Friday, 17 February 2017

Skills as described vs. skills as used

So I was visiting Dan and Arthur over the holidays, and we had many conversations about roleplaying, of course. One of them eventually pottered around to musing on skill interpretation. Or, to be a little uncharitable, skill misinterpretation.

Here, as usual, "skill" means an aspect of an RPG's mechanics which determine your competence in a specific field of activity. In some cases things we would normally consider to be Attributes or Statistics or something work in a way similar enough that we can also consider them here. White Wolf's dots, for example, are basically the same whether they're in an Attribute or a... whatever you call the other things, I forget.

Let's take as read for this article that a skill has four components: a Name, an optional Fluff, a Description, and an Application. The Name is literally the name of the skill ("Ignite Fish"). The Fluff is a bit of flavour text which some games include. The Description is the section of the rules which explains what the skill is, and may give specific mechanical subsystems, special uses, examples and so on; descriptions may be very mechanical or largely narrative.

Finally, the Application is simply the way a given set of players actually uses the skill in their games. This does not necessarily correspond to any of the above.

It seems to be relatively common that when it comes to actually playing a game, people end up running skills in ways that do not actually match their descriptions.

There are various reasons for this, and it is not necessarily either an error or a problem, but I wanted to briefly think about the phenomenon. In a lot of cases the examples are going to come from Call of Cthulhu, because a) it's my go-to system, and b) it seems to be the one most commonly misunderstood, possibly because its paradigm deviates significantly from that of D&D.

Grounds for Confusion

One obvious reason for running a skill in a way that doesn't match its description is deliberate choice. The group may have decided that a skill is broken, underpowered, overpowered, or creates results that don't fit their preferred style. Providing they've given this some thought, I don't think there's anything to worry about here and I'll ignore it in the rest of the article.

A second reason is that a skill's description is confusing. The skill may not match the name or fluff provided, so that players assume it works in a way more fitting to the narrative flavour they're given. Alternatively, the rules may simply be complicated and unclear, so that players settle on what seems a sensible interpretation, or just a simpler one. I suspect this would be particularly likely if a skill's description is counterintuitive, even though there may be good mechanical reasons for it to work in this way; however, I can't think of any examples of that. Again, I don't think I can contribute much on that point so let's leave it aside.

I think the more interesting area is a mixture of legacy thinking, language interference and general assumptions.

Legacy Thinking

Roleplaying games are often very complicated, which can encourage misinterpretation of rules. Players and GMs need to digest a large amount of information as they learn to play the game; they are likely to misremember some sections, or to conflate the Gutters and Gibberlings rules for Climbing Sheer Surfaces with the Dark Shadow of Mourn rules for Climbing Sheer Surfaces, or to have skimmed the rules and only remember a bit of them. It's relatively common to play with a misremembered version of a rule for quite a while.

It only gets worse when you switch between editions of a game. A player moving from D&D 3.5e to Pathfinder is very likely to make a lot of errors about the rules, because the vast majority of the rules seem to be the same, but there are hundreds of small changes embedded throughout the rulebooks. Not only are these difficult to remember for a player with long experience of D&D, but they're also quite difficult to notice in the first place. Even reading the rulebook can be difficult when it's very familiar, very detailed and very long - the eyes tend to glaze over.

So we can easily end up simply misunderstanding or misremembering a skill based on legacy thinking, whether this is inspired by an older edition of a game, or a different game entirely. I have played quite a few hours of a somewhat derivative game where we studiously avoided grappling on the basis of the tediously complex grappling rules, only to eventually find that it... didn't have any. None at all.

Language interference

When I say "language interference", I don't (mostly) mean that in the usual sense of two different spoken languages. In the case of RPGs, it's more like "terminology interference". Gutters and Gibberlings has a Procrastination skill, and so does Dark Shadow of Mourn - but they are actually very different. Or, perhaps more awkwardly, about 50% similar but with several important distinctions.

To take a common example, lots of games have a skill that you use for perceiving things. Often, this is called Perception; sometimes it's called Spot, or Notice, or Awareness. When reading through a new RPG, it's very tempting to think you know how these work. You can easily overlook subtle differences, like the fact that Warhammer 40,000 RPGs have a distinct skill for deliberately searching versus generally noticing, and a third for interpreting expressions and body language.

It may be particularly tempting if someone's just suggested they run Gutters and Gibberlings right now, or even next week, but you've only vaguely heard of it.

I suspect this is also more common with relatively realistic settings (where people can assume they understand roughly how the world works) and skills that sound intuitive (where people can assume they know what the skill does).

