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This post is about a turning point in my thoughts concerning Pathfinder/D&D3e and how I personally run games.

I have to ask myself: what purpose do skills serve in RPGs, and more specifically, Pathfinder/D&D? I’m not talking about how they function or the mechanics of their operation; I’m asking why skills are present in the first place?

I am the Dungeon Master!

RPGs, in their truest form, are what I would call thought experiments. It is because RPGs take place in a nebulous thought space that there comes a time when situations are imagined that cannot be accurately modeled during play: combat, theft, hiding, et cetera. These situations require mediating mechanics for the unbiased continuation of the experiment. What evolved out of this need are “skills” and with their development came an argument, one that continues to this day: should these mechanics be expansive and attempt to codify nearly all interaction (skills heavy systems), or should they be relegated to necessity, being utilized only if a decision cannot be reached through amicable discussion or player skill (skills light systems)?

Skills systems are almost universally dependent on mathematical probability to enhance player interaction with an imagined environment, but this arrangement comes with a price; a type of gaming mentality that hears the words “mathematical probability” and thinks them synonymous with the word “exploitation.” However, as exploitable as skills systems are it is unnecessary to attempt breaking them – by their very nature, d20 skills break all by themselves.

Now by break I don’t mean it will become unusable (well, for some it will be unusable), I mean that the system is failing in its original function. This leads to the main question – if a skills system is not enhancing player interaction with the imagined environment…then what the hell is it doing? The simple answer is that the system has become a right pain in the ass! The longer answer is forthcoming.

Trying to Prevent the Breakdown

I have already discussed how I think some skills break down and are detrimental to game-play (my article “Bluff, Intimidate, Diplomacy: The Unstoppable Skills” spells it out pretty clearly), but how do you, as DM, prevent this from happening without adopting an entirely different system?  For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to use Pathfinder (because I’m familiar with it) to explore some of the things you can do to prevent skills from breaking down.

Option 1: Secrecy (For Evil)

“Marsha, the DM totally just lied.”

Pathfinder is a skills heavy system, built with the purpose of protecting those who subscribe to it from biases that might arise during game-play. While I can’t deny that Pathfinder’s skill system is initially effective in circumventing the biases problem, it protects only so long as it is not looked at more critically. It becomes obvious after closer examination that the protection the Pathfinder skills system offers is a hoax, a gentle and convincing lie1, one that remains effective the longer secrecy can be maintained by a DM. If secrecy cannot be kept, and keep in mind that even if it can be maintained it is only a stalling action, there comes a time when players realize that their DM is full of shit.

Now, what I mean by “secrecy” is pretty standard: roll dice behind a screen, adding to the result the player’s scores, and, while keeping the sum secret, give the players information in relation to the total. The reason for secrecy is simply; if you allow the players to roll the dice and see the results themselves there comes a time when they expect success when they see certain numbers on the dice (assuming the players can do basic arithmetic and you are consistent as a DM).

For me at least, there seems to be only two reasons for secrecy at the game table:

  1. Narrative Flow – If you’re constantly asking the players to roll the dice it becomes difficult to have uninterrupted time for the campaign to move forward.  Also, rolling the dice in secret allows for tension and an atmosphere of suspense, which brings me to my next reason for secrecy.
  2. Finagling – This is the important one and the reason secrecy can assist in slowing the breakdown of a system like Pathfinder.  By the word “finagling” I mean the deliberate changing or alteration of either dice or DCs to force the conclusion of a given situation to something other than its original outcome.

As far as narrative flow is concerned secrecy works wonders, which is why I have nothing else to say about it.  Instead, I would like to talk about my personal feelings on finagling…

Seriously, DON’T

Now that’s been said; finagling (DM Fiat)  is a great way to prevent the deterioration of skills heavy systems.  DMs can extend the usefulness of skills and make them, at least from a player perspective, appear competitive for a longer period of time.  The problem (and this is a big god damn problem!) is that you, as DM, have just taken a nice big dump all over player agency.  There are places for everything in D&D and finagling is a long standing tradition, but if you find yourself doing it after almost every skill check then the system has failed you. I understand that there are situations where it is extremely tempting to finagle the results as a DM, but you’re doing a huge disservice to your players when you do it and it will eventually become obvious to the players you’re fudging the outcome.

Note: I think the only time secrecy should be abandoned in skills heavy systems is during combat. As a DM, I believe rolls pertaining to combat should be out in the open and follow the strict guidelines of whatever system is being used. Combat is a golden opportunity to build trust between players and DMs and is one of the only places in RPGs that I think the protection of numbers is actually relevant to DMs and players.

Understand, I think secrecy is a good thing, but if you’re running a D&D campaign as the rules suggest it’s an inevitability that the skills system will break. Either accept it as broken, lie about it, or find some other way to deal with it, which brings me to…

Option 2: Scaling (Were the Commoners Always This Strong?)

Most people have experienced scaling in one game or another.  This is where the difficulty of interacting with a given environment is not dependent on the environment itself, but on the power of the PCs relative to said environment.

