Monday, February 17, 2014

Specialization and Assumed Competence

GROGNARD WARNING: This post is going to talk about things like "game balance" and "character builds".  Bear with me, because the conclusion is one that you'll probably agree with.

Imagine a dungeon X that is balanced for characters named Bard, Thief, and Barbarian.  The dungeon has 20 monsters in it, each with 18 HP.  The dungeon is balanced so that it provides an appropriate challenge for our three adventurers.

Then the edition changes, bringing new abilities to Barbarian.  Now Barbarian does twice the damage he did before.

Now, if you want to rebalance dungeon X so that it is still balanced for Bard, Thief, and Barbarian, you'll have to increase the HP of all the monsters in the dungeon by 33%.  Now it still takes the party the average number of hits to kill all the monsters.

The monsters all have 24 HP now, instead of 18 HP, but the balance is preserved.

But consider Bard and Thief.  If they solo-attack a monster that they could kill in 3 hits before, it now takes them 4 hits to kill it.  They have gotten more incompetent.

Not because their attack and damage bonuses on their character sheets have gone down, but because the world has changed around them.

The dungeon is still balanced, and still holds the same difficulty for the party, but the assumed competence is lower.

And don't assume that Barbarian getting double damage is unbalancing!  Thief and Bard got new abilities, too!  Now Bard's has a Diplomacy skill of +10!  And Thief has Disable Device at +10!

Now, in certain adventures, the Diplomacy and the Disable Device can be way more useful than the double damage thing.  Maybe Thief and Bard are thrilled with their new abilities and Barbarian is sad that he got the shitty end of the stick.  Or maybe they're all balanced (despite being "incomparables").  And maybe all 3 players are happy with their new abilities.  it doesn't matter.

But it doesn't change the fact that the assumed combat competence of Thief and Bard has gone down.

In order to balance the game, Thief and Bard have become more incompetent to balance out Barbarian becoming more competent though specialization/customization/whatever.

Likewise, Barbarian and Thief have gotten shittier at Diplomacy, although their character sheet doesn't show it.

And although the numbers on Barbarian and Bard's character sheets haven't changed, the DCs of all the locks in the world have just gone up by a point or two.  They've become more incompetent, and they never even realized it.

Specialization lowers the assumed competence of the adventurers.

This is a subtle effect.  

On the macroscopic level, dungeons are just as hard as they always were.  Dungeon X has been rebalanced so that it still poses the same challenge for Thief, Bard, and Barbarian.  And the flavor of dungeon X certainly hasn't changed.  So you can't blame the three adventurers for not noticing that they've become slightly more incompetent in most things.

The insidious effect of lowering the assumed competence is that it makes it harder for the party to participate (as a group) in things that now require specialization.  Talking to monsters is now more solidly the domain of the bard, because he has the Diplomacy +10.  Combat becomes more hazardous for the thief and the bard.

To a certain degree this is a good thing.  We already rely on specialization when we choose classes and roll for stats.  It's good to differentiate characters mechanically as well as conceptually.


The more specialization you bake into a system, the more specialization that is assumed to be present in the average adventuring party.  And the lowers the assumed competence, and makes it harder for the improperly-specialized character (which is most characters most of the time) to do heroic things, like sneak past an orc, pick a lock, or lie to an ogre.

And I like games where everyone has a decent chance of sneaking past an ogre, picking a lock, or lying to ogres.

I'm not saying that thieves shouldn't be the best at sneaking past ogres, I'm just saying that that type of specialization makes it harder for the party to participate in heroics.

What is appropriate for a single-hero game becomes restrictive in a party.  Systems with less mechanical specialization (less "Ride Horse +17") allows for more heroics, because more people are participating in those heroic attempts, and with better chances of success (except for the guy who put all of his points into "Ride Horse"--who is equally or more likely to succeed).

Edit: Here's a comment I made on G+ talking more about this:

Now, most people want a little bit of specialization baked into the game.  Everyone wants fighters to be better than wizards at killing things, for example.

But the question of "how much better?" is not a trivial one, and I don't think it's an intuitive one, either.

Likewise with skills.  "How much better do I want to the trained character to be than the untrained character?" is a question that has a different answer depending on which group of players you poll.  

If everyone is class Adventurer and is equally effective and equally generic, then there is no difficulty inflation due to specialization.  Like DCC funnels or other TRPGs.  Some of those are fun games.

But most people eventually want their characters to specialize, but the question is, to what degree?  Because the more advantages we give the specialized guy, the more the difficulty of that task increases for everyone else in order for the challenge to be appropriate.

And other games use lots of specialization, and you see strong role protection even at level 1, and some of those games are fun, too.

I think this is a more granular distinction that just edition warring.  Like, if we want to debate how much of a skill system is appropriate for your group, we should be aware of the relationship between specialization and assumed competence.


  1. Agreed. I think it is worth mentioning, though, that circumventing the dice is a part of player skill as well. A +1 sneak is identical to a +15 sneak if you can make a distraction to draw guards away so that you do not actually need to make a sneak roll at all.

    Just as an aside, what you describe is basically an inflation effect. If you give person A some amount of extra money (expanding the money supply while keeping the supply of other goods constant), prices increase for everybody, assuming the increase in question is above the threshold of market sensitivity (which it often is not in the case of an individual in a modern economy but almost certainly is in the case of an adventurer's ability compared to the challenges of a particular game site).

