What skills are tested in RPGs?

When my friends and I get together for a night of board games, we often have a bunch of options to pick from, and we show some consistent patterns in which games we vote for. I'm good at drawing and clue-giving, so I often vote for games where you excel or win by making useful drawings or giving useful clues. My friend Catherine is very good at juggling rules and numbers in her head and maximizing the point values of her actions, so she often votes for complex thinky games where we compete for the most victory points. We all do this -- we all prefer games which allow us to prosper by our particular skills.

When it comes to picking RPGs, on the other hand, I've never had quite the same experience. I have very rarely picked through the pile by going, "Ooh, I'm good at that," and I haven't observed my friends doing that either. Maybe this difference is real, or maybe I'm just missing a similarity.

What do you think? What sorts of skills allow you to thrive* in different RPGs?

* As opposed to skills that are mere requirements, like "have an imagination" or "be comfortable talking in a group" or "parse this rules text".


  • Here's what comes to my mind:

    Character choices. This is the one that most RPGs agree must matter. You're playing a game, you've got some objectives, you've got some approaches you could use to pursue them -- which approach do you choose? Can you pick the one that will be most effective? Most interesting?

    I know I'm lumping a lot into this broad category, but that's intentional -- I'm most interested in what other skills RPGs can reward.

    Rules knowledge. In many games, this is mere requirement, but in the arena of RAW player vs GM competition, it can become the key to success.

    Convincing portrayal. Similarly, this can be a minor add-on in some games, but can become vital in games where the GM judges "what works" according to fictional presentation.

    Genre knowledge. Being well-versed in the type of fiction the group seeks to create can have all sorts of advantages, from solving problems to simple "well played!" recognition.
  • Interesting question!

    I'll brainstorm a bit; you let me know if I'm heading in the right direction or not.

    Social organization/leadership. Some people are drawn to position of authority and/or responsibility, and they really enjoy getting a bunch of people together and being responsible for giving them a good time. I think a lot of people GM for this reason, organize cons, and so forth.

    Creativity/imagination. Yeah, I know this sounds terribly vague, but it's the ability to keep pulling creative, unique ideas of the ether. A lot of gamers take this for granted, but a lot of people find this utterly daunting about RPG/story game play. A person who sees this as a strength might be drawn to games like Universalis or Archipelago or whatever: where you get to make shit up continually and impress your friends. You can break the mold, even when you're tired and the well of inspiration has gone dry.

    Real-world expertise. I don't know if this fits in your "genre knowledge" category - it's the ability to bring real-world knowledge to bear on the game. For example, an experienced military officer might be chosen to be the referee in a competitive wargame, or to GM a Vietnam war scenario for the D&D Vietnam game. Completely irrelevant to some games; fairly key to others.

    The ability to read people. This gamer enjoys figuring out what makes you tick and then giving it to you. It can be positive ("I like to play the foil for Jim, who's always into these tragic characters: I know just what will pull on his heartstrings") or negative (the guy or gal who's just there to cause trouble for everyone in order to get attention).

    Artistic skills. Some gamers go into great detail with painted miniatures, drawings of characters and events, fancy layout/documents, handouts, nice character sheets, costumes, in-character diaries or letters, and so on. I've seen some groups which really value this (and it can be advantageous in-game, either in implicit ways, or explicitly, with a group which rewards such "extra-curricular" activity with XP).
  • What about simple Communication Skills? Ability to express what's on your mind, respond adequately to other player's. Be in contact with the group and keep the conversation flowing.

    Method acting. Incorporate a character convincingly. See & feel the world from this character's perspective. Relate and interact with other players as the character.
  • This is more of a virtue than a skill, but humility, and that goes for players and GMs. You have to accept bad stuff and consequences as they come, and build on that to make a better story. (For the GM, it's "you have to accept it when players trash your world and blow apart your notions of what the game was going to be like".)
  • How about:

    Successfully bullying another player verbally, into doing something.
    Disguising an unhealthy power fantasy in an acceptible mannerism.
    Learning to manipulate people with responsibility (gms) or group thinking.
    Displaying pop culture knowledge with disruptive jokes.

    These are skills too that are tested in rpgs, but I don't think a lot of us would call them good.

    So what does this mean: "thriving in RPGs", "being good at something through roleplaying", "having skills that are rewarded in roleplaying", "having what makes you excel at roleplaying"?
    This is like this job interview, where they're asking: "Tell me why you merit this job more than the other candidates." The question really hits some nasty reflexes in me.

    This is my approach: I'd like to turn the question around, and ask how roleplays make us better. What meaningful skills do we gain and develop through roleplaying?

