Today a snippet of a blog post showed up multiple times on my Facebook wall, posted by several of my friends. A little Google-fu allowed me to find the actual post, which is here:
Go read it, and then come back.
OKAY, so, I’m mainly commenting on the part after the subheading “The Problem with Skill Dice” (which you probably guessed given the title of this post). Michael’s opinion of the “n in d6” mechanic is pretty clear:
This is unintuitive, clunky, not uniform, and scales oddly, implicitly preventing attributes from doing what they normally do.
I disagree with this part in general; I use this mechanic all the time. Typically it’s used in places where the odds of success are normally low, and the character’s ability score is the only significant modifier. Opening doors, for example, is successful on a 1 on 1d6, with the Strength bonus added to the range of success (so a Strength bonus of +1 makes the roll succeed on 1-2 on 1d6, a +2 is 1-3 on 1d6, and so on). This is a standard mechanic in Basic Fantasy RPG.
Personally, I extend this mechanic in two ways: First, an ability score with a penalty bumps the die size up (so a -1 Strength penalty makes it a 1 on 1d8, a -2 is 1 on 1d10, and so on). Second, if the difficulty is greater than normal, I bump up the die size; the best example of this is when a character tries to lift a portcullis or bend some bars. In that specific case, I bump the die all the way up to 1d20 (so a character with 18 Strength succeeds on 1-4 on 1d20, a 20% chance, while an average character has only a 5% chance of success).
Michael says this mechanic “scales oddly.” I don’t see it that way… rather, I see it as a specific choice in scaling, one that makes a typical task difficult for an average person but relatively easy for a superior character. Where that type of mechanic makes sense (i.e. when opening a door), I think it’s fine. One of the most important elements of the old games is the use of whatever mechanic seems to fit the situation… a sort of game mechanical pragmatism that stands in full opposition to the idea of a “core mechanic.”
Michael goes on to say:
Skill dice discourage imaginative, descriptive play in favor of using a skill from a sheet.
This assertion is not really related to his earlier statement. First, he describes how he doesn’t like “Skill Dice” as a mechanic, and then he says he doesn’t like how the mechanic affects play. They really are separate things.
The short answer to the question is, how else do you do it? When I play a thief, I’m playing someone who knows how to do something I don’t know how to do (and if you ask my wife, it’s not Open Locks that I fail at, it’s Move Silently). It won’t do me any good to describe HOW I’m doing a task, when I’m doing a task the character knows better than I do. If my success is keyed to how well I can describe the action… folks, I’m screwed. And that’s not what the game is about.
I do believe in rewarding players who go the extra mile. If a player says, “I check the door for traps” then I make the roll and tell the player what the character discovers (or does not discover). If that player says, “I look all around the doorknob, and before I look under the door, I want to slip my dagger in there an inch or so and slide it around to make sure there’s nothing there” then I will adjudicate that action however I see fit; probably, I’ll still make the same roll, but I might very well grant a bonus.
You have to have some way to resolve actions. Keying them entirely to the character’s ability scores is very limiting; it becomes hard, for example, to have a character who is good at one part of his or her profession and bad at another. And, depending on what mechanic you choose, it may make ability scores too important (or too unimportant).
So I guess I’m arguing both points too. You do need “Skill Dice” of some sort… some way to resolve actions. And you do need multiple ways to do such resolution, so each situation has an appropriate chance of success.