For this blog, I plan to tackle the Noncombat System of D&D. The blogs in this series are:
Unbloodied Heroes 1: An Introduction
Unbloodied Heroes 2: Exposition from Point of View
Unbloodied Heroes 3: Interludes: Backgrounds and Retraining
Unbloodied Heroes 4: Travel and Group Efforts
Unbloodied Heroes 5: Exploration and Individual Efforts
Unbloodied Heroes 6: Skills Reimagined
Related to this blog series is my series on Social Challenges.
I have never, in any edition of D&D, been satisfied with the manner in which noncombat abilities have been represented. Too often they feel like an afterthought, or they use a one-size-fits-all approach that I feel is inappropriate. This blog follow up on concepts I discussed in my prior blogs on Combat Investment, Social Challenges, and Protagonocentrism.
I believe noncombat abilities should be tailored to the uses they will be put by adventurers. My analysis looks at a campaign as an ongoing shared story told by the DM, who controls the world, and secondarily by the players, who control the protagonists.
I firmly believe that numerical mechanics (particularly those tied to the use of dice) should be limited to the resolution of conflict, not the furtherance of narrative flow. Literary scholars identify four types of conflict, though I replace “Man” with “Character”: Character vs. Character, Character vs. Self, Character vs. Nature, and Character vs. Society. If an activity is not directly related to one of these types of conflict, then it should not involve dice.
Moreover, mechanics should be related to the actual characters in the game, not hypothetical characters in other people’s campaigns. For example, there should be no need to compare a character’s Arcane skill with the Arcane skill of a character in another campaign. Instead, what matters is a character’s Arcane Skill in relation to the encounters he faces, and in relation to the other characters (in order to determine which character may be considered an expert in the area).
I have identified six story-related endeavors in which characters engage during a campaign:
Combat: Obviously, PCs engage in combat. Much of the games mechanics revolve around combat, and for good reason. Combat is the quintessential form of conflict in D&D (Character vs. Character). However, this blog discusses noncombat, so I will only touch upon combat tangentially. Primarily, I consider any skill that might be used during combat, including the need to disarm traps occurring during combat, to be a combat-related skill use.
Exploration: The Jester had an excellent blog on this subject. When characters are traversing through a hostile environment, but not fighting or socializing, they are exploring. Exploration involves poking and prodding, trying levers, and solving puzzles. This was a major component of earlier editions, but seems to have fallen to the wayside in recent years. It is time for this to be restored to its place of prominence, and this is a form of conflict (Character vs. Nature), so dice should be implemented.
Exposition: Any time a DM needs to give information to the players, he is engaging in exposition. In my opinion, this is a bad reason for skills. A DM should always give out only that information the PCs need. Dice should not be a factor. This is one of those areas where dice does not resolve conflict. (Note, that drawing admissions from a reluctant NPC is social conflict, not exposition.)
Interlude: In between adventures, characters are likely to want to imagine what their characters do. Some may have a day job, or family obligations. Others may engage in study, or politicking. Still others may do nothing. This is primarily a narrative activity for which no dice should be needed.
Socialization: When PCs communicate with NPCs, they are socializing. However, Socialization, here, only refers to instances in which the PCs seek to accomplish a goal through social interaction. A night on the town, or at a Duke’s soiree, is not conflict. It’s simply narration for which no skills are needed, and which the characters should simply roleplay. If there is conflict (either Character vs. Character or Character vs. Society), then dice should be used. See my Social Challenges blog to see how I would handle socialization.
Travel: PCs need to get from point A to B. Until they all gain flying mounts or teleportation, they will be traveling, whether by foot, mount, wagon train, ship, or spelljammer. They need provisions, to keep from getting lost, and to endure harsh environmental hazards. This is conflict (man vs. nature) and might involve dice.
As stated above, D&D already handles Combat fine (or at least it is beyond the scope of this blog). Of the remaining five activities, two (Exposition and Interlude) do not require dice, and three (Exploration, Socialization, and Travel) do require dice. I have already set forth, in great detail, what I would like to see with regard to Social Conflict, and will not repeat it.
In my next two blogs in this series, I will discuss my ideas for the two categories of noncombat that do not require dice. In my fourth and fifth blogs in this series, I will discuss my ideas for the two remaining categories of noncombat that do require dice. In the final blog of this series, I will discuss the Skill system in particular, and why the Skill system should be reduced to a mere nine skills. (How’s that for a tease?)