A bigger problem arises with a broader type of legacy thinking, often combined with terminology interference. Because games do tend to have a Perception skill, gamers tend to look for one. People seem to find the skill that seems most like Perception, then try to use it the same way. Occasionally, they even go so far as to complain that the skill they select as their stand-in for Perception has a silly name or doesn't really make sense, but don't make the next deductive leap.

The thing here is that games are genuinely different. They don't simply select from a big list of available skills. Each game selects its own skills, each of which are semi-arbitrary combinations of competences grouped in a way that makes sense for the genre and expected tone of the game. Mechanical considerations, such as balance, rules-lightness, the breadth of game types they want to support, and the weighting of options, also come into play. 3:16 has only two skills, Fighting and Non-Fighting. Vampire has about thirty. Call of Cthulhu has dozens.

To continue with our example, in the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, there is no skill whatsoever for just noticing things.

There is a Listen skill. This makes some sense for a horror game which is also investigative: there are two obvious uses for such a skill. Primarily, it's used as a way for Investigators to hear something horrible moving overhead or creeping up on them, creating a dramatic scene. Secondly, it's a way to lead them to a nearby clue, or alert them to something unusual, which works in situations where simply looking around doesn't (such as through walls or foliage). It can also be applied to eavesdrop on suspects, listen at doors, and so on.

A second skill is called Spot Hidden. This skill does exactly what its name states: it allows you to spot things that are concealed. It is not a skill for simply noticing things, because that isn't required in this game. The "Hidden" part is not merely optional.

In Call of Cthulhu, generically noticing things works in one of two ways, neither of which involves a generic skill.

The first and most frequently ignored is that the characters just notice it. They are in a location and observe their surroundings, just like in real life. Typically a Keeper will vary this based on their behaviour: if they rush through a room at high speed they may not notice the package on the table (a Luck or Idea roll might be appropriate, or they could just overlook it automatically), but if they stroll inside and wait for someone they will. The journal is hidden in a drawer, and they will find it if they specifically open the drawer or indicate they are searching in a reasonably thorough way. The evil altar is concealed behind a secret partition and they'll have to be making a very professional search to discover it.

The second is that the characters roll one of the large array of specific skills, representing their ability to interpret what they see. Often, the issue with "noticing" things is not whether your human senses are capable of detecting them, but how you process the information. All of the characters see the collection of knick-knacks in the cabinet, but it takes Occult to realise they all have symbolic connections to death, and Anthropology to identify their cultural origin. Everyone sees the array of books on the shelf, but only History recognises that the owner is fascinated by the Visigoths. Everyone sees the rocky passage, but the Geologist can tell from its appearance that the passage is ancient, often underwater, and possibly vulnerable to sudden collapse (the Biologist, however, is reminded of a gigantic insect burrow).

If a group jumps to the conclusion that Spot Hidden is a Perception skill and begins using it this way, it is likely to be frustrating. For starters, it massively increases the chance that characters overlook information that's important to moving the game forward, and which there's no good reason to deny them. Very few people want to play a game where they never find out anything because they didn't notice a package on the kitchen table of the woman they visited due to rolling badly, and then the world is destroyed.

Another consequence is many more rolls on Spot Hidden than the rules expect. It will tend to over-weight the Spot Hidden skill, by transferring the function of "become aware of things around you" to that one skill, when it would otherwise be partly automatic and partly vested in a wide range of other more specialised skills. This is one of the reasons for the common trope that Call of Cthulhu only really requires high skills in Shotgun, Spot Hidden, Dodge and Library Use. Sure, you could buy up Drive Auto, but you can guarantee there'll be ten chances to roll Spot Hidden in each session, and likely none for Drive Auto. But I don't believe this is the intention of the rules: you should only need Spot Hidden when there is something hidden from you which you're trying to detect.

Paradigm Assumptions

Another form of misinterpretation relates not so much to specific skills, but to how the game's skills divide up different types of activity.

World of Darkness typically has a single Humanities skill, while D&D offers History, Religion, and in some editions more specialised skills like Knowledge: Nobility. Pathfinder combines the Climb, Jump and Swim skills from D&D into a single strength-based Athletics skill, while some games consider jumping to be more a matter of agility, and others try to distinguish acrobatic and forceful jumping.

