Sliding Success

Success at a cost is one of my favorite mechanics. The -World games are the poster child for it at the moment, it’s something I first encountered in John Harper’s[1] Talislanta design, which includes partial success in its outcome ladder. The idea is older than that, of course, but like all such things, there’s an evolution to it.

In many ways, the evolution becomes more obvious when you think about things in terms of cost. A lot of games have (implicitly or explicitly) the idea of there being a cost associated with success, even if that cost is as mundane as an expenditure of resources. This is true on an action level, but also on a more abstract level – consider that this is ultimately the metagame surrounding the average dungeon crawl – ablation of resources over the course of an adventure can be viewed as an extensive cost-benefit analysis equation.

Yes, that’s kind of bloodless, but that’s usually because it’s fairly bloodless costs. The reason that we think of -World partial successes as something different is because they are explicitly interesting costs (rather than costs based on utility). And that difference points to some fun design space – cost is often an engine to convert between utility and fun (hopefully in the direction of fun).

Fate has a fun hook in for this in the form of consequences. There are a few hacks out there which allow for the pre-emptive spending of consequences for bonuses, and it’s an idea I enjoy a lot, but it’s also just the tip of the iceberg. As is, Fate runs into a bit of weirdness with success with consequences.

Note, this is not a flaw. Fate embraces the idea of “Failing Forward”, so by and large it folds the idea of success with consequence into the definition of failure, rather than making it an interim step between failure and success. That solves a very different problem than partial success do, but they’re complimentary technologies. Fate’s approach is all about teaching fruitful failure, the -World approach is all about interesting success. If you can get your hands around both these ideas, then the mechanics become almost irrelevant – you can make a coin flip fun.

But until you get to that point, it’s still a fun mechanical space to play around with, and I’ve been pondering something that looks like this:


I was struck by the idea of different tiers of costs paired with a bit of -world thinking. That is to say, imagine that a success costs 0 points for an outcome outside of your control (critical failure), 1 point for expected failure, 2 points for success, 4 points for critical success. You generate some number of points with your roll (whatever system that is) and you can increase those points at a small (1 point), medium (2 points) or great (4 points) cost. Don’t get too hung up on the exact costs – it’s the idea that matters.

The key here is that you can insert costs into either success or failure. That part is definitely best of both world, but the trade off is that it’s a bit clunky. I’m not sure whit would work as a mechanic so much as a conceptual tool, to identify how a given roll could actually produce a variety of outcomes.

No specific outcome of these thoughts yet, just something to kick around.

  1. Because John Harper is the “Simpson’s Did It First” of RPG design. Which is why it’s worth noting that Harper has started a Patreon for his designs, and that’s pretty awesome.  ↩

6 thoughts on “Sliding Success

  1. Travis B

    Thinking about the cost of success in FATE, what about allowing a player to ignore -‘s on a roll? Thus getting a higher result, but those -‘s that were ignored transmute or move elsewhere in the system to cause trouble for the player. Either immediately, or later. Perhaps filling up a meter or some conflicted gauge mechanism.

    So if I need to make a roll of 6 with a skill of +4, and the fudge dice come up -,-,+,+ ; I could ignore the 2 -‘s for a result of +2. Just that those -‘s aren’t freely ignored, I’ll have to deal with the consequences one way or another.

    Bonus if you work the defrayed -‘s into a metaphysical system that could generate additional narrative on its own. Like Paradox in the Mage system or Limit in Exalted.

      1. Travis B

        Thanks! I’m glad you like, and are most welcome to use it. Hehe, if you can figure out some of the actuals I’d love to hear about it. I’ve been toying with the how to apply those -‘s in my custom version of FATE for a while now, but no luck. I’m about ready to abandon that merger in favor of a leaner version centered around this idea instead.

        I was thinking of making a Kung-Fu centered version of FATE where the more powerful techniques allow the player to roll more fudge dice, and where the -‘s are used as a defensive penalty. That way, powerful moves carry greater risk, yet risk that doesn’t reduce their effectiveness. Sadly, Fate X is not the right system for this ~__~ too much shoehorning required.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      And more, that dovetails really well into some other dice interpretations I’ve been chewing on. Must ponder.

  2. Random_Phobosis

    This reminds me, I once made a small comedy RPG where every action basically was mandatory success, and the roll was only needed to know how much critical failures happened because of that.

  3. Jason

    This reminds me of the specialized dice from FFG’s Edge of the Empire game.

    You can generate successes, failures, bonuses and banes with the same roll. It also includes critical failure and critical success too.

    So it covers the range of your chart in one roll. with some instruction on how to translate that into the fiction.

    For Fate, I might use two colors of Fate dice to replicate this in one roll. So my black fate dice would be standard failure to success scale, and my red dice would be cost to benefit scale. This wouldn’t allow for crits without some tinkering.


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