Monday, March 23, 2009

Why I Tolerate the Proficiency System

A lot of people rag on the proficiency system for a whole lot of reasons. The Old School takes swings at it because, seemingly, it's that first step on the Path of Doom that leads directly to TETSNBN( The Edition That Shall Not Be Named) and all that idiocy. "We don't need no stinkin' skill system!" they argue, and quite rightly in most respects.

On the other hand, the system catches flak from the D20 and Hackmaster crew for being "half-assed" and not at all sufficient for their needs. Their needs are better served by D20's . . . I'll be nice and call it "complicated" system or Kenzer's positively Byzantine, but still enjoyable system of percentile rolls. I'll be honest, though, and say that both systems feel to me like having the rules of Cricket explained and the net result is the same: the sudden and overwhelming urge to whallop somebody with a bat. They're honestly more trouble than they're worth, and on top of that they betray a myopic and modern viewpoint: specifically that people are, by nature, cosmopolitan and multi-skilled by default.

I was, not too long ago when I still had pretensions at being "Old School," a fan of completely skill-less systems and verged on the point of excising proficiencies entirely from my game. I even started the task of building lists of what could be considered general character knowledge based on class to forestall the inevitable argument about how such and such a character would be expected to know all about The Nameless and Unknown Horror. They usually read something like this: "You're a fighter, and know which end of the spear/sword to hold without hurting yourself . . . you know enough not to eat the red berries unless the trail boss tells you to and not to pitch your tent in the dry stream bed at night." In the end, though, they turned into multi-page documents that nobody would even want to read except, possibly, as a bad joke.

It's at that point that I realized what I really liked about proficiencies. They're a way of inserting a skill system into the game without actually inserting a skill system. The non-proficiency system is not about what a character can do. After all, any boob can ride a horse from point A to point B without falling into the ditch every 10 feet just as all but the densest morons are able to light a fire and cook their supper at the end of a long day's march. And yet we have the Riding, Cooking, and Fire Building proficiencies that make it seem like they confer these very abilities. But in actuallity, they do not. Riding specifically starting with being able to fight from horseback (or unicorn back, or giant lizard back, or whatever) without falling or injuring either yourself or the mount and ranging all the way to performing stunts and tricks that would make the best show stallions in the world jealous. The proficiency description is very explicit in that it does not cover basic riding under average circumstances and, at the rist of sounding like a jackass, anybody who forces PC's to succeed at riding checks in order to mount their horse in the morning and not break their necks at noon are DOING IT WRONG! At the same time, fire building is the ability to build fires in very adverse conditions (rain storms, blizzards, wet fuel, etc.) and cooking is the ability to create gourmet and lavish meals rather than simple home or trail cooking.

In the end, I view the proficiency system as exactly that: a system for determining what your character is proficient in beyond what the average schlub is capable of. Literally, a list of things in which your character is good enough to earn a living through. Thus, somebody with the carpentry proficiency is not just a guy who can fix their front door (any moron can do that) but a true master carpenter who could sell that skill in exchange for money or other recompense. Yes yes, I know that "fire building" isn't a valid career option, even in the pseudo medieval world of most D&D settings, but that's why I said "tolerate" rather than "love." For all its wrinkles, I think the non-weapon proficiency system is the best solution for the issue at hand that's something other than "common sense." In my experience, there isn't a single player out there that has enough common sense to know better than to plunge their hands into the mysterious pool of "water" in order to grab at the copper coins they see on the bottom.

Of course, I've never been entirely sure what to do with things like Omen Reading and Astronomy. On the one hand, I feel like I should be putting in opportunities for said proficiencies to come up in play if the player ever remembers that they have it, but at the same time I feel that the best answer might be to smack the player upside the head and ask him just what it was he was smoking if he thought that they would be useful. I am not in the business of creating situations where the PC's can shine like some sort of convoluted and demented Eigen Plot, but at the same time, I have to be sure not to shut down the players entirely because their choices should mean something in the end, even if it's an NPC mocking them for having useless skills. After all, I am routinely mocked for having the world's only degree that officially qualifies me to say "Would you like fries with that?" and I've learned to live with it. So should the omen readers and astronomers.

