Submitted by Matt Day
The Operations Centre shudders as golden beams and purple bolts strike the station, each sending up dramatic plumes of flame. The Commanding Officer gives the order to fire, and the Tactical Officer rolls impressively to dispatch an attack wing the GM had just described as closing on the group’s support ship.
As the scene’s focus shifts to the group’s Science Officer, we are gifted with an excellent example of where one of Star Trek Adventures’ more divisive mechanics can really shine.
Call to Arms (DS9 S5 E26) and especially the climactic conflict sequence, can be used to illustrate how the TTRPG from Modiphius excels at simulating the TV show that so many of us adore. For the purpose of this article, however, I’m using it to help me explore the Extended Task mechanic, while hopefully providing some actionable advice to help you get more out of them at your table.
0 – Mechanics are only the building blocks.
I’m always cautious about discussing individual mechanics with such a tight focus as I am here, and I think this first piece of advice can apply to any other set of mechanics as well (which is why I’ve made it advice 0)- Don’t expect the mechanics alone to make the game session fun!
There can be a tendency to isolate something when it either isn’t fully understood or hasn’t been overly enjoyed. In the case of game mechanics, that can often result in scenes that rely entirely on that mechanic to provide fun for the player(s), without much in the way of support from other mechanics or narrative elements. It’s rare that any mechanic will be successful in that situation, and is often the case that the dressing of a scene has far more impact on that scene’s chance of success than the mechanic it was built around.
It’s the job of the GM to construct a scene where narrative and motivation form a solid foundation, before applying the mechanics as needed to complete the setup.
1 – Know its place.
Ok, so this real first piece of advice feels like a little bit of a cop-out, but it’s important that you understand the intended use of the mechanic if you want it to come across well.
At their most basic level, Extended Tasks are meant to be exactly that – Extended. In fact, the first words on them in the CRB (Page 90) say “Unlike normal Tasks, Extended Tasks cannot be overcome in a single attempt.”
If the situation you are setting up can be satisfyingly resolved in a single roll, then it probably is the right time to be using the Extended Task mechanics. Conversely, if you’ve found yourself in a situation where the outcome feels like it should come down to more than just the one roll of the dice, then maybe it’s worth considering if these mechanics might be a good fit.
In Call to Arms, the GM could have just asked either Dax or O’Brien to make a single roll for deploying the minefield, but that would have sucked all the tension out of the sequence. The fact the task was going to take a longer period of time was actually the basis for the main drama of the whole episode, starting with creating a viable design and ending with deploying the last unit with the station under fire.
2 – What’s the point?
An important element of any RPG for Players and Gamemasters to understand is when to even roll dice in the first place. A task might be tedious and take a long time to complete, but if there is no risk of failure, or no pressure to complete it quickly, then there is no need to make a roll at all. Whether it’s a single task or an expansive project, your characters will get the work done eventually if there is nothing to stop them from doing so.
When I asked for people’s opinions on the Extended Task mechanic, (STA System Designer) Nathan Dowdell gave the following piece of advice – “Key to extended tasks is ensuring the stakes and tension are high during the task – without sufficient tension, it can feel like perfunctory dice rolling. You need risk and peril—a ticking clock, an ongoing danger, or even the risk of harm—to make those individual rolls feel worthwhile because those rolls add uncertainty that adds to the tension”
Once again going back to our example, the oncoming Dominion fleet provides more than enough peril to make this a viable extended task. First, the fleet provides a ticking clock as an unseen pressure. Later in the episode, they become a very real and physical peril, attempting to form an obstacle to the task’s completion.
These first two pieces of advice are pretty much spelled out in the CRB on pages 282 and 283. I guess it may have been more concise to tell you to go back and re-read the information in the book, but then what would you need me for?
3 – Everyone gets to play.
So we’ve come up with a task that is going to take time to complete, and have built a peril into the session to add some pressure. That sounds great for the one player who is going to be getting to roll all the dice, but what about everyone else?
There are a couple of different things you can do here, the most obvious of which is to let them assist. More people rolling dice means more people are involved, and from the players’ side probably means the task will be easier to complete (we’ll come back to that).
With a group of 4 or 5, or maybe even more though, that doesn’t sound particularly exciting. So why don’t we give some of those characters something else to do instead? Maybe they need to hold a diplomatic meeting with the enemy, persuade an allied planet to sign a non-aggression pact, or even officiate at a wedding – and that’s just what Sisko got up to while the Defiant was busy laying mines!
Not only does this provide additional stimulation for the other players, but it adds narrative depth to the episode, while also punctuating the passage of time. If there are real things happening while the Extended Task is taking place, it can only emphasize the amount of work being done.
4 – Traits!
Deepening the story is a great strategy to improve any episode that you are running, but sometimes it doesn’t make sense for all the player characters to be off doing something seemingly unrelated, while a crucial task is being completed. So let’s come up with ways to get them involved without them simply rolling assist dice.
One of the most versatile elements of the 2d20 system is the use of traits. The Create Advantage roll is a player’s best friend when it comes to trying something a little outside the box, and so can Traits and Complications be for the GM.
Traits can be added to a scene to change the conditions. This could be something that helps the players, or it could be something that hinders them. When building an Extended Task, building in a few traits can make the whole experience feel a lot more dynamic, especially when they make the Extended Task rolls more difficult, increase the Work Track Resistance, or make the Task outright impossible to progress while they are in play.
For example, you could suggest that for the majority Call to Arms, Dax had been assisting O’Brien (or vice versa) in laying the minefield. When the Dominion ships attack however, her focus has to switch to protecting the ship and holding everything together while the Chief goes about his work.
Adding the Complication “Under Fire” to the task would effectively increase the Difficulty and/or the Complication range of the Extended Task roll. To counteract this, a player is able to actively engage with the complication to remove its effects – Likely Dax making a Command or Conn check to keep the ship steady.
Complications can also be stacked up on an Extended Task to artificially inflate the difficulty, giving the group activities to complete in order to make the task manageable. A bit like peeling an onion!
5 – Know your audience.
Using the above advice, you should have a fairly dynamic Extended Task that carries some real weight and interest. But it might all feel like a waste of time if a character can complete it in a couple of rolls. In certain situations that might be the desired outcome, in which case easy is good, but generally you want there to be an element of challenge.
To achieve this might take a little bit of practice, and definitely requires you to have a little insight into your Player Characters. Knowing how many Challenge Dice are likely to be thrown on a task can help you determine the size of the work track and whether to include any resistance. Working out the combined scores for the Task Roll can also help you assign an appropriate Base Difficulty (bearing in mind that this is reduced once breakthroughs occur).
Finally, knowing your players will give you an idea of how challenging they like their game to be. A group who is there almost entirely for the roleplay will enjoy a very difficult challenge to one that is all about dropping a handful of dice. Unfortunately this is something only you can work out the right balance for, but once you do Extended Tasks can be a real asset to your arsenal.
That’s it. That’s the article. I hope the advice has been of help to you. Feel free to shout about it, or debate the advice on social media. Next time I’ll be taking a deeper dive into a specific variation on the Extended Task – Starship Combat.
In the meantime – LLAP