Skills and Optimization
Over the weekend I posted an article showing the skill distribution for the two Essentials players books. I added some quick analysis along with a statement that I intended to delve a bit deeper. Today I'd like to discuss why I think the current skills system leads people to be optimizers.
The Core Mechanic Encourages Optimization
In 4e, the books describe the core mechanic of the game, "the most important rule," as the following:
1. Roll a d20. You want to roll high!
2. Add all relevant modifiers.
3. Compare the total to a target number. If your result equals or exceeds the target number, the check is a success. Otherwise, it's a failure.
When I run games for new players, I'm told to explain this core mechanic. It explicitly sets up a situation where there is a binary success/failure and where players will feel the need to optimize. While there are always exceptions, such as DM-given bonuses for roleplaying, regardless of the table you play at, this is the assumed base experience.
So, if that informs the base of what you know about the game, it's reasonable to assume that a player likely will pick skills that align with the character's better abilities, the ones that give the largest bonus, especially when he or she has no idea how those skills might be used in the game itself. After all, what's important is that we roll high.
I'm a Star at Something, Right?
Even if that wasn't the core mechanic, I don't think it's particularly radical to suggest that people who sit down for the first time might pick skills based on what their character is innately good at. When I started out, I had no idea if history was going to be more useful to me than bluff (not that I necessarily had access to both of those skills), but I did know what my character was likely to be good at and just said she was also likely to be interested in learning more about those things. Also, it seems typical that players might want to differentiate their characters in a particular area. We're playing heroes after all. For instance:
- "Thadeous has the gift of a silver tongue and the personality to milk it for all its worth." (Diplomacy)
- "Serena's parents love to tell the story of how she walked across the laundry line to visit her friend at age 3. They knew she was a natural for the royal circus." (Acrobatics)
If everyone in a hero groups has basically the same set of skills and about the same abilities in them, what makes them unique? What would Leverage look like if all five of them were hitters? What would the Fellowship of the Ring look like if they were all wizards or rangers? Furthermore, if we are to have class skill lists, they should make it easier, not harder, to create a hero. Why auto-assign certain skills if the class isn't particularly good at the related ability, as in the case of the warpriest? But if we look at those distributions, we can see that by design it's harder to do that for some classes.
How Might Word-Based Ranks Help?
This natural inclination towards optimization, reinforced by the core mechanic, is one of the biggest reasons I like the idea of moving to word based ranks for skills. I personally would love to get away from worrying about +2 bonuses here and -1 penalties there. In my opinion, they often clutter our feat and magic item lists with these small opportunities to move the needle in one direction or the other for too small of an overall gain. Small increases in attack precision make a lot more sense given the small differences in defenses between levels. I don't think the same is true with skills. I'm not sure about the rest of the rules in that column, such as when you may roll, but I think that's a better discussion for later.
When Might Skill Clumping Be Counter-Productive?
Unlike combat, the roleplaying portion of 4e doesn't provide a way of moving the spotlight from player to player. Trying to enforce an initiative-order like system on this part of the game can make the story stilted and unnatural. In my experience, the lack of tools for moving the spotlight around makes it very easy for a player to fall out of the game during role-playing and skill challenges, especially shy or reserved players. If a character doesn't have a special skill to contribute, I think this makes it even more likely that unless the player has an internal reason for wanting to be part of it, such as enjoying play-acting or storytelling, the player will tune out. This isn't necessarily bad, not everyone enjoys this part of the game, but I think the current skills distribution can lead to this behavior in players who might otherwise enjoy role playing. As with just about anything, DM skill can overcome this.
In addition, just like certain damage keywords, some skills are more valuable than others. While this will vary from group to group, in general, heavy use of acrobatics, bluff, thievery and streetwise in skill challenges, traps, and other skill rolls may cause the spotlight to shine much more often on certain players versus others.
When Might Skill Clumping be Productive?
For some skills, we might want a number of characters competent in them. For tasks that come up often in the game, but not in a way that really spotlight's a particular character's talents, we might want a number of the people in the party to use the same skill. Perhaps they are trying to convince the hermit wizard that they aren't going to run off with his expensive magic item that will be useful in tracking down the evil goblin king who is attacking the town.
Some Ideas to Help
I've written a fair bit already, but I want to point out some tools that can help. I will write more in the future about this.
What some games do to move the spotlight around is to break the game down into scenes and having each scene have a subset of the characters present. For some groups, we could have multiple scenes taking place across the city at the same time. Perhaps one team is off trying to pass off a forged letter while another is gathering information in a bar. Even within one room we could have multiple scenes going. Perhaps a grate high up in the wall could provide the group with information of what's in the next room while another group could be investigating some runes on the floor.
The emphasis should be that the people in a particular scene should rely on their own skills and the skills used should be driven by role play. Yes, this can mean splitting the party during these parts of the game. If you keep each scene short and provide easy ways for the characters to escape any combat, this should be fine.
Not all checks need to be binary in nature. The result doesn't have to indicate success or failure. Instead, it could represent degree of success. Let's say you're in a treasure room when someone, I'm not going to name names Mr McStealy, triggers a trap that causes the ceiling to begin descent. The DM can ask you to make a check to see how much treasure you escape with and the number you roll indicates the amount of success. Everyone will want to make this check regardless of their modifier. It's fun and we get to roll some dice. Not all non-binary checks need to be fun but they need to mean something to the players and/or their characters.
Ok, more later. But for now, I have to get some food. :)