    1. Oh man, I have another essay to write about how a system can support of discourage situation engineering like that.

      And inflation is an appropriate and fiscally hilarious term for it.

      "Your sword does 1 damage to the dragon."
      "But this is a +1 sword!"
      "Sorry. Inflation. You should have invested in gold."

  2. In a lot of OSR D&D stuff, the sweet spot seems to be in the 1/3 to 1/6 success rate - corresponding to rolling a 13 (about 1/3) up to an 18 (about 1/6) on a d20. That's a pretty common range for "to-hit roll needed" and "saving throw target number" at lower levels. See also the LotFP skill system with its universal 1 in 6 chance, or

  3. This is my problem with most RPGs. A bunch of skills is supposed to mean you can built exactly the character you want. But what really happens is that your character is not very good at a list of things and horrible at everything else. There are lots of ways to address it, but they’re all just workarounds.

    The great thing about early D&D is that because it left so much unaddressed, it is assumed that everyone could do just about anything, and that generally they’d succeed without a roll. (And if you didn’t play it that way, I can’t imagine you stuck with it long.)

    Also, I find early Traveller’s low number of skills per character encourages thinking of them as things that the character is especially good at instead of the only things they can do. Though it isn’t completely immune to the problems of skill systems either.

    1. GUMSHOE also has a cool idea, where skills are sorta nebulously defined, and many problems could be solved by many different skills (or combinations of skills). That ambiguity is good for encouraging players to think of off-label ways to use their skils.

      Everyone has their own preferences, but for my games I'm starting to think that skills are useful and appropriate in a game when they are technical, knowledge, or trade skills. (No stealth, perception, athletic, or social skills.)

      Because those skills still allow for meaningful, flavorful differentiation of characters, but the game never grinds to a halt without them and they're occasionally useful. They don't carry a lot of life-and-death weight, so to speak.

  4. Rougeattorney had a great post on types of skills and which fit in the game on DF. I can’t find the direct link, but I summarized it here:

    I think the ones you like would fall under his “professional skill” category. I think his argument against them works just as well as your argument for them. ^_^

    My current thoughts are looking to something along the lines of Barbarians of Lemuria’s careers, Lejendary Adventures’ abilities, or Risus’ clichés. More like classes than skills, but perhaps a bit more fine-grained than classes. Also, I’d like to do less “one roll resolution” and more “many rolls with decision points between them” to resolve actions.

    Incidentally, when looking for a link to RA’s Dragonsfoot post, I found an article I wrote on this topic in 2008 (for a publication that never got off the ground) titled “Evolving towards incompetence”. I’d completely forgotten about it. If only present me were actually the accumulated wisdom of the past mes. ^_^

  5. “I think his argument against them works just as well as your argument for them.” Just to clarify, I think he says professional skills don’t fit because they don’t have a real impact on the game. I think you are saying professional skills do fit because they don’t have a real impact on the game. Same argument, different (and equally valid) conclusions. ^_^

  6. "what really happens is that your character is not very good at a list of things and horrible at everything else" just like reality. How many things do most of us have thousands or even tens if thousands of hours of practice and application?

    What if adventures aren't written to character roles and specializations but instead are presented as the situation that is and it's up to the players to deal with it not a specific set of numbers on a sheet.

    I can also think of many dozens of films that are all about getting the right specialist for a role in the film (certainly so in crime films) so the importance of the specialist is out there and something players are aware of. The computer hacker doesn't beat the kungfu master in a fist fight, the lambada dancer doesn't beat the sniper in a contest of marksmanship, Tony Montana might be a crime boss but he isn't sneaking into a diamond exchange and walking away with a bag full of diamonds is he?

  7. “I can also think of many dozens of films that are all about getting the right specialist for a role in the film (certainly so in crime films) so the importance of the specialist is out there and something players are aware of.”

    But that’s not the issue I’ve seen come up in games. The kind of thing I see is the sort of things where the knight loses his sword and can’t fight unarmed. When the reality is that anyone who trains in the use of a sword (practically rather than as a hobby) gets training in unarmed, dagger, sword in one hand, sword and buckler, sword in two hands, etc. Indeed, unarmed techniques are an integral part of fighting even when you have the sword in your hands. Not to mention that a lot of the principles behind fighting techniques can be applied to ways of fighting you’ve never trained specifically for.

    Fine-grained skills often fall into this trap for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because the system may lack any notion of these relationships between skills. Secondly, because the player given a budget doesn’t catch on that they really should buy a broader base of skills.

    If you divide things up at a higher level than most skill systems, however, you do have the case where the specialist can be required without having characters with strangely narrow skill bases or a complex system to enforce a broader skill base.

    Or, like Arnold said, maybe if you just need skills limited to the professional realm and not the “common stuff any adventurer could do”, you eliminate most of the stuff that drives me nuts.

    1. I think a lot of folks don't bother using the rules that are there most of the time. If your game has reaction rolls everyone can sweat-talk the ogres (if lucky). Morale rules make it possible to spook lord dark's minions.Anyone should have a chance to find a pit with a 10' pole. Some attempts to improve have been downgrades without a doubt.

      But everyone can't pick locks, everyone doesn't ride really well, or swim well , or have a knack for tracking. There should be a "can try it" degree of competence for the common tasks just mentioned but the specialist is going to be much much better.