My Skills are Fuzzy…

In many rule sets that ascribe to the OSR ethic, the idea of a skill, or skill set,  is either left out, or only briefly touched upon. It has been said that “equipment is the original skills list”, and that the idea of a skill is itself counter to the core ideals of old school gaming. In many ways I agree with this assessment, and in many ways I do not. In the mechanics of Faerie Tales & Folklore, I attempted to address issues of a skill based system, along with the problems of a system which avoided the idea of skills altogether. I have commonly, at least in my circle of friends, referred to this system of skill mechanics as “fuzzy”, which is a loose association to the term “fuzzy logic”. The concept of fuzzy logic can be defined as:

“Fuzzy logic is a form of many-valued logic in which the truth values of variables may be any real number between 0 and 1. It is employed to handle the concept of partial truth, where the truth value may range between completely true and completely false.’

To understand the idea of “fuzzy skills” we must first understand what 0 and 1 would mean in relation to the idea of skills themselves. First, let us look at why skills can be destructive to the idea of roleplaying, which would be our metaphorical 0. In many old school games, the player’s wit and personal knowledge was often allowed to be used in place of their character’s knowledge. Thus, if a player understood how to thwart a trap, or forge a sword, their character could do such things. It was also interesting that in such early systems, it never mattered whether or not the player knew how to fight nor cast spells, even if their characters could. This idea of a skill-less system left the game wide open for the another concept called “meta-gaming”. Meta-gaming is described via Wikipedia thusly:

“Metagaming is any strategy, action or method used in a game which transcends a prescribed ruleset, uses external factors to affect the game, or goes beyond the supposed limits or environment set by the game. Another definition refers to the game universe outside of the game itself.”

This concept does not lend itself well to the idea of “roleplaying”, wherein a player is taking on the role of an imaginary being and assuming the capabilities of that being in an imagined world. If one intends to take on the role of another being, the player should not utilize their own array of knowledge and skills to affect the imagined world. Instead, the player should attempt to utilize the knowledge and skills their assumed character would possess to solve the imagined situations they encounter at the game table. When games rely upon this system of meta-gaming skills, the less creative, or knowledgeable, player is punished in a way for a lack of worldly knowledge, or the creativity to apply that knowledge. This will also affect players who are less familiar with the methods and ideologies of roleplaying in general, especially the new player. This disparity of basic understanding can lead to disgruntled players and their eventual alienation from what could be an otherwise enjoyable experience. However, this skill model can conversely lead to a more thoughtful play experience, as the players are not simply allowed to roll-play. Roll-playing is a simple term for using dice rolls to resolve EVERY issue which could arise within the imagined world. (Continued below)

This brings us to the negative aspects of using a system of skills to provide an in-depth understanding of what a character does, and does not know, as well as their relative level of ability in any given area of knowledge or practical skill. This system would be the 1 of my continued metaphor. This method of skill determination and use tends to stifle creative thinking at the table in favor of using the dice to solve all problems. A trap no longer becomes a puzzle to be solved but rather an abstraction to be overcome with a strange form of gambling. Having the correct skill and rolling dice against predetermined odds delivers the prize, or signifies loss. In this model, their is no benefit to creatively solving a given problem. Instead, most players will simply reach for their dice bag and gamble.

So neither method, in and of itself, will produce the desired sense of an assumed role with any regularity, and that does not serve any game well. In light of this revelation, I choose to provide the players within Faerie Tales & Folklore with what I termed as “fuzzy skills”, these would be all the values between the 1 and 0 previously discussed in my metaphor. In order to fully grasp this idea, let us look at what each method gets right. In the first skill system, or the skill-less system, players are left with their ingenuity, knowledge, and what their characters can carry, or find on hand, to solve the problems they encounter. This can encourage creative thinking, promote group discussion, and provide a greater sense of accomplishment from finding the solution to any given situation encountered during play. In the second system, or the skill-based system, the characters can easily accomplish things their players know little about. This can offer a less creative or knowledgeable player a greater sense of participation and ease a new player into the concepts of roleplaying. As mentioned above, this system mirrors the lack of most players knowledge of combat or magical ability in a way that is not often discussed. If the point of roleplaying to to experience the existence of another being within an imagined world, then it is important to be able to accomplish things we ourselves cannot fathom. Reciprocally, we should not allow such imagined beings the access to all the information we as players bring to the game table. These two options pose a strange conundrum for a game designer, to avoid the specter of meta-gaming, we are often placed in a situation of accepting the reality of roll-playing and its strange method of gambling.

This conundrum is the very issue I hoped to confront with the way skills and knowledges are to be handled within Faerie Tales & Folklore. Skills are intended to define what a character knows and in some instances they even attempt to quantify that knowledge. However, they are not intended to be used as a crutch to facilitate poor roleplaying. This brings us to the final piece of the puzzle, the narrator or referee. The skill-less system requires more thought by the narrator or referee, and this can add a much greater work load to which ever player is filling that role at any given time. The skill based system not only allows the players to be more lazy in their solutions to the challenges they encounter, it allows the narrator or referee a certain amount of laziness in the creation of such challenges. In truth however, not every challenge needs to be a highly thought out puzzle for the players to work through with logic and reason. Some challenges are best handled through that strange gambling created by the skill-based system. In games that are being derived from the method known as “sandboxing”, or other randomization methods, the act of creating challenges which move beyond simple dice rolls can become even more difficult. It is very important however for a narrator or referee to create such challenges for the players if they wish to foster a more immersive sensation of their players filling a role apart from who they are as people. Think about the traps you use, the non-player characters you introduce to your players, and give real consideration to how these situations need to be resolved, or what these non-player characters desire. Most importantly remember to pay attention to the pacing of a game session, do not let challenges bog down the narrative. Try to understand when a challenge is best handled through a roll and when it is best handled by way of concerted effort and reason. Try and find your own line between, a player saying “I take to the shadows to avoid discovery” and if the statement alone is a good enough response, or when the dice will add to the tension of the tale. Like gambling, the dice can offer the thrill of the high stakes game, and this is equally as compelling as a brilliantly reasoned resolution to a complex problem. In some instances, both should be used in various degrees to truly up the sense of tension and doubt. This is the where the genesis of fuzzy skills was derived. It was in this blending of strange gambling and meta-gaming that I hoped to find a balanced approach to the successful triumph over an in game challenge.

With this concept understood, there are a few closing issues which should be covered. The narrator or referee needs to be careful not to become too attached to the ideas they create to challenge the other players, and the players should not simply ask for a target number then reach for the dice. Narrators and referees will need to be more familiar with the capability of the characters being played at the game table, and the other players will need to exert no small amount of will in avoiding the desire to meta-game through any problem. There will be times when both sides of the equation need to call the other on this process to keep things from sliding too far one direction or another. The idea of skills not being so concrete will take some getting used to, but if both the narrator, or referee, and the players embrace this idea, the game will take on a greater sense of realism without sacrificing its pacing. It is in this “fuzzy” area betwixt 1 and 0 that a good session of Faerie Tales & Folklore should find itself. In this space the story should take precedence over the exacting nature of rules.

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