Owning Failure

So I’ve never played this song live and I don’t know if it’s gonna work, but I was at a friend’s house last night in New York City and we were talking about great songs, and this is a great song. I’ll try. Oh, if I fuck it up, it’s cool. That’s art.

Matt Nathanson, “Romeo and Juliet”

At one point I walked past a table at Dexcon where Chad Underkoffler was running a game of Swashbucklers of the Seven Skies. He had just called for a perception check, and folks had rolled and announced their outcomes. He said what was needed to succeed and then asked, as if it were the most natural thing in the world “Ok, how do you fail to notice the assassins sneaking into the room through the windows?”

Now, I had previous experience with the idea of player’s describing their failures, and a great intellectual appreciation for the idea, but Chad laid it out so easily and organically that it’s stuck in my head since then as a perfect example of how smoothly the technique could be deployed. At that point I pretty much converted from “this is a good idea” to “this is my default mode” and I haven’t looked back. Obviously, there’s some refinement that’s required from game to game, but the one thing it does that keeps me coming back is that it maintains a level of respect for the character which disarms a lot of common problems.

In my experience, players don’t mind the actual act of failing as much as they object to looking stupid (or breaking concept) when they fail. They understand that even very competent character fail in fiction, but they also understand that those failures don’t make those heroes look like chumps. Giving the player the chance to describe their failure allows them to save face.[1]

There’s a lot of synchronicity between this and the idea of rolling before describing an action (fortune-at-the-beginning, in jargon[2]). The ability to know the outcome lets your characters action sync with that outcome – contrast that with a social roll where the player’s speech is excellent, his skill is high and the situation is in his favor, but the dice betray him. Even setting aside the problems that come with the failure, the narration needs to take a fast left turn to explain how Charisma McCharisma just dropped the ball.[3]

All this came up in the comments of a very interesting post about the dice and predictability over at gameplaywright.net. It’s worth a read, and it’s prettymuch convinced me to try rolling the dice before making any social checks in the future[4] as well as for some other non-combattey rolls. Why? Because the flow of it totally appeals to me. Social rules tend to involve a lot of play and very little in the way of mechanics, even in systems that support social rules, because people like to talk. Talking can take on a life of its own, and can be enjoyable enough that you can reach the point and startle yourself with the reminder that you probably should roll some dice.[5] If the dice then fail to jibe with the direction play was going, it tends to demand something abrupt and drastic to disrupt the flow. That’s great once or twice, but do it a few times and it can become a running theme. If the player knows at the outset how its going to end, he still has reason to engage (social contact has enough nuance that you can still benefit even if you don’t get what you wanted) but he can also arrange to lose gracefully.[6] As a GM, this also makes my life alot easier, because the alternative is having every NPC be cagey all the time.

This is not a technique for everyone, and as such I would definitely be leery of any attempt to systemize it. You can write a game to work this way, but I’m not sure you benefit from doing so, versus letting the GM choose the style that suits her table. Of course, that level of division of technique from system gets us into Rule Zero very quickly, and that’s dangerous ground, and I’m far enough into this as is, so let’s call it a wrap there.

1 – The most common objection I’ve heard to this (or any technique that gives the players narration rights) is that the player may overreach and narrate things which are outside of the scope of the game, either in the form of technicalities (grabbing a torch from a wall when there are not torches) or in a large way (‘I fail because I slip on the Million Dollars on the floor’). I have never actually seen the latter happen, but it’s wasily enough dealt with by the all purpose, “Dude.” The former’s trickier, but honestly, it’s on the GM’s head anyway for failing to describe things as completely as is clearly important to her. My solution tends to be “Unless there’s a good reason for there not to be a torch on the wall (or whatever) then sure, of course there is!” and if there is a good reason? A small nudge is usually all it requires.

2 – I have often resisted fortune in the beginning because most of the examples of it I’ve seen are on a scene level rather than on a task level. On a scene level i find it stifling, but I’m much more comfortable on a task level.

3 – People with MUSH training handle this with well placed ellipses, but that’s some esoteric and crazy stuff.