    I think a lot of the skills that are 'tested' and developed in rpgs are rather nefarious, and we should not quietly presuppose what is 'good roleplaying' and derive skills from that. Well it's just my idea. Does anybody see it that way as well?
  • Let's not change the topic. What I'm looking for are skills that aid success in the game, not success in the larger social context surrounding the game. I'm looking for RPG versions of "you succeed in Cranium by being good at quickly spelling words backward" or "you succeed in Chess by being good at predicting chains of moves" etc.
  • edited April 2015
    But isn't there a difference with rpgs in that you can't win those?

    I'm more interested in what consists of 'success' in rpgs I guess. But regardless, don't you think manipulating people in the gaming group leads to success in the game?
  • I guess it depends on your definition of "manipulating", because that is a hecka loaded word. One could easily argue that your own post on this thread was a form of manipulation. ;-)
  • I also agree that this is a bit of a derail, but I do think that these two examples here are pretty relevant:
    How about:

    Successfully bullying another player verbally, into doing something.
    Learning to manipulate people with responsibility (gms) or group thinking.
    I don't see how making pop culture jokes helps you "thrive" in the game. (Not the best term, but to me, at least, what Dave is getting at is pretty clear. In many RPGs, you don't "win" and "lose", but we still have a clear sense of someone who is playing well, or someone who is a better player at a particular game. I might be aware that Lucy is much better at roleplaying believable NPCs than me, and knows the combat rules better, for example.)

    "Disguising a power fantasy..."

    That is a bit creepy, on the other hand, and is a bit different from what Dave is talking about, because it doesn't contribute to the *fun of the group*. I mean, if you're better at disguising your own power fantasies, the other players won't clap you on the back and cheer you on for being so good at it.

    So I don't know if it belongs, but it does sound like something that could motivate someone to choose to play a certain game, and enjoy it more (presumably by not getting kicked out of it!) than if they weren't any good at that skill.

    Very disturbing to think about that. Man.

  • edited April 2015
    Sorry about the annoying off-topic, guys. I probably expressed myself in a bad way as well. By showing some controversial 'skills' that pop up in roleplaying contexts, I wanted to argue that the main issue is what defines a well-played roleplay, not what skills perpetrate it.

    (Pop culture references can help you thrive in a game by increasing fun and the social standing of the joker, but they can be used for browbeating as well. Power fantasies aren't creepy, it's very common for both gms and players. But they're not innocent either, and often presuppose a whole set of unconcious thoughts and dispositions that are imposed externally on us.)

    Hopefully this makes it a bit clearer - by thinking critically we can neutralize unconcious harmful thoughts and attitudes, disarm our hobby and strive for games that are not only fun, but also inclusive, sensitive and valuable. So of course it's a little bit disturbing : )

    EDIT: To get back on topic, I think teaching and education hasn't been mentioned yet. I think that's a skill that is tested and honed by roleplaying. Teaching rules to others, educating eachother in certain concepts and stories for instance. People that know how to educate others (like a teacher, or a parent) will thrive in rpgs.
  • Ooh, yeah, great point! I've definitely noticed that many folks who are good at teaching are eager to bring those skills to the GM / facilitator role.
  • I'm surprised this hasn't been mentioned yet:
    Thinking Quickly on your Feet: As in, to encompass those people who can hone their wit at the table and have a fast pertinent response ready to go. And also for lots of GMs (and players) who have to learn to quickly move with the changing flow of the game and their environment. One of the things that attracts me the most to roleplaying is exactly this ability that gets tested. It's why I like swingy micro systems where everyone needs to be on their game to be able to adapt to the shifting circumstances of the game from moment to moment.
  • Definitely another good one! Thanks!
  • I think about this stuff a lot. One of the things that's interesting about RPGs is that, as with teaching, no one of the listed skills is really sufficient. (Even though I agree with most of what people have already mentioned.) That is, the ability to run or even play in an RPG effectively is essentially a cluster of inter-related skills. To make matters worse, you have to be able to bring them to bear simultaneously or in rapid succession.

    It's almost fractal, in fact. Because even if you break down the individual components of a good player or good GM's repertoire, even there you get sub-skills pretty quickly. What is required, for example, to maintain a good pace in a game? I can think of at least three things.

    And yet, you could be good at pacing but bad at other aspects of roleplaying!
  • I'd love to see whatever skill list you could cobble together, Matt.
  • Hmm, I think you've also learn how to play when not engaged with the rules and fiction as well. Not just learning the rules, but also the rules for that group. What you do when you're not engaging the rules and how to behave (OOC talk, using cell phone, etc). If we're playing D&D 4E for example and we're in combat, I've got to be patient until it gets to my turn basically, yet also need to try to stay engaged or at least give the appearance of still being engaged with the fiction. Not sure if patience could be called a skill, but for some games you need it.

