Tuesday, March 24, 2009

What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love and Non-Weapon Proficiencies?

Certainly the authors could have included a skill system covering activities such as “horse riding” or “swimming”, but doing so is actively detrimental to heroic gaming. Had we included a “horse riding” skill, characters would start falling off their horses.
---From the OSRIC rules

When a character uses a proficiency, either the attempt is automatically successful, or the character must roll a proficiency check. If the task is simple or the proficiency has only limited game use (such as cobbling or carpentry), a proficiency check is generally not required. If the task the character is trying to perform is difficult or subject to failure, a proficiency check is required.
---From the 2E Players Handbook

Soon I'll have a post entitled "Why I might not be Old School" and list the reasons, despite my favorable demographics, why I just don't "fit in".

One of the reasons: I regularly use (and use, and use) NWPs, and have for 20 years.

I absolutely love the things. The make DMing easier, because I never have to decide if Player A can swim the raging river carrying a halfling on his shoulders while being shot at by orc archers; or whether or not Player B can train the war dog he just bought to attack on command; or if Player C can tell by the way the victim in the tomb was ritually sacrificed what evil priest is awaiting them further on; or if Player D can throw his voice, make a metal weapon, or literally "sing for her supper" and perform at a local tavern without having food thrown at her (Ventriloquism, Weaponsmithing and Singing, respectively). It's all there in black and white on the player's printed up (core rules, natch) character sheet, and the best part, the PLAYER HIMSELF has chosen these NWPs based on his own ideas (character development, an attempt to min/max, or just because that particular NWP "looked awesome").

Frankly, who would have any sort of problem with this?

Oh, of course: Old Schoolers.

As a tacked on system late in the life of 1E AD&D, the appearance (while imaginative and mold-breaking in it's simplicity yet depth) got mostly jeers, sneers and the middle finger at the time because old schoolers were in a huge snoot about EGG getting booted from TSR. When it made a prominent (but optional) appearance in 2E, it was thrown out by them like everything else that was wrong with 2E (in the eyes of Old Schooler); I won't even go into it's appearance in 3E and on because, frankly, I don't know a thing about it past 1999 since I don't use 3E and only pay attention to the d20 rules set when I happen to glance through a module, adventure or supplement published past 1999.....but I could give a happy hoot since I play 2E anyway.

So, despite finally giving rulesy types a way to have a FINAL SAY on subjects like making your own arrows or training your pet bear to gently bite the rope typing your hands to untie them from behind your backs, all that came out of the collective arse of the old schooler was whining about how "NWPs tell more about what a player CANNOT do, than what he CAN do! It's LIMITING OUR IMAGINATIONS!". They were more concerned, and I quote (from OSRIC), that reliance on NWP instead of DM fiat would lead to endless rolls having characters fall off horse, burn their bacon while cooking, and failing to catch a squirrel for dinner in the woods (despite the rule SPECIFICALLY STATING THE OPPOSITE in the 2E PHB...a book, while detested by many old schoolers, that has never been formerly read by the same).

Now look, in the old days, if your player wanted to do something like jump over a waterfall and swim to safety to escape the orc horde, or survive in the arctic wastes for a week on nothing but ice, or canoe upstream while being chased by hungry cannibal headhunters, we pre-2E DMs had a simple yet elegant solution: We just rolled the dice. Maybe, if you had established a bit of a backstory (you were raised by an eskimo-like tribe and grew up in an igloo), we might cut you some slack on the arctic survival (but probably not on piloting the canoe upriver in the jungle for the same character, since it would be stretching your backstory even by heroic fantasy standards). If we were feeling generous, we'd hand wave the entire thing. If not, we'd hem and haw a bit ("Ok, Bob, since you have never owned a horse the entire time we have been playing, and you're 9th level, I'm going to give you a very generous 10% chance to escape the leucrotta trotting after you while you ride bareback on your stolen horse through the forest at night....) before handing you the dice and letting you roll. Inevitably, despite DM fiat, the bitching and whining and moaning (don't kid yourself, the ultimate authority of the DM could be tenuous even back in the day, especially if the player was providing the ride/beer/munchies/hot chick eye candy cousin playing her first game while giggling about how "cute" the painted lead figures were) would bog the game down at the most exciting part in Strahd's castle as your buddy grumbled about you "screwing" him by not letting him catch a dagger thrown by a gypsy thrall (Juggling NWP, just for reference).

Ok, so then 2E unveiled a somewhat clumsy, but completely workable NWP system that more or less covered all these "out of game" type things you really didn't want to bother with as DM or player....now, they could choose whether or not they could fletch their own arrows, fall down a staircase without taking damage, or cook a meal fit for royalty, and it was all in black and white on their character sheets. The best part? They could STILL try stuff like canoeing, swimming and tumbling......even if they didn't have the particular NWP, if the DM was so inclined. The NWP only came in handy if the circumstances dictated you had to be an "expert", or do something over the top (the aforementioned swimming the raging river with the halfling on your back, etc). Heck, we could even deal with the sometimes tricky problems of "exactly what languages do I speak/read/write?" because even THAT was covered in the new NWP rules. Brilliant! In 20 years of gaming since, I have yet to have any sort of rumble over what a character can and can't do not covered in the character class rules themselves.

Except I must have missed the really, really, really hard and obscure parts of the rules that all the Old Schoolers seem to find, because many of them have HORRIBLE problems trying to make this simple system work. Instead, all these old school DMs are continually rolling every time the characters try to climb on a horse, or fry up some bacon on the campfire, or try to catch Fuzzy the Bunny for a little snack while out in the wilderness for a few days. Despite, as I have to say again, the rules making it PERFECTLY CLEAR that this isn't the intent It's enough to think these hopefully intelligent old codgers are perhaps PURPOSELY ignoring the rules as written for some reason.....? Heaven Forbid!!!!

