Monday, June 15, 2020

How Does A Character Approach Their Skill?

Skills in RPGs cover broad areas. It feels less common to run into a system like GURPS with a very granular skill system, than it does for ones like D&D 5e or FATE with very broadly defined skills. Even with more granular systems there is only so granular you can get. Not many people are going to take the time to play in a system where there are different skills for different types of surgery or where combat skills are broken down not only by the weapon type, but the general properties of how that weapon works and feels.

This is less a bug than a feature. One of the ways that game systems enable PCs to interact with the world where the heavy lifting for differentiating characters and how they came by their skills is up to the GM and the players.

Consider the following: you have a "witch" or "wise woman" from a remote, isolated area of the world, and a cleric raised in the cloister with a very sheltered life dedicated solely to their one god. They both have Knowledge Religion, and they are both rolling to try to identify a symbol in an ancient dungeon.

Now mechanically, this makes sense. They're proficient with Religion, the adventure says it is a DC 16 religion check to identify. They should get to make the roll. Right? Of course they should.

Narratively though you have a person who knows 'religion' because she guides people through rituals in a far off, isolated part of the world, and someone who grew up completely isolated  and with all knowledge focused about one god. Both of them are identifying a mark from a religion that has not been seen for hundreds if not thousands of years. How do you explain them knowing the answer in a way that is consistent with the story of their characters?

Most players understand this ludo-narrative dissonance and don't care. They have a mechanic that solves the mechanical problem of make roll to receive information. However, you can bring a lot more flavor to your game if you can do that  in a way that minimizes the dissonance and works for their character. By doing that you can also give each player different information based on their own backgrounds, and using the contrast.

Consider the cloistered scholar could have found a book when looking through a section of the library they were not supposed to, and from that they recall something similar, which tells them X, Y, and Z. The witch on the other hand has heard stories, or seen similar things in her own neck of the woods which leads her to believe it works like A, B, and C. Together the players get the information, and the character's story is respected.

You can do this with most things to make it work, but it takes some massaging of the details to fit the stories. Still, I feel it is worth it. Even better, when the person making the check has information filtered through what their character could have seen or heard about, it gives more reason for different characters with skill overlap to go separately rather than just always trusting the one with the better bonus to do the work.

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