Friday, September 9, 2011

On the Subject of Subjectivity

I was going to go into an all caps rage on why 3rd edition skills are no worse than any other, but time cools my temper if not others. Especially after some thought. I've concluded this for now.

Subjectivity is one of the most useful and painful parts of role playing games. When a person in a undefined setting tells you that there is a clock, you gain an image of what that means to you. Perhaps you see a sun dial, perhaps a grandfather clock, or even perhaps a digital or building sized clock. Even within these definitions, should someone say it is a sun dial there are still variations, is it a great stone block in the ground that supports it? Is the sun dial stone itself? Is it one with just posts or an ornate bronze one with carefully embossed numbers? This is the nature of subjectivity within describing a concrete object. The fortunate thing for us is that all of the above clocks tell time, furthermore, should you decide to say it's a sun dial, we are now informed how it does it's job as well.

The real problem is that in role playing games we are constantly barraged with subjective responses to abstracts, imaginary constructs and even new laws of physics or logic. Magic cannot be seen in the real world, aside from movie magic versions implanted within us or magicians, it is practically an unknown. More effort is required to define it for the players in a 'tangible' and definite way. More effort is required to make it predictable. For instance, if I were to tell you a mage just caused fire to appear and harm you, in DnD there are a plethora of possibilities for this cause, also you all probably came up with a variety of forms for this to occur. Burning hands with it's fire erupting from fingers outstretched, Fireball with a small bead of energy erupting into a circular wave of destruction, or perhaps flaming arrows? Here in each instance we hearken back to the things we know. Is it pure happenstance the spells that persist throughout the editions are the ones that practically spell out their appearance in their name? I doubt it.

And what about new physics? What do you see in a bag of holding? How does it appear? Like a fish eye lens as light is forced to bend into a strange space? Or like a window into a room? How does it appear when the objects 'shift' to the top for easy acquisition? What does a sphere that annihilates everything look like? A black hole? Is there a swirl of air around it and a great sucking wind pulling towards it as the very air is pulled in? What is your reasoning that there isn't? Or that a ten foot pole held by characters is the only thing annihilated when they poke it, but when they touch it through gloves the entire person is? These subjective instances can result in conflicts. The conflicts can result in a feeling of inconsistency, dissatisfaction or even arguments that effect those who had no such conflict.

But the most problematic subjective thing in my opinion is the subjective nature of the abstracts. Believe it or not the numbers and statistics of the game are perhaps the worst of all. Let us bring to the fore the greatest offender, base statistics. This is a pain in the ass. Even within themselves there is a real problem with setting an agreed interpretation, but when extending into their derivative statistics things get worse. At first you have to name the buggers, strength, vitality, stamina, vigor, constitution, toughness... Many of these get used together in the same system! What makes toughness different than stamina? Furthermore, how does strength not effect constitution or depend on it? Imagine for a moment a person with an outstanding strength and miniscule constitution. How do they maintain said strength or even get it in the first place? There are stories of body builders with such strength they break their own bones! (And probably lose their strength after and are horribly deformed...) How could a sickly person have that strength? Intelligence and Wisdom? Where does one end and the other begin? They are all abstracts, subjective and all around messy.

But the game itself is centered around these subjective abstracts, and for all their mess, they are what make the game playable, both statistically and creatively. You can interpret those differences to make a genius who is absent minded (although memory is constantly put under intelligence yet somehow low wisdom causes this.) Or a glass cannon of melee, dishing out tons of melee or thrown damage, but unable to take a hit. You can set up skill challenges for someone strong or fast or smart or just plain tough. But, the naming isn't all that makes them subjective, establishing the effects and power level is highly subjective. What is average? What can an average person do? Who is average? If all the people in the fantasy world are above average compared to earth humans at something, is the average for their world or ours? Once we've established a baseline stat, how much variance is there between increments?

This comes up a lot. "This stat is above average! *I* can lift that, why can't my character?" or, "But you're at an 8 in intelligence! You would NEVER know that!" It's subjective, and conflicts will arise time and time again. But when extrapolated into the derived skills we come across an even more interesting and problematic situation.

