A Few Thoughts on Failure

RPGs are abstract. Sure, some are more “simulationist” than others but there is always an abstract quality to a game that involves mechanics alongside, “tell a cooperative story.”

Because RPGs are abstract, you end up with a lot of discussions (and arguments) over things like, “What do Hit Points actually represent?” One area that has seen a lot of discussion in the newer wave of game design is the question, “What is the best way to handle failure?” The answers (and arguments) can get heated. It seems that a lot of people have opinions about failure in RPGs. There are the improv, “Yes, and…” folks. The Old Schoolers who don’t have a problem saying, “No.” And everything in between. One debate that I often see play out is the idea that failure on a roll/check/throw should never bring the story to a halt. Some games, like Gumshoe, even have mechanics that attempt to ensure such a thing can’t happen by allowing players to simply buy success. And what about “trying again?” So many games have rules and caveats about trying skill checks multiple times.

Something that rarely gets discussed though is the abstract nature of failure in most RPGs. In other words, I’m not so much interested in how failure affects the next thing your party does as I am in what failure actually means.

Combat is a big part of the system in most RPGs, so it seems like a logical place to start. You fail to make an attack roll. What does that mean and what does it look like at the table? That depends on how your game sets up combat.

If combat is a one roll = one swing of the sword kind of game, then failing an attack roll means you didn’t hit the other guy this time. But there is no other consequence for failure (usually). If your game has more abstract combat rounds and you roll once to represent a series of moves and countermoves, then failure is a little less concrete but it looks a lot different in the narrative sense of the game. If your combat is comparative then you may have another issue, because now your failure (and your opponent’s outcome) may mean that you get hurt even though you were the one initiating the attack. These are only a few of the permutations.

Then there is one of my favorite quirks of old school D&D play – picking locks. When you fail to pick a lock in those versions of the game, you cannot try again until you have gone up in level. Like many things in older versions of D&D, this can seem opaque and really backwards to a lot of modern players. But look at the whole picture. In 3rd edition and beyond, picking a lock is a single round action – takes about 6 seconds – and involves a single skill roll. You can try again. In the older version; that skill roll accounts for a full turn (roughly 10 minutes of game time) that more likely represents you engaging all your skill against the lock and if you fail… It’s because you genuinely cannot pick the lock. That one roll represents the entire panoply of “well, let’s try this pick; okay, maybe this one,” rather than just a single attempt. Interpreting it at the table is all about thinking about what a skill roll actually represents and signifies. And the more abstract, the more you have to think about what it means. Because exploration and resource management became less important in the later editions in favor of more focus on “the action,” it changed the nature of skill rolls for tasks like picking a lock.

And that leads me back to the example I used previously… the guy who fixes your dryer. The guy who fixes your dryer should be treated like lock-picking in the older versions of D&D. He’s not making a single roll and just pointing at the problem. He’s making a single roll that represents 2 hours of work trying out different tests and different options. He’s aware that there could be multiple different problems that all add up to “it won’t dry my clothes” and so he tries them all until he either gets it right or admits that he can’t find the problem. At which point – maybe he doesn’t need to level up again, but he will need to go back to his office, consult another co-worker or call the manufacturer. He’ll need to do something that changes his circumstances before he tries again.

Of course, there is a middle ground to all this too. A lot of games – especially dice-pool games like Shadowrun and World of Darkness allow for some version of multi-roll tests where you amass your success over a series of rolls in the hopes of meeting a threshold. On the surface it seems like the best of both worlds – but it comes with its own problems. Like the fact that you need to belabor the rolling process. Like the fact that you have more opportunities to end up with a spectacular failure. But again, it puts a mechanic to all that tinkering and trying that lead up to success or frustration.

How you feel about all this is up to you. I find it useful to think out loud about what rolling the dice represents as I am considering how to best finalize the playtest system I’m working on right now. It’s just refreshing to realize that I can still draw just as much realization and inspiration from Basic D&D as I can from the 5th edition of Shadowrun or any game powered by FATE.

As always, thanks for reading.

One thought on “A Few Thoughts on Failure

  1. Sorry, RAW states he needs another level in repairman before he can try to fix the dryer again.

    Scion 2nd ed has a consolation system. If you fail a roll you get something else, not as good as what you wanted and almost certainly not the same thing but something to help the story along. The most common example is the pooled resources called momentum that is the ‘hero point’ of the game. Which I guess is kind of the opposite of momentum but works pretty well as a mechanic. In a fight even if you fail to damage your opponent you still contribute something because now the team has more resources.


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