When one action isn’t enough (part 1) – Complex Tasks

What do you do when your D&D party come across a situation which is too complex to handle with a single action?

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In the previous few posts, I looked at the history of Skills in BECMI, looked at the different 5e skills in detail, and explored what skills can (and equally importantly can’t) do.

After I posted that final post, bmoraller responded pointing out that there are situations which are too complex to be captured in a single skill check, and saying he uses the Skills Challenge mechanism from 4th edition to resolve these. So when I started writing this blog post, it was going to be a nice simple post about using that mechanism.

However, in the process of writing the post, I’ve changed my thinking (one reason it has taken me so long to actually get it out), and the more I got into it, the more it grew arms and legs. So in the interests of actually publishing something, this is part one, with more to follow.

But more on that later. Let’s start by describing the problem.

Remember the basic cycle of an RPG (with thanks to The Angry GM for his succinct summary):

  1. The GM presents the situation
  2. The players imagine themselves in the scene and describe their characters’ actions
  3. The GM decides the result and presents the updated situation
  4. Wash, rinse, repeat

Where 3 could go one of three ways:

  1. The GM decides the action will succeed (maybe after a couple of attempts – but no point rolling if there’s no time pressure and no consequence for failure)
  2. The GM decides the action cannot succeed
  3. The GM decides there is a chance of success, a chance of failure, and consequences for failing. The GM calls for a dice roll and decides what the result means

See 5 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenaged Skill System by The Angry GM

But what if the situation is too complex to be resolved by a single action? Take the following situations, for example:

  • The party need to cross a river. It’s 30′ wide – too wide to jump – and too fast-flowing to swim. There is a boat, but it’s at the docks on the other side, out of reach. Sixty feet downstream, the river goes over a waterfall.
  • The party need a specific magic item to open a portal to the next phase of the adventure. This item is owned by Azedarc, a local priest, who doesn’t want to give it up but might be persuaded to exchange it for something they perceive as of equal value. However, the characters first have to persuade Azedarc to even talk to them.
  • The party are seeking to counter the influence of a powerful political rival who is causing them problems.

This is what the skills challenge tries to address (badly in my opinion) and which I hope to show better alternatives for in this series of posts.

The Skills Challenge in summary

Let’s start with a review of the concept of the Skills Challenge, before I move on to how I would actually approach these scenarios (and why). This is based on the Jon Lemich (@runagame) post Skills challenges in Fifth Edition D&D on Critical Hits.

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The basic concept is that the party need to score a certain number of successful skill checks before they score three failures. The number and type of successes required depends on the party level and whether the challenge is to be Easy (almost certain to succeed; the question is how), Moderate (some chance of failure, but more likely to succeed than failure) or Hard (less than even chance of success, but the benefits of success make it worth the effort). Jon gives a detailed table broken down by party tier and challenge level.

As the Challenge proceeds, the GM watches the actions and calls for rolls based on whether the actions add a threat, add an opportunity or add a conflict (see Jon’s post for more detailed definition). The GM tallies the results of the rolls. If the number of successes hits the GM’s target number, the party has succeeded. If the number of failures hits 3, the party has failed.

The GM describes the situation as the party approaches success (promising signs) or failure (raising tensions) so that the players have a sense of how the challenge is going.

Jon has an example of running a Skills Challenge in 4e to resolve a bandit ambush which might clarify things.

So that was going to be what this article was about. But the more I thought about it, the less it fitted with my approach. It feels like overkill to me – all too rigid, detailed and formulaic. In particular:

  • Why the “3 strikes and you’re out”? The real world isn’t like that. It doesn’t suddenly decide that a thing is impossible because you’ve tried three things which don’t work. Sure, your actions make things more or less likely to succeed, but there’s no arbitrary threshold – you might be able to retrieve a situation even if many things have gone wrong, or you could completely blow it with one failure.
  • Since it’s based on successes and failures, it requires skill rolls. Which just encourages shoehorning everything into the label of a skill, and rolling for everything whether it’s needed or not. See A flash of Insight into skills for what’s wrong with this.

Another approach

So how would I approach it?

Well first, notice these are three different types of scenario.

  • Crossing the river is still a task – it’s just more complicated than can be captured by a single action
  • Persuading Azedarc to part with his magic item is a negotiation, trying to persuade him it’s in his best interests to let the party have the item
  • Reducing the influence of the political rival is an ongoing campaign to try to change the overall views of a disparate group of people

Given this, I would use a different approach for each. In this post I’ll look at crossing the river, and since it has taken me two weeks to get the post to this point, I’ll defer the other two to a future post.

A complex task: Crossing the river

The party need to cross a river. It’s 30′ wide – too wide to jump – and too fast-flowing to swim. There is a boat, but it’s at the docks on the other side, out of reach. Sixty feet downstream, the river goes over a waterfall.

This situation is more complicated than a single action. But it can be broken down into individual sub-actions which make progress towards the final goal, and it is clear whether an action moves the situation forward or not.

I just approach this as in real life – I present the current situation to the players and ask them what they do. When they respond I decide what effect this has, maybe with the help of a skills check if I think there is a chance of success and consequences for failure, narrate the updated situation and let the players decide what their characters do next.

