Re-trying Failed Skill Checks

This is another one of those things that happens in most games sooner or later . . .

After narrowly surviving an attempt on their lives, the PCs take a (locked) briefcase from the car of that guy in the suit who tried to kill them, and they want to open it in the safety of their hotel room. Or perhaps they are in an abandoned warehouse in Detroit, going over a murder scene for clues. Either way, the players roll dice for their characters, and fail. And so the players want to try again - after all, they have all the time in the world. Sure, the friends of the man in the suit might find their hotel room eventually, and the warehouse killer will strike again tomorrow, but there are a whole lot of rounds (or minutes, or even hours) between now and then.

So - what can the GM do when a player wants to re-try something that requires a roll, but has no apparent consequence for failure?

 The two extremes are pretty common, depending on the GM and system - either you can only try once, or (as in d20) given sufficient time you can assume the maximum possible result based on the character's relevant stat ('taking 20'). To be honest, I've never liked either of these.

The first flies in the face of everyone's life experience - people get things right on the second or third try all the time. Yes, one can argue that the skill check represents the limits of the characters knowledge. And, if the GM is willing to give a bonus for character being able to take their time (picking a lock in the hotel vs. picking a lock in the 30 seconds before the guard returns to his post), this can be an OK option.

I'm not a fan of the second option (taking 20, or whatever) for two reasons: Poor implementation of time requirements, and difficulty inflation. The usual assumption for the time requirement is that, for example, if it takes a PC one round to glance quickly around the room (first search roll), then it only takes 20 rounds (about two minutes) for the PC to search the room to the best of their ability - tearing open the mattress, checking for hollow spaces in the wall, and going through every bookshelf and desk drawer. The difficulty inflation is a logical consequence of being able to take 20 - if characters can do it, than the difficulty numbers get raised accordingly, and you end up having to either roll obscenely well or min-max the sh*t out of your character unless you just want to take 20 on all of your search, lock-pick, and similar rolls.     

Two possible solutions:

Option 1: Limited number of retries.
Even under the best of circumstances, there are only so many times a character can productively re-try a task. After that, they are just wasting their time. The details will depend on the system, but easy starting points would be that a character can only make a number of attempts equal to the attribute involved in the check (nWOD/Storytelling), or equal to the ability modifier of the ability score that governs the check (d20). For example, a d20 character with a 16 Intelligence could make 3 attempts to search a room.** At the end of those attempts, the character has looked every place they can think of, and cannot make another productive attempt until the GM determines that a sufficient amount of time has passed, or the character has obtained some insight that would let them make a new attempt.

**This might be a little bit restrictive - more lenient options would be to impose cumulative re-try penalties of -1 (Storytelling) or -2 (d20).  Also, in an nWOD game, you could also use a character's 'Resolve' attribute as the maximum number of retries. It makes some sense, and provides some use for a woefully underpowered attribute.  

Option 2: Each retry takes longer.
Being more thorough takes time - a lot of time. Each time a character wants to retry one of these actions, the time it takes in game increases by a factor of 10. For example, a character performing a quick search of a room might take about a minute. If the character wants to search in more detail, they can make another roll representing about ten minutes of work. A third roll would represent an even more thorough search taking about an hour and a half (100 minutes), and so on.

Option 3: Use both option 1 and option 2.
There are only a finite number of times a character can retry something, and each time takes longer. This is probably what I'll do for my next game. 

1 comment:

  1. That is generally what I do. In the briefcases situation, the players would have three tries before they accidentally jam the lock, and only about a half-hour before the baddies track them down. This provides tension and keeps the players in a sense of real-world consequences.