What's "Player Skill"?

edited April 2010 in Story Games
I've been reading a bit about the Old School Renaissance lately and keep hearing that these old school games are more focused on player skill. So what does that mean?

What does it take to be "good" at old-school games, and how do they reward that skill?


  • edited April 2010
    Rules knowledge?

    (Phrased as a question because that's likely what I'd mean, but it's not me talking that you're reading)
  • It's knowing how to circumvent the rules by convincing the GM of your knowledge of physics/biology/engineering/history/etc.
  • I'd say that the most important part of this player skill is knowledge of the local play culture and its related dungeoneering practices. An old school game has wide leeway for how players may approach the challenges presented in the game, and basically the foremost way of improving in resolving them is to know your DM and the likely solutions he will favour in resolving the challenges.

    As an example, knowing to pack a ten-foot pole is "player skill" because that's not going to happen unless you make a point of doing it as the player. Knowing to use the pole correctly in triggering traps or whatnot is also player skill, again because it won't happen without the player making it happen. However, usage of the pole is not an absolutely important part of player skill because its usefulness depends on the DM: if the Dungeon Master creates traps that cannot be triggered by the pole, or dislikes the pole and consistently destroys it, or other similar judgments, then the pole won't be useful and what might be player skill in one group actually becomes useless package in another. Perhaps the most general "player skill" then is the ability to recognize, test and apply different techniques of this sort efficiently and without getting your character killed. I might say that the player skill is in mapping the possibility space related to a given DM and the given campaign efficiently.

    (The above is often a source of frustration for old school play, as the presupposition is that the DM is a neutral arbitrator, and thus something like the pole should work objectively realistically. This is, of course, impossible: where one DM might decide that a character may in fact exert sufficient force to trigger a typical pressure plate trap with a pole, what if another decides that no, it's unlikely that it'd be possible from this angle with this pole in the case of this particular trap maker? That's an arbitrary DM choice and nothing more - the only reasonable solution for the player is to accept that these are arbitrary calls and not rely overmuch on some generally "correct" tactics. The unspoken assumption in this sort of challenge-solving is that the DM will allow any good effort that demonstrates commitment to the fiction to succeed, anyway.)

    Aside from the pole, other typical examples of player skill are usage of oil as a weapon (largely undocumented as an explicit practice in many game texts, and up to DM judgment at most tables), knowledge of the different monsters, tactics (marching order, for example), resource management (deciding when to use spells) and so on and so forth. Where such tricks and techniques of play are common over many groups and campaigns, that's usually because game texts such as core rules or popular adventure modules have explicitly introduced the ideas to many groups. In comparison other groups, working from other game texts and different aesthetics, will have very different premises about what works and what doesn't work. As an example, oil won't be much of a weapon at my table, because I have a different image of the fiction and my foundational texts never lionized oil as a superior weapon; I won't claim to having ran empirical experiments in my basement for how easy it is to puncture a flask, splatter oil and light it - it's just my considered opinion as a DM that it's ridiculous to expect anything short of an intentionally prepared petrol bomb to be actually useful in the combat time-frame.

    Probably the largest single difference in my recent dungeoneering and OSR D&D is the way I de-emphasize prior knowledge of dungeoneering technique in our play; the people I play with are usually so clueless about the traditional ways that they won't even write down rations for their characters when they stock an inventory, and poles and flasks of oil and mirrors and such are right out. Consequently my play focuses heavily on explicit tactical choices instead of conventional dungeoneering tricks: instead of allowing the players to forget to stock food, I'll assume that unless it comes up due to some actual choice involved, the characters will stock however much they'll likely need, no matter whether the players forget to do it. Lack of food will only become an issue if I specifically introduce it as a challenge by having the characters face an unexpected delay in reaching civilization; as long as I'm not interested in introducing this challenge, I assume that food is sufficient. The "player skill" at my table is consequently much more likely to involve the issue of "who are we going to eat to avoid starving" than "did I remember to pack enough food for the trip". Difficult choices instead of knowledge of the proper operating procedure, I might say.
  • Well, where I played, it was tactical ability and ability to analyze the rules. Of course, we were a bunch of wargamers and played with miniatures or counters from day one. But even the non-wargamers that joined our group of games became socialized to that pretty quickly.
  • This is probably outside the OSR context, but in games that interest me, player skill is the ability to use the facets of the system at your command to make other players look awesome.
  • Sight unseen, I bet the OSR discussion of Player Skill
    contrasts it against the concept of Character Abilities.

    So, for things like Persuasion or social conflicts-- ye Olde Skool defaults to player skill
    rather than use of New School 'mind control' mechanics.
  • A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming.

    It's a free download and worth reading. For my money, Eero describes it best.
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