4 – What my brother somewhat brilliantly called ‘”Roll before Role'”playing’.

5 – But if the conversation was so good, why bother with the dice? It’s a good question, and some don’t. Heck. sometimes I don’t. But it’s unfair – it favors the players who are personally engaging without respecting what abilities the characters may have.

6 – I somewhat suspect something like this could also help save the “I Fight Harder” problem that comes out of emulating fighting anime, specifically that they seem to center around protagonists who just need to grit their teeth a little more and spike their hair a little higher to be able to win a losing battle. Depending on players to give up is a losing proposition, unless they’ve _already lost_.

20 thoughts on “Owning Failure

  1. Cinderella Man

    My first comment didn’t make sense after I posted it. Too quick on the enter key.

    On footnote #5 I would say that this is an excellent opportunity to establish the use of Karma or Drama for the resolution of the aforementioned tasks. If relying on Fortune will lead to too random or wild or inexplicible results, then look at the character’s base skill rating and determine the outcome. That or decide, what would make a better story moment and run with it.

    I’m not saying abandon Fortune or move it to the beginning (I’m becoming more of a fan of Fortune-in-the-middle), but go with that flow that may be disrupted by a completely unpredictable roll.

  2. Ron Blessing

    I already do the roll then describe thing with combat. I’ve considered it with social but never implemented it. That will change tonight, I think.

    The failed roll thing for notice is brilliant. This will allow me to drop the final “secret roll” out of my repertoire.

    Great post!

  3. Rob Donoghue

    @CM This is one of those situations where the secret fourth wheel of resolution rears its head: Social.

    I’ve been blessed with a range of players, from the downright suave to the borderline uncommunicative. As a bit of a talker myself, I have a historical bias towards the more karma/drama approach because if a situation could be talked out of, then I could probably do it.

    This wasn’t a problem in games with a weak social component. Without mechanics, I was the talker because I was the talker. But as soon as you have someone who’s concept it that they’re the talker, then if I keep it up, I’m kind of being a tool, especially if the player is not a as socially engaging as I or others at the table might be.

    In that situation, I want to lean more heavily on fortune and system to make social skills more like everything else because if i don’t strictly hold myself to that standard, then I’m going to end up penalizing the player because he can’t talk fast enough. I won’t intend to, but I’ll interpret his conversation as ‘doing it badly’ and with every good intention I will end up penalizing him.

    That’s not going to be the situation at every table and every game, but it’s something of the worst case scenario, so I plan for it, and figure how to better lean on the dice.

    -Rob D.

  4. Helmsman

    Here’s something to consider when modeling social interaction in a game.

    Moreso than combat social really depends on the whims and desires of the GM *VERSUS* the whims and desires of the players. This is important.

    Consider the following 2 scenarios:

    The GM has established a scenario where the players need to befriend an NPC to gain some plot advancing information. Circumstances are such that it comes down to a social interaction where the player describes doing or saying something offensive or simply incompetent that would normally end the interaction right there if not institute violence. Roll before or after, it’s obvious that either the GM has to correct the issue if he wants to maintain his story as-planned, or does a good roll mitigate the screwup?

    Or… consider a scenario, where the GM has set up a mentor for a PC with some very specific and important restrictions as part of the mentor/student relationship. The Player engages in some social role-playing and makes some extremely compelling arguments why the restrictions should be lowered in a very persuasive way but doing so will cause all sorts of repercussions and bad stuff… so does the GM just say “No Way” and risk disillusioning the player who did some stellar role-playing amidst his friends who look on approvingly, or does it come down to a roll where the GM will shift the difficulty to match his personal needs and prejudices? What point should that roll come? Before or after?

    This is ultimately the problem with social rules in a game. The thing to consider is not if the social roll can sway the actions of another character, but whether the roll creates an emotional sway in the character’s outlook towards the character doing the persuading, then come up with a compromise based on how the outlook ends up. This way it allows the mechanics to influence the outcome while not upstaging the importance of role playing.

