Picking Locks and Complex Actions
In most games picking locks ends up being multiple checks. Depending on the game, player, and GM you have:
- listen for other people on the far side
- check for traps
- disarm traps
- pick the lock
- check for more traps
- disarm more traps
- open the door
That is six different skill checks for something that almost everyone else at the table will see as one thing: opening the door. Constantly doing these checks is draining for everyone, and often devolves down to the GM listening for the declared actions in hopes a step gets missed at which point...gotcha. I've had this happen in games to the point that I pre-defined with the GM a "Standard Door Opening Procedure" for my rogue, which included detailed information including checking the doorframe and wall around the door while looking for traps. It was a lot of rolls still, but at least I could just say "SDOP" and didn't have to worry about me forgetting something my character did to protect the lives of themself and their friends.
In other games, sometimes you have players doing complex actions. For example, if someone wants to jump off a balcony, grab a chandolier, swing across the ballroom, and drop on a fleeing thief how many checks is that? Do they have to roll to jump to the chandolier? Do they have to pilot the chandolier? Do they have to attack the thief? If they attack the thief is there then a grapple check to pin them?
In both cases you have something that is fair for a person to want to do in one "go" (checking and opening a door, and swashbucklery), but the sheer amount of rolls that can come up just slows the game down even more - and potentially at a time where doing those rolls can risk breaking the immersion, tone, and tension for other players.
Advice from DC Adventures
DC Adventures, a.k.a. Mutants and Masterminds 3rd ed, had good advice for this. They posed a situation similar to the chandolier situation above. A player is playing Batman, and in true Batman fashion they want to grapnel swing across a room and drop kick some thugs. How do you do that? Their advice was to just handle the attack roll. Batman's movement power (the bought grapnel line) let him traverse the area, so the important part of the action was the roll to attack.
It's good advice. And advice I'm trying to apply in more places. Here is how it works.
Identify the Key Roll
Looking over everything involved in the action, and figure out what is the key part of the roll. To identify the key roll you're looking for the following factors as guidelines:
- Which part has the most dramatic/interesting results for success/failure?
- Which is the hardest task (highest chance of failure)?
I do them in that order, because a more interesting success/fail should trump a high DC, but if you feel differently then go for it. So for the door check, I might just make it a roll to find a particularly well hidden trap. While for the swing across, if a failed roll might drop them onto the king I may make it the chandolier swing roll. At the same time, if no such risk really existed, I would keep it the attack roll like in DC Adventures.
The big thing with this to remember is to be consistent. If sometimes you do one roll and sometimes you do all the rolls that can cause confusion. Not to say you can't do it, but have some consistency for it. Even if it is just "important" vs "unimportant" checks. Like if someone wants to swing over the king and tackle the villain, maybe they make both checks. But just swinging across a random tavern for some thief is one or the other.
The same can be true for doors.
Try it out. See if you like it. Maybe it will help your games go a bit faster.