These divisions come for various reasons. A very important one is genre assumptions about what is and is not important, as well as what different sorts of archetypes should be able to do. In the average Hollywood thriller, "Professor of Something at Leipzig" is usually handwaved to give the character astounding depth of knowledge in a wide range of vaguely-related fields, usually either science or the humanities and arts; the genre simply needs to establish that this is a character who Knows Academic Things. In pulp adventure stories, you may only need to know that Doctor Schwarz relies on her brain while Sergeant Tench relies on her body. A brick-thick fantasy saga, on the other hand, will certainly want to distinguish the nimble thief Gastropod from the brutishly-strong Ursine and both from the tough Norvok.

There's also often a concern about skill distribution. As I mentioned with Spot Hidden misuse, creating some skills that are very useful and used frequently while others are rare pushes players very heavily to selecting the common skills. Dividing skills up into more specific spheres can reduce this effect. In our current Black Crusade game, after some discussions about social skills, our GM is making a point of trying to ensure that social skills are scrupulously tied to their rulebook definitions. This is because, while one of the characters is terrible at everything other than intimidation, the remaining three are good at specific subsets of the six social skills. Allowing the person with the highest Fellowship stat and maxed-out Charm to use Charm for absolutely everything, while tempting for everyone, would overweight that skill, while making investment in the other skills rather pointless.

A third point is allowing distinctions that the designers feel are important. In an investigative game, it's useful to have a wide range of knowledge skills so that characters who are all investigating a mystery can feel distinctive by having different areas of expertise. There's no point doing that in a game of tactical warfare, but those designers may want to break down the skills related to vehicles, manoeuvering and command instead.

The problem you get here is where legacy thinking leads players to latch on to a paradigm from Game A, and then try to interpret the available skills of Game B through the same lens.

Smooth Talking

One of my personal bĂȘtes noires is the misinterpretation of the Call of Cthulhu social skills.

In many games, there is a broad four-way division of social skills. One of these is passive, and deals with interpreting other people's reactions and motivations (and, in many cases, detecting lies, even if that isn't actually part of the rules). The other three are usually called something like Bluff, Charm and Intimidate, as in D&D (which sometimes opts for "Diplomacy" instead of "Charm"). World of Darkness has Intimidation, Persuasion and Subterfuge, though it also has the specialised Socialize and Streetwise. Warhammer 40K uses multiple other more specialised skills, from Interrogation to Command, but still has the three classics as well.

Let's pause for a moment here. Just in these three games, we see that things get complicated. Each of them includes a Charm, a Bluff and an Intimidate. However, they are used differently, are of different weight and have different genre implications in each game.

In D&D, you use Charm or Diplomacy to befriend a wary merchant, to break the ice in a dodgy tavern, to lift the hearts of your mercenaries, to convince the king of the orcish threat, to strike a deal and to seduce a prince. You can use Intimidate to make an enemy surrender, to scare the guards into letting you through, to rattle an opponent, to deter a mugger, stare down a social rival, or interrogate a prisoner. You can use Bluff to invent an excuse for being in the mayor's bedroom, to feign ignorance of a secret, to distract attention from an ally's theft, to pull off an impersonation, even to feint in combat.

In World of Darkness, the merchant might be Socialize, the tavern Expression, the mercenaries Oratory, the king Persuasion, the prince Persuasion; the deal might be Persuasion or Streetwise, with a dash of Empathy. Intimidate would cover most of the situations, but Streetwise might help with the mugger and Fast Talk with those guards. You'll want Subterfuge for the bedroom, the secret and the impersonation, but Fast Talk will help with your theft, and feinting is a completely different mechanic.

In Warhammer 40K, you might roll Charm or Commerce for the merchant (depending on your goals), while the tavern would likely be subsumed into an Inquiry roll when you're scouting for information. Inspiring your mercenaries is Command, while Charm or even Logic might convince the king. Commerce or Logic would strike a deal with different kinds of NPCs, though for acquiring items there's a separate skill system based on your reputation skill. Seducing a prince would be Charm again. Intimidation works in most of these situations, but you might well use reputation to stare down your rival, and there's an Interrogation skill. And so on.

However, we can still notice a pretty strong trend of the three-way division here. So far, so good. This is a perfectly good way of setting up social interaction systems, and it fits many genres. Are you the nice persuasive character, the big scary character, or the deceptive shady character? The skills are split based on the method used to obtain a goal.

The problem is that this is very explicitly not the system Call of Cthulhu historically uses. It uses a different division entirely, and people regularly seem unable to grasp this idea. I keep encountering discussions of people doing "roll either Fast Talk or Persuade, whichever is higher", or treating Fast Talk as a bluff skill and Persuade as a charm skill.

In Call of Cthulhu 6e and earlier, the skill is based on the goal of the interaction - not on the approach.

Why yes, this is something of a soapbox of mine.

