Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Player Skill and Character Skill

Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 24, 2011

In my mind, for a game to qualify as an RPG, it has to implement at least some of the player’s commands through the filter of character skill. The canonical example is attacking an enemy. In many kinds of  non-RPG games, the player hits if he (or she) has aimed correctly, and does damage based on the weapon. In an RPG, the chance of hitting or the amount of damage that is done, or both, are determined by the character’s skill. The player’s “aim” may or may not be a factor.

But this does NOT mean that an RPG does not require player skill.

The dependence upon character skill and random chance does not remove player skill from the game any more than it removes player skill from Chess and Poker.

It’s all about interaction and choice. I’ll go back to Dungeons & Dragons, a game many readers will be familiar with at least by its computer analog. By my understanding, the lowly fighter (or “fighting-man”) was originally conceived as a beginner’s option in earlier versions of the game. Lacking spells, the fighter had fewer options than the other base classes (in original D&D, there was no thief class – it was just fighter, cleric, and magic-user).

But what options did a fighter have?

#1 – Decisions when and how to engage an enemy:  While many fighters (and every other class) used Charisma as a dump stat, in theory they could parley (or bribe) as well as anybody else. They could avoid combat.

#2 – Tactics: There was an emphasis once upon a time (somewhat lost in the art today, sadly) on using your noggin to cleverly defeat monsters at minimal risk to yourself using surprise, the environment, or tools (quite open-endedly, requiring “Dungeon Master” – referee – adjudication) to provide an advantage. Unfortunately, some DMs got annoyed when players decided to bury a hydra in a landslide or engage a fire-breathing dragon from an underground lake to reduce fire damage, and would award reduced XP for cleverness.

#3 – Movement and positioning: This could also be treated as tactics, but was more universal. There’s a reason kicking the door open to fight monsters was so popular – the doorway provided a convenient bottleneck, especially when the party was outnumbered. Skilled players would maneuver to maximize their advantage, encourage the enemy to get into a convenient grouping, and so forth. A lot of games didn’t use miniatures and relied on more abstract, verbal descriptions of positioning, which limited this activity, but most DMs still allowed players to describe particular maneuvers so this could remain a skill factor.

#4 – Target selection: While this only rarely requires much rocket-science to make a good choice, skilled players combined this with #3 to make the most of the probabilities of the system. In the early days, enemy morale was another factor, and triggering a morale check at the right time could be just as critical to success as keeping the enemy away from your fragile magic-users. So sometimes it was better to knock down the weakest enemies first, and other times the stronger opponents were better targets. It was all in how you played the odds.

#5 – Magic item usage: For fighters, magic item usage generally meant “potions,” and more often than not “healing potions.” Knowing how and when to sacrifice an attack to drink a potion – or change weapons, or use some other magic device – was another differentiator for skilled and unskilled players.

#6 – Bugging out:  Er, “disengaging.” This was (and still is) pretty difficult to pull off once combat is joined, especially since heavy armor tends to slow a character down. For less-skilled players, the difficulty of disengaging makes it something they never consider… every combat is a battle to the death. For skilled players, it’s a difficult decision, which may result in leaving characters or treasures behind, but always a potential option if exercised early enough and carefully enough.

#7 – Non-combat activities: While the results of attribute rolls might not favor the intelligence or wisdom checks for fighters, outside of combat the player could contribute to puzzling their way through the challenges of dungeon exploration as well as anybody else.

While an unskilled player might perceive the early D&D rules as being nothing but chance and “character skill” as they do little but rolling for attack and damage every round (“hack-and-slash”), skilled players recognized their rolls (pun intended) and took an active part in maximizing them and mitigating the impact of  randomness.

A good RPG does not favor character skill over player skill. Neither must it assume that “player skill” must be a direct action-based analog of the character’s activity – swinging a sword or picking a lock.  A good RPG should be a blend of player decision-making and activity (whether action-based or a more thoughtful pace) with character-based skills and limitations.


Filed Under: Design - Comments: 8 Comments to Read

  • McTeddy said,

    Wrong jay! Any REAL gamer knows that tacking a dialog tree onto an FPS is an RPG! 😛

    But yeah… I agree with you. I just want my characters abilities to actually influence that I make decisions. Playing as Buff the Dragon Slayer should not be the same as being ShadowWalker the sneaky pacifist.