  5. Reverance Pavane

    This was one of the things that went very badly the first time we played the Dying Earth RPG. We kept on coming up with this great Vancian dialogue that just stopped midstream because we rolled a 1 or 6. It was very frustrating. And it was simply because we were rolling after the fact to see how our dialogue was being received, rather than before the fact.

    The nice thing about the example that you gave is that Chad does an excellent job of defining the scope of the test result. He is still narrating the adventure, but the players are filling in the colour, not the frame.

    I think this statement of intent is very important, because it defines the scope of the inquiry. Of course, players can also define the scope of their test as well.

  6. greyorm

    I don’t know if you’ve read it, but that is precisely the fix ORX took: roll the dice first, THEN narrate what happens. For everything. Precisely to avoid the social situations you described, as well as tiresome combat situations (the hotshot elven archer who consistently fails to hit an orc twenty feet away, etc).

    Of course, it hits your #2 issue, because the game is laid out Scene-wise, or in slices thereof, rather than task-based.

    Hrm, but isn’t most social rolling Scene-based anyways, or at least not task-based? Because you’re trying to get something from someone with a social check, but you don’t usually roll for all the little bits involved in (for example) convincing someone to do something for you, “Does he like me? Do I impress him? Do I find something we have in common? Is my body language good? Do I respond appropriately to each of his questions and statements? Laugh at the right times?” etc.

  7. Rob Donoghue

    @helmsman Appallingly, I think it’s even _more_ complicated than that. No one solution is going to work because, ultimately, too much hinges on the GM (and the groups) own sense of social interaction coupled with the specific situation.

    This is why I like having a full golf bag of potential techniques. it’s useful most of the time, but for stuff like this, which can go way off into the weeds, it’s damn near essential.

    -Rob D.

  8. J.R.

    I really like the idea of allowing players to “own” their own failures. That’s genius. The idea that they can tell the GM WHY they failed to hit makes the story all the richer. Love it.

  9. Rob Donoghue

    @greyorm I have! But I confess, I lumped it in with Dogs in the Vineyard in that regard (which is, I hope, not too harsh a criticism 🙂 )

    But that said, you’re right: social conflicts usually are scenes, but it’s a fuzzy thing since in a less structured game they’re more likely to _emerge_ as taking up more time. But I concede, that’s a very fine difference, and maybe not even a meaningful one.

    Certainly, I can make a few arguments for handling social issues differently (like the social skills of the player) but they’re full of holes. The bottom line is that you’re right: even if you don’t use this technique for every roll in a system, you can make a case for using it for more (or less!) than just social stuff.

    My gut tells me there’s some yardstick to use to make that decision, but damned if I could verbalize what it is. Frell. This is going to bug me for a while.

    -Rob D.

  10. semioticity

    For me, I think what makes Chad’s approach awesome is that it handles both How and Why, in a situation that usually only handles How.

    The What is easy: your character fails to notice the assassins coming through the windows.

    The How is up to the players, and can be as simply as “I’m not looking at the windows.”

    The Why can be a beautiful collision between color and character. Sure, your PC can be looking away from the window. Functional, but uninteresting. If the *players* are awesome (following the lead of their GM), then the player of the bookworm might say, “I fail to notice the assassins coming through the windows because I am too engrossed in the current issues of Egghead Weekly.”

    I really like this opportunity, since an interest aspect of calling what’s going on at the table “the fiction” is because it can *be* fiction. Sure, characters can be realistic, inconsistent people who trip on loose carpet or forget their car keys, but *fictional* characters need not be so quotidian. When fictional characters fail, it’s an opportunity to underline character (or reincorporate a plot point from earlier, if appropriate).

  11. greyorm

    Rob, I have no problem whatsoever with you lumping ORX in with DitV! Heh.

    But, yes, I’m going to be thinking about this quite a bit myself now. What’s the measure? Where do we decide the one just should be the other?

  12. Jesse Burneko


    The one thing I’ve always found odd about this discussion is that I don’t understand why the failure has to be reflected on the attacker rather than the defender. When people express to me that they like to know the outcome before they describe the action I don’t understand why they would change the nature of the action based on the outcome when it’s much easier (and often heightens the tension) to simply highlight the badass-ness of the responder’s action.

