D&D Narrative, DMs, and Player Autonomy 1: Player Skills

In the old days, I had a group of friends who played DND together. We all knew each other well, we all learned systems together, and we all had our own style. Because of that, there really weren't any surprises. It was easy to say, "Goddamn it Megan, that's not what my player wanted to do."

Today, it's a bit harder. We've almost all seen our old groups fracture, to marriage and children, and had to go and scope out other games. When DMing, that's challenging enough; you never really know the experience level of your players or what they want from the game. When playing, it can be even more frustrating.

The Problems of the Modern DM

There are some trends that I've noticed growing with DMs, especially younger DMs. Ultimately, the goal of DMing is to assist your players in creating a cool story within a world that you've created. And that also means that the players themselves need to have control of themselves even if you are ultimately in control of the world. Player autonomy and the narrative must be able to work in concert with each other in order to support the story.

It is there, that area between the DM and the player, that issues can arise. And there's a whole host of things involved, including:

  1. Player Skills
  2. Player vs. Player Conflict
  3. Player vs. Narrative Conflict
  4. Player Goals

Today I'm going to talk about player skills.

The Problem With Player Skills and Player Autonomy

Player stats and player skills essentially quantify the impact the player can have on the world and characters around them. They aren't perfect, by any means -- I've never liked how charisma is in 5e, for instance -- but they create a solid structure that lets players know how to impact the world.

With modern DMs -- and I'm not talking about inexperienced DMs -- I've noticed a few trends:

  • Prompting players for skill checks. 
  • Not knowing when to do a skill check.
  • Running straight ability checks.
  • Not understanding what a skill check is.

Of course, I normally play DND, so these things are different for Pathfinder, FATE, and so forth. But the core is there. And some DMs may actually read this list and ask "So what?" In fact, some of them may even think these items are helpful. 

In some cases they are. I don't want to say there is a "right way" to DM any type of game and, in the end, it's whether the players are having a fun and enjoyable experience that matters. But there are solid reasons that  you shouldn't do any of these things.

Prompting Players for Skill Checks

A skill check is something a player does to exert their influence in the world. "I want to open that door, I push it." "Roll a strength check. The door falls on you. It was a pull door." "Uh, I try to break free?" "Roll athletics."

The reason prompting a player for a skill check is bad is because it tells the player what you want them to do. New DMs and modern DMs often do this as a way of guiding the story, and it can be a quite subtle way to railroad a party. But ultimately it means that the players aren't making decisions for themselves.

One caveat is with a new party, it's often okay to give them a soft prompt, and to follow up with harder prompts if they're truly lost. Many things change when dealing with new players. But at the same time, you don't want to train new players to expect these prompts.

A very, very common oversight is to ask players to roll perception. Players should never be asked to roll perception, on a mechanical level, in a system that already has passive perception. Asking players to roll perception tells them that there's something there to be seen and that you want them to try to see it. If they see it with their passive perception, then they see it. If they do not, then it's up to them to decide to investigate.

DMs often do this because they have something cool they want their players to notice, but they don't have to. They can simply roll against passive.

Not Knowing When to do a Skill Check

A skill check is usually not necessary when it's something the person should have no problem doing. For instance, tying your shoes. Though it would be hilarious if you failed, you probably don't need to check whether you did. (And there are DMs who will ask for such a skill check simply out of glee, in anticipation of it going wrong.)

On the other end of the spectrum, when the story is moving at a fast pace, many DMs have a tendency to simply let all skill checks go. Here, the players take over the narrative, which is not necessarily better than taking the narrative from the players. Because one of the problems in this is that -- and some DMs may not intuitively realize this -- it makes the gameplay uneven.

In nearly every system I've ever seen, there are characters that are specialized in combat and there are characters that are specialized in skills. Rogues, for instance, may not have a lot of DPS, but they are good at stealth and persuasion. And of course there are systems that mix and match, but the point is, that players make a conscious choice what type of character to be. 

When DMs stop asking for skill checks, they actually make it unpleasant to play a skill-based character. If the fighter can "coerce" the barmaid into telling him where the jewels are hidden without a skill check, the rogue's role in the game has been taken away. 

Running Straight Ability Checks

Related to this, i've seen an increase in DMs who will only ask for ability checks. "I try to do a handstand." "Roll dexterity." "I try to persuade." "Roll charisma."

This is something that took me a long time to isolate because I was left perplexed. I tend to play high skill, roleplay based characters, rather than combat heavy ones. So I would usually ask "Did you mean insight?" and they would respond "No, just wisdom."

And this was always met with a gentle smile, as though they were doing me a favor. And I realized, over time, they thought they were doing one.

A lot of current DMs lean towards ability rather than skill checks for two reasons:

  • They know a lot of players haven't put points into the appropriate skills, and they're trying to "go easy on them."
  • They don't want to make the player calculate out all their skill advantages, so they feel like it's easier.

And this sounds ridiculous, but it's true. DMs know that the skills are one of the more confusing areas for new players. They get used to simply asking for ability checks so players don't need to worry about skill checks. Again, this makes it harder for classes that rely on their skills for an advantage.

The other side is genuinely that they don't want to make people do math. Maybe this is because there are a lot of systems that are fairly simple, such as point-based systems, where you really just need to look at a sheet. Whatever the case, 5e isn't even that math heavy, but it's not the system you want to run if you don't want to do any math.

Not Understanding What a Skill Check Is

Finally, there's a pet peeve. On a skill check, a 1 is doing as poorly at a task as can be conceivably expected. A 20 is doing as well at a task as can be conceivably expected. But neither of these things is supposed to break the constraints of reality.

One thing to notice is that a 1 is not a fumble and a 20 is not a critical. Skill checks do not have criticals. Rolling a 1 when tying your shoes is not going to somehow lead to you amputating your foot. But more importantly, rolling a 20 when doing anything is not enough to make the impossible happen.

Consider walking up to an old man and persuading him to give you his house. On a 1, he'll say no, slam the door, and call the cops on you. This is what you could reasonably expect him to do. You may be tempted to have the old guy grab a gun and shoot the player, but that's not within the realm of believability (unless it is something the character is likely to do). 

On a 20, however, many DMs will say "the old man glowingly gives you the keys to his house and leaves, happily." Persuade is not force persuade and you are not a jedi, I mean, unless it is, and you are (I don't know what system you're playing). If the old man is never going to give someone his house, then a 20 is not going to convince him to do so. However, he may take pity on you, invite you in, and have a chat.

Again, skill checks are how a player performs when doing a task. It is not mind control and it doesn't impact the outside world. No matter how good a player is at lockpicking, they won't be able to open a fake lock. Their skill checks cannot alter objective reality. Their skill checks only say how good they personally did.

And that's everything I have to say about skill checks. Skill checks are designed to give players a way to control the narrative in a structured way. For skill-heavy roleplayers, skill checks are one of the major ways they interact with the narrative. And that makes it incredibly important to understand how they work not only in a mechanical way, but in a theoretical way. 

In my next article, I'll talk about player vs. player conflict.