Wednesday, October 2, 2013

On Prolonged Actions (Or Repeated Skill Checks)

I was playing Edge of the Empire with my group yesterday, and after several sessions of being unable to catch a breather and repair our ship's Hull Trauma, the party finally scrounged together some funds and some downtime.  Naturally, our Wookiee Mechanic wanted to assist the repair crew that we hired since his Solid Repairs talent would essentially let us repair a "free" point of HT, which is crucial given that we're strapped for credits.

One of the other players asked "is that +1 per day of repairing the ship, or just +1 to the total?"  This player's system-of-choice is Pathfinder so he tends to lean toward system mastery (gaming the system), and I immediately replied that while it's not spelled out exactly in the rules and thus is open to GM interpretation, repairing the ship should be a single "action" regardless of how many days it took (which the GM agreed with).  The answer was pretty reflexive to me, but it got me thinking about the deeper issue at hand here: I really dislike the concept of repeated skill use in an RPG.

This includes things like making a skill check for each hour of work on a multi-day repair job.  Failing a Lockpicking check (in D&D, usually) and immediately saying "can I try again?"  Encountering a room full of half a dozen traps and being tasked with rolling to disarm Each.  One.  Individually.

The One Ring actually has a rule for this, called Prolonged Actions.  It's always been one of my least favorite rules in the game, to the point where I've never even considered bringing it up.  Here's the justification in the rules (pg. 22 of the LMB, emphasis mine) - "Prolonged actions are particularly suited to evoke an atmosphere of tension, but may also be employed when the acting characters want to tackle a difficult task with caution, and have the time to do it."  Basically, they're rules on how to take a single skill check and break it into multiple skill checks.

I would argue that such a game mechanic is completely and utterly pointless.  Why would it benefit cautious players to attempt Prolonged Actions?  Because the result is not at the mercy of a single die roll, but rather the more rolls you make, the closer your end result is likely to be to the average.  At that point, why not just "take 10" (to use a D&D term) and dispense with the skill check altogether?  After all, by allowing multiple rolls you're already establishing that the situation is one in which there is plenty of time for "repeated attempts," so you're going to make it anyways.  Why not just cut to the chase?

There's a fundamental rule that's usually called out in most RPG books but is easily forgotten by some players, and that is that a skill check should only be rolled when there is a risk for failure or when there would be some otherwise dramatic consequences.  If you can try something as many times as you want, there is implicitly no risk for failure.  Let's go back to the examples above.

  1. So the Wookiee helps repair the ship, along with a retinue of professional mechanics in a proper facilities.  Is there any question that the ship will get repaired?  No?  Well, there's not even a roll required (in our game, the GM wisely did not ask for a Mechanics check for that very reason).  It's worth keeping in mind that the talent doesn't give you +1 HT for each Mechanics check made, but rather "whenever he repairs a vehicle or starship."  That's whether or not a roll is required.
  2. If the Rogue (or insert similar archetype based on the game in question) goes up to a lock to pick it, just let him do it if there's a reasonable chance of success.  Because he'll just try again anyways.  Now, it's another story if there are alert guards standing just on the other side of the door (for example), in which case failure on the first attempt probably means that too much noise was made in the attempt.  That's FAILURE, as opposed to "I didn't quite get it...this time."
  3. There's nothing that annoys me more than a dungeon crawl where the Rogue scouts ahead and there's 20 minutes of the GM saying "make a Perception check.  Ok, you see a trap there, roll to Disable it."  And the room is full of traps.  It's boring, even if it means the Rogue is filling his niche.  I'd rather a single Perception check notice all of the traps, with a single roll to disable ALL of them (unless there are different types of traps of varying difficulties, that are described narratively to keep things interesting).  Honestly I'd rather go the old school route of describing all of your actions in detail (because skill checks didn't exist yet) and succeeding when your idea made sense.  Potentially tedius in a different sort of way (stopping every 10 ft to probe with your wooden pole, anyone?), but at least the game tends toward more immersive detail.
I would be remiss if I didn't make note of a possible exception to my aversion to Prolonged Actions (in whatever form they take depending on the game), and that is the classic Time Limit (though there may be other situational exceptions).  For example, you've got 4 rounds to disable this trap and then open that lock and get through the door, while being attacked by zombies, GO!  Stressful situation + time limit means that every roll has an implicit drama attached to it.  You fail a check, that's another round that you have to deal with complications.  Or someone less skilled has to drop what they're doing to make an attempt.  The results are interesting.  Ultimately, go with the Rule of Cool whenever possible.  If something is so routine that the results aren't all that interesting one way or the other, let it happen.

1 comment:

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