Let us continue on with the idea of Dungeon and Dragon's idea of third edition skills in mind. John Doe has a baseline stat of 10 int. This is established as an average person's ability. Orc McGee has a 6, this is established as a mentally disabled level of intelligence, halving it would put him on par with animals. Both John Doe and Orc McGee are presented with the problem of building a crude stone wall. Orc McGee is given a few tools, and John Doe is given nothing. Following the system's logic of bonuses and penalties, Orc McGee gets a penalty of -2 for being dumb as the rocks he's using, and because John Doe is without tools, he gets the EXACT SAME penalty. But not being given some tools (which perhaps he could improvise for piling rocks strategically) he is reduced to the skill level of a mentally disabled person. Hell, if you give them both tools and throw some cold weather at John Doe it does the same thing.

This sounds like I would say this is a bad system. Arguably I would say it isn't by it's very nature, but due to subjective preconceptions we've established, we have concluded that it is. For instance, by looking into the system further we can get some more interesting information. Being a d20 system means that if one assumes that there is a chance for success with or without bonuses or penalties, being mentally disabled only reduces the chance of success by TEN PERCENT. Hell, assuming that we don't use common sense, the town cow has a 30% chance to have common knowledge about literature with their hefty penalty of -4. Thus subjective and abstract numbers can create conflicts. Things like this are where 'rules lawyers' start really moving and can really get into conflict with, or take advantage of 'role players'.

If skills sound bad, we can further extend the problem into the GM's territory. A GM who is too uncertain to take a stand can get into real trouble and put themselves right in the frying pan. If the monster has an intelligence of 6 would it really do that? Or even, what is the percentage chance that a mentally disabled person should have to build a rock wall? The rules book gives numbers, but often the rules book has an agenda and bends the rules to a subjective direction good for them and not necessarily you. For instance, following the earlier DnD reference, it shows a strong preference for specialization. The rogue is the trap master, but you better max out your spot and search or you're in trouble! Trap DCs can extend pretty high, many of the starting level traps having DCs of 20 and above! If you go into the game with an average wisdom and no skill in spot or search, you only have a 5% chance of preventing some serious hurt! Furthermore, if you want to learn a skill, you only can take skill points at half rate if your class isn't oriented towards that skill! You want to analyze a spell? Most classes cant even guess what that wizard is going to cast, even if they watched them cast it ten times in a row in the stock rules. If you put one rank into the skill and have an average intelligence, you only have a 30% chance of succeeding on even the most feeble and basic of spells. In fact, if you read into the core books to get their intent, the idea is that every character gets their moment to shine. This means that every other character is shit out of luck if they want to try. The agenda is specialization. Know your role and do it WAY better than everyone else. This can cause problems when the GM is not aware of this agenda.

Some games, such as Savage Worlds, offer the opportunity to succeed at skills while being the least optimal build possible for doing so! I could be the weakest most pathetic person on the field and have a chance to kill a giant monster in one blow! It's highly improbable, but it's there. The system's agenda is more about telling a story. You take your character, give them some vices and strengths and thrust them into a world with some generic abilities. The intent being that you will follow the path you want your story to go, and it will give you a chance to have your sickly tremor ridden character get the clinching shot and save the day. Because it makes a great story. The system is also ridden with exploits and inconsistencies that don't interfere with telling a great story, but might hurt a gritty realistic game.

Sure! Each system has it's strength! You probably knew that right? But each system's strengths are based on it's subjectivity as well as the actual system. Dungeons and Dragons could make all the skills MUCH more accessible for everyone with just a few changes. Hell in fourth edition they already have! They granted a bonus of half your level to all skills and have you just get a static bonus to all your skills you specialize in. You could easily plug that right into third edition and still play the game. You could also reduce the DCs for all skills, or automatically give successes for 'common knowledge'. A creative, thoughtful or at the least flexible GM could push the subjective bonuses, base skills, DCs and everything very far in any direction they want, making 18s in stats 'average' or setting all the DCs lower. It all depends on if you want to make the game harder or easier on your players.

If anything, the selection of the system you favor, should probably be the limits of bending the subjective portions of the game, rather than the stock game itself. Of coarse, by altering it too far from the base game, you begin to challenge the subjective views of your players, and therein lies more conflict. Perhaps that's part of the draw in me building my own system, and investigating new ones. A clean slate of preconceptions, any number of possibilities, seeing the visions and agendas of different game makers.


