Chaos Marches (D&D 5E): Skills in (are) Actions

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.

Combat Actions

  • Move
  • Action
  • Bonus Action
  • Reaction


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. 

GM(DM) Reactions

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.


11 responses to “Chaos Marches (D&D 5E): Skills in (are) Actions”

  1. Notions and dissections

    I want to set one thing aside first. In your summary of the two groups, this “illusion” business is throwing me off the horse, hard. Looking at the rest of the post, it doesn’t seem to be a related topic, but since you emphasized it here, I’m going to say, let’s not examine it for now. Instead, let’s acknowledge that something is on your mind regarding these phrases and reserve it for a later discussion.

    So our topic is “skills as actions,” and I’d like to pull some of the many potential sub-topics apart.

    My first idea. You’re right to question any and all in-fiction designations of activity as “skills.” It’s a very troublesome term. You didn’t mention it specifically, but for example, one of the strange historical details of RPG design is the fascination with Nature-Nurture, that somehow it matters whether (for example) an axe strike at someone’s face is primarily “natural ability” with a little bit of training, or the other way around.

    That’s just one detail of a big topic in terms of game design. We can talk about “characteristics only” systems in which implied or generalized skills are folded into those, or the reverse, “skills only” systems in which the baseline physiology is implied or expected; or perhaps most functionally, “abilities” systems in which the names for what you’re doing are just different ways to celebrate doing things using the same kinds of mechanics. We could also talk about games which go to great lengths in skill choices and mechanics for very little benefit, or about games for which characters’ skill profiles are extremely different vs. games for which they are almost the same.

    However, I think the insight in this case is not to delve into it, but to get over it. Yes, the in-fiction designation of “skill” is merely one way to conceive and describe indivdualized actions, to get a sentence (spoken into the air) turned into a fictional event (listened to, received, incorporated). And yes, a critical aspect of any game system is what actions are available, per person, per character.

    Once having seen that, all the other things to talk about are interior details, specific to games (especially my dissection of character instruments) and specific to groups (how they want to do things).

    My second idea. If I had to choose, I think I’d pick this topic for the primary analysis: that it’s not at all clear who says when an action of this kind is being employed in terms of system, i.e., anyone can utter the words “I do this,” but when is it said, and by whom, so that we all know it’s fictionally happening and will produce some kind of result. That’s why it’s so often negotiated through requesting or requiring GM acknowledgment of “OK, now we know you’re doing it, now whatever you roll will count.” Maybe that’s where the roots of “can I can I” lie, although it often grows into much more difficult and entangled forms.

    Another idea. Both out of combat and in it, these actions have an iffy relationship to IIEE. Out of combat, there is rarely any sense of order/action for non-violent activity, and within combat, they often don’t fit very well as actions equivalent in time to violent actions. I’ve talked before about the vague or difficult step from non-violent to violent activity, but it’s also useful to consider, once wihin either, we still don’t know how non-violent but possibly consequential actions are folded into the fiction in a sensibly timed way.

    So perceiving them as “actions” is very hard, often bubbled off from others’ actions and interactions. That’s probably what causes one of the things you wrote about, whether one person’s use accounts for all of us, or whether multiple uses basically operate as re-rolls or reinforcers of one person’s use.

    Your specification of spotlight is important to this angle. People usually know how it works once the axe-strikes and spellcasts commence, but out of combat, it’s kicked to the GM to manage as if he or she were an orchestra conductor.

    Another idea. It’s tough to know how much they accomplish regarding a specific problem, and for how long, e.g., whether a Climb roll really gets me up this cliff, or just halfway, or just as much as the GM feels like saying it accomplishes. Now that I think about it, too, this is also related to the “can I can I” behavior, as the person is trying to figure out what the stated action even does in this particular situation – and the answer typically isn’t in the textual rules at all, but must be created de novo every time by the GM in “story daddy” mode.

    That goes ten times for perception. There’s also a very weird confusion about perceiving that nothing’s happening, everything seems fine: does it mean “only up until the present moment” or “going forward until the next distinguishable and different situation.”

    Another subset of that topic concerns failure, what does it mean, is another try possible, what does failure even mean, as I discussed in some detail in one of the RuneQuest posts.

    Overall. Your observation about the GM being put upon to navigate any and all of this is absolutely correct. It is, functionally, placing an enormous amount of the in-progress/in-production fiction directly into this one person’s hands with no procedure except “make it like you want, decide de novo and ad lib what does and doesn’t make sense, and make everyone happy too.”