    Also, I'm not sure if it counts since it's mainly before playing the actual game, but time management to some degree - scheduling games, game prep, and using it effectively.

    Story-telling: What makes for an interesting story, structure, tension, pacing and group story telling as it's an interactive process so it'd tie into reading people and knowing what they want from the story as well. This incorporates a lot though, like Deliverator was saying.

    Improvisation: Both in terms of social dialogues and collaboration, being flexible, but also in terms of understanding the gist of the rules in order to mediate satisfying resolutions when the rules aren't there/clear/or remembered at the time. Could tie in with mediation/negotiation as well in terms of resolving conflict either out-of-character or getting you want within certain rules systems.
  • Connect different ideas. Bring together ideas, plots, character traits, story elements from different people. Merge them, weave them together. Work out a new angle, a new direction.

    Find the golden balance. Between personal initiative vs collaboration, between creative expansion vs focused story-line, between achieving goals vs failing brilliantly, between controlling vs going with the flow, challenging other players vs supporting them.
  • Winning arguments in-character is a huge one, too, for some styles of gaming.

    I've played with a lot of groups where important scenes come down to you trying to out-talk the NPC opposing you, and the GM finally relents when she feels you've done a good enough job. (A typical example is trying to fast-talk your way into the castle, dealing with a determined guard.)

    Sometimes, in that kind of game, it almost seems like this is the primary skill being tested at the table, with everything else being just window dressing.
  • Winning arguments in-character is a huge one, too, for some styles of gaming.
    How about calling it "Competitive spirit"?
  • edited April 2015
    Trying to phrase better and focusing on a different aspect of what maracanda said above, there's something I'd call controlling the flow of information, which includes thinking quickly about what to say and exactly when. There's of course a few creepy sides of this, like allowing others to misinterpretate your statements and later add further information that puts the statement on a different light... after the players have reacted. There are good ways to put this in use, but there are many more ways to misuse it.

    Let's take a trap for example. You have to state what the characters see, but certain descriptions will most certainly put some players on guard, like "the floor is dusty". But what if the ones who put the trap were very meticulous about it? Well, logic-wise there wouldn't be too many clues to tell there's a trap, and yet game-wise you've got to be fair and offer players a chance.

    Some GMs playstyle actually includes not giving any clues at all until players ask the right questions or interact with the fiction in an specific way: "I look at the floor ¿is it dusty?"

    The same goes for the players. They may prepare their spells and write it down on their character sheet, but some are careful about not telling the GM which ones they prepared, to take the GM by surprise even in games where the competitive component between GM and players isn't significant.
  • Winning arguments in-character is a huge one, too, for some styles of gaming.
    How about calling it "Competitive spirit"?
    I may have expressed myself poorly here. It's not just a sense of being competitive, or winning arguments. It's the very specific skill of having a conversation in-character (usually with an NPC), and, in the process, getting what you want. A typical example, again, is convincing the town's guard to let you in to the party (where you're not supposed to be).

    Some people really enjoying playing this out, and take joy in it. I've seen whole campaigns where the entirety of the players' role is to follow the GM's story (which is fairly linear), decide on their characters' moves in combat (where they have total freedom), and fast-talk or persuade or cajole their way past NPCs in their way.

    The prevalence of this playstyle, is, I think, one of the reasons so many D&D players were very unhappy when skills like Diplomacy or Persuasion were added to the game: they prefer to "talk it out", and win over their opposition through rhetorical traps, fast-talking, or intimidation. *Not* doing that means they're not really roleplaying anymore, since those tense conversations were the meat of their play (aside from the combats and/or puzzles). Hence accusations of "rollplaying" and similar, thrown at games or people who roll dice for this kind of situation instead.

    Does this sound familiar to anyone? I've seen many a D&D game like this, though of course this playstyle can happen regardless of the mechanics in play (so long as they are relatively traditional; of course this wouldn't work in Dogs in the Vineyard or Universalis).

    The same goes for the players. They may prepare their spells and write it down on their character sheet, but some are careful about not telling the GM which ones they prepared, to take the GM by surprise even in games where the competitive component between GM and players isn't significant.
    Oh, boy! While this is typically the domain of the GM (who then can play "gotcha!"), there are some players who do this. Sometimes it's about fictional details or preparation, and sometimes it's about, for example, coming to the table with an incredibly effective character build, and then enjoying catching everyone off-guard when their character defeats everyone they meet because of some obscure combination of powers.

