A Helping Mechanic

For the longest time I’ve wanted a good helping mechanic. In most RPGs, the way you help is by subtracting some Hit Points from the monster the other character is fighting. But what about telling a story, playing a song or fixing a car? Most RPGs don’t have any way of combining effort to do a better job.

I’ve thought of various ways to help. like adding the characters skill check values together (we roll under difficulty ratings here). That works for things like lifting large objects but that increases the value of a helper too much for things like repairing vehicles. I played with adding skill values together for a while but no matter how much I monkeyed with it I couldn’t get it to work satisfactorily.

There are two aspects to helping that I wanted to be able to capture. Sometimes help is not very helpful and how many helpers can you have.

When help is no help

Have you ever had someone try and help you but their efforts or suggestions were either so bad or so uninformed that it took more effort just to get past what they were doing? Like if someone was trying to figure out how to get their car to start and someone kept insisting that there must be a problem with the key. That’s the kind of thing I’m referring to.

There’s a reason I want to capture that. Some players will reason that if one helper is good, eighty is better (I would have, recovering rules lawyer here). I don’t want to introduce a crowd surfing mechanic, I want a helping mechanic.

How many helpers?

That limits the number of helpers but for some jobs, having dozens of helpers is possible. For example, playing a song. If you have five helpers, start a band. If you have forty, start an orchestra. Things like piloting an ocean going ship are in reality the effort of a dozen people or so (it is getting smaller these days) some in the engine room, some in the bridge doing navigation and then there’s the guy at the helm.

So there are some tasks that not only could be helped by multiple people but some that would require it.

What kind of task

So when helping, it’s important to understand what kind of task is being done. In a lot of jobs, especially in construction there are people that are paid to be a helper. Usually these employees are under skilled to start out and they get paired to a skilled worker. Then there are nurses that assist a surgeon. They are skilled but the surgeon has a specific skill that they usually don’t have.

Then there are tasks that dozens of people can work together on, like lifting a heavy object. What’s the difference between these tasks? At first I would say skilled vs. unskilled effort but that isn’t really true. It actually comes down to how many hands can actually work on a task at once.

I should mention that I’m not talking about a project that multiple crews can work on all at once. For example, building a house. You can have twenty people working on the house and they’re all working on different aspects of the house. Each one would be passing or failing their own skill checks but each skilled worker can have his own helper that does the heavy work and makes him more efficient.

So the task is defined by how many people can touch the job that skill is being applied to (even if it’s just raw strength). If one person can fail while another can succeed as when two carpenters are working side by side and one hits the nail while the other misses, then each one is a regular skill check. However, if one person is trying to fix a toaster and another is offering ideas on what might be broken and holding a light, then they’re helping. If ten men try and lift a car they are collaborating.

Where are we?

Whew! Let’s distill this a bit now. As we’re discussing, a project is then a large body of effort that can be broken up into different skill checks. Here a job is a body of effort that the character must attempt to complete in a single skill check. For instance, a playing a single song would be a single check, it’s either done well or badly. On the other hand, a concert is made up of skill checks for each song. For each song a large number of people can help to make it sound good. If the song is performed by thirty people is it ten times better than if it’s performed by three people? Probably not, but it could be somewhat better. To simulate that effort, the lead musician (singer? conductor?) rolls and all the other musicians modify the difficulty of the song. For simplicity, the helpers could roll first, consult the following table and their results are added together.

Fail Full 1/2 1/4 1/8
-15 +10 +15 +20 +30

For The Artifact RPG I think the modifier should alter the chance of rolling under fraction columns as I outlined here.

For collaborations, like ten guys lifting a car, it isn’t really the effort of one person being helped by nine others it’s a collaboration. In that case each person would roll and according to the table below and their effort is pooled.

Fail Full 1/2 1/4 1/8
30% 70% 80% 90% 100%

So if my character’s STR would normally allow him to lift 100 Kg and I failed my roll, he’s really only lifting 30 Kg. If I roll his 1/2 he’s lifting 80 Kg for the group.

How’s that? Clear as mud? I may have to revisit this one. I’m a bit rambly here. I like it, it’s just not very concise. Any thoughts on this?

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