‘Player Skill’ versus ‘Role Playing’

I’ve been reading a lot of Old School blogs recently, as I do, and I’ve noticed a lot of them talking about ‘Player Skill’ as compared to ‘Character Skill’.

There is a debate in the gaming community about which is preferable, a player interacting with the game environment primarily through their own wits and problem solving ability versus a character interacting with the world through their abilities or stats on the paper.

Among the old school community, most argue strongly that player skill is always preferable and more meaningful, because the victory and defeats that a player experiences are almost entirely due to their own cleverness, forethought, and planning.  Others argue that that style of play ignores the differences in character capability, that a character and its player should be separate and differently capable.

In my own Old School campaign, I’ve noticed a mix of this sort of play style.  For a very long time, I’ve been into more Storygames, or games where immersion in the setting and character are far more important than ‘winning’.  However, playing ACKS, I’ve noticed an acceptance on my part of ignoring character’s knowing things they have no real way of learning, because it is so much a trope of the D&D experience it seems odd to forbid it.

I’ll give a salient example.  The first time Gary threw trolls at his players, if they’d not read Three Swords and Three Lions, I bet they shit themselves when the damn things wouldn’t die.  How the hell were they supposed to know to use fire on them?  But even if they died, the next characters who came along would spontaneously know that fire was what you needed.  Or that you shouldn’t touch this stone.  Or that this kind of necklace will strangle you.  And that sort of ‘training by PC death’ is lauded in many corners of the Old School community.

I find it strangely dissonant to call that role playing, while accusing more modern games and later editions of being too much like board games or video games.  The new character has no way of knowing what the now dead one may have learned, yet no one bats an eye at the player using that ‘out of character’ knowledge.  That to me seems to violate the whole concept of role playing.

I’ve often struggled with trying to figure out how much of the ‘common lore’ about monsters of myth in our world is equally common lore in the fantasy game world.  Does every peasant know that garlic will ward away a vampire?  Does every peasant know that silver will kill a lycanthrope?  Arguments can be made either way, but the game rules and the settings themselves are silent on the matter.  In a game with a skill system, at least there are knowledge skills governing the reasonable use of such knowledge.

I don’t know.  I don’t have a problem with ‘player skill’ type play.  I’ve been playing rpgs for so long that I have a mountain of stuff in the back of my head and it’s hard to turn it off no matter what I play (which is why I rarely like playing games that start at 1st level any more, I just can’t turn that stuff off).  And though I love Old School gaming, and greatly prefer it to games like Pathfinder, some of the assertions of the more vehement Grognards rankle me.   I guess that’s all I’m saying.


Oh, in other news, it’s Swords and Wizardry appreciation day!  While ACKS is my go to system, I do love the S&W material…especially their awesome modules and monster books.  So check them out!


3 thoughts on “‘Player Skill’ versus ‘Role Playing’

  1. I suppose it really all depends. For all the talk that OSR types do on player skill, it was Gygax himself in the 1e DMG (and presumably other writings) that warned about players using knowledge their characters wouldn’t have. On the other hand, unless every player death ends in a TPK, it isn’t unreasonable to think that the survivors would pass on their knowledge to the new recruits, and retreat appears to have been a valid tactic in Ye Goode Olde Dayse.

    As for common lore, I’ve always gone by the rule of thumb of “how often would it come up in day to day life?” Every peasant in a town that’s never heard of a vampire wouldn’t know the first thing about warding them off. In a town where vampires are creatures of myth? They might know that and a number of other legendary wards (of which at least some will be wrong). In a town plagued by vampires? You better believe they know how to ward. This also neatly sidesteps some of the “by the book” oddities that knowledge checks in D&D have had, where farmers need college level education to know how to do their jobs.

    I generally allow players whatever general knowledge they bring to the table, vetoing things I consider “far afield” (no, your wizard isn’t going to spontaneously come up with the idea of moldy bread for penicillin just because you as a player know it), and rewarding play that is within character.

  2. acererakll says:

    As an old school guy I can say I’ve played D&D more as a game than a theatrical event. The contest wasn’t just in overcoming the monsters, but the whole dungeon. (monster = other creatures, dungeon = the multiverse).

    What happened is not that this wasn’t role playing, but that the common definition for the term has significantly changed since 40 years ago. Now it means improvisation. The original D&D was using it in the 70’s military exercise sense as a role performance, engaging in a social behavioral pattern. Having a well-trained group of soldiers each skillful in their own role meant a more capable team overall.

    Character abilities are defined in the game, but only NPCs have all their actions defined. Player–Characters are a mix, hence the name. (It isn’t a possessive) The Player is expected to perform the diplomacy, memorization, and strategic actions of their character. They don’t have an algorithm for that unlike the NPCs. The Character abilities represent everything the players do not ACTUALLY do.

    Player skill here is their actual intellectual memory (with player log assistance), their actual interaction with fellow players, their wisdom to judge situations based on past context, and their ability to develop strategies based on forethought.

    Character knowledge for PCs is designed to be as close to Player knowledge so dissonance doesn’t get in the way. PCs can also die on average few times and still survive to the end of the campaign with Resurrection chances. That means the metagaming of Player knowledge from previous characters doesn’t need to necessarily occur. I think a really hardcore group may have made a player sit out until the next campaign if their PC was irrevocably lost, but I think that’s rare. A different, brand new PC is difficult enough to overcome and most all of that player knowledge would almost certainly be relayed anyhow by fellow players just as if the player was completely new.

    Personally, I don’t like ‘training by PC death’ either. I much prefer experiential learning with the players self directing. To help this I include no knowledge checks for players. They learn or don’t learn as they choose through play.

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