My last post was about time, and how keeping track of things allows you, the DM, to coordinate events in the game-world without falling to fiat or “dramatic timing.” I noted that it opened up a lot of possibilities, the most obvious of which is a reliable way to determine if the players make it to the demonic altar in time to stop the evil ritual. In the comments, dhlevine proposed a third way of using contested game stats and a die roll to see if players make it in time. I acknowledged the idea as an alternative, depending on the mechanics available to you and the desired effect, but after thinking about it I think I’ve concluded that reducing time to a die roll is as bad as DM fiat. It’s arguably less biased, but if you’re going to roll a die to determine the time things take you might as well not keep track of time at all.
The key piece that’s informing my determination here is player agency. It’s a term that I’ve only recently come upon, thanks to either Hack & Slash or Papers and Pencils (I can’t remember which I saw first). The basic idea is that players have ‘agency’ when they are given meaningful choices and the choices they make have consequences (good or bad) in the game world. It’s the notion that players can control their own destiny. When a DM or game mechanic takes away options, negates choices, or ignores consequences it results in a less engaging, less fulfilling game experience for the players. This is why railroading doesn’t work. Players denied agency become frustrated.
Bringing us back to the question of time, if the answer to “did we make it in time” reduces down to a die roll, then you’ve essentially negated any choices the players have made that would affect timing. I suppose you could hand-wave it, or have penalties or bonuses based ion player choices, or do a preemptive roll to see if the character can/do take time to prepare… But it all ends up with the dice, rather than the players, making the final determination. That just strikes me as poor form.
I’d like to take a moment here and note that I don’t hate die rolls. They are a useful method of conflict resolution, especially if well formed mechanics are built around them and used appropriately. My point here is that using dice to determine timing is an unnecessary and inappropriate use, and you might as well simply declare timing by fiat as leave it up to the dice.