This musing and rant has been brought to you by the disturbed workings of a delusional mind. If you're still reading this, then I'm truly sorry for you.


  1. "In the end, I view the proficiency system as exactly that: a system for determining what your character is proficient in beyond what the average schlub is capable of."


    I have come to the conclusion that all the problems with NWP can be boiled down to these simple things: either ignorance or misreading of the 2E rules; or dislike of a system that in old school player's minds exemplifies the break with the 1E rules system. Now, I'm used to a lot of old schoolers outright hating anything after 1E merely by the fact at that point EGG was no longer part of TSR; however, I cannot fathom why a very quick reading of the rules as written does not completely erase the false idea of "if you use the NWP system, you have endless rolls of people falling off horse, not being able to start a campfire, or not being able to cook a baked potato". The rules couldn't be more plain when NWP rolls should be made, so I'm forced to assume willful ignorance here on the part of NWP haters. I think they know EXACTLY what the rules say, but setting up a straw man and then burning him down is much easier than dealing with them in an rational way.

    The complete misrepresentation of the NWP (the OSRIC rules system is the latest to mangle it in a partisan example) is one reason why I cannot consider myself "old school" even though I fit the profile. A rules system should sink or swim on it's merits, not on made up examples that have no connection to reality.

    Use it or not, based on your preferences (it is considered an "optional" rule, at that), but please don't pretend it's something it's not.

  2. NWPs are yet another victim of a commonly observed phenomenon among grognards and 4rons alike: Not properly reading the 2nd edition rules before criticising them.

    This post is spot on. Keep up the good fight! ;)

  3. I find the fact that two people actually agree with me both awesome and disturbing.

    All of that said, I do, to a certain extent, agree with people who do not want NWP's in their game. In a better world, with perfect players and DM's, they simply wouldn't be needed.

    But we are none of us perfect, and so we have arguments like this.

  4. Not a big fan myself, but they can be fun.

    If you get someone with omen reading, for instance, you can toss clues into their lap. "You see a pair of swallows swoop low over the path in front of you, then soar into the sky. A bad omen; best be careful of your shoes." It can be something that's merely silly, a bit of light-hearted before the sturm-und-drang to come, or it might be an actual warning about pit traps or grey ooze to come.

    It's up to the players to make their choices useful, but I never pass up an opportunity to make a NWP fun. Things like cooking or heraldry or dance can be an excuse to drop a pinch of exposition into the players' laps, or hand them a bit of forshadowing, or even just build a running gag out of.

    - Brian

  5. We had a good conversation about this over on Dragonsfoot a few months back, which you can read here:

    I think Badmike is being overly hard on the OSRIC document, though, as it is not a criticism specifically of second edition, nor the proficiency system, but of skill systems in general. That said, I am not a fan of the proficiency system, nor even of the weapon proficiency system that started it all.

  6. Matthew: We had this discussion over at Giant in the Playground too, you and I.

    I think we left it off at agreeing to disagree. And I can certainly guess what the dragonsfoot folk said about nwp without having to try and go around the firewall.

    In the end, I still look upon it as that happy medium between no skill set at all and a fully enumerated and comprehensive skill set. It gives me, the GM, something to use as a simple baseline without having to swing to either pole - "if you don't have the skill you can't do it" or "you can do anything your character would typically be able to do as determined by my whim."

    I also find that it does, from time to time, open up interesting opportunities for in game twists. I've had a player take Omen Reading as a proficiency and want to use it as, in game, the group was rather stuck at the moment and directionless. Having that guy remind me of his training to read omens, no matter how you interpret the proficiency, gave me as the GM a nice "out" to nudging the players in a direction that would be conducive to the game in entirety.

    Like I said, it's just an otherwise unobtrusive mechanic that sits quietly in the background if it's not needed.

  7. Possibly, I do not recall the full conversation at Giant in the Playground. The Dragonsfoot discussion was pretty good, as it was not about whether proficiencies are good or bad, but how to use them, and what the alternatives are. That being the case, I think you may have guessed incorrectly at the content. ;)