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Player Skill versus Skillfully Playing Your Character

I wrote a few days ago about how to get rid of experience points in your role-playing games. Because experience points are a reward for meeting goals in play, one of the topics this touched on was “player skill.” That’s what I’m thinking about here.

The new, OSR emphasis on “player skill” seems to have had its diffusion from Matt Finch’s essay of 2008, “A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming.” The idea that he expresses there is that it’s more fun if characters don’t have skill traits and perception checks to stand in for player thinking and problem-solving. “Old-school” gaming, he argues, is about players’ thinking about the problems their characters face rather than die-rolls against skills representing character thinking. The player’s brain should do the problem-solving, not a die roll against an abstract intellectual skill. For example, the player should describe how his character searches the room rather than making a perception roll.

And that’s how the original game was, supposedly: no skill traits. As an aside, I want to point out that it’s not true that original D&D had no skills. Every character class had its own skill traits that we just did not call skills. But, in normal RPG game terms, class abilities were, in fact, all skills and proficiencies, all of them, from fighters’ ability to use all weapons, to magic-users’ spells, to clerics’ turning undead, to the elf’s sensitive hearing as they pressed pointy ears against dungeon doors, to thieves’ scuttling up cave walls. These original characters skills differ from the later ones in that they were restricted to individual classes and they each had their own mechanics. The evolution of “skills” in D&D is just the proliferation of stats for an ever-wider range of abilities and adventurous activities, increasingly including generic abilities open to all character classes, and the simultaneous reduction of such abilities to a single mechanic, something achieved immediately in many of the first role-playing games, long ago, and now nearly achieved in the Fifth Edition of D&D.

Anyway, Finch’s method has great appeal. I prefer it. Minimize stats, maximize live engagement. It can be boring to use dice when you can play stuff out with words (even though dice are best used for the opposite, to add suspense and unpredictability). Finch’s idea of “player skill” entails that a skillful player knows how to describe effective ways of finding traps in a dungeon, for example, so the player should explain how his character searches for them. (Never mind that most GMs can’t reciprocate by convincingly describing the triggers and mechanisms of traps. Just look any published adventure.)

I leave aside that Finch’s essay did not propose axing INT and WIS scores from the game, to make room for player brain-work. INT and WIS are “original,” so they remain in retro-clones. Is that to ensure Gygaxian “game balance” for magic-users and clerics? (My home-brew game has no scores for intelligence or wisdom, only a few traits representing education for characters who have it.)

The renewed emphasis on player skill was an entry into a much older debate in role-playing game design, but it was an exciting proposal that has fueled a gaming subculture unleashed by the Open Game License, even if its ramifications have not been pursued to their logical end (in Story Game mechanics). Finch’s proposal is about using players’ brains and words in place of game mechanics. This makes a lighter character sheet and, we hope, a more imaginative game with more engaged players whose choices matter.

Master Players and Master Dungeon Masters

This way of talking about “player skill” does use language revived from the earliest days of role-playing games. It’s “old-school” in that way.

Gary Gygax, who delighted in playing the part of founder-pundit, saw himself as the official proponent of the idea of player skill. Unlike Finch’s player skill, Gygax’s was competitive. He wrote in the Players Handbook (1978, p. 8), that “Skilled players always make a point of knowing what they are doing… They co-operate… in order to gain their ends. Superior players will not fight everything they meet… When faced with a difficult situation, skilled players will not attempt endless variations on the same theme [in solving problems].” He goes on like this in several publications. Superior playing, for him, was clever problem-solving. Can you outwit the Dungeon Master’s tricks? That is the idea in “classic” Gygax modules like The Tomb of Horrors (published in 1978, first run in 1975, see below).

He held on tight to this role of pundit after he lost the helm of TSR and left the company angrily in 1985. Take Gygax’s books Role-Playing Mastery (1987) and Master of the Game: Tips and Techniques for Becoming an Expert Role-Playing Game Master (1989). I bought the latter when it came out and found it to be a complete waste. Tips for players include banal exhortations to cooperate and defer to the GM. Tips for game masters include the advice that the GM must “master the rules.” Be fair. That kind of stuff. His idea that Master Game Masters follow the advice of the Grand Master is self-serving and it missed a decade of evolution in the hobby he co-founded.