  1. This is exactly why skills can't break down to a question of percentages whether you can or can't do a thing. Either you can, or you can't. Period. Any other approach is ridiculous.

  2. Sounds a little like my pay to succeed post might touch on your opinion of the situation a bit.

    Regardless of the method used, I think that subjectivity still can be a problem, or the game may become stale.

    Lets assume for a moment we go with a game based on having absolutely no skill system. We simply assume capabilities based on the background of the player. Defined by the GMs preferred method. Davy Steele is given the background of a blacksmith. Davy decides he want's to forge a katana assuming that is within his capabilities as a blacksmith. However, the GM being the type that believes katanas are ancient and difficult weapons to craft, as well as outside the character's knowledge believes this is not possible.

    The skill of the player and their ability to make said sword based on that alone is very subjective from the beginning. When does the GM allow them to make one of 'average' quality in 'average' time? How close must they be in their origins to be able to make one? How long must they study under a master of making Katanas to be able to make one?

    Furthermore, baselines for the 'average' person still need to be established. I know I can make a wagon axle, can I make a house? Can it be two floors? Can it have a greenhouse?

    And, should we reject backgrounds giving an edge, does it make each character too stale that only their combat skills make them different?

  3. Yes, his ability is defined by the DM, but not in the way you're presenting it. Questions arise like,

    1) do Katanas exist?
    2) was Davy even born in the region where said Katanas were made?
    3) is a blacksmith the same as a weaponwright?
    4) if Davy IS a weaponwright and not a blacksmith, was he trained by a Katana maker?
    5) if it is true that he was born where Katanas were made, isn't it also true that his class requirements probably meant that he spent his life training to be a mage or a fighter or a cleric?

    The clear and immediate answer is NO, you're just an ordinary blacksmith and you can't do special things. This is why I make the designation that the character's FATHER was the blacksmith, and that the character has picked up a few skills as a youth, and that the character is not a supreme expert at blacksmithing. Ever.

    Regarding houses and greenhouses, if you are a carpenter, you can build a greenhouse. I am a pretty crappy carpenter, but if I took the time, I could build a small greenhouse. Its not that difficult. Course, with medieval glass, the thing would probably start a fire ...

    The emphasis on skills as opposed to character abilities is where the problem arises ... where the character recognizes that he's a first level MAGE, for some reason they assume if you tell them they're a blacksmith, they think it means they're a 23rd level blacksmith automatically.

    Tell him if he earns 350,000 experience using only his blacksmithing skills, he can make a Katana.

  4. Alright, I agree this is applicable for non-combat skills in games mainly dealing with combat.

    However, how do you approach the Mage or Cleric that spends a lot of time sneaking around? Does their gaining experience doing this allow them to advance that ability?

    Also, what of innate class 'skills'? If a Mage is assumed to understand some degree of magic, say to know which spell is being cast, is a point defined when the Mage would and wouldn't know a spell? Is the player given an expectation of what they can predict? Or is this GM deciding what they can and cannot identify without a rule of thumb?

    Skill systems try and give players a definition that the player can accept rather than the GM's arbitration.

    They also give the player an opportunity to display that their character is better at one thing than another in a measurable manner. Just as combat statistics can allow someone to measurably see the difference one has to dodge an attack compared to another.

    Many skill systems allow for automatic successes in non-stressful situations, such as making a greenhouse by taking a long time. Many of which still maintain an upper limit of success. The random feature of dice allows for tension and the possibility for failure, the chance that the task may take longer than normal, or some disastrous result may occur. One problem that commonly arises is when the GM is a stickler for rolling for everything as it's "stressful."

  5. Both you and Alexis make valid points. My opinion is that skill systems can work, IF both the player and the GM agree to terms and work together instead of trying to argue every little detail. It sounds like this is minor problem, one that can/should be overlooked to get back to the game and have fun.

  6. Assuming we're not complaining about just HOW random d20 is(20 possible rolls? Really?) these issues come up in games where the rolls are used to handle every possible situation. The GM shouldn't allow the Cow a chance to know "common knowledge" about a region/subject anymore than they should make a player with maxed out knowledge skills roll for something that they SHOULD absolutely know.

