Originally I wanted to discuss a concept that I’m sure most of my readers will already be familiar with; that of the ‘fail forward’ approach to die resolution systems in traditional RPGs. However, outlining some of the issues that fail forward addresses has turned into its own blog post. As a result, this will be a two parter. In this part one, I’m going to lay out some ways that failed die rolls in RPGs can deprive players of fun, and how some of the traditional approaches to adjudicating failed rolls can run into problems.
To define terms quickly, I’m using ‘failure’ in this instance to mean “when a game requires a player to roll a dice to achieve a desired outcome, and the dice roll is such that the rules of the game dictate that they don’t get what they desire”. Traditional RPGs often use a binary system of pass or fail, but even if they don’t, it's usually clear whether they’ve ‘succeeded at a cost’ vs ‘failed’.
A GMing mantra that I learned fairly on was “failure should be as interesting as success”. If the game you’re playing reaches a point where a player has to make a dice roll (or use some other random mechanic) to achieve something, and they don’t get the desired outcome, it should have interesting consequences and add to the story. If a failure isn’t going to add much to the game, simply don’t roll the dice at all. On its face, this is not a particularly controversial approach to RPGs, given that it's more of a tip for keeping things fun than a fundamental approach to gaming. However in practice, it still has some issues.
The first is that often, it contradicts the rules as written for the RPG you’re playing. Commonly, RPGs will tell you to make some kind of skill or stat check ‘when the success of an action is in doubt’, or ‘when it might fail’. More practically, if a player has a skill on their character sheet that applies to the action they’re taking, and the action isn’t routine or being performed under controlled circumstances, the logical thing to do is to make them roll that skill. If Carey the Cleric wants to use their Religion skill to determine what god the bas relief might be depicting, it’s obvious that you should probably ask them to roll Religion. A game might have some advice about making failure interesting or planning your adventures so that the fun isn’t stuck behind necessary successful rolls, but this is rarely part of the rules section. If best practice dictates that I make failure as interesting as success, but the rules explanation in the game I’ve bought tells me to roll when success is in doubt, and a failure means not getting what you want, the two may well contradict each other. The rules are actively fighting this best practice.
The second issue is that requiring ‘failure be as interesting as success’ makes GMing harder. Part of the reason that the ‘roll when success is in doubt, failure means you don’t get the thing’ approach is baked into a lot of RPG rulesets is its simplicity. If a player wants their character to do something that they might reasonably not be able to do in the fiction, you ask for the dice roll, and then, depending on the roll result, you either give or withhold it. Rules explanations rarely belabour this point because it's so intuitive; “Carey wants to identify the god, Carey did not roll well enough, Carey did not identify the god”. By contrast, “only roll if every possible dice result is interesting and fun” is complicated, and requires the GM to more thoroughly think through the consequences of every dice roll before asking for it. I’m also certainly not the only GM who asks for a dice roll without being exactly sure what I’m going to describe for each result. Most of the time I ask someone to roll a dice when it seems appropriate, and then provide a description of the result that was actually rolled. Pausing the game to consider how each and every failure is going to be interesting is pretty terrible for pacing, and backing up and ‘retconning’ a roll when it proves too hard to make fun is also bad pacing and increases the chance that players will lose track of what’s going on, or end up with very different ideas of what’s happening in the shared fiction. Some GMs will always have an intuition about how a doubty player action can add fun to a game regardless of its result, but I don’t think it should be a requirement for GMing a game.
The third issue with only rolling if interesting failures are possible is that it might make some character archetypes less interesting to play. The classic example of this is a knowledgeable academic character in a game with investigation as a core activity, something like Call of Cthulhu. Given that it's a game about investigating esoteric mysteries and old forgotten deities, the studious professor is a classic character archetype. If you’re sitting down to make a character for a Call of Cthulhu game, you may well decide that you like the idea of playing such a character, and you put lots of build points into Law and Anthropology and Library Use, to reflect the dedicated scholar you picture in your head.
However, once you get playing, you might find yourself regretting all those build points as your GM follows the ‘interesting failure’ approach outlined above. It's pretty challenging to make a failure to obtain information interesting a lot of the time; if the player describes their character hitting the books to research the history of the bizarre cult that the player characters have encountered in the area, the GM may well decide that this is information that they want to provide. They can’t really think of a good way to make a failure to research the topic provide an interesting plot point that drives the mystery forward. Instead, the GM simply says “ok, you can use your good Library Use to obtain the following facts, no roll necessary”. From the perspective of our scholarly hero, this is great. But what of our player? The scholar’s player might start asking themselves why they pumped lots of build points into their knowledge skills if the GM isn’t going to require their use. Meanwhile, the ex con character in the party gets to roll their high Locksmith and Firearms skills all the time, because it's easier for the GM to incorporate their failure and keep the story moving. It's all well and good to not want to stop the adventure because someone failed their Library Use roll, but the GM then needs to provide situations that make having a high Library Use skill worthwhile.
The fourth issue with the ‘interesting failure’ approach is that it might not be all that interesting for the player who rolled. This issue can also apply to the more traditional ‘failure means you don’t get what you want’ approach to failed dice rolls. All too often, I think a failed dice roll detracts from the experience of the player who made it regardless of how the GM adjudicates it. If we break down what’s happening when a player character attempts something difficult and rolls for it from the perspective of the player themselves, here’s what I think is happening; the player wants to interact with and influence the fiction in a concrete way. In order to do this, the GM requires them to achieve a particular roll on a dice. If this roll fails, the result is often that the player in question has failed to influence the fiction in the way they desired. A common RPG situation is a player rolling several times in a scene in an effort to achieve a particular broad goal, and growing increasingly frustrated as the dice never go their way. Clearly, bad dice rolls will feel bad in any gaming context, but I think the reason that this feels so bad in RPGs is that it turns the game from a shared story in which everyone has a say, into a situation where the story is just something that’s happening to you. While you’re still contributing to the shared fiction through your descriptions, you don’t get to exercise much control over what’s happening.
In my last post I said that AGON had influenced the way I GM in the way it gives players more control over what happens when they fail, and the issue outlined above is why I think that’s such a big deal. Because players are responsible for providing a description of what happens when they roll badly, that ‘handing control over the GM’ happens later than it would in a more traditional game.
To bring it back to our ‘interesting failure’ conversation, the GM may well turn the failed dice rolls into fun, action packed scenes that the table can enjoy, but the player in question is still stuck with this core problem; their bad rolls move the influence of the fiction from them, to the GM. No matter how good of a job the GM does of keeping the game moving, the player who rolled has still been deprived of the most interesting result from their perspective; getting to say what happens.
Provided you think all my above points hold at least some water, this is where we’re left; we want to keep rolling for success and failure because it's fun to roll dice, and because a lot of RPG systems are built on this foundation. We want failure to be interesting and fun for all the players involved, but we don’t want adjudicating this to be overly onerous for the GM, or a detriment to the pace of the game. Ideally, we need some tools that the GM can employ in the course of the game to deal with failed die rolls.
I’ll pick up on this in my next post.