Persuade is a skill used to change another person's mind about an issue. It involves discussing or arguing the point with them over an extended period. If the roll is successful, the person accepts what you say (on some level); this will generally involve going along with your wishes, but that is not necessarily true. A Persuade roll specifically notes that it will take a considerable amount of time. Visualising the scene in your mind, we have our characters sitting down in the club, or the back room of the bar, or in the study, and having a long talk over a drink - it might be a bottle of whisky, beer and roast beef, or tea and biscuits. Persuasion might involve a reasoned argument over evidence, a plausible show of ability to make good on threats, convincing the other party that your word is trustworthy, and so on. It doesn't matter; they genuinely agree with us.

Fast Talk is a skill used to overcome an immediate obstacle. The character reels off something in an attempt to bulldoze through another character's objections. This skill does not change the mind of the other character (though they may well believe it), it simply gets them out of the way. It doesn't matter whether we are giving them a plausible lie, a confusing blather that makes them give up, an important-sounding nothing they don't care to challenge, or a throwaway threat. Doctor Who is a classic user of Fast Talk, but so are telephone scammers and door-to-door salesmen. The blatherer doesn't care what kind of thing they say, only that it works for now. Once the moment is past, the NPC may have second thoughts, or realise we were really suspicious, or decide to seek revenge, because we haven't actually influenced their opinion. Or they may not. It depends what was done, and is the GM's call.

Personally, I find the two-way split interesting and appealing. To my mind, it's a bit more fitting to a fairly realistic game than the tropes of fantasy fiction are. I don't especially mind, but it frustrates me if people misuse the system that's actually specified, then complain about its supposed inadequacies. This is not a game design problem.

7th edition Call of Cthulhu has added Charm, Bluff and Intimidate skills. I don't really understand the point of this decision, but a lot of people apparently wanted it. I can sort of see uses for them, but in a game where you fail a lot and there are already a lot of skills to be bad at, and where you mostly want players to get the clues they need (and social skills are primarily used to get clues), adding three more you can lack doesn't seem like a great advantage to me.


Sometimes the reason a skill is misunderstood is that it is peculiar.

In Deathwatch, the Evaluate skill is as follows:

The character uses Evaluate to determine the approximate value, strength, or manufacture of an object or group of items. Thus, the Skill can be used on anything from a single power sword to a fortifed bunker. Before evaluating an object, the character must specify what he is trying to determine: its approximate monetary value, its quality and strength, or its origin. Success on the Evaluate Test reveals the relevant information in a broad sense, such as its value in Throne Gelt, its Craftsmanship (see page 140) and structural integrity, or its make or model.

When making an attack against a heavily armoured stationary target such as a bunker or pillbox, a character may use Evaluate to determine weak points by making a Challenging (+0) Evaluate Test. Success adds an additional +4 to the Pen of the character’s weapon for his next attack if it is made against the target. Each additional Degree of Success adds a further +4 points of Pen. This is a Full Action.

When in cover, a character can make a Challenging (+0) Evaluate Test to fnd the cover’s strongest point. Success adds an additional +4 AP to the cover (for the character only) with each additional Degree of Success adding another +4 AP. This is a Half Action

I've seen a few games which have a skill for determining the quality and value of items, but this here is a very unusual combination. The same skill that you use to establish the value of a gem or the authenticity of a painting is also used to gain a very substantial advantage in siege warfare. This specific combination is probably odd enough to be memorable, but it's also going to confuse new players and make them wonder what other oddities lurk in the rules. Understandably, later editions of the game line dropped the siegecraft element.

Silent Running

Another example which sometimes comes up is games that split stealth skills. In the examples I've seen (D&D and Call of Cthulhu) the distinction is between Hide and Move Silently, or between Hide and Sneak. Again, people often assume that these map directly onto each other, which they just don't.

D&D used to have Hide and Move Silently. Some people hate this idea with a fiery passion. The game now uses Stealth instead. I'm okay with the change. I think it's sensible as part of the general winnowing of skills down to a small core of archetypal ones for 4th and 5th edition. After all, the archetypes of D&D are things like "sneaky thief" and "undetectable elven ranger". It makes sense for this trait to be governed by a single skill.

I was also okay with the older two-skill version. This is partly because it allows for a slightly broader range of character concepts: someone who's capable of quiet movement, but not particularly good at hiding. A cloistered monk, or a sinister shadowy warlock, are obvious examples of people who are great at appearing silently behind you but who don't really go around hiding. Similarly, a cowardly wizard can have a knack for finding places to cower out of sight, but have no talent for sneaking up on people.

