The question came up of how to steer an academy game away from Strength and Dex because of their importance for the Basic Attack action. Setting aside my personal inclination to just re-assign Basic Attack stats, the real answer is to lean much more heavily on skill rolls than combat for the bulk of challenges facing students. It might require a bit more GM creativity (especially since many of the things being learned are combat maneuvers), but porting skills into a combat mode isn’t too hard, and skills over combat is definitely genre-appropriate.
However, that got me thinking a little bit about how skills are used. In the abstract, combat is really just another skill use, but the skill is used over and over again. If I had a scene that demanded a player roll the same skill as many times as they make attack rolls in combat, that would be a hard scene to run. The idea of rolling the same skill over and over again seems like an invitation to boredom.
Historically, the reason for this difference, especially in 4e, seemed easily attributable to the fact that even though you’re rolling the same thing, you’re doing something different. It might be as explicit as using different powers, but even in non 4e games, things move and change. If they don’t, and the fight is just two guys standing there making alternating attack rolls, that’s just as boring as our multi-skill scenario.
So if it’s not a difference in outcomes, what makes the difference?
I think it’s two things. The first is that attacking is not explicitly called out as a skill. This is important because it means that when a player takes an action, they describe the action, not the skill. If they’re making an attack, they describe the attack or even if they’re not being terribly descriptive, they call out the power they’re using. In contrast, if they’re rolling athletics, it’s usually called out as rolling athletics. This has a subtle impact on player expectation. Because the language of combat is less repetitive, the imagining of combat seems less repetitive.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, combat is all about changes in the situation.
One of the big problems with re-using skills is that they are perceived as “one and done” sort of thing. You make the skill roll and you do whatever you need. This has a couple of big implications. First is that it’s in clear contrast to combat which is lots of rolls to resolve something. This is a big deal, and will be important alters, but today it’s a bit tangential, in part because it’s easy to make skills work that way, but more because it distracts from the question of why repeating combat rolls stays interesting and repeating skill rolls gets stale.
The key is in another implication of one and done. You are not expected to roll your skill again until the situation has changed in some way. You might roll to pick locks five times for five different doors (five different situations) but you don’t roll five times for the same door.
In combat, the situation is constantly changing. In fact, the example of boring combat I gave earlier is a direct result of a combat where the situation stops changing between rolls. Now, a lot of things can change in a fight, but the biggest and most obvious is position. Moving minis around a map is a simple way to dramatically change a situation.
But so what? Does that help us with our skills? Well, yes and no.
The trick is that it’s not the map itself that’s critical, but the fact that it’s such an efficient method of providing information. The idea of changing your situation to re-use a skill is an essential real-life idea. When faced with a problem you cannot solve, you change something: do some research, get a tool, get help, try a different angle or whatever.
Doing this requires a specific understanding of the situation, but that level of understanding is not easily conveyed verbally. It requires incredibly detailed descriptions which, because they’re static, often skip right to the end of suggesting the right path. Coming up with the equivalent of a map is difficult.
But not impossible. I think, given the understanding that you need to support the ability to change the situation before rolling again, it is possible to create sequences of skill rolls (whether they be skill challenges or structured differently) that can make skill use compelling.
This becomes especially true if you change up how things are supposed to be described. If you can encourage players to act _within_ the skill rather than _with_ the skill, then you not only get more colorful descriptions, but you also implicitly broaden the situation.
How do I mean this? Let’s take the Harry Potter route and use a sport. If you’re playing a game, every action probably falls under the auspices of athletics, but you would not describe the actions that way. Events will unfold on the field (you’re chasing the ball, breaking through defenders, making a fake – whatever) and provided the player is responding to those, they won’t be saying “I use athletics”, they say, “I feint left then try to punch through Henderson’s weak right side”. The dice become secondary to the situation.
Now, I’ll fully cop that athletics is probably the easiest skill to illustrate this with, but the idea is workable for any skill that you think is interesting enough to include in your game. And if you’re including it despite the fact that you don’t find it interesting might suggest a different course of action.
1 – That this is so explicitly the case in 4e is a big reason many players who otherwise eschew minis and maps have embraced them.
2 – Yes, this might be a different skill, and bringing an oddball skill into a larger skill challenge can be fun, exciting and thematic, but that’s another topic for another time, especially given point .
3 – One other advantage of establishing these “skill contexts” is that, like in combat, the player knows what to roll. This may seem obvious, but consider that many skill roll situations have an element of checking with the GM to confirm that the skill is appropriate and it’s OK for the player to roll. In combat, players know what to roll and when to roll it, and it’s the GM’s job to deal with that. Creating situations where players have similar comfort and authority with regard to skills (such as a skill context where all rolls are assumed to be Athletics) can really free them up to focus on the situation.