Scaling does solve the breaking problem, and I think most DMs fall into doing it automatically once their PC reach higher levels, but at some point, even though scaling is a convention of gaming, it becomes as ridiculous as say…kill a whole bunch of guys in a room, leaving said room through a door, and going back into said room through same door, and finding all the dudes you just killed healthy and ready to die again.

I see the problem and why scaling is so appealing.  Generally, a world… hell, the whole universe, is a static entity.  Even though human beings are highly intelligent (in comparison to most other earthly lifeforms) the universe doesn’t alter itself in relation to how good we are at something; in other words, the world stays the same and our skills eventually top out.  For example, the best bowman in the world can do some incredible things, but will they ever be twice as good as they are now?  Unlikely, and even if they could achieve a level of proficiency that astronomical, they couldn’t then double their ability again, and, again, and again.  However, in an RPG like Pathfinder, skills never top out and characters continue to become better at everything they do, so the natural inclination is to make the universe itself more difficult to interact with, so that the players don’t become bored.

The problem with this is, well…it doesn’t make sense.  There is a built in reason for your standard group of adventurers to gain experience and skill as they cavort around the world; namely, adventuring, but what the hell is a commoner doing to gain experience at a rate equal to that of PCs? And why would the DC to say, “see an elephant” be any higher as the characters progress in level.  As far as I know an elephant in a room is no harder to see just because the individual looking at it is 20th level.

Scaling does work, but if you’re constantly ramping up the DCs to keep players skill checks within a certain threshold, why not just set the DCs at a constant 50%… or 40%… or shit, 1%, wherever you think the maximum fun can be had, because if you’re not a subscriber to Gygaxian Naturalism then at least set a constant in your universe so your players understand there’s a method to your madness and not just plain old fashioned madness.

Don’t be this Guy:

Hello, I’m here to make shit impossible.

Option 3: Capping (Do Not Pass Go. Do Not Collect Skill Points)

The concept of capping is simple and can be achieved in two ways:

  1. Arrange a campaign that ends before characters reach high levels.  Often this is achieved by using the slow experience progression, or simply awarding players in ways other than level advancement.
  2. Stop level advancement at a predetermined time and give your players some other means of representing character growth.
Do not pass go, do not collect anymore shit.

The moment when life becomes meaningless.

Addressing number one is simple; it heads off skills breakdown by simply stopping before the crash.  Number two however requires something a bit more elegant.  Luckily, someone has already developed a solution, and it is indeed elegant.  A system called E6 (here the word “system” really means “adaptation”) was developed so that DMs can continue bringing the players challenging play without having to deal with the slow breakdown of a skills heavy system and the inevitable rocket-tag of higher levels. You can read how E6 works here…I’ll wait. Done? Good.

The problem, and for me it’s a minor problem, is that this does limit your options as a DM, if say, you wanted the players to be able to directly confront some of the more powerful creatures in the D&D multiverse; however, as it has been pointed out to me by the Mighty Crab, this may give the DM the opportunity to use their imagination and create a scenario that allows these creatures to be confronted through plot devices of the DMs choosing.  And I agree.  However, I think that most people view D&D, and RPGs as a whole, as a form of escapism. They don’t want their character abilities to adhere closely to the standards of reality (though I have seen a trend in long time gamers were they want more reality in their D&D)… they want to slay a motherfucking elder dragon. That’s where I think a system like E6 really breaks down; at the end of the day, if you want the characters to face anything much above a CR 9, you better have a convenient  MacGuffin ready and waiting, which gets me into a personal problem I have with deus ex machina in D&D, which I’ll address in a later post.

Option 4: Skills Light Play (Where Player Skill Meets With Falling Rocks)

Seriously, don’t push the DM too hard.

This is a controversial issue among RPG gamers, but I’m finally ready to cast off any pretense of neutrality and place my vote in with the old-school: If you want to prevent a skills heavy system from breaking down you need to transition to skills light play. Yeah, I said it!

Unlike all the other options I’ve provided, this is the only one that actually fixes the problem of a skills system without having to do anything truly mystical to either character progression or the physics of the game world.  It also allows for skills systems to be used in such a way whereby it fulfills its origin purpose without hindering any other part of the role-playing experience. You just have to trust in your player’s ability to rationally solve problems…OH SHIT!

The issue with skills light play is that it places continued campaign progression on how skilled your players are at gaming rather than on dice probabilities.  This makes it a desirable option for veteran players, but a more difficult and less viable option for individuals new to RPGs, as they are unfamiliar with the mental gymnastics necessary to move a game forward.

–C did a great series on skills and while I don’t agree with all of his propositions, I do support his conclusion; that being, that it’s a complicated issue with multiple levels of complexity, but (and this is my own conclusion) skills heavy systems like Pathfinder break down because they are the result of a faulty line of reasoning: that in order for there to be an unbiased thought experiment every action needs to be codified.  I am now of the opinion that in almost all cases discussion can resolve any issues players might have at the table.

  1. It is producing the illusion of fairness, since skills appear to intercede and disallow DM finagling; however, all DCs are set by the DM and are subject to change. Unless, as a DM, you’re willing to write information on paper, fold that paper up, and set these papers in front of the players with the DCs already labeled on them, waiting to be matched or exceeded by the players dice rolls, there is no assurance, from a player perspective, that the DCs are static.