Thursday, April 23, 2009

Mission Time

Scarlett: You know the drill?
Ripcord: Yeah. Circle the area and listen for your beacon on channel 23. If we hear nothin' in 30 minutes we consider you dead and report back to the Flagg. 
Scarlett: You don't have to like it.
Ripcord: Good. 'Cause I don't
G.I. Joe: Resolute, Episode 6 (Watch it here: Adult Swim or Youtube)

This dialogue struck a chord with me because I've been thinking a lot lately about mission time in D&D and how it can be leveraged in play. The 10 minute adventuring turn is just as fitting for tracking small unit military ops (appropriately enough, perhaps, given the game's history), as it is for the "heist style" campaign I'm working on. 

Why haven't adventuring turns been emulated by more RPGs? Or have they? I like to think of myself as having a pretty broad experience with the hobby, but while I can easily think of games put concepts like abilities, character classes, surprise checks, and so on to good use, I'm drawing a blank on systematic use of adventuring turns. Even D&D hasn't really used them since pre-2nd edition. Has anyone emulated this kind of structure? 

My sense is that it hasn't been used by many games. Maybe it's a side effect of taking the game out of the dungeon. Or, if staying the dungeon, playing more of a "kick in the door, kick some ass" style game than an exploration and expedition style game. Maybe it's because skill systems have absorbed some of the work -- it can take a variable amount of time to carry out a skill check, depending on the skill. But even then, it seems like a lot of games don't offer much in the way of benchmarks for how much time passes with a skill check, with a few notable exceptions. 

The James Bond 007 game would be one exception. It's a standout game for a lot of reasons, but one reason is that it manages to include a base time for each skill (which is then modified by degree of success), with skill entries that include information like: 

Demolitions: 12 minutes. 
Lockpicking and Safecracking: 3 minutes for lockpicking; 15 minutes for safecracking.
Stealth: 1 minute per 50 feet travelled. 
Seduction: Anywhere from 5 minutes to a lifetime.

Millenium's End is another game that gives some information about time associated with skill use. But neither one builds in a default adventuring turn structure like classic D&D. Does anyone? It seems to me that a 5 minute "mission turn" would be a good fit for a modern game, and where appropriate, skills could fairly easily be given a base time in terms of 5 minute mission turns. If I wanted  to run a "military adventure" campaign (i.e., GI Joe), I think I'd personally want this kind of information handy. 

As referee, I like to be able to set up the basic situation of the mission, maybe including a map, some information about key rooms, and some patrols, and then let the players decide how to deal with it. Adventuring turns with associated skills would help make this kind of play work well without relying entirely on ad hoc judgment calls about how time passes. Now, the ability of a referee to make ad hoc rulings is a basic part of what makes RPGs so flexible, of course, and I don't see an adventure turn system as something to replace that. I think of it more as something to provide a background rhythm and set of shared assumptions, something that helps everyone stay on the same page and helps the referee make consistent rulings about time. 

For a lot of play styles, this may not be a big deal. But for running heists, military operations, spyjinks, and expeditions into hostile dungeons, I think it would be very valuable.


  1. While MegaTraveller does not have a turn structure in the same manner as early D&D, it does address the time taken for skill checks of any type. In its strange technical way, it seems to encourage you to write down every task in this UTP (Universal Task Profile) format for anything that may pop up during the game.

    Basically, in MegaTraveller you roll 2D6 and tasks are rated as:
    Simple - Roll 3 or higher to succeed
    Routine - Roll 7 or higher
    Difficult - Roll 11 or higher
    Formidable - Roll 15 or higher
    Impossible - Roll 19 or higher

    The Universal Task Profile is:
    Task Description
    Difficulty, Dice Mods (choose 2 skills, or a skill and Attribute), Time Interval, Risk Qualifier

    To diagnose damage done to an Air/Raft
    Routine, Gravitics/Edu, 15 min., (uncertain)

    You roll 2d6, add your Gravitics rating, and your Education mod (the attribute divided by 5), and look to roll a total higher than 7 (routine). The time interval is chosen to be 1/10th of the normal expected time to complete the task, and you roll 3D6 minus your dice modifiers (skill and attribute) and multiply by the time interval to see how long the task actually takes to perform.

    The game allows you to be either Hasty or Cautious in performing tasks. Hasty Tasks are 1 step more difficult (a Routine task would become Difficult, requiring a roll of 11 rather than 7 to succeed) and Cautious Tasks are 1 step easier. For Hasty Tasks you get to double your skill/attribute before subtracting them from the 3D6 time roll, and for Cautious Tasks you double your 3D6 time roll before you subtract your skill/attribute.

    There are a lot of other interesting things about the MegaTraveller task resolution system , but I've never played it to know if they are slow or cumbersome. The Risk Qualifiers, how various tasks are prerequisites for others (such as diagnosing problems previous to fixing them, and attempting fixes when a diagnosis partially succeeds, etc.) The idea of keeping a log of UTPs for a game session does seem like an interesting way to journal a game session however.

  2. Interesting. So if I'm understanding this correctly, you choose whether to try to cut the time down before you roll, rather than it being an outcome of the roll (as in James Bond 007). Does a failure then mean a simple failure, or does it affect the time taken to complete the task? I can see advantages and disadvantages to both systems, I think. On the one hand, I like the "risk management" aspect of the MT version; on the other hand, the 007 version is probably faster in play.

    I looked over the Millenium's End skill list, and it's not that great, actually. Almost every skill lists "variable" as the time taken to carry it out. That they actually included a special heading for "time" only to put "variable in 95% of the skills is a little mind-boggling.

  3. Yes, you are correct that it specifies that you choose whether to be hasty or cautious in your task before you roll. Due to the Dice Mods (skill/attribute), skilled people perform tasks more quickly. The results of failure are somewhat specified by the Risk Qualifier. A task attempt is considered an exceptional success if the result it 2+ higher than difficulty (rolling 9 or higher on a Routine, for example), and an exceptional failure if 2- less than difficulty.

    For non-exceptional failures, you are allowed to reattempt the task, unless the Risk Qualifier specifies a mishap triggered by failure. On exceptional failures you must roll to determination or else the task becomes 1 step more difficult.

    In the Players' Manual some non-combat skills have a UTP or two (including time intervals) as examples. To an extent I suppose it is reminiscent of the WW Storyteller games with the examples, as well as the general idea of using skill plus relevant attribute (which can vary depending on the nature of the task). Overall, though, it seems that the Referee is expected to determine sensible times on the fly. The text indicates that it is not expected you will use the time aspect for every task.

    Hmm, this reminds me of another aspect... On uncertain tasks (tasks where the player doesn't know what the results of failure or success would be, such as diagnosing problems, sensor checks, social tasks, etc.) The player rolls normally, but also the referee rolls a secret 2nd check. With no success, detection fails or false information is given. With one success (either player or referee), the result is "Partial Truth", and of course both successes results in total truth. If one of the successes is exceptional, the referee may let the player be certain of his knowledge (whether it is partial or total). So here is another way a player may elect to take time to be more certain of things, or proceed on false or partial information.

    So, there is some cool potential with the MegaTraveller task system, but there is room to streamline it as time determination adds a 2nd roll, and sometimes mishaps can add a 3rd roll. Additionally, it might be nice to have some more standardized UTPs. In Knightfall (a campaign adventure book), many UTPs are published and fully fleshed out for particular parts of the adventures, so that is nice.