complain about turn based combat lacking any player skill, what they’re saying is there is too much parody. Most gamers posses the mental ability to get very good at the tactical efficiency. With a little effort.

    When people rail on the twitchy games what they’re saying is there is too much parody. “No matter how hard I try my reflexes and hand eye coordination will never be like those “best” guys.”

    Sure I like making decisions and optimizing, and I can get lost in that aspect quite easily, but at the end of the day Role Playing games are about the story and how believably the developer tricks me thinking that their world might just be real. How well the developer gets to me to believe that I’m actually playing a role in their little world.

  • McTeddy said,

    This is really the major defining factor for what I consider a Role-Playing game.

    It’s why I’ve grown to detest the new modern “RPG” that involves the twitchy super-soldier who can pick locks, hack computers, and do every other damn thing in the universe.

    Call me crazy… but I find the thief games to be more RPG than the modern style. Garrot had a major weaknesses in combat that forced me to think like a thief. Thinking like my character is what Role Playing is all about.

    I’m not saying twitchy action RPGs are bad… just that making everything based on player skill can make your character feel shallow and unimportant. That can be okay in many situations.

    It’s just important as a developer to realize that there is a time and a place for everything rather than one clear all-working solution.

  • Menigal said,

    Yeah, the Oblivion one was a pretty jarring example, but at least you could click the auto button. The lockpicking in FO3 was better and I didn’t really miss the auto button, but the hacking minigame was horrible. Yeah, it wasn’t hard if you put any thought into it, but it did bring the game to a screeching halt, and I suppose I can see how some people might have problems with it. Again, no auto button. You have to wonder if they weren’t aware of how many people used that in Oblivion to get around the annoying minigame.

    It does seem like player skill is taking more of the focus these days. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it can give some players a huge advantage if it’s not balanced correctly. In Oblivion, someone who was good at the lockpicking minigame could, in theory, pick every lock in the game with a single lockpick and a skill of 5. FO3 addressed this somewhat by not even letting you try picking locks that were above your lockpick level.

    It’s an interesting subject, and it definitely goes beyond just twitch gamers vs old fogeys.

  • brog said,

    Referring to both of these things as “skill” is misleading and causes confusion. How good you are at a game, and the statistics of a piece you control in a game.. not the same thing?

  • Bleeargh said,

    @ Mart “For RPGs, I think part of a player’s skill is in determining that a character has the appropriate skill level to be successful in most encounters. This is, I believe, tied to game difficulty.”

    This is an interesting observation. Most CRPG game designers are obviously designing encounters around what they expect the characters’ levels to be at any given point in the game. If not, they will include some kind of identify or “con” system (MMORPG term) where you can tell how your chances are against an opponent.

    Sometimes I feel RPG’s are about how much you know the ins and outs of a system including memorizing the stats of the enemies you face, not necessarily “skill” more like “research” which geeks are inclined to do. Isn’t this why Munchkinism is a darkside of RPG’s or is being a Munchkin a demonstration of good skill and proper character build strategy?

    On a second playthrough of a CRPG, you have foreknowledge that so-and-so stat was worthless in investing in because it was poorly implemented in game or there were simply better and more effective weapons for “Big guns” skill rather than melee. Obviously this is poor game design as the game should reward players who chose those skills in some way, but given game development’s brutal give and take cycle with both schedule and budget, sadly something has to go.

    I always thought it silly that a 5 INT / 5 WIS fighter could answer Sphinx-type riddles in dialogue in Baldur’s Gate 2. Would such a fighter also have the presence of mind of battlefield tactics to know where to position himself in the best location of a battle at the right opportunity…I picture a CRPG where a low-int fighter would actually disobey your orders in a given turn because he just wants to smash headz…a permanent berzerk state until you raise his INT stat or make him take a course in tactics. Basically, isn’t your, the player’s, intelligence and strategy skill being called into play during tactical combat whether turn-based or realtime regardless of character skill? Where should the distinction lie then?

  • Delve said,

    McTeddy’s comments regarding the Thief series are spot on for me. If I were a god among gamers I could, in theory, play Thief like an FPS barring the occasional scripted ‘you lose’ events and missions that strictly require secrecy, I seem to recall one or two such. However the games are specifically built to encourage stealth, forethought, and appropriate use of resources to multiply your existing talent, stealth. Which is to say that while you ‘could’ FPS your way through it you’d be breaking every mechanic designed into the game, including the deliberately difficult combat mechanics.

    However, how do you extend that to a game where the character may be proficient in any number of skills? And indeed the player may also separately be proficient in any number of skills (twitch aiming, snap decision-making, intense forethought and planning), complimentary or otherwise of the characters skillset. It becomes a very difficult problem to design for then I should think. Because you have to build challenges into the game to test each of the skillsets your character may be capable of (otherwise the skill has no value or use). But you have to be careful that one particular character skill doesn’t become a bottleneck to game progression since a player that is unskilled in that area of mechanic will hit a roadblock unless they’ve built thier character appropriately. Forcing a player down a particular character developement path to compensate for thier own inadequacies, while a valid design decision if made consciously, is not a great way to appeal to the market at large.

  • kalniel said,

    This is an area we struggled with a lot on our NWN persistent world.

    The article seems to mainly discuss physical skills (accuracy etc.), but we had the largest debate about intellectual skills. It seemed quite easy to come to an agreement (for Thain at least) that one of the differences (though not the major one) between an action PW and a RP PW was the role of character skills in determining combat outcomes as opposed to player skills. For physical skills that was fine – the NWN engine isn’t particularly great for twitch skills anyway, and combat/area design can help weigh it further towards character skills with player tactic choices and judgement calls.

    But what happens when you’re trying to RP an intelligence stat? If your character has low intelligence, does that mean you shouldn’t be utilising combat tactics and you should just charge in/let the computer sort it out?

    Worse is during quests, especially those of a research/investigation type, which we had plenty of: notably the ‘main quest’ which had a particular choke point in progression that required characters to successfully be ‘interviewed’ about their knowledge of the Island’s lore, history and the ongoing situation. We didn’t want it to be just flag based (ie, visit location X and your character automatically knows the answer), instead the lore and clues were available from a large number of sources and could be inferred from ways we didn’t want to restrict to simple flag setting options (talking to other player characters, for example!). Is it now metagaming if you can remember the lore/picked up on the clues, but your character’s stats suggest they wouldn’t be able to easily? What about the other way around – your character has great intellect and reasoning etc., but you as the player haven’t picked up on the clues/can’t remember the answer?

    It’s a tricky one – that quest had to be able to be progressed, so we didn’t want to enforce penalties for bad stats, and though there was some debate as to whether to drop hints for characters with higher stats, I was aware that ultimately the goal of the game is for the players to have fun, not run a fantasy simulation exercise. The player would have more fun by doing the investigation and finding out the answers across the whole game. Working with other players was encouraged, though not necessary, and a whole party only had to go through the ‘interview’ once as a party, so different people could contribute to the answers (provided people in the party were at that stage of the quest). In the end we used stats to add flavour and value, rather than help or hinder progression.