Monday, August 30, 2010

When the player fails, the story wins.

I've been thinking a lot lately about some of the basic assumptions of a role-playing gaming. The thing that's sticking in my craw is character failure. There are some really great GM and game mechanic reactions out there, and there are some that just completely ignore character failure (and I'm being polite here in not saying that these are lame (although they are)). I really want to make my players look forward to their failures - afterall tabletop gaming is about fun, and there's no reason we can't make failure fun!

 Now, before I get started, I want to establish a couple of things.

First, we're not done with our Gencon coverage. We have some great stuff coming up over the next weeks and even months that are either a direct coverage of our experiences at Gencon or are heavily inspired by Gencon. Just this week we hope to have another Gencon interview up, so make sure to keep an eye out for that!

Next, when I say character failure I'm referring to a die roll or general failure in the conflict resolution system of your choice. You'll see what I mean in a bit with the two examples I have below. Basically failure in this context means coming out on the losing side of a random conflict resolution system. Failure is not the players botching a bit of role-playing or even figuring out a wrong answer to the evil Lichlord's riddle/puzzle. It also isn't a miss when swinging your axe in an extended encounter in a tactical-heavy game like D&D or Savage Worlds. Basically failure here refers to losing a die roll outside of a combat setting.

So two games I really love and draw a lot of inspiration from for other games I run are Mouse Guard and Dread. I've talked about both games quite a bit (more than the labels would suggest) and to be honest, outside of the context of them being two of my favorite games, I didn't imagine being able to find something else these two very different games have in common.

Mouse Guard is a game where players play a group of bad-ass mice that are a lot like Jedi only without all the magic powers and laser swords. Resolution is simple - it's a d6 dice pool game where 4 through 6 is a success and you need to get a number of successes to succeed at a task. MG is great for mini-campaigns with each sessions taking place during a season for an entire year played in four sessions.

Dread is a horror game with no natural setting perfectly designed for great, often terrifying horror one-shots. Campaign play is not impossible, but given Dread's conflict resolution system, it's really great at keeping the pace and excitement all within one night's worth of play. Speaking of conflict resolution, Dread uses a Jenga tower. Instead of stats and dice rolling, your character has a history and needs to pull a block from the Jenga tower when he or she wants to do something beyond what the character's history says they should easily be able to do.

Both games have a strong emphasis on story, but where they really shine is in the consequence of failing in the conflict resolution system. Mouse Guard (and the system it really came from, Burning Wheel) introduces the concept that characters needs to fail to advance in their skills. MG characters don't have levels but can better themselves. To improve a skill, such as scouting, a character must succeed as many times as it takes to equal the skill and fail as many times as it takes to equal the skill minus one. In this way, a failure is a good thing inherently since players always want to make their characters better. Members of the Mouse Guard learn from their mistakes, and this is represented very well in the system. Of course, this doesn't get down to the crunch of failure = good for the story.

This is where the Twist comes into play. In MG, when a character fails a roll, the GM gets a couple options including letting the character succeed, but with a price, and making the character fail and throwing a twist into the story. The twist is where the story really amps up. Failures in MG aren't just ignored like they would be in D&D ("Oh, you failed your perception check? Nothing happens, you don't see anything"). No, when you fail, say the above Scouting skill in MG, suddenly the GM gets to introduce you to the wrong path that sets you back hours on your journey or may he introduces a Fox to the Mouse territories that you failed to notice in your scouting.  There are always real consequences to failing, but you know what? That's awesome. Now your players have the opportunity and the fun challenge of trying to deal with the incredibly dangerous fox.

Looking at Dread we see a different kind of consequence. You don't fail a dice roll in the Dread. When something comes up that your character needs to test for, there are three possible outcomes: 1.) You successfully pull a block and your character does something awesome! 2.) You attempt and are unsuccessful at pulling a block and you character becomes mince-meat! 3.) You think about pulling, look at the tower, and decide no way in Hell you're making that pull and your character doesn't do something awesome but neither do they die in some horrible manner - yet.

It's the third option that the fun comes out. Yeah it's cool to succeed and sometimes it's even fun to fail miserably and have your character go out in a terrible, horrible, Rated M for Mature kind of way. However, often times the story can be serviced best when a character would try to do something but doesn't and has to face the negative consequences while still remaining an active character in the game.

You'll never be forced to make a pull in Dread, but as things keep going and you keep refusing to pull, your character's going to keep looking worse and worse. Didn't want to make a pull to soften your landing from that third story window? Fine, your leg is broken and you're that much slower when running from the monster. Didn't want to make a pull to see if you were brave enough not to lose some sanity from seeing your significant other gutted alive? Good luck actually trying to do anything against the killer on your own in the future! This sounds like a death spiral, but this is where the other players come into play. In the first situation your friends can give you a hand - and make a couple of extra pulls because of it. Maybe in the second situation an ally looks you in the eye - makes a pull - and successfully snaps you out of your walking-dead terrified state.

The point here is that you create tension and something for the group to overcome. Heroism comes from the players tearing victory from the jaws of defeat. In Dread, the players have a very real power in making that adversity come to the surface. Failure - in this case not making a pull from the tower - makes the characters more interesting and gives the story depth. I may try to incorporate some of these concepts in my games in other systems. In Mouse Guard only one player can try to take an action, anyone else who wants to also do the action participates as a team member, but the original player is the captain and his role really matters. Not every one gets to make an arcane check to try to see if they can read the mysterious runes. Outside of actions where each player failing can have a unique circumstance (such as each person making an acrobatics check not to lose his balance) I'm going to be enforcing this rule at my table. Whenever I actually get to run my next game, you'll be certain to hear about how it goes!


  1. Dread sounds really cool I'll have to try it sometime. I think that the "fail" in Mouse Guard should be seen as fun if your players are up to it, nothing is worse when you're sick or have plans later that day and everybody wants you to to stay for five more hours. If you really want to make the fails fun you should make it into a drinking game, then not only would that tower fall but so will your players!

  2. Great post, Paul. I also really like games where failing furthers the story and increases the fun.

    Apocalypse World is another good example of this. Moves (what the players get to do) have conditions specifically written in for when they only partially succeed. Great thing about these are that the player gets to choose how they want to succeed and fail.

    For example, the Chopper (a biker gang leader) can impose his will on his gang. If he's successful, he gets all of the following, if not, then he gets to choose only one:

    - they do what you want
    - they don't fight back over it
    - you don't have to make an example of one of them

    In this way, the players get more control, can choose what's important to them and how the story progresses.


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