Player Skill vs. Character Skill

Recently I’ve read various games I own that fall into the vague class of “Old School Renaissance.” OSR-style play exalts the skill and intelligence of the player over that of the character. And it’s got me thinking about player skill vs. character skill. What do they mean? What’s the difference between the two?

“Player skill” refers to the player’s own abilities, not translated through a game mechanic. In a tabletop RPG, this is the player asking questions and trying to discern things. In a LARP, this is the ability of a player to sway a room purely through the portrayal of his character. In a video game, this is the player moving his troops based on his own strategy, or shooting someone with by testing their own reflexes.

On the other hand, “character skill” refers to the character’s abilities inside the game, which has little to no connection to the player.  In a tabletop RPG, this is rolling a die to see if your character asks the right question or discerns things. In a LARP, this is playing rock-paper-scissors to see if your character sways a room. In a video game, this is activating your character to see what strategy he enacts, or relying on random chance to see if a character shoots someone.

Arguments can (and have) been made for and against both kinds of skill. However, what interests me is that both sides frame the discussion as if the two kinds of skill are mutually exclusive. And yet, in my own experiences with a variety of games, I’ve found that every game requires some player and some character skill. In your tabletop game, some things are abstracted through dice, and some things come from player discussion. In a LARP, some things require mechanical resolution or arbitration, and some things are purely based on player personality. In a video game, some things are handled by computer code, and some things are handled by player input.

In fact, I would argue that any game that is purely player skill or character skill ceases being a game. Too much player skill, and the game becomes nothing more than a puzzle — there is no outside factor that changes the player’s input, and it is either solved or unsolved. Too much character skill, and it becomes a movie — the player simply watches, having no agency as the game plays itself to its conclusion.

Certain games can (and should) emphasize player skill over character skill, or vice versa. It’s good to know going into a game or going into your design what you want to emphasize, where, and why. But you can’t have one without the other.

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