    That’s not merely frustrating. It is impossible in social and emotional terms. Even for people who embrace this daddy-story-maker role and enjoy its purpose of transitive entertainment, it quickly becomes exhausting. You mentioned that this impossible expectation for navigation has somehow become the mark of the “good GM,” which is to say, a constant and unsolvable source of anxiety.

    I completely agree with you about D&D 5th edition in particular, for all of the above issues.

    • Perception is one of the

      Perception is one of the worst offenders., but Insight is nearly as bad.

      Do I know if the woman eating a hand out of her bowl of soup is telling the truth that its just carrots made to look like a hand? I roll a 10… so I guess I believe her?

      Both of these would benefit from being abilities everyone has and can use a limited number of times per short rest (as an example). And both could be in the hands of the player. As the DM I just describe a situation and move on, letting the players decide what they think is or is not interesting. In the above example, if Bob fails their insight, Louise and Steve are going to roll theirs, again, to prevent the party from failing.

      Can The Party Fail?

      What if Bob had said, "I don't believe her."? Would the DM enforce the Insight roll? Should they do so? Seems to me that would rob the character of their authority to act on the information currently at hand and that roll gives the chance that player does not believe what they actually believe. Perhaps this can simulate the idea that their gut says its a fricking hand, and their intellect says, nah its carrots. But that seems forced. Those situations do happen, for sure, but how often? 

      The larger question to me is, can the party fail? Presiding over a TPK where Bob's character ends up in the soup pot may be memorable. Is it fun? Maybe. One of the weaknesses of this style of play is that it codes failure as not fun. And the DM must ensure the maximum fun. Thus, the party cannot fail because they are the heroes. The party might not save the princess, but not saving the princess should be every bit as fun and rewarding as saving the princess would. A lot of systems fall down in this regard.

    • Regarding insight and the

      Regarding insight and the general family of "give me a clue now" actions, the book-reading spell you used in our second Lamentations session is an excellent example. It tosses me the job of deciding in that moment whether this book has useful information in it. Because casting the spell doesn't determine that it does, it merely looks expectantly at the GM to say both whether it does and, if so, what it is. If the book isn't something I've placed in the situation with the clue sitting in it (for a hamster wheel of placing it and having you find it "if you remember to use your spell"), then the first step, whether it has such information, is completely spitballed in the moment.

      It'd be much better to say that the spell determines that the book is useful for the situation. Since spell-casting in this game is already resource-based (spell slots), there's a built-in limit to keep it from being repetitive and creatively uninteresting.

      It'd also help if the player has a question in mind that itself is not merely "so, GM, give me something useful." When I post the session you'll see a very interesting exchange between us about that exact thing, when I effectively force you, even a bit rudely, to state a substantive question, as required by the spell rules text. (right in the middle of editing as we speak)

    • I remember that exchange very

      I remember that exchange very well. And it was good that you did, because it helps us work out how magic is going to go in the game. I imagine once the more powerful spells come out, that exchange might happen a few more times until we hit a rhythm.

      I remember what you said at the end of the first session; where you said you wanted to see more spells. I had taken Bookspeak in anticipation of using it in the library area but in some ways I also chose my non-combat spell on purpose, because I have physical combat options in Lamentations. Turns out I did use it in combat and was satisfied with the result even though it did not result in damage. 

      This is a good example of how I think skills could work as well. Instead of the GM calling for a perception check for instance, which is a give away that there is something to perceive, the GM simply describes the environment. If a character wishes to perceive, they do it. Rolling only if there is something opposing their skill. And if there is nothing there, oh well, the GM will not add in anything to be found just because the player rolled well.

    • Since you mentioned Legendary

      Since you mentioned Legendary LIves Ron, I found the main – give us a clue – skill we used in that game, the Guidance Miracles, to be easy and fun most of the time. As my prep included thinking aout your characters gods and their agenda I could fairly easily say what Dana or Jessylou think would be the best think for your characters to do. Where it became more of a problem was with Grrrl's new-agey one with the universe religion where "what does the universe think" came a bit too close to what does the GM want and didn;t give me a good mueristic to apply to get away from that. You can see me making a probably unnecessary meal of dealing with this in the first session in TOurmaline (session 12 maybe?).

    • Robbie has a bit of a talent

      Robbie has a bit of a talent in that direction. He's hittin' us with the same kind of game mechanic in Darkurthe Legends right now!

      (which is really interesting for that game so I'll post about that more constructively over there)

    • Ross, I think you’re nailing

      Ross, I think you're nailing an important point. You didn't have to make up the informational miracles' content on the basis of plot-directing or entertainment, but in terms of role-playing, i.e., the gods as characters or character-like entities. Which is excellent and fun, and which is clarified immensely by the counter-example of Grrl's un-god religion.