    I only ever played in a D&D3E campaign once, and tried to make a "social monster" kind of character. I wasn't sneaky about it (and it wasn't my intention to ruin anyone's fun, I was just experimenting because I'd never played the game before - this wasn't something you could do in previous editions), and all the players told me that my character wasn't going to be combat-ready enough, and asked me to make a different character because I was going to be the weak link in the party.

    The GM was on my side, and eventually they stopped harassing me about it (especially when it turned out there was very little combat in the game, anyway). Unfortunately, after a couple of sessions, the GM informed us all that my character was ruining his plot (because he could almost always tell when NPCs were lying, and a huge part of the game was NPCs misleading us about this and that), and changed the rules, making all his abilities significantly less powerful.

    I didn't set out to do any of the on purpose, mind you, but I've seen a lot of people do that kind of thing very intentionally. Finding loopholes in the rules, obscure sourcebooks with rare powers, that kind of thing.


    More interestingly, I used to play with a fellow who was incredibly good at this, but didn't care much about rules or powers: with him, it was all about clever planning and outsmarting the GM. (The GM was happy to play along, so it made for really fun gaming - had it become a power struggle, I'm sure it would have been a drag.)

    He would carefully set one element after another of an intricate plan, but in such an order that his actions seemed completely nonsensical. ("Ok, once I've talked to the bank teller and handed him that note - which I have here, folded up, and I will open when someone reads it in-game - I'll take the prepaid cell phone I purchased earlier and drop it into the garbage can of the hotel across the street...")

    We learned to trust him with his weird antics, which at first appeared to distract us from the game, because eventually he would fill in the missing piece and his plan would spring into action. ("Ok, so when the NPC gets the note from the bank teller, it's got a phone number on it, and when he dials it, it makes the cell phone in the garbage can ring. Remember earlier when I said I was recording the villain's speech about Maria Gardenias? I made that recording the ring-tone...")

    That was a lot of fun, and I've never seen anyone do it so well before or since. I always had a feeling that this was a skill or habit he picked up from playing with GMs who would always ruin his plans if he gave them away beforehand (and therefore learned to keep them secret), but, now, with a fair and generous GM, it was a great source of entertainment for our group.
  • edited April 2015
    I think this conversation would get a lot clearer (though also possibly derail entirely) if any proposed skill included a list of games where the skill is particularly important. If every game qualifies for that list, probably it's not a helpful category.

    So like 'character choices,' which was brought up in the first set of posts -- are there actually any games where character choices aren't important to 'thriving' play? Or does this need to be broken down further? This is already suggested in the OPs second post, where the follow up is "more interesting? more effective?" Maybe 'making interesting choices' and 'making effective choices' are two separable skills -- certainly this is the kind of divide that I can imagine informing a player's choice of game.

    For example, someone who is good at making effective character choices is going to find that skill actively hindering their ability to play Fiasco, whereas someone who is good at making interesting character choices will thrive much more easily in the same game.

    Similarly, I think many people have had the experience when playing tactically-focused games like D&D or the like, where the 'interesting' choices they decided to make (either in building their character, or in the moment) simply resulted in ineffective (and therefore poor) play, from the perspective of the GM and other players. (I had this experience many, many times in Cyberpunk 2020 games, for example.)

    So if 'making character choices' is a skill, maybe it makes more sense (in the context of the OP) to divide it into 'making interesting character choices' and 'making effective character choices' -- or even subdivide further, as there are many different ways of being interesting.
  • I like that distinction.
  • I didn't want to discourage replies by putting forth too many requirements, but I'm totally with ya, ICE. Mentioning games is most welcome if folks feel up to it.
  • Other skills that come to mind:

    Visual/aesthetic description. All games require that you communicate your choices/contributions, but some games are focused around rich, often highly visual description -- of character action, immediate setting, concrete details, etc. This is most common in games that are modeled after cinematic genres, such as Mist-Robed Gate (where characters have visual motifs which must be incorporated into described play) or PTA (where many groups attempt to describe 'shots' and camera angles as though describing an actual television show.) Games that focus on problem solving tend to de-emphasize or even reject this skill; it is far more important to accurately describe precisely what is being attempted.

    In-character dialogue. Some games rely heavily on in-character, dialogue-driven interaction. This is particularly true of more free-form games, particularly those with a contemporary setting; but also, lots of genre-focused games are aimed at genres that are themselves dialogue-centric. This is less about things like accents and actorly emoting and more about the ability to deliver believable, character-consistent dialogue that actually conveys characterization or moves the action forward -- there are lots of games that might get played with lots if dialogue, but where the dialogue is not actually necessary (lots of D&D groups where people enjoy in-character kibbitzing, for example) to 'thriving' gameplay. Example games: Ribbon Drive, Breaking the Ice, Fuck Youth.

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