But the idea that you can master playing role-playing games, with an emphasis on the word games, is a hold-over from the earliest days of the hobby, when there were D&D tournaments at conventions. Individual player participants were awarded points for achieving solutions to traps and overcoming monsters and going farther than others. The Tomb of Horrors was developed specifically for this kid of role-playing, run at Origins 1 in Baltimore in 1975, just one year after the publication of the original D&D, a half step from competitive miniatures wargaming. You could win D&D in those days by being the most successful player in a group.

My first issue of Dragon Magazine, #54 (October 1981), included a solo adventure called “Cavern Quest” by Bill Fawcett. It is introduced as a solo “competition module for AD&D.” It challenges you to “Test your skill as a dungeoneer and your knowledge of [AD&D] rules.” At the end, you tally up points to figure out how well you played. I found it incredibly exciting as a boy, but when I ran games, I never had the goal “to accurately record the performance of each player” in this way.

So, here’s another part of the “original” hobby that no OSR players have revived, as far as I can tell. Is being a skillful player knowing the rules better than anybody else and being able to outwit oppositional Dungeon Masters? That is not how the overwhelming majority of role-playing games have been played. I’m sure that most players have not played tournament games. I never have.

Playing Your Character

The competitive style of D&D is, happily for many of us, long gone. It was not picked up in other role-playing games, as far as I can tell, until it was revived in some role-playing Story Games, which feature more “PC-PC conflict.” Here again the Story Games are more old-school than OSR games.

Mostly, though, the competitive style of play quickly gave way to an overwhelming emphasis on role-playing. It’s in the name, as you may have noticed. I remarked in my musing on experience points that plenty of role-playing games since the days of yore explicitly prescribed that Referees should give out rewards for good role-playing.

In my experience of the old days, GMs gave experience points for playing your character at least as much as achievements in the story. It was partly an aesthetic and qualitative assessment by GMs and their player groups. It also meant, among other things, that you stuck to your character concept in making choices even when it was not to your character’s benefit. Playing your character was the goal, not winning. That was skillful playing for us. The gamers I knew looked down on players who played as if they could win the game. We once had a player who said that he played to win, and everybody in the room started laughing. No, silly! We play to bring characters to life and to tell a story collaboratively! You don’t win the game; you have fun role-playing. We knew this already as kids. The rule books said so.

Old-School Acting versus Acting Old-School

In fact, playing your character was always a part of the hobby. It just wasn’t considered a part of player skill because it was something you were supposed to do anyway!

Go back to December 3, 1980. Tom Moldvay is writing the Foreword to the red book of Basic D&D, the first role-playing game book I ever had, the book that probably did more to launch the hobby than any other.

“I was busy rescuing the captured maiden when the dragon showed up,” Moldvay wrote. He framed his explanation of D&D as an imaginary narrative. Then he went on: “Sometimes I forget that D&D Fantasy Adventure Game is a game and not a novel I’m reading or a movie I’m watching.”

“Each adventure is like writing a novel,” says the back cover.

Mike Carr wrote in the Foreword of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook (1978), that players “are the primary actors and actresses in the fascinating drama which unfolds before them.”

Carr exhorts the players to “use your persona to play with a special personality all its own.”

Gygax wrote in his Players Handbook (p. 7), “You act out the game as this character… You interact with your fellow role players, not as Jim and Bob and Mary who work at the office together, but as Falstaff the fighter, Angore the cleric, and Filmar, the mistress of magic!”

Novels. Actors. Drama. Playing personas. Acting out parts with each other in fellowship. This is how D&D developed spontaneously and was actually played in the very first years of its existence. Some of the OSR people pretend that it’s only a game, and not that sissy acting stuff. That is false. If you are playing a role, you are acting, in some degree. It was always that way.