A second reason is, potentially, balancing the skills mechanically. It may be that dividing stealth into two separate skills helped to prevent "Stealth" from being a high-value skill that was far more cost-efficient than most of the others. I don't know. But I don't think it's an essential division and the 5e version feels more elegant overall.

In Call of Cthulhu some people are equally fervent in objections to separating Hide from Sneak. I think this is a much less justified complaint, because of genre differences.

In D&D, there was a straightforward division: Hide determines your ability not to be seen, and Move Silently determines your ability not to be heard. In Call of Cthulhu there is an equally straightforward but different division: Hide determines your ability to hide, and Sneak determines your ability to sneak around. I'm sorry, but it's hard not to make that sound trite. It's true, though. Both skills incorporate movement and sound.

This is where genre differences come in.

In D&D, characters are very often operating in cluttered and shadowy environments with poor lighting. This gives plenty of opportunity not only for them to hide from a monster, but also for them to move around unseen. A second feature of the game is that characters are usually engaged in combat with whatever they're hiding from. Between the violent aspects of the game and the over-the-top expectations of pulp and heroic fantasy, there is a general acceptance that stealth in D&D is quite a lot like being invisible. A character can fade away into a shadowy corner, then race across a room, stab somebody in the back, and disappear from sight behind a crate. Often, characters are able to handwave running right across a crowded room to backstab somebody - they were "in stealth" when they started acting, after all. When they're genuinely sneaking around, they can accomplish feats like crawling right past a couple of guards who somehow don't notice them in the flickering torchlight.

In this setup, there's a reasonable argument for folding movement into the equation. What the game wants to establish is generally whether the character is managing to get around the place undetected. It doesn't really matter whether the specific issue is making noise or being seen. It might add a touch of flavour, but it's mostly an extra fiddly bit. The classic clanking armour of the fighter also impedes their ability to slip behind cover and fade into the shadows.

Call of Cthulhu is different.

The meaning of these skills is very different in a dungeon crawl versus an investigative horror game. Hide in D&D is about scouting the dangers ahead and getting backstab damage. Hide in Call of Cthulhu is often about concealing yourself from a suspect or from a prowling monstrosity. Move Silently in D&D is about not drawing attention as you steal, scout or prepare to attack. Sneak in Call of Cthulhu is archetypally about creeping away from horrible things without them hearing you - though it also allows for sneaking up to eavesdrop on cultists, or slipping into rooms to steal evidence.

I would even argue that in a horror game, there should be a distinction between these skills. In terms of characterisation, I think it matters quite a lot whether you are The One Who Huddles Under The Bed Trying Not to Breathe, or The One Who Tries to Tiptoe Away From The Maniac, or The One Who Can't Do Either. This is not something that applies to most traditional flavours of D&D.

I think it's also worth noting that Call of Cthulhu doesn't have a skill for moving around without being seen. Specifically, Hide allows you to "move while hiding", which has a different connotation. I don't think that's a mistake. It's not genre-appropriate for you to be able to walk around openly without being seen, or flicker near-invisibly in and out of the trees as you rain down attacks. You can't just stroll across the room in front of a gang of Deep Ones. If you absolutely have to make that walk, just as the protagonist of The Shadow over Innsmouth does, you're probably down to improvised impersonation and a good old fashioned Luck roll - and that's at night and some distance away. In contrast, trying to creep away silently while the Thing's back is turned is very much in-genre.

It's also worth considering character archetypes. Call of Cthulhu is a a realish-world game, and characters are often approximately real-life people. The archetypes don't usually include people who move like the night, and so there is less case for a generic stealth skill to represent that. You can make the opposite argument, in fact. There are quite a few characters who might be good at sneaking or at hiding, but not both.

Servants, secretaries and other functionaries are often expected to be seen and not heard - yes, they also avoid intruding, but they don't actually hide per se. Detectives and police officers may well have learned walk quietly towards a suspect or potential crime scene. Poachers and gamekeepers alike, as well as hunters and wildlife photographers, are skilled in walking without rustling leaves or cracking twigs.

On the flip side, some characters are good at hiding but not particularly stealthy. A birdwatcher may be great at concealing herself to begin watching, but have no particular need to walk quietly otherwise. A criminal may have an eye for a hiding spot when danger threatens, but rely on speed or violence rather than stealth. Children are often great at hiding, but noisy.

Phew. I think that's more than long enough for one article... I'd break these up with interesting pictures, but I found I was spending longer searching for suitable pictures than writing the original articles, in all honesty.

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