D20 – Multitasking and Time Management

I have a question about Discord, or rather about how the Multitasking Special Ability works. It says in the ability that you can multitask with penalties instead of buying it. Let’s say a Prismatic Elder Wyrm, what with 64 Int, wants to multitask, what could it do?


The d20 rules don’t actually tell us a lot about multitasking.

It obviously happens in real life. For example, in 1924 Alekhine played 26 simultaneous blindfold games against highly skilled opponents (including Isaac Kashdan and Hermann Steiner), and managed 16 wins, 5 losses, and 5 draws.

The “blindfold” part is important, because that means that he had to keep track of all the boards all the time instead of just looking at the one he was making a move on at the moment like most of us would do. (We’d lose a lot more too, but that is neither here nor there).

There have been higher records set since, but that one illustrates the point very nicely.

Of course, only a few players out of billions of people can manage that. We can reasonably assume that – in game terms – they’ve invested a lot of character options (or, in Eclipse, character points) in ways to boost their ability to play chess. In d20 that would probably be some specialty class, in Eclipse… probably an Immunity to losing track of the pieces to start with.

As far as the rules go…

  • The Arms and Equipment Guide tells us that a Bard using a Masterwork version of certain bardic instruments can play bardic music and spellcast at the same time – provided that the spells used do not call for a component that the music-playing would interfere with (generally that means Verbal components only). That seems a bit much for a simple masterwork tool to allow, but that is a 3.0 rule that was never updated and the writers probably thought that the Bard could use a backdoor boost.
  • The rules on Iterative Attacks tell us that – provided that you can focus on a specific overall task, that your actions are effectively identical, that there are no changes (of tools, weapons, whatever) being made between two rolls (other than a 5′ step) – you can take multiple rolls at a cumulative -5 penalty until your base bonus is +0. After all, the rules say that you can target multiple opponents – and if fighting two to four people at once isn’t multitasking, it’s hard to say what is.

That’s fair enough; I can do several simple math problems, type several unrelated sentences, or hammer someone with my fist, a fair number of times in six seconds, but I probably won’t be doing complex math problems (high DC in game terms), writing detailed analysis, or planning out my tactics or a fancy combo move at anywhere near that rate (although I COULD use a practiced Kata – the “flurry of blows” equivalent). In game terms that cumulative “-5″ will catch up with me, and my last few fast attempts in that time will be pretty poor. It’s not quite multitasking though; it’s doing a sequence of things that individually take very little time. In a system that breaks things down into six-second rounds, turns, and a system of action types, it’s close enough though.

  • There are a few skills which touch on the topic. For example, each +10 you get on a knowledge skill check entitles you to one additional piece of information – basically the answer to one more question. Most people don’t really think of that as “multitasking”, but it’s still “pull up some of the most obvious facts first and let them remind you of what comes next in the sequence” – not all that different from the “strike at the best opening you see and then follow up on the sequence by exploiting whatever options your first attack opens up” of an iterative attack. It’s rolled a little differently, but it’s the same basic idea.

As an option for faster combat that works: a combatant can opt to forget iterative attacks and simply do extra damage if they roll high enough. Need a a 16 and got a 26? Do double damage. Got a 36? That’s triple – and so on, probably up to around +30 over what you needed and quadruple (+1 to the multiplier per instance of Bonus Attack or Rapid Strike, with the usual bonus for a Critical Hit) damage. (Of course, if you can hit by 40+, it probably does not matter; your opponent is almost certainly just a speedbump anyway).

  • Casting Defensively calls for a Concentration check (DC 15 + Spell Level) – but success allows the character to both defend themselves and cast the spell without penalty. So… under rather limited circumstances a Concentration skill check allows you to do multiple things at once that do not normally call for a roll. That’s interesting, but the only example the skill gives is very specific indeed. I think that I’ll come back to that later.

Pathfinder doesn’t have a lot to say on the topic either. After all… it’s a fringe case which has the potential to wreck the action economy. Lets say that I (perhaps due to metamagic) have some spells with verbal components only and some with somatic components only; can I take a concentration check to cast one of each with the same action? Why not? What if they’ve been reduced to swift actions with no components at all? Can I throw two (or more?) as part of a standard action? Perhaps three with a full action?

In general, that’s a can of worms that the various versions of d20 have carefully avoided opening up. Thus the rules have pretty much avoided the issue, leaving it up to whatever individual game masters come up with (most often “No!”) for the occasional fringe case.

