Getting the Most Out of Your Skill System, Part One
Rule #3: One Roll is Usually Enough (Unless Something Changes)
Once you’ve decided that a die roll is actually called for because there is a chance to succeed, a chance to fail, and a cost or risk associated with failure, the next decision is whether to break the action down into one die roll or several. The answer is almost always that one roll is enough.
Rolling the same check over and over is boring. And, truthfully, the idea of “attempts” is silly. Its easy to say each blow against the door in an attempt to break it is an attempt, but how do you know when an attempt at lock picking ends and another begins?
Instead of focusing on individual attempts, focus on the situation. Specifically, when does the situation change. If the PCs are trying to pick the lock on the tower door to rescue the beautiful monster from the evil princess before she sacrifices it to her dark god, the PC is going to keep trying to work that lock until something changes. Like they hear the monster scream and gurgle and die. Why break it down into multiple rolls? What sense does that make?
Corollary to Rule #3: Reevaluate the Action for Rule #2 Before Every Roll
Unless it is dramatically appropriate (see Rule #3a below), one roll is enough unless something changes, right? Well, it is important to keep Rule #2 in mind before every roll. Before every attempt. That is, after a single attempt (whatever that means) fails, ask yourself whether the next attempt actually needs a die roll or not. Usually, it won’t.
Imagine the PCs are trying to break down a door. On the other side of the door is an ogre enjoying his Ogre Treats Cereal. If the PCs smash open the door on the first try, they will be surprised to see the ogre and the ogre will be surprised to see them. Neither side will be able to ambush the other. Initiative will be rolled as normal. However, if they fail to smash open the door, the ogre will realize someone is trying to get in and he’ll prepare an ambush.
So, something changes. Therefore, it is appropriate to call the first roll a single attempt that can succeed or fail by itself. And then the party can try again after that failure.
Imagine the PCs do fail. The ogre is alerted and gets ready to ambush the PCs. The PCs don’t know it. They’ll find out when they finally get through the door and walk into an ambush. Meanwhile, they decide to try the door again. Do you make them roll for the second attempt?
The answer is NO! Why? Because even though they might succeed or might fail, there is no longer any risk. They can just keep battering at the door until it breaks open. The ogre has already prepared his ambush. He’ll wait for the PCs. The second attempt is an eventually success: “you give the door a few more solid kicks. Eventually, it flies open with a heavy wham! And a javelin flies out of the door into your chest.” Done and done. All it took was one roll.
Now, let’s go back to that “Princess Sacrificing the Monster Scenario” for a moment. Because, I can already hear readers screaming at me that I’ve just made the entire outcome of the adventure hinge on a single lucky or unlucky die roll. Yes. Yes I did. The monster lives or dies based on how quickly the PCs can pick the lock. And while it is perfectly valid to boil it down to a single die roll, this is also a case where you could drag it out by using multiple die rolls. HA! You didn’t think I was going to say that, did you?
Rule #3a: Rule #3 Doesn’t Count if The PCs Can See The Ticking Clock
When there is a source of rising tension that the DM can easily communicate to the players so that the players are aware of the tension and can use it as a cue to change their minds, it is okay to break a complex action down into multiple “attempts” and require multiple die rolls. But each attempt needs to represent something. Each attempt might represent a minute of time passing. The party may or may not know when the ritual will be over (maybe knowledge of the ritual will help them figure it out), but the DM can describe what they hear through the door. The rising crescendo of the princess’ voice as she incants, the roar of the soul-vortex as it expands, and so on. The DM needs to be able to ratchet up the tension with every die roll and remind people things are getting worse to keep the PCs sweating bullets and maybe give them a chance to decide to change their approach (“Get out of my way, I’m busting this door down!”). In short, there needs to be a ticking clock and the party needs to be able to see it.
Of course, time is not the only possible resource that each attempt can waste (remember, if you are rolling, there needs to be a cost or consequence). If the party is gathering rumors in town, money can be the ticking clock. Crossing a desert? It’s hit points or fatigue. Building a thing? Materials can be broken, used up, or wasted. But remember, the party needs to see the resource dwindling or the consequences thereof.
Just remember that rolling the same die roll multiple times is boring by itself. And, eventually, no matter how much tension you inject into the scene, the players will eventually recognize they are just doing the same repetitive task over and over. So use this technique sparingly, keep it brief, and use it for the really big stuff. Otherwise, one roll will do it.
A Digression: Auto-Success and Metagaming
If you have been paying attention, you will notice that my rules are handing the PCs a lot of automatic successes. And if this is a problem for you, well, you should stop doing it. After all, it’s your fault. Getting the most out of your skill system means cutting out a lot of the crap. You are wasting everyone’s time requiring skill check for useless actions that have no downside. You’re just rolling dice for the sake of rolling dice. I totally understand that some doors in a dungeon will be locked or stuck. That makes things fun and flavorful. But it doesn’t make it worth wasting time on. If the party has a trained member who is skilled enough to possibly pick the lock, that is good enough. You don’t want them rolling forever on it while everyone at the table gets bogged down by a string of bad luck. And you don’t arbitrary limits like: ‘you only get three tries and then the lock apparently self-destructs.’
Put another way, when you designed the obstacle and didn’t make it possible to succeed, possible to fail, and give it a price or consequence, YOU decided it wasn’t worth wasting time on. You didn’t add in any risk. Any drama. You did that. Not me with my rules. You. You. You. My rules are just here so we can ignore your pathetic attempt at meaningless challenges.
You may also be sitting there worrying about the evil players who will catch on to my dastardly rules and realize that, whenever they have to make a die roll, it is something important and possibly dangerous. Of course, if they have special abilities and resources to spend to improve their checks, they will only ever use them on important things. They will always try to aid each other when its possible because its important to succeed. They will try their hardest at every challenge, those metagaming bastards.
Yes. They probably will. They will realize that die rolls only happen when its important and risky. And they won’t accidentally waste their best abilities on meaningless garbage. And that is what you are complaining about: you can’t trick them into wasting resources on stupid, usless crap and they won’t have those resources when something really big and important comes along. I don’t know about you, but I’d call that a pretty s$&%&# thing for a DM to want to do.
Besides, when you get down it, you are basically complaining that the heroes are adjusting their efforts based on the level of risk and the importance of task. Its like, when things are most important, they actually try harder. What crazy behavior! Yes, SOMETIMES, the PCs won’t have any in-world way of knowing this door is more important to break through than that door. Fair enough.
But… if you only waste die rolls (and therefore table time) on stuff that is important, you will waste less time on unimportant crap that can be handled with one quick remark, and fill your game with more meaningful challenges for the PCs to spend their resources on. They will still have to manage their resources. Its just, they will be managing them between important things.