Talking Shite: Character Skill vs Player Skill

Talking Shite is an article on game theory, where we discuss how, why and what makes a game good, bad, interesting or just downright odd. Today, we focus on the separation, or lack thereof, of character skill and player skill, and how that affects everything about the game in which it appears.


Skills and abilities are a constant in the world of video games. RPG characters in particular develop along their skills trees as they level up, using the experience points they have gathered from existing within the game world to increase the diversity and power of their abilities. There is a distinct and tangible difference between a character who has just surfaced, eyes blinking, into the video game world and that of a end-game hero who can destroy enemies merely by wiggling their pinky finger at them. When we think of skills, we think of character skills. We think of dice rolls in Baldur’s Gate, or weapon proficiencies in Mount and Blade, or even crafting levels in World of Warcraft. They are things that your character can do due to their progression in some kind of field, whether that is combat or otherwise. They are the strengths of the character alone, existing as a part of that single, fictional individual.

However, it would be very silly indeed to only consider character skill without considering the skill of the player as well. Player skills are your skills, not your characters. Games which typically do not hold any sort of leveling system or character progression will put these skills in the primary position; first person shooters like Call of Duty are purely player-skill-driven games. As you progress through the game, it is not your character that improves, it is you yourself. You can then take these skill into other playthroughs or entirely different games. Even highly character-skill-driven games such as Baldur’s Gate use player skill, in that you choose when to use your character skills, abilities, magicks, etc. It would be almost impossible to create a game that did not use the player’s own skills and knowledge of the game and video games in general as at least part of the reason to why they succeed or fail.

It's all on you.
It’s all on you.

So there are our definitions. Character skills exist within that single character. You as a player may choose them and use them, but ultimately it is your character that defines them. Player skill is all yours; every character can benefit from your knowledge of how the game works, where the secrets are, enemy weaknesses, etc. I suppose you could call player skill more “meta” than character skill. But what difference does it really make? How do different games use the integration and separation of these two skillsets differently, and where do they succeed and fail?

I have given the examples of Call of Duty for a player-skill game, and Baldur’s Gate for a character-skill game. In the former, if you shoot at something and you miss, that is entirely your, the player’s, fault. In the latter, if you swing a sword and miss, then it is your character’s fault, because they do not have a high enough skill level to hit that enemy, or they failed a dice roll, etc.

However, a game that integrates these two skillsets is that of The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind. In Morrowind, you play the game in first person, and so you have direct control over where your character’s weapon swings, where they shoot their arrows, who they speak to, who they try to steal from, and so on. It feels as though it would be a highly player-driven game. However, when you enter combat, your character skills begin to take over. Morrowind is an excellent game, but it is my opinion that the style of combat it uses is one of the most frustrating systems that exist in gaming.

Bring on the hatred.

I swing my sword at a bandit, and I immediately get a message saying that I missed. I lost a dice roll. So despite the fact I timed my strike and aimed extremely carefully to hit that bastard in the face, I still missed, because my character lacked a high enough skill level. There is the illusion of player-driven combat, but ultimately, even if you are an extremely skilled player, you are very unlikely to win any sort of combat if you have a low level character.

Hope you have the right skillset...
Hope you have the right skillset…

Now, this would not normally be a problem, but the format of the combat is particularly frustrating. It makes sense to have a system where you can’t just go and defeat the biggest baddie in the game with a level one schmuck, but it certainly doesn’t make any sense to construct a player-skill driven illusion around this combat. It just ends up being irritating.

So that is how character skills can frustratingly over-ride player skill. Turn-based games can get away with this, where player skill is usually restricted to the realm of tactics, but in a real-time FPS-style RPG? Annoying and unnecessary. However, the opposite can also occur. Player skill can have far too high a place, and make character skill completely pointless. For this example, we return again to the Elder Scrolls, but this time to the fourth in the series: Oblivion.

In Morrowind, the lockpicking system was character-skill based. You try and pick a lock, you get a dice roll. In Oblivion, however, you get a minigame. A lot more fun, in my opinion, but the problem is that due to the nature of this mini-game being 100% player-skill, it was perfectly possible and very common for a level 1 character to spend their first in-game night breaking into the most expensive stores in the Imperial City and clearing them out, because even “Very Hard” locks were extremely easy to pick for a veteran of the game.

Easy pickings!
Easy pickings!

Player skill and character skill, two extremely important facets of gaming that are emphasised to different extents, with each having their benefits and drawbacks. There is no single better route to take, as each have different effects on gameplay, immersion, difficulty and progression. Developers should be careful to note these effects and be sure to emphasise the right one, or integrate them in the right way. It can make a game great, or destroy it entirely: turning an otherwise great game into a frustrating game of luck, or disregarding all character progression and allowing a level one scrub to kill a demi-god.

I hope you enjoyed our first ever Talking Shite! Let me know which you think is more important in the comment section: do you like player skill, or character skill? Which is more important to you?

One thought on “Talking Shite: Character Skill vs Player Skill

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  1. You mentioned some of my favorite cases, bad and good, for skill vs stats. Lock picking or Blocking in Elder Scrolls is a perfect showcase for where character stats and player skill could collide, with unexpected end experience. I prefer a player-skill based lock pick that is augmented by character stats, for example – stats make it a little easier to not break a pick, but controller/visual/audio feedback is ultimately the key to picking the lock. In the case of blocking, players not super familiar with the flow of melee combat in elder scrolls and the value of stats that effect stagger or break defensive stances are likely to get mauled by armored opponents even if they pressed all the right buttons. Here the line between player skill and stats blurs even further.

    Elsewhere in your non-traditional shooters like Borderlands and other RPG-Shooter crossovers we see the same thing crop up in the form of artificial red-dot drift and partial auto aiming when looking down weapon sights that may simulate a mix of weapon and character stats that represent the character’s “skill” with that weapon in that situation. but then, player skill to compensate for that drift is still pretty important for making a connecting headshot in a competitive or difficult encounter. Some games handle this better than others, although in traditional eSport-style shooters more emphasis is usually put on pure player skill (or even on hardware stats) to make that critical aim and shot faster than an opponent.


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