Sunday, April 17, 2011

Homebrew '82: Forestalling Failures

There have been a lot of cool ideas bubbling up from the blogosphere lately about making the thief's role of picking locks and disarming traps into a more interesting challenge for players. Alongside this discussion has been a bit of meta-commentary on how much is too much in this regard, too.  In many cases, both GMs and players may really just want a simple, one-roll, resolution system.

Indiana Fingers
For Homebrew '82, I've decided to unify many non-combat (and non-magic) resolutions with the so-called ESDVAN system (see post on using ability scores), where one tries to roll under one's ability score on a number of d6 -- the number of which increases with the difficulty of the task.  For thieves/rogues trying to do those nasty things that untrained rubes are likely to fail at, they replace their DEX with a specialist ability score (SAS) that depends somewhat on DEX, but also goes up with increasing experience. For example, a rogue with DEX of 15 has a SAS of (16+L),
where L is his or her experience level.  Even an initially clumsy rogue with DEX of 8 or less has a SAS of (13+L), since training can do a lot to overcome biology!  (In many flavors of D&D, a thief's chances at success don't depend on DEX at all!) The chances of success for a Very Difficult (5d6) or Arduous (6d6) task have a similar level progression as do many thief skills in, say, 1st edition AD&D.

But what about all the recent raking, bumping, and probing?  Are there ways to take a one-roll system like this and flavor it up a bit without too much extra complication?  I think so. If the resolution roll is a success, then all is hunky dory.  But if it's a failure, then that's where the fun begins. In Homebrew '82, a rogue must first tell the GM how much time and/or care is being expended with any given attempt.  A 20-minute patient bit of tinkering will likely have a different failure-outcome than a reckless, 10-second try!  So, if the attempt fails, roll 1d6 on the FF table (Finessing a Failure? Forestalling a Fiasco? Fineousing a Fingers?) and use the relevant row:

What the symbols mean depends on the task at hand:

For disarming a trap, + means a brief moment of worry where the trap looks like it's about to spring, but it jams and everyone is safe. 0 means the trap is sprung slowly, with lots of creaking or other advance warning noises, and it generally does half damage to anyone in its range. X means it springs, and full damage is done.

For picking a lock, + means the lock stiffens (and can be loosened with oil), but it can be tried again. If one more try fails, though, it jams permanently. 0 means the rogue just can't figure this one out -- but if the rogue levels up, or successfully picks another similar lock, then they can have another crack at this one. X means the lock jams permanently.

Of course, if the players have knowledge of this table, then it's the GM's duty to still mix things up a bit with some evocative, tension-filled descriptions and occasional outcomes that are outside the strict bounds of the above interpretations. Maybe a lock-picker gets a few hit points of damage on an X.  Maybe that  poison gas trap still spews out a little something even on a result of +.

I'm also wondering if this can be used with other non-mechanical skills.  Two others that may be relevant are: putting on a disguise, and preparing a dose of poison (i.e., they benefit from more prep-time and finesse).

Anyway, this is all completely untested, so do with it what thou wilt....  :-)


  1. Still chewing this over in my head. I really like the time chart. It makes sense that taking your time would make a task easier.

    - Ark

  2. There's of course room for lots of GM discretion in the determination of the difficulty level (i.e., number of d6's to roll), too. If one takes a really long time, and there are no wandering monsters coming by, then it might warrant a reduction from, say, Very Difficult (5d6) to just plain Difficult (4d6).