Playing a character and player rewards

If you liked my earlier proposal to ditch experience points, then you won’t be giving experience points for playing your character (the way I used to do it) any more than you will for gold pieces captured. Just as the gamers who want to give XP for GP may wonder how to motivate players without that mechanic, the friends I used to play with years ago might ask me how I would motivate good role-playing without experience points, too.

There are different ways to answer this. One is that the reward is built in. As I said before, having fun is its own reward. If you don’t find role-playing fun, the chances are that you are not going to stick it out just to get the treasure, either. You will find different games to play. So, let’s assume that all players find something fun in role-playing games. They get fun from playing. Isn’t that reward enough?

Another way to reward good role-playing is with short-term benefits in game mechanics. The Fifth Edition allows for “inspiration dice” to reward good play. An inspiration die is a one-time benefit, allowing you to roll an extra die and take the best result on one occasion. In my home-brew game rules, Referees can reward inspired playing and faithful adherence to character concept with the restoration of a Luck point (which works quite like the similar mechanic in Fighting Fantasy, a game system much more inspiring for me than D&D).

There is also the esteem that players tend to show towards their fellows who are especially good at bringing a character to life. That’s a social reward among friends.

Probably there are other rewards. In the end, these issues are all a matter of preferences. People should play how they want to play. My point is that skillfully playing your character is a fundamental player skill, different from the current concept of players skill, and it always has been in the hobby.

From player skill to player skills

Player skill can mean a lot of different things, as it turns out. It can mean, with Gygax, that your character succeeds at defeating the Dungeon Master’s challenges more than other player characters in the fiction of the game, proving that you are the Master Player. It can mean, with Finch, that you rely on your thinking and words, rather than dice, to simulate and direct a character’s actions. (I would rather call this an emphasis on player direction.) It can mean that you faithfully keep your character’s actions in line with the character concept. (My young daughter treasures the inspiration die she earned for this in her first 5e session with me.) It can mean that you are good at bringing your character to life as you interact with other participants in the game. It can mean the ability to create and maintain a story motive for your character to participate in fictional adventures designed by a GM, instead of relying on others to motivate your participation.

These are each different. Each kind of player skill brings its own benefit. Different gamers have different personal needs that they fulfill when they play. The various kinds of player skills interact with those needs. Your preference will play a role, but there are lots of ways to be good at role-playing games, each valid if it is fun.


  1. Yeah, I never understand handing out a reward for something that is already rewarding. To me, that demeans it. It is saying: the thing you find rewarding, it actually isn’t and I’m going to give you this other reward instead. Revolting!

    1. I think I would not go so far as to call giving experience points revolting. That is a strong word! I suppose that players may enjoy multiple rewards for playing: on the one hand, fun, on the other, a more powerful alter-ego (character). I do think it is possible to allow characters to advance or grow in power or just to change in the mode of Chapters as I outlined before, without using an experience point system.

      I was thinking about your remark on another musing of mine, about the game Traveler. That is one of the few very early games that I never played. I did not realize that there was no feature in that game to allow characters to advance in their statistics. Is that correct? (My first sci-fi role-playing game was Star Frontiers, 1982.) As I look now at information on the original Traveller, I see that it was more influential than I realized. Does Traveller not have an experience point system?

  2. I was referring to giving xp for being in character, or other enjoyable activities – cheapening is as humans, implicitly suggesting that we might not be interested in that without a reward. It’s like that research showing that giving people money for inherently enjoyable activities removes that joy.

    I grant XP for gold spent – simply because I want to reward a particular optional activity in the game that leads to adventure as the lowest common denominator but usually my players don’t care so much and a simple chapter structure would work just as well.

    The only thing I would oppose is xp for simply joining the game, or xp for a certain number of sessions, that sort of also takes away the reward nature.

    Travelled did have an advancement mechanic that I remember: if you assume that every jump takes a week and you can spend a week studying, then it is possible to very slowly increase your skills: there is one page in the 1983 edition of the rules I have talking about small improvements over a four year (!) period.


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