Some actions are best thought of as occurring at the team level, as if an adventuring party itself is acting. However, in most tabletop roleplaying games the adventuring party lacks a record sheet—for many good reasons that are beyond the scope of this post. Only individual adventurers have record sheets. So how is the team to take an action? A proposal: to resolve the outcome of a team action, have the most effective and least effective team members both make a check. Interpret two hits as success, one hit as partial success, and two misses as failure, lack of progress, or whatever makes sense for the context in question1. Exactly which checks apply depends on the base game chassis. Ability checks are an obvious candidate, but so is something like the OD&D d6 search roll.
This approach has several attractive properties, including advantaging groups made up exclusively of experts, incorporating the influence of weak links while maintaining incentive for risk taking, being simple, and constraining the numerical range of outcome numbers—what the D&D 5E developers called bounded accuracy—which helps prevent numerical inflation.
For comparison, some other approaches include: having everyone role individually—which is sort of obnoxious—and battle stations—which is fun but inflexible. Taking a battle stations approach, different adventurers each perform a role appropriate to the task at hand, making ability or skill checks to determine overall team effectiveness. Battle stations systems are inflexible because they tend to be domain specific. For best results the system should dictate, or the referee should determine beforehand, the various roles, assigning them evocative, thematic names, and establishing the right game systems or checks to use mechanically. Battle stations take a lot of work to implement in a satisfying manner.
A sufficiently strong member can carry an entire team, but over the course of repeated tasks, even a strong character will stumble occasionally. Additionally, using two checks in this way maintains greater tension around a particular uncertain outcome, which seems more desirable to me than the everyone roll approach, which I see somewhat often. For example, everyone make an intelligence check to see if you know whatever. Given a moderately sized party, it is almost guaranteed that someone will make the roll, in which case why bother? The two checks approach I propose here makes individual adventurer skill, ability, or specialization matter but avoids making it matter too much.
1. This takes a 2DTH (or “advantage”) style resolution system and spreads it across two player characters. ↩
On a related note, something I’ve seen in the 5e world is to have everyone involved make the check, and more hits than misses means a success, more misses than hits a failure, etc.
This is exactly what I was thinking. It requires a difficulty number, and then you need X total successes before you have Y total failures. Players can use any plausible skill (or in older games, ability checks or d6 checks) to attempt to make that success. X will be higher for more complicated actions and the difficulty number will be higher for… more difficult tasks. It requires DM finesse but that’s true about a lot of old school resolutions.
This sounds wonky but in practice it feels very good and simulates teamwork very well.
I riffed off you here
I played in a Delving Deeper game the other day where we were cut off by a horde of skeletons while trying to exit. We called for a bull rush in formation to to clear an escape route. The DM handled it by having the PC side rolling to hit vs the skeletons and the skeletons doing the same back, weighted towards the PC because of greater numbers and mass, with hits determining success and damage roll determine degree of success.Afterwards the DM said he liked generalizing the combat mechanic for other purposes like this.
Obviously this is different from, “The elf, the dwarf, and the thief all failed at the check so I will roll now too,” or even only testing the person best equipped to deal with any problem. But I liked it and it’s similar to your idea of groups rolling against a target to gain successes and establishing degrees of success.
When everyone performs independently, I have the players each roll. Knowledge rolls are an example. Sneaking quietly is another example. Having many or only few people is sometimes actively helpful, sometimes a hindrance.
I could see using the suggested method when rock-climbing, for example; a weakly performing person is a difficulty for everyone, while a skilled character can help others a great deal. It seems to be a good abstraction in situations where the group check (everyone rolls, half must succeed) would work, but is faster and less granular.
Abstraction should be selected to match the situation.
Team actions (where everyone is involved, but success or failure only makes sense for the group as a whole) are something I consider a major design issue in D&D. D&D5’s approach (have everybody roll, and require 50% to succeed) is not bad, but this looks nicer.
A lot of D&D rules suffer from this problem (like Knowledge checks, as you point out, and, even worse, Perception checks in modern D&D – everyone rolls, and few people seem to realize what a pointless ritual that is).
I appreciate the implications of the mixed/partial success:
The “expected case”, suggested by this rule, is that a group’s strongest member will tend to guarantee we get through the challenge, whereas the weakest member is likely to cause trouble in the process (failing and therefore creating a complication or compromise). That’s very satisfying.