And don't say it's "metagaming" to pick skills. Guys, I hate to spring this on you, but practically everything about a character in 1E is "metagaming", from the fact wizards can't use swords to the fact there is some funny language called "common" running around all 1E fantasy worlds that everyone speaks. Remember, also, these are the EXACT SAME GUYS that will have an absolute hiss fit if your mage character dares to pick up a dropped longsword so he can defend himself from certain death, or your cleric happens to swing a non-blunt weapon at the ravening vampire attacking him, or your fighter tries to pick a lock, or your thief picks up a shield......because THATS NOT IN THE RULES!!!!!!! But if half the party picks Swimming, that's "metagaming" because heaven forbid you put in your character's background he grew up in a shack on the river...

Look, tongue in cheek examples aside, all NWPs are skill checks with a little chrome. There's no more simple mechanism than rolling a d20 against one of the PCs prime abilities. At it's heart that is all the 2E NWP system is (histronics aside), and if it does anything it makes adjucating situations easier, not harder, when faced with a chance to use one. Rarther than dominating a game (or even a session), they are fun little character bites that are used occasionally to let someone do something "not in the rules" to help their character shine a little.

Did I mention again I've never had a problem using NWPs in all my time gaming with them? And all sorts of players I've had during that time must have perfectly understood the rules as written because they also haven't had any problems understanding what they are and what they are used for? Am I completely wrong to wonder aloud that perhaps the problems aren't with the NWP rules as written, but the Old Schooler who hasn't actually bothered to read the NWP rules as written????


  1. I got no problem with the 2E rules. I've had a lot of fun playing 2E. I've seen players that enjoy the crap out of the skill system. But as a DM, I don't want to write down a bunch more stuff to have a complete NPC. This is why I don't much care for weapon proficiencies either.

    More importantly, when I want a skill system I want a full-blown skill system where every learnable activity is skill-based, like in Runequest or Rolemaster. It's a personal preference and maybe it's throwing out the baby with the bathwater, but the NWP system feels like only half a baby to me.

  2. I never had a problem with NWPs, either, and used them for a long time. Along the lines of what Jeff says, the system just doesn't mesh well with the class system. I'd rather play RoleMaster if I wanted a skill-centric game (and sometimes it's just what the doctor ordered).

  3. I'd say I'm one of the "Old Schoolers" of whom you speak - but I really couldn't care less about NWP's. I have nothing against them - in fact, I embraced them when they were introduced. But I can't think of more than a couple times that any of my players actually rolled against one of their NWP's.

    For instance, it wasn't about "Can your character swim with a halfling on his back?" It was about "Is your character strong enough to swim with a halfling on his back, against the rapids, and for how long?" This, in my mind, wasn't about skills, but about STR and CON - thus those were what the attributes that rolls were made against.

    NWP's were neat, but next to useless in my games.

    As for those who say that NWP's (skills) describe what you can't do, I think that's a bit much. But I understand where that's coming from - a lot of DM's like having players think of the game in terms of the rules as little as possible. I know I've seen this sort of thing a lot:

    Player 1: My character's got Sneak at 5.
    Player 2: Mine's got it at 7 - I'll go scout ahead.

    That's the type of playing I can't stand, and the more you add scores to describe a character, the more players behave like this (in my experience). They will also tend to act differently if their capabilities in an area are defined:

    Player 1: Florandem (Captcha-inspired name) only has Swimming at 2. There's no way he's going to try to swim across that river with the rest of the party. (And the dungeon dead-ends there, or game time is wasted as players attempt to devise a work-around.)

    Not that this happens to every DM, or every player does this. But it does happen, and it does detract from the game experience when it happens. I think (IMHO) that much of the Old Schooler rallying against NWP's/skills comes from this place...

    But it was a nice little rant. ;D

  4. Jeff: I will agree the RQ and RM systems (the RQ system especially, BRP may be my favorite system ever) deal with this more elegantly. But for what it is the AD&D NWP system, basically rolling against one of the six core abilities to simulate a result, pretty simple I think.

    Chris B: Again I'll show my ignorance of the 3/3.5 type rules systems, because I understand from what I have seen and have read that's a huge problem with that system (instead of roleplaying a situation, you instead roll under your "Haggle with Merchants" or "Discover secret doors in sewer" ability). It's up to the DM though to force the players to roleplay out such a situation, THEN let them roll on the table with modifiers (either adding or subtracting) based on the characters performance. I regularly modify the NWP number based on what the players tell me their characters are doing. On the subject of NWP describing what a character can or can't do...I guess I just don't have a lot of problems with that. We all can't swim, fletch arrows, or mountain climb. Sometimes what we can't do actually defines a character better than what we can't do...aren't old schoolers always telling us to play that dwarf with the 4 DEX because it's a roleplaying challenge? I can imagine a similar hilarious scene as Stumpy the dwarf absolutely refuses to cross the river since he can't swim, and "If Moradin meant for us ta float like a log, he da made us outta wood!!!" See, now that's old school roleplaying!!! :)

  5. "I guess I just don't have a lot of problems with that."

    Nor do I - like I said, I was just offering a possible explanation for why some gamers might dislike it. I'm completely ambivalent toward NWP's.

    (BTW: I'm a huge fan of the BRP system also - Call of Cthulhu being tops on my RPG list.)