Player vs. Character Abilities

On a recent Google+ conversation I found myself discussing what makes an "old school" D&D game. Part of the conversation involved whether throttling back character abilities is what makes something old school. For example, in AD&D your magic-user can cast a single 1st level spell once per day at first level. He might have as few as 1 hit point and can wear no armor nor master the weapons of a fighter. In the 3rd edition of D&D your 1st level wizard may have multiple spells per day with high intelligence, is guaranteed to start off with at least 4 hit points (barring low constitution), can wear armor if he wants to risk spell failure, can learn how to use fighter weapons, etc. Moving on to 4th edition this wizard at 1st level now has an unlimited amount of magic missiles available to him.

Clearly character abilities, especially at low levels, is something that has increased with newer editions of the game. I'd argue that is certainly part of what one finds in an old school game.

Another part of the equation I would venture is the difference between games that test players vs. those that test characters. In newer incarnations of D&D your character's abilities are far more spelled out. Any character can search for traps or sneak around, it is a simple matter of rolling his or her skill vs. a difficulty. In original "white box" D&D there are no general skills. With AD&D 1st edition we see the introduction of secondary skills. This was very basic - the Dungeon Masters Guide had a table of possible former professions for player characters to give an idea as to the types of things a character might be able to do outside the bounds of his class. The 1st edition Oriental Adventures book expanded on the AD&D concept of weapon proficiencies to double as a rough skill system with non-weapon proficiencies, an idea which was made a bit more formal with the Dungeoneer and Wilderness Survival Guides and made a part of the core rules with the 2nd edition of AD&D. Personally I found the non-weapon proficiency system to be rather mediocre - you received only a small number of them and improving them was something you could only do every few levels. With its 3rd edition D&D moved to a full skill system where many character abilities became linked to skills. In my opinion the skill system developed in 3rd edition is far superior to the non-weapon proficiency system introduced in later 1st edition books.

However, I'm uncertain if D&D always needs a skill system. This isn't to say skills are some newfangled idea that we must huff at with disdain. After all Chaosium's RuneQuest, introduced in 1978, and Game Designers' Workshop's Traveller, from 1977, both had skill systems. So skills are far from a new innovation, even if it did take D&D until the year 2000 to really fully integrate them.

What I've observed in my own experience is what a difference a tightly integrated skill system makes in the way D&D is played. In older versions of D&D it often seemed to me the goal was to challenge the players. There were devices, traps, dungeons, etc. whose challenges were primarily directed at players. In newer versions of D&D a large part of that challenge has been siphoned off to the characters run by the players. I don't want to give the impression that I'm saying all games of 3rd edition or later are simply exercises in dice rolling with no player creativity to be found. I've played and/or DM-ed all versions of D&D except for the original white box and I've found ample opportunity for player creativity. But what I'd see in later editions is a lot more looking at character sheets to see who will perform a given action. Bob thinks of an awesome bluff to get past the guards but Mary's character has a higher fast-talk skill so Mary's character goes to talk to the guard. Mary thinks of a way to solve a puzzle but Bob's character has a better disable device skill. I know a lot of people reading this will say "that's not a bug, that's a good thing". And I can see that point. I'm not a believer in such a thing as badwrongfun or "one true way".

However without such a strong skill system I've found players often do a lot more out of the box thinking. And to be honest, this requires game masters to also do a lot more out of the box thinking as well, which I tend to view as a good thing, despite usually being GM - the way I figure it, it's only fair if I too have to react to a changing set of circumstances. There's such a thing as taking this too far. A common argument is that a character will often have knowledge that a player won't and I tend to agree with this. If my character has lived in a medieval village all my life chances are my character has better wilderness survival skills than I do, even if he's not a ranger or druid. I think the key to handling this in an older school game is having the players leverage their character's knowledge. This often involves a give and take between the player and GM as they discuss what is reasonable for a character to know or be capable of.

There are issues that can make this model work less well for some groups - it requires the GM to adjudicate rulings on the fly very frequently, something which can be tricky to do, especially consistently. But it can make for a very different style of gaming experience and one that I feel is worth trying out.

One of the things I've enjoyed about many of the newer "old school" games is how they deal with the issue of character skill. Dungeon Crawl Classics takes a hybrid of 1st edition's secondary skill system with the 3.x skill resolutions. Adventurer Conqueror King System gives access to a very basic proficiency system which gives characters access to abilities that are somewhere between feats and skills. Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy formalizes the "x in 6" task resolution implied in the D&D Basic/Expert rules into a skill system, making its specialist character the only type who can readily improve such skills. None of these skill systems are so extensive as to preventing the give and take that I described above but they provide a basic foundation which avoids everything falling into "GM fiat".

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