There has long been controversy over skills. Frequently, this debate has been referred to as “Role-Playing vs. Roll-Playing”. The gist of the complaint is that by relying on skills to resolve the outcome of an event, we do away with the need to role-play a situation.
While I agree that this may be the case in some groups, I also assert that a skill system can be incorporated without reducing the importance of role-playing.
The problem, as I see it, isn’t inherent in the skill system but instead is a problem in the way the skill system is implemented. In fact, let me go further and say that any issues that arise because of the skill system are actually only symptoms of a larger problem.
Who Owns The Rules
In early editions, the PHB contained: rules for character creation, suggestions for successful adventuring, and information the player needed in order to play her character. Rules relating to arbitration of the game (including resolution of events) was contained, instead, in the DMG. Newer editions changed this format by transferring most of the rules to the PHB, reducing the DMG to a training guide (basically just offering suggestions for new DMs).
By placing the rules for the skill system (including arbitration thereof) within the PHB, the designers clearly stated that performing a skill, as dictated by the skill system, was an action that could be resolved by the player. As such, it is only natural that the player, on her turn, would state “I am performing such-and-such skill”, and reach for the dice.
The player has all the necessary information at hand. The PHB lists all the relevant modifiers for each skill function and the DC for any related action the character would wish to attempt. She rolls the die, adds the modifiers, and informs the DM as to whether or not she succeeded. In a group where this has become the norm, I would certainly agree that you have a problem.
Make the Skill System Transparent
When a player makes a new character, she should assign skill points. When the character levels up, the player should assign additional skill points. I propose that that is the full extent that players should interact with the skill system. If a player wishes to perform an action that could be resolved by a skill check, the player should role-play the action she wishes to perform (just as was done for decades prior to the advent of the skill system) and the DM should then perform the skill check behind the scenes. In the past, the DM would simply arbitrate the situation. Now, the skill check serves as an aid to the DM, assisting her in the arbitration of the event.
Most importantly, this approach reinstates role-play as the primary method of performing an action. The skill system then becomes merely an aid to the DM. Secondly, we remove a great deal of meta-gaming information. There are frequently modifiers to skill checks that players wouldn’t be aware of. Also, comparing the die roll to the skill check result gives the player information she shouldn’t be privy to (a player shouldn’t know if an action failed due to a poor skill check roll or if it was due to some other reason).
If the DM has to ask a player each time what her perception (or other skill) is, this also gives the player meta-game information. Instead, it’s important for the DM to have a list of each character’s skills so she can simply look them up when needed. I recommend going further and obtaining a copy of each player’s character sheet at the beginning of the game. Many players generate their characters electronically, so this may be just a matter of printing another copy. Short of that, combination printer/scanner/copiers are common and inexpensive. As a last resort, simply copying down the important data by hand isn’t that big a deal.
When a situation calls for everyone to make a perception check (again just picking on perception as an example), instead of telling the players to make this check, the DM should do it quietly behind the scenes. First off, it doesn’t tip off the players that there is something there that they might be missing. Also, it speeds things up. I’m not suggesting that the DM should make a separate die roll for each character. Instead, make one die roll and use that result (along with each character’s modifiers) to make the individual skill checks. In the case of passive checks, the DM need only glance at the list of skills to see which characters succeed.
Essentially, there is no reason for players to even be aware that there is a skill system (other than the fact that they need to assign skill points at each level). If a player wants to use a hanging vine to swing across a ravine, she should simply describe what she wants to do. There is no need for the player to know what skill is involved, what modifiers apply, or what the DC is. All she needs is for the DM to inform her as to whether she succeeded.
Where Do You Stop
The obvious argument would be that players like to roll dice. It’s empowering. After all, if the DM is going to take over skill checks why not extend that logic to the rest of the game (such as attack rolls and saving throws)?
As a matter of fact, I’ve heard of many groups that did just that. Players role-played everything they did (including combat) and never touched a die or a pencil. The DM informed them when they hit an opponent, when they themselves were hit, whether it was a glancing blow or a solid hit, and gave subjective descriptions as to how injured they were. By all accounts, this system worked well for those that reported using it.
Personally, I think that is taking things too far. I definitely like rolling dice and (as a player) I wouldn’t enjoy giving it up. But in the case of skill checks, I think it is reasonable and necessary.