    Too many RPGs today decide that the player is a master of all things… and thereby remove all skills that might limit a player’s choice. “But a player may want to let Lefty the Mouse Herder fight a dragon!”… then let him… And then let him suffer the consequence of attacking a dragon with a Mouse-Herder.

    I’m fine with a game ALLOWING you to train all your skills… just not so fine with removing individuality from different player characters in the name of “Player Choice”

  • Calibrator said,

    “Too many RPGs today decide that the player is a master of all things… and thereby remove all skills that might limit a player’s choice. “But a player may want to let Lefty the Mouse Herder fight a dragon!”… then let him… And then let him suffer the consequence of attacking a dragon with a Mouse-Herder.”

    Actually, lots of companies recognized that most players really want to “fly” through a game, being able to see the end (only half of the Half-Life 2 players saw the end of that game?!) and not produce a game that’s a constant challenge, where “evil” literally lurks behind every corner, each step perhaps leading into a trap etc.

    That’s clearly why very hard games like Demon’s Souls (also a single-player “party”, by the way) really get noticed: They provide a game experience that older players remember, when CRPGs sold a few ten thousand units max and not millions like today.

    That’s IMHO also why there are only few survivalist games and even a game like Fallout 3 is easy-peasy living in a post-nuclear future.

    And that’s definitely also one of the reasons most CRPGs do not produce “Leftys who are mouse-herders”, but make their main player character a (nearly) god-like being, surrounded by mystique, often with amnesia or at least a shadowed past and often possessing supernatural abilities. Sometimes these are evident like magic or super-strenght, sometimes less-so like being able to get several abilities or traits an NPC never could get or being immune to something or being able to change their nano-tech augmentations or implants (=being able to adapt to different situations).

    Some examples (only high-profile games)
    -> Ultima: player is the “Avatar” from another world
    -> Baldur’s Gate: player is direct offspring of a god
    -> Morrowind: player is a messiah called the Nerevarine
    feel free to add to this list…

    Yes, especially the older titles are not alway “too easy” but more modern games tend to make the main player character really powerful and – armed with the ability to save the game at every step – a seasoned gamer can easily breeze through the game.

    Of course, seasoned players are only a small part of the intended audience for most games: Less skilled players are what mainstream companies are after to maximize sales.

    And of course indie games are a completely different chapter and are perhaps more open to experiment (apart from Spiderweb Software, perhaps ;-)).

  • Bad Sector said,

    Well, thank you for spoiling 2 of the games i’m playing these days 😛

    (although ok i’ve progressed enough in Morrowind to suspect that part… but still)

  • McTeddy said,

    True enough.

    As for good ol’ Lefty… he’s pretty much the epitomy of all my role-playing Characters combined 🙂

    My vault dweller in Fallout 3 was a preacher. His religion forbids murder and as such he refused to kill any life intelligent enough to speak. His specialty? Shooting guns out of peoples hands… picking them up… and running like hell. 🙂

    Sure… early game that was simply me playing a character… but late game I didn’t have the stats to be anyone else. My character’s abilities ruled my decisions once his skill points had been allocated.

    My issue really isn’t that modern games allow most players to be superman. My issue is that they won’t let me be lefty ;(

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    One of the things I quite like doing in Mount & Blade: Warband is being a bit of a mouse-herder (to use your terminology!). You can start businesses in various towns, and they can be quite profitable (beer in particular I’ve found). If they would combine that with the Fire and Sword caravan trading, you could easily just become a merchant and ignore all that silly fighting.

    I have to second McTeddy though, there are too few games that allow you to be a Lefty the Mouse-herder, which is sad.

  • Calibrator said,

    @Bad Sector

    I was under the impression that this is already common lore…

  • Robyrt said,

    Demon’s Souls / Dark Souls expresses the skill-based choices involved in being a fighter quite well. It’s not really possible to create a character who is hopeless at combat at high levels, although you can certainly make the first few hours incredibly difficult for yourself.

  • Links for 2011-10-24 « Den's Random Ramblings of Rude Reality said,

    […] Player Skill and Character Skill on Tales of the Rampant […]