Have you ever had a player just decide they were going to build a raft? What about make a fire bow (the kind you use to start a fire by friction, not some +2 weapon)? How about making a spear to take down that bear?
These are “simple” tools that some players have announced that they were going to put together spur of the moment, with no experience. The thing is that they seem simple. Take a stick and sharpen it an you’ve got a spear right? Well maybe, but is the wood hard enough to stand up to being jammed through a bear’s hide without breaking? That’s not even touching the idea of throwing the sharpened stick and actually having it fly true.
And what about that raft? First of all where are you going to get straight and evenly sized logs? From driftwood? Okay I’ll concede that might be possible at the right time of year but it would help if one of the players have an axe or at least a hatchet. Once the logs are collected, how will they be attached? The most common response is vines if the characters aren’t carrying rope. Vines are not easy to work with and are not strong at all. Stone age cultures tend to make canoes before they’ll make rafts and if they were going to lash a raft together they’d probably use sinew. I remember trying to make a raft when I was young. Admittedly I’m quite confident I could do a better job as an adult but I don’t know if I could make a river worthy vehicle that would endure a trip of more than a mile. That’s even if I could run home and grab a tool or two when I needed one.
Making a fire bow is not as easy as it might sound. There are parts of the fire making kit that aren’t commonly thought of but are necessary to have it work. Even people that have made these in the past find getting one to actually start a fire a frustrating experience.
The point is that even seemingly simple tools are not as simple as they seem. They take a good deal of skill to work right and even when functionally made, they are difficult to use and probably will break after a use or two. It is usually the player that has never tried to make anything that would expect these things to be easy.
Making Simple Tools
So does that mean that a PC should never be able to make tools from primitive sources? No but it should take a lot longer to do than the player may be expecting.
If an inexperienced person started with very little specific knowledge of the task they’re setting out to do, they should expect to fail a few times before they’ve learned enough to get it right. After trying to use their first few failures they’d get a better idea of how to gather materials they’d need. They also will improve their designs as they go.
All told it wouldn’t be unreasonable to say that after seven or eight days of consistent labor a character may be able to produce a working tool. I’d structure this by giving the character a skill at the lowest level available and let them develop it if they wish. Each time they want to start flint knapping (assuming that was the skill they previously learned) treat it like a regular skill check.
Some things like making a raft might take the form of a lashing skill or knots and ropes skill instead of a ‘Make Raft’ skill. Then the skill they learned will come in handy when they try to make a shelter by lashing poles together.
The point is that it’s not impossible but it’s still not simple. If the characters are stuck somewhere and need the tool, this is a good time for them to pick up a new skill and test out their survival abilities while they’re trying to learn.
What about you? Has a player ever said they were going to put something together that their character didn’t have any experience with and expected it to be easy?