    One could make the argument that the player and GM will disagree on what that constitute, but those disagreements should not happen, because the GM is right. My biggest problems with running ANY d20-derived game is that players seem to think they know more about the GM, and will often throw the "sample skill DCs" into the GM's face as if they're etched into stone tablets dropped from the sky by St. Cuthbert. It's the GM's job to set the DCs, not the book's, and the DC system is supposed to be really flexible. I personally find it easier to set subjective DCs based on the player character performing the action rather than objective flat DCs, but adding bonuses and penalties to a roll in a flat DC environment is funtionally identical.

    Any problem with skills, ability scores, or subjectivity in descriptions can be resolved quite easily in an environment where the GM is assumed to have complete control. If you aren't sure what kind of "clock" the GM refers to, just ask him or her. And while questions on rulings shouldn't get in the way of the game, just pencil down the situation that bothered you when the GM told you that you wouldn't know some piece of information or were too weak to lift something. We all know that at the game table we're going to have pencils and paper, after all! After the game, ask the GM why the rulings were made. Good GMs are going to be willing to discuss their decisions with you and be able to back them up, as long as the questions are asked in a tactful, adult way.

    The elephant in the room here, however, is the "Bad GM" and I cannot stress to players more: Stop giving these people your attention. The legions of terrible GMs out there who are unwilling to take into consideration the feelings of their players, who may not want to be ignored or railroaded, are continuing to be reassured that 'they're doing it right' because people keep showing up to their games. All people have to do is stop playing for them, and when their entire player-base has dried up, they will have to change their ways or choose to become a player forever.

    PS: Sorry for necroposting, and I love your blog!

  7. No problem with necro posting. To say that is bad might as well to say don't post on my blog. I've been rather slow on adding things.

    The main core issue I have at hand is the issue I run into in about one of three games due to subjectivity. Be it a system I've never played or a new GM, I generally build a character under the assumption that X has a certain degree of success, accessibility or what have you, and the GMs system either throws me into over power for the game, or under power for the game. Overpowered isn't bad, scaling back is easy. You just have to do it before the GM scales up. But when I say... made a wizard in GURPS then have a bunch of psychics throwing people around next to me while I warm a soldiers armor to a nice out of the dryer feel with my fireball, it's hard to recover.

    You'll see a few scattered rage postings on this, and that's one of the big problems with subjectivity in the games. Yes you can adapt, but in that initial creation unless a very detailed dialogue has been had, you can shoot yourself in the foot. And it's not necessarily a 'bad GM' situation, if you have a good GM and an accommodating plot/situation, you can possibly rebuild and have your underpowered character realize adventuring is probably not for them. Then in comes less sucky token wizard number 2.

    You do talk about something someone should absolutely know. Odds are things that someone should know are easy to interpret up to say average knowledge. Beyond that, how do you estimate what they absolutely should know? Once they have +20 to a roll, should they absolutely know about hydras? Or the wizard with a high area knowledge, should they know about the were-crocodile fence in the outer sewers? Yes, you can break it down to GM is right, but then again, there has to be a balance.

    Say two players have the same abilities, at similar or somewhat different levels. If you grant an auto success to one, but not the other, would that make that one have that thought of 'huh, I should have been able to do it too.' I know its rare to have a task that each person must complete, but if both players thought they were pretty hot stuff...

    Also one benefit of following a set system, is the act of consistency. You are the GM, you are all powerful in your world and all knowing in your world. Unfortunately, as GM and as player, we are both really humans, and with the GM having to basically manage 4+ 'living entities' you are bound to retain less than the player managing about 1. Player recalls to four sessions back when he made that same roll and didn't succeed on the same task. Yes you are all powerful and you can override it, but the player would definitely feel cheated no matter what happened. (Succeed then fail or fail then succeed, I've seen it happen.) Unfortunately bad players are a problem too.

    As for the clock example, it is yet another unfortunate thing, that too often the importance of the clock type comes up too late, and then there has to be a complete conversation of what just occurred for the player who wasn't in sync about the clock and how it plays into everything. It just happens, it has happened and will happen.

    Mainly when I wrote this post, it wasn't so much to demonize or to glorify any system, but mainly to bring the thought to the fore of the subjective nature of role playing games. This way when we're playing, we can keep in mind that the player and the GM might have different interpretations of what is going on, and hopefully help both be more accommodating or clear for the other. In theory that would make the game a lot more fun for both.