Whiffing Forward – the role of failure in roleplaying games

DavidLewisJohnson_SYSCOMBAT (2)Whiff – the sound a sword makes in the air when it misses its target.

Failing Forward – a business concept found in a book by John Maxwell where you use the experience from failure to become successful. You learn from what went wrong, innovate, iterate, and keep testing until you reach success.

In discussion about roleplaying games, “failing forward” is often equated with eliminating “whiffing”.  A miss result commits entertainment’s cardinal sin of being boring.  So one of the design trends in gaming is a move away from a repetitive task system with numerous success/fail checks, such as the roll of a twenty sided dice for each attack in the various F20 games.  This can lead to mechanics where:

  • every task check result accumulates towards eventual success
  • mechanic systems that favour attack over defence (because being blocked, dodged, or parried is almost as boring as missing)
  • systems that require narrative input through twists, complications, compels or similar drama creation mechanics when failure occurs
  • systems use meta-currency (e.g. luck points) that players can choose to negate or mitigate failure with
  • escalation mechanics, where the chance or degree of failure diminishes the longer the scene lasts.

A good description on failing forward I saw on rpg.net was a three success level model: hit hard, hit, and fail hard. Eliminate boring failures, and only keep the failures that make life more “exciting” for the players by forcing them to adapt to the new situation and make a decision that can take the game in a new direction.

Meta-currency mitigation simply shifts the problem from one place to another. The characters do not experience any real stress until they run dry of meta-currency. Fumbles almost never happen in my Runequest 6 campaign, because players immediately reroll the dice.

Escalation mechanics add some book keeping, and they can be hard to scale in different dice mechanic systems. For example, 13th Age’s +1 to +6 modifer for escalating works okay on a 1-20 scale, but it would be weak in a 1d100 mechanic system, and overpowered in a 3d6 bell curve mechanic system.

Narrative input can be a burden on the GM. Sure, I want to describe cool exciting stuff, but having to make new stuff up on every second die roll can be exhausting on the imagination. Preparation can mitigate this burden, but I find any session where I have to do a lot of improvisation of complications to be mentally exhausting, rather than energizing. I want to take a closer look at the system Fantasy Flight Games has used in Edge of Empire, but I will have to wait until I can pick up a hard copy in Canada. I am also seeing some Kickstarter games using decks to generate complications in play (the new edition of Paranoia and the Schlock Mercenary Planet Mercenary games).

Failure is important – without failure success is meaningless

One of the oldest bits of gaming advice is “don’t run Monty Haul” games, where the rewards players receive greatly exceed the risks and challenges their characters had to overcome.  If you can never fail, then what feeling of triumph can you truly enjoy as you skewer your fifth dragon before breakfast?

If you always fail, that is not fun. Except perhaps in Paranoia.

If you never fail, that is not fun either. After six movies I got pretty tired of Legolas never missing a shot.

There should be a middle ground, where the characters are vulnerable enough to failure that the game is interesting. In particular, when players make a big “crunch” call about risking their character, the risk of failure should be real. If you know the Dragon cannot really hurt you when you sprint across the bridge to grab the macguffin, you simply do not get the same emotional reward from success.

What do you look back and tell stories about? Using a luck point to avoid damage, or the time your character took the arrow in the back, but managed to roll a critical on the endurance check? If you want better roleplaying game stories, you need failure in your game.

Framing Failure

Two bits of gaming advice I have come across in several places recently. First, only roll dice if the failure is likely to be significant, interesting, or meaningful. Its okay to say “you succeed, now what?” to a player. Do not roll the dice, just to gain some time while you think of an answer for the players about what happens next. Second, is the “let it ride” principle. Roll the dice once, and abide by the result. Do not make a player roll three times to open a lock, make one roll, and maybe make it a little harder if that was you actual intent.

I also think its important to think about how the situation is framed on a timescale/significance spectrum:

  • Individual action – if an action represents individual attacks in a five second period, you need failure to preserve verisimilitude, if your action represents a flurry of activity over a minute, its okay for combat to be of the “up, down, or off the board” variety
  • Individual scene – at this level I think you can tie failure to a single die roll, but it should be a player choice to commit to the action where the die roll is occurring
  • Individual episode – I think you need to tie failure at this level to player choices not die rolls, but some failure should be okay
  • Complete story/season arc – I think some degree of success at this level is important for the players to feel they are making progress and having an impact on the game world around their characters
  • Finished campaign/completed series – what are the players going to be talking about in years to come? The easy successes, or the epic comeback?

Encouraging Failure

Players like to win. All the time. A single escaping mook is a significant defeat. An escaping bad guy is a catastrophic defeat. Conversely, players are not fond of losing. Players like to display bravery by over committing, and rushing in where angels fear to tread. Players are really not good at executing retreats from superior enemy forces.

Literature and visual media do not work like this. The heroes nearly always suffer frequent failures, hard won escapes, and pyrrhic victories before their final triumph. I want to run games that feel a bit like that.

Give Experience Points for Failure, not Success

So here is a thought for gaming. If players succeed in a scene, their characters get the material rewards that were at stake, whether it was a clue to the next scene, a bag of gold, or a kiss from the handsome prince. The characters only get experience for progressing/developing their character’s traits and abilities when they fail a scene.

Tangential Thoughts on Dice Mechanics

Not so much related to the failure topic, but a few other recent game mechanic ideas.