    For example, I’m about to give a speech and so I roll my Oratory skill or whatever and don’t do very well. So, I could hold myself back. I don’t give it my all to reflect that. But if instead I give it my all and poor my heart and soul into the best damn speech I can give and THEN roll poorly it raises the question what did the audience do that topped my speech? Why phrase did they latch on to and twist? What are they in denial about that let’s them so blithely ignore my words?

    In combat focusing on the “defender’s success in light of the attacker’s failure” leads to pretty badass moments. I ran a Sorcerer & Sword game where a player tried to kick a demon off a tower. He failed so I described his cleanly, perfectly executed kick to the demon’s chest and how the demon caught his foot mid-strike. It was this “Oh crap!” moment.

    The player then described how they were pushing off with their foot to throw their whole weight into the demon and they were willing to go over the tower’s edge with the demon. They failed again. So I described the player kicking off the ground and planting both feet and all his weight into the demon but the demon took his hands and spun flipped the character so that he landed prone on ground and the demon stood towering over him, unmoved.

    See? There was no reason to “dumb down” the action in light of failure. In each of the situations above the character gave it his all and did everything absolutely right with perfect execution but the defender was just that much better. This DOES require thinking of the defender in pro-active terms: What *action* is the defender taking to defend himself and what does it’s *success* look like. In many ways don’t think in terms of failure at all. Think only in terms of who is succeeding.


  13. Helmsman

    @Jessie – I really like what you’ve said there and I think some of the lack of focus on the defender’s narrative comes from the vast majority of defenses being unrolled. Rolling dice is dynamic, referencing a number is static, thus the actions they represent feel that way.

  14. Rob Donoghue

    @Jessie I admit it’s a little disingenuous to say we *can’t* make this stuff work – years of experience says we can – but what makes me leery about putting too much burden on the defender is that it’s a little bit too easy to shift the focus away from the players or (possibly worse) fail them in a way that suits _your_ sensibilities, but not theirs.

    Now, your combat example illustrates why I’m fuzzier on this in combat. Because there are a lot of rolls, there’s a lot more ebb and flow. In something like 4e, where the combat is largely mechanical, there are reasons to consider foreknowledge that simply don’t apply in a more open-ended game. But a social roll (or really any roll that is greatly simplifying a broad, complicated swath of activity) is a minefield for potential misunderstanding and miscommunication.

    There’s actually a nice, easy example to bust out, which is knowing when to stop. Assuming the character is actually good at what he does, he also knows when things are going pear shaped, and he knows to cut his losses and call it quits to prevent further damage. A single roll lacks that nuance, but depending on the GM’s decision regarding what happens, the GM may be implicitly making the decision of when the character stopped. TO the Gm this may seem like no big deal, but to the player, this is basically punching agency in the face.

    Again, not to say it’s impossible to solve. But that’s the point of techniques and GM skill – to have the tool in your bag, and to know when to use it.

    -Rob D.

  15. Rob Donoghue

    Though speaking of Attacker, Defender and failure, I’ll put in this plug. even if you never use it again, it’s worth playing the SAGA system at least once to get the traditional ideas of attacker and defender upended. In it, the player is _always_ the attacker, even when he’s the defender.

  16. Cam_Banks

    Or rather, in SAGA, the player is ALWAYS the acting character, and the NPC is ALWAYS the static character. Player characters are called heroes, in fact, whereas any non-player character is just a character. The game is very much angled towards the players being the spotlight, and I applaud that.

  17. Helmsman

    Rob, your mention of how the SAGA system resolves it’s actions leads to an interesting thought.

    If the players are always the attacker and thus the action focus is always on them… by taking the action focus off them marks a genuine shift in the tone of the game. By altering that simple mechanic you turn the PC’s from the heroes to the underdogs. That has huge implications on the tone of the game. Understanding how and when to switch that focus could potentially bring some cool elements to the surface.

    …. or it could just come off as horribly pretentious.


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