      In the Lamentations clerical design work (I've just posted the session), I'm using that logic in a more extreme form. The "will of God" is revealed not due to anyone's plan or even role-playing, but through a series of somewhat uncomfortable rolls and decisions which ultimate affect not just the cleric, but the whole group. It even rewrites the DM's prep, on purpose.

    • Overall. Your observation

      Overall. Your observation about the GM being put upon to navigate any and all of this is absolutely correct. It is, functionally, placing an enormous amount of the in-progress/in-production fiction directly into this one person’s hands with no procedure except “make it like you want, decide de novo and ad lib what does and doesn’t make sense, and make everyone happy too.”

      That’s not merely frustrating. It is impossible in social and emotional terms. Even for people who embrace this daddy-story-maker role and enjoy its purpose of transitive entertainment, it quickly becomes exhausting. You mentioned that this impossible expectation for navigation has somehow become the mark of the “good GM,” which is to say, a constant and unsolvable source of anxiety.

      I think this nailing my own problems and anxiety with prep, which I solved in different ways through different phase of my "GM Career", and I use it as a sociological concept:

      (A) by "overprepping", which I think mean two things :

      • having to know every single details so I will not what to say, generally not thinking in terms of a "session" but in "general", driven by the idea/myth that "anything could happen and I want to let total freedom" (which was not true, in practice).
      • "do something interesting" (which also a construction), Lynch/Lost Highway impression scenes that blasts, interesting characters and locations, personal problems and ideas of the "imponderabilia of everyday life" to give an impression of human life, and interesting relations between all of this.

      This leading me to kind of "failures" :

      • where I try to introduce every elements of the culture, religion, npc, bits of relationship between the present npcs, specific legislation at that time, etc, etc (to the disarray of my own players). Leading to lots of talking and description from my part, and being not very sure of myself when the players do basic interactions, or providing so much events to react that the players are more in a colourful plainted cage than in a rich setting.
      • Not playing at all, or maybe only one or two session. With some review after the feeling of failure, making it wait one year, two year, trying again, for the same failure. But generally, not playing at all to avoid this.

      I think possible causes could have come from previous experiences with players at the table. I remember one of my first experience of gming, I think it's 2005, where the players were playing Bructeres (roman "barbarians"' in war with roman, in a "coming of age" introduction session, and I just say "you're going to hunt with a ritual axe", and one of the player screams "axes? We should use bow and spears?". Which in fact is true, is a historical abomination produced by my own non preparedness and historical ignorance, but may plan was just "let's go into a cool hunting beasts situation to see where it leads". But this lead me to think something like "I have to know what to say in this specific context I want to play when – they use knowledge skill, they use a perception skill, they say 'I'm a sumerian rain-maker', do sumerian rain-maker know that? etc.) 

      (B) using written modules, almost as written, generally in a very specific idiom "contemporary horror", which surely provides my own useful stock of knowledge to alter situations and make them interesting (mysterious, fearful): by reading them, taking notes, trying to get their internal logic, as the module provide what I think I need (npc, colour), but also a limit framework, not much a "focus" on a world, but the frontier of what I have to know.

      But also being terribly frustrated that "the best modules" are generaly the ones where the characters can't get out of the situation (huis-clos). 

  2. Two ways of seeing skills

    D&D 3 has a long list of applications for each skill. Pathfinder 2 has taken this to the direction of explicit actions which are often coupled to specific skills.

    The other way is to consider the skills as character abilities. When a character tries to do something, the game master evaluates the fiction and selects an appropriate mechanical interpretation for it. For D&D 5 this is explicitly written down as the core game process. Is the character doing something where they could benefit for having training in athletics? If so, maybe the action could be resolved by a roll of something (athletics).

    When I ran D&D 5 I also sometimes used skills by simply asking if they have a skill or not, and they might automatically make or fail some roll based on that. For example, no possibility of figuring out the meaning of these elven temple decorations unless you are an elf or have the nature or religion skill. I am not sure how textual this is, but then, D&D 5 is quite loose about what really is textual or not to the game.

    I guess D&D 3 could be read in both ways; as an exhaustive list of actions or as a worked out list of examples.

    • Soon after this post appeared

      Soon after this post appeared, we held the Monday Lab: Whoops seminar. Your comment fits well into the session's content and among the comments that followed.

      For anyone who's digging into this topic across the site, Monday Lab: Roll to know is also relevant.

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