1. Damage Dice Pools

Riffing on Cortex Plus, take a handful of dice, roll them and keep the best two. Use one die for a one handed weapon, two for a two handed weapon, then add dice based on factors like level of skill or degree of success on the task roll. The reason to do this is to keep damage reduction armour in a bounded range (say 1-5 points), so that the damage difference between a dagger and a greatsword is not too different (both should be able to situationally pierce plate armour, but in practice most games give the dagger too low a damage rating for it to be a valid weapon in its historical context). Also because it would amuse me to run a game where the baseline HP number was 13, so a damage system bounded to a maximum of 12 points makes you always vulnerable, but not in one shot territory if fully healed up.

2. Standard Card Deck Combat Consequences

My RQ6 players can spend a long time choosing what each critical effect they have obtained will be. It could be easier to draw one card from a standard card deck:

  • With a Rag card, the 1-10 number is the minimum damage the blow scores, use the dice if they are greater
  • Face cards give you the interesting results (disarms, falls, etc)
  • Joker gives you some kind of interesting choice

3. Some thoughts on d100 die rolls.

The 1-100 die roll range is very fine scaled. A die roll bonus of +/-10% can feel pretty weak, while adding a lot of modifiers together, or taking the RQ6 approach of changing the skill level can involve a bit of maths. Sure its not  a lot of maths, but over a five hour game it chews up the brain. We also pause to calculate critical hits (yes, divide by ten is relatively easy), which sometimes makes me want to follow Eclipse Phase (doubles are criticals/fumbles).

I looked at the maths for Call of Cthulhu’s bonus/penalty die approach and compared it to reversing the pips (e.g. turning 92% into 29%) and found them pretty close in probabilities.  Both approaches increase the chance of success more when skill levels are low to medium, there are diminishing returns.

So I thought for my Cabal game idea there are a couple of things I could do. First, one way to tempt players, is to make them always roll a Bonus Cabal die. So when they fail, the Cabal die will sometimes be sitting there, tempting them with success.  All they have to do is to be willing to make the husk of a fallen God a little stronger.

The second one was that I want fumbles to occur in combat, because its interesting and means failure can arise from emergent play, rather than from me stacking the odds against the players to burn the meta-currency out of them. So I might make luck points only useful for bonus actions when taking risks (and taking a bonus action to stab someone who is defenceless would not be risky, so you can’t do that), or for mitigating wounds, and not for rerolling failures/fumbles.

A third idea was to compare two failed combat rolls, and give a bonus die to the highest failure (and maybe even make it two bonus dice on a double). With this approach, you could eliminate fumbles altogether. Rather than the character inflicting damage on themselves, it is their opponents chances on their next swing being improved, which is something the player can anticipate and react to with their next action.

Finally, I was thinking of an edge mechanic to adjust die rolls after they occur (e.g. spend four points of Arete to shift a roll of 92% to 52% or 88%), but it might be simpler to front load everything, and spend ten points of Arete to purchase a bonus die roll when making a skill check.

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4 Responses to Whiffing Forward – the role of failure in roleplaying games

  1. dennis says:

    In the new star wars games there’s a light side dark side mechanic which is basically a group luck pool with white and black pips. When spent a black pip turns into a white pip and vice versa. Players spend white pips, the gm spends black ones. The number and type available is randomised at the start of each session based on the number of players (one special dice is rolled for each player). Spending a pip allows the spender to modify a dice roll. In this way the gm can make things harder for pcs but there’s a limit on how bad. Also limited is how good it is for pcs.

  2. Edward says:

    The problem with trying to recreate failure and escape in Runequest is that it’s nearly impossible for the party to successfully withdraw from melee combat. Disengaging requires a Special Effect (Change Range, Outmanoeuvre or Withdraw), and enemy characters will usually get a chance to close in again before successful PCs can start running on their next turn. Even if surviving PCs all achieved Special Effects to disengage simultaneously, the enemy probably has more Action Points left (since they are winning, after all), so will simply use their uncontested combat actions to re-engage the PCs again.

    Surrendering is a marginally better option for survival but only against civilized opponents; hungry Moon Tigers and Cultists in need of sacrifices aren’t likely to leave behind survivors. Even a successful surrender costs thousands of silvers of lost gear – followed by thousands of silvers of debt to one’s patrons, assuming the ransom gets paid in the face of mission failure. Faced with this crippling cost I think most players would still try to run despite the low probability of escape. Of course if mission failure means the Empress gets skewered by Assassins, then the party will fight to the death instead.

  3. xy says:

    RPG combat initiative systems are an abstraction for melee, and don’t model fleeing well at all – I think as soon as you want to flee you need to ditch initiative and use some other model.

    13th age uses this (from the SRD) which I like: Fleeing is a party action. On any PC’s turn, any player can propose that all the characters flee the fight. If all players agree, they successfully retreat, carrying any fallen heroes away with them. The party suffers a campaign loss. The point of this rule is to encourage daring attacks and to make retreating interesting on the level of story rather than tactics.

    Also re XP for failure: Torchbearer has a mechanic where to improve a skill from X to X+1, you need to succeed at it X+1 times and *fail* at it X times. This is coupled with a mechanic for using your personality traits to penalise your own rolls to gain bennies.

    The particular bit of behavior that this encouraged in play that I was really surprised and pleased by is that you saw players use skills when they weren’t the best in the party at it. Previously you see a lot of ‘welp you have search 8 and I have search 2, you search, I will stand around’, which I am pretty sick of.

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