So this might progress as follows:

  • James (speaking as Malzac the fighter): “I’m pretty good at swimming. I take off my armour, take a rope and try to swim across”
  • GM: “the river is flowing pretty fast. After five feet forwards you have already been washed twenty feet downstream, and you’re rapidly approaching the waterfall. You’re not going to make it.”
  • James: “okay, I’ll swim back to the bank.”
  • Lauren: “Clerria [her cleric] grabs the rope and tries to pull him back in”
  • Angus: “Felstar [his rogue] pulls as well”
  • GM: “okay. It takes a bit of pulling, but with the help of the rope you get back to the bank and out again. You’re cold and wet. Make a constitution check, please.”
  • James (rolls 8): “That’s 11”
  • GM (having decided a DC of 10 – he wasn’t in very long): “Okay, you’re shivering a bit but you’re not too bad.”
  • Angus: “Felstar is going to try to throw Calzara [a gnome] across the river”
  • GM: “Seriously?”
  • Kirsty [Calzara’s player]: “No way is Calzara going ahead with that! Are there any buildings on the other side?”
  • GM: “Yes, there are a couple of wooden warehouses.”
  • Kirsty: “Okay, Calzara will tie the rope to a crossbow quarrel and try to get the quarrel to stick in the building. Malbec – you hold the other end of the rope.”
  • GM (deciding there’s no penalty on trying as often as needed, so no point making her roll): “Okay, it takes a couple of attempts, but eventually you get a solid hit. You now have a rope across the river.”
  • Kirsty: “Anyone got another rope? I tie that round my waist and work my way across using the rope I shot.”
  • GM: “Make an Athletics check, please.”
  • Kirsty (rolls 3): “Bother – that’s a 7”
  • GM: “Your grip slips part way across and you start getting washed downstream. Who was holding the other end of the rope round your waist?”
  • Lauren: “Clerria was.”
  • GM: “Make a Strength check, please”
  • James: “I grab the rope as well and help pull Calzara back”
  • GM: “Okay, make that with advantage”
  • Lauren (rolls 4 and 17): “That’s 22”
  • GM: “That’s good enough. Calzara, you get back to the bank with their help.”
  • James: “How about if I try?”
  • Angus: “You’re too heavy – you’d probably pull the bolt out of the wall. How about we make some sort of harness for Calzara and loop one rope around the other?”
  • Kirsty: “Makes sense. But someone please keep a hold of my waist rope just to be on the safe side. Who’s the best with ropework?”
  • Angus: “Felstar is pretty dextrous.”
  • GM: “Okay, make a Sleight of Hand check”
  • Angus (rolling an 8): “Er, 14? Is that enough?”
  • GM: “You’ve got a loop around the rope and Calzara.”
  • Kirsty: “Wait – I don’t trust that. I pull on the loop.”
  • GM: “Just as well you did, it came undone.”
  • Angus: “Okay, I’ll try again.”
  • GM: “It takes a couple more goes before you have a loop that doesn’t come untied, but eventually Calzara is satisfied. Who’s holding which rope?”
  • Lauren: “Clerria is still holding the waist rope.”
  • James: “I’ll hold the other rope.”
  • Angus: “Me too”
  • GM: “This time, with the help of the harness and loop around the support rope, Calzara makes it across safely and up onto the other side. Kirsty, Calzara is pretty cold and wet – that water was cold – make a constitution check, please.”
  • Kirsty (rolls 12): “That’s 13”
  • GM (having decided the DC was 15 this time due to the longer time in the cold water): “Hmm. Calzara has been in the cold water quite a bit longer than Malzac was. She’s shivering and pretty chilled. One level of exhaustion, please – she has disadvantage on ability checks until she can warm up.”
  • Kirsty: “Well, all my stuff is still over the other side. I’ll just have to work with it until we can get the others across. I take a look at the boat.”
  • GM: “It’s a standard rowing boat, but there are no oars in it.”

… and so on, until eventually they’re across and can build a fire to warm Calzara up.

Note, the players have an overall goal they’re working towards, which is more than a single action. The players come up with strategies to move them towards their goal. In each case a player declares an action, and the GM decides the outcome, which may or may not involve rolling dice:

  • the GM has already decided the river is flowing too swiftly to swim across, so declares Malzac’s failure immediately
  • there is no time penalty, so in most cases where success or failure is obvious, the GM just narrates that the action succeeds after a couple of retries
  • the GM asks for a roll where there might be a consequence of failure, such as Calzara losing her grip on the rope or getting chilled

After each action, it’s clear whether it has moved the party forwards towards their goal or not, but there is no arbitrary cutoff for success or failure:

  • they don’t suddenly get teleported across the river just because they have successfully completed (say) 8 actions.
  • the river doesn’t care how many attempts they make and how many of the things they do fail. It’s just there and they can continue as long as they can be bothered.

Of course, if it gets to a point where it’s pretty obvious they’re going to succeed and people are getting bored, the GM may decide to just narrate the rest of the process and skip to the point where they have crossed the river.

So that’s a complex multi-part task. In the next blog post I’ll look at handling a negotiation.

Further reading

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