I have a few things to say about skills and I think the context of the last few sessions for both of the Chaos Marches groups is relevant. I have more to say about why the dungeon itself is important, and IMHO vitally important to good D&D, but that will be in a different post.
First, for those following along, let me bring you up to speed on the two groups.
Thursday Crew - Are on the plain of Limbo pursuing the Grey Master who is here for "something" herself. They recently spent time in a castle of an enigmatic entity, which was a bit Alice in Wonderland. Because of missing players in real life, the group had been split, but was now back together. This group asks for more direction from the DM (me). They want the illusion.
Friday Crew - Decided as a group that exploring the blasted ruins of the old world was more interestng than the army of chaos forming in the north. I totally approved of this and fleshing out the bit of content I had for this direction. Of course as they do this the chaos will spread, but that's not what is important to the players right now. They have discovered the ruins of an elven kingdom whose fall spelled the doom of the golden age. This group is a bit more driven, at least by some characters. They too largely want the illusion but would like a menu of illusions to chose from.
Skills Are Actions
I have been keeping a close eye on how the players use skills in 5E and how and when I call for skill use. In terms of the system, all rolls are ability rolls (although some technically are not, looking at you Initiative) and this is especially true of Skills. The proper format for (and there is a proper format, equation) is Strength (Athletics) roll. You can even say "Give me a Strength - Athletics roll".
Over several discussions on this forum I have been contemplating the simple idea that skills, outside all of the rhetoric, are just merely a menu of actions that can be done in or out of combat. I want to break down how it works a bit to illustrate what I am thinking about.
- Bonus Action
Out of Combat (Not non-comabt because an adventurer is always on duty)
- Move places
- Use senses (Skills) - which are actions
- You can use some bonus actions out of combat too
- Can you use reactions? Maybe but most reactions are combat focused so you might not do so.
Dog-Pile Skill/Action Use
An issue that has been prevalent for a long time in many games (I can think of Runequest in particular) is the skill dog pile. I may ask Louise to make a Wisdom (Perception) check, and Robert asks "Can I make one too? I am right next to Louise." And Robert's logic isn't wrong, but that simple question subverts the entire premise of the act. Robert is, and not to disparage him, just trying to make sure the group does not miss something in case its important. Suddenly dice are dropping all over the table, because of the trained response to a call for action: the group cannot be allowed to fail.
This is frustrating. As a GM(DM) I can of course tell Robert and the others to mind their own business, this roll is for Louise. I can rule that Louise and only those characters trained in Wisdom (Perceptin) can make the roll. I can just throw up my hands in disgust and tell them what they see without caring. Maybe it was not all that important anyway? But the system puts a heavy burden on the DM to navigate a set of rules that should be self navigable by everyone at the table.
How do I circumvent or undercut this? There are several ways to do it, which are not the point. But think about how reputations are built on the idea that, to be a good DM, you need to say, spoltlight the players in a way that let's everyone get involved. There are whole reputations built on the ability to turn crap design into coherent play. And spotlighting is a good technique to know, I stand by it in any game. But the fact that 5E requires such a skilled hand to run it and make it a good experience for the players and the DM, means that incoherent play is happening all the time. That bugs me. I hate incoherent design, when I do it or when anyone does it.
Skills Are Actions
Skills are actions. Full stop. They are the mechanism through which a player's character interacts with the world. Even combat is technically a skill / ability roll. Except everyone is assumed to be proficient in combat, depending on the weapon. It is a blanket proficiency that if revoked from say, sorcerers and wizards (except for their magic), would make their melee and ranged weapon use less favorable than using their spells. Which, TBH, is already the case.
My current feeling is that an action needs to be unique to the character. Sure, everyone can try and swim in choppy seas but if you are not a practiced swimmer, you will likely drown or need rescuing. I would not have to constantly remember to let Louise or Robert ot Pam join in the fun, if they had unique actions both in and out of combat. A design like Runequest works because you won't be good at, what you are not good at. But 5E and D&D in general work better with everyone in their niche, contributing that niche as needed in play. The difference between a practiced Athlete and a non-Athlete are only 2-4 steps. And as % that is 10-20%, which is significant or would be, except its not. Over many hundreds of hours of play, it really is not as significant as it might seem.
I will stop there. I feel like we could go into a broader idea of why success is so important in the trad RPG, how the idea of an experience vs. winning influences design. Lots of potential further discussisons.