So: To combine two or more tasks…

  1. It must be physically possible to combine them all. A normal character cannot simultaneously take out a potion, yank off leeches, and swing a sword because normal characters do not have that many hands. You can, however, play the piano with one hand, balance the priceless ming vase with the other hand, dictate a letter, and (if you have the martial arts skills) use kicks to block an opponents attacks of opportunity. Whether or not you can also employ your laser eye beams (psychic, magical, or innate) at the same time is still up to the game master.
  2. You get a cumulative -5 penalty if all of the tasks involved are very short, very similar, and involve no real changes of focus or equipment. Thus, for example, if the Dark Powers (TM!) are Rising and only the proper mystic chant performed in the seconds before they fully manifest can stop them, your friends just brought you three ancient tomes each containing a (differing!) partial copy of the chant which you must decipher, compile into a complete version, and incant even as you decipher it… it may be time for some iterative “decipher script” checks.
    1. Yeah, that’s pretty contrived, but situations where there are multiple, critical, complex, tasks which must ALL be completed by the same person within six seconds are awfully had to come by. Even in emergencies calling for multiple, wildly different, actions some of them can usually wait for a few seconds. That’s why there are calls to keep your priorities straight.
  3. You get a “-10” penalty per extra unrelated task being performed at the same time. Tasks that do not normally require a roll acquire a base Concentration DC of 10. Thus, for a quick default, “defending yourself normally” and “casting a spell” are both normally automatic. Doing both at the same time is thus a DC 20 Concentration check (which simplifies the standard rules a bit, but generalizing rules often does that).

So… trying to pull that stunt with the piano, the vase, dictating a letter, and self-defense, at the same time puts you at a -40 penalty on all of them even without the facetious eyebeams. Now an epic skillmaster, or someone with enough skill boosters, or Luck Specialized in Skills, or with any of a wide variety of other boosts may be able to pull that off – but it isn’t for most characters. Of course, most characters have no reason to WANT to try a stunt like that. Most people are willing to let the piano, or the cooking, or the sculpting wait a bit if a fight breaks out.

Now what most people mean when they say that they’re “multitasking” is that they’re switching their attention between a group of tasks very quickly in the fond belief that they’re getting more done. In reality, this generally is not true. Real-world “multitasking” usually results in considerably less overall work getting done or – if you actually are good at it (which is rather rare) – completing slightly more work of drastically lessened quality. Those of us dealing with interruptions or trying to escape particularly boring tasks are especially prone to that – and we often get away with it because a lot of jobs include sizeable amounts of useless busywork that will pass even if you make a horrible botch of it.

If you want to provide some credit for this kind of multitasking (a superpower as attractive as magic to many) and/or time management skills, then here are some rules for it:

  1. Work Smarter, Not Harder. Multiply the amount of work your character gets done in a workday by (Int / 10). This does not, however, apply to simple, extremely repetitive, physical tasks like hauling rocks.
  2. Keep Your Nose To The Grindstone: Most people waste at least 20% of their time. Those with a Base Will + Morale Bonuses save of +10 or more don’t have to. For them, every five days that they work on something counts as six days. And yes, this gets multiplied by the intelligence rule as well.
  3. When I Was Your Age I Had To Walk…: Over the course of a workday people get tired, and lose effectiveness. Those with a Base Fortitude + Resistance Bonuses Save of +10 do not – and so they get twice as much done in a given time. Those with a total of +20 or more can work for up to twelve hours a day without penalty. Those with a total of +30 or more can sixteen hours per day without penalty.
  4. But The Craftsman Has The Advantage Of His Skill: Characters may add their (Total Base Reflex + Competence Bonus) Save, rounded down to the nearest +10, to their Craft and Profession checks when calculating how much they get done. They can always keep their work flowing smoothly – never dropping tools, mashing their thumbs, or getting anything out of place.

Now none of this will have much impact on the average character – but when it comes to that Prismatic Great Wyrm… That’s Int 64 (x6.4), Will +68 (x1.2), Fort +68 (x2, x4 if working 16 hours per day), and Reflex +41 (+40 on Craft/Profession checks for determining the amount of work done). So our Prismatic Great Wyrm can do fifteen to thirty times as much in a day as a human can – and even more if it’s using a Craft or Profession skill.

That’s impressive, but it’s still going to be a LOT easier to hire a workforce in most cases. Still, if you wish to ask one to solve some riddle for you or something it might be worthwhile. That +27 base from Intelligence, combined with those bonuses, would probably let it give you all the details you would ever need with a few hours of work – and the things have got to get their hordes somewhere. Just don’t try to shortchange it.

2 Responses

  1. I wanted to ask, for those latter three rules, what “base” saving throw values meant. That is, does that term mean strictly what you’d buy (in Eclipse) with Resist and nothing else, or does it include other permanent bonuses to your saving throw, such as ability score bonus, permanent magical bonuses, etc.?

    My guess would be the former, but given that Eclipse treats “base” skill modifiers as including most permanent bonuses (albeit usually only non-magical ones) I wanted to make sure.

    • Well, the theory there was basically that – since you were working against your own natural tendencies – external augmentations didn’t help much, just as being inside a heavy tank won’t help much when you have a stroke. Ergo the use of “base saves” – purchased untyped bonus plus attribute bonus. Other bonuses… well, that opened up a huge mess of “what’s the special effect here, and will it help?” which was a lot more trouble than the topic seemed to be worth – ergo, simplification. Morale bonuses will help you avoid getting bored with a task and diverting yourself, Resistance bonuses will help against creeping workday fatigue, and Competence Bonuses will help avoid dropping parts and fumbling tools and such.

      Of course, by the time characters have sufficient bonuses to get much out of these rules they’ll usually just use magic or something anyway, so it was something of a fringe case to start with.

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