This is another one of those ideas that I make no claim to novelty of, but i want to talk about because it’s pretty important. Game design has been slowly getting its hands around the role of failure in play. It’s a big and complicated topic (that can look surprisingly simple) with many different answers, but a lot of good conclusions have been reached, at least intellectually.
Now, first, it’s important to note that there is a mode of play where failure is supposed to be educational, presuming you survive it. It is a tool of exploration, and a necessary component of trial and error. If you miss a clue, then you might not solve the mystery, and the consequences will roll forth from that, so maybe you better hustle to find another solution. RPGs are pretty good at this type of failure, and it has its own body of technique which I’m not speaking to today, except to say that if this is what you’re looking to do, then totally don’t worry about the rest of it.
Another approach is based on the idea that failure should not stop play, and arguably should not stop fun. Failure, in whatever its form, should keep the game moving – failing forward, as it were. This idea is most clearly crystallized in Gumshoe, where investigation skills cannot fail, so long as there’s something to look for, because having a game come to a dead stop because of a failed roll is pretty dull. This same thinking can be applied to rolled failures – the character may still fail, but the plot will unfold in such a way that play will keep moving forward.
I am, I admit, a little skeptical of this approach. I heartily applaud the sentiment, and there are definitely situations where it’s applicable, but it shows some cracks in practice. It provides a lot of opportunity to showcase how many ways a GM can say “no” without actually saying “no” for one thing – judging applicability of the situation or requirements produce the same result as a no, but with a bit more absolution.
Also, practically, a lot of games with very generous theories of failure have very concrete mechanical measures of failure. Even if the game is going to be very generous about what failing a Socialize check might mean, odds are good the attack and defense rolls are pretty darn explicit in their outcomes.
This is not necessarily bad, but it’s worth being cognizant of.
The problem, I think, is one of mindfulness. GMs are busy, and when presented with a specific failure, they have incentive to take the simplest path through, and that is often either a flat no or a mechanical resolution. This is just human nature. But if you can get a GM to stop for a second and think “how can I make this result interesting?”, i think that almost every GM is capable of providing a satisfying answer.
That is to say, the problem is not one of creativity, it is a challenge of helping the GM stop and think. This is the real genius of the Powered by the Apocalypse (PBTA) 7–9 result – its specifics may be good or bad on a particular move, but it does not allow the GM to fall into a rut – she has to stop and think. And once you’ve gotten the GM to think, good things happen.
Other rubrics can help. “Failure should move the plot along” can force the GM to think, but it’s a little bit plot-dependent. When it works, it can really keep things moving, but it definitely relies on a strong idea of what the plot is. I usually don’t, so that only helps so much.
My preferred approach is fairly predictable – as usual, I look at something plot centric and wonder about making it character centric. With that in mind, I practice something I call Respectful Failure. That is, the failure must respect the capability and concept of the character taking the action.
For example, if the character is a world class sniper, and they blow a roll to hit, then I cannot simply say they miss. That pretty much denies their concept. Instead, I must come up with an explanation for why they missed which is respectful of the character’s competency. That forces me to think, and it gets me a lot of what I love out of 7–9s in PBTA – it complicates the game. Why? Because when characters are very competent, their reasons for failure need to be interesting. To get back to our sniper, if he fails, then it might be because:
- The shot was lined up but that’s when the counternsiper opened fire
- Someone else shot the dude first
- It was a hit, but it was the body double!
And so on.
Note that my priority here is respecting the character, but the result of that is something that moves the action forward. This resembles advancing the plot, but it’s a subtly different beast, because I have no plot to speak of (also, it posits a very fluid gameworld, which is not to everyone’s tastes, and that’s fine – see the original disclaimer.)
Now, this is not necessarily something I will do on every roll, because not every roll is a showcase of the character’s concept. If our sniper tries to pick a lock, and the dice turn against him, I have no problem saying the lock is too well made and that he fails to open it (though I will not create a situation where picking that lock is the only way to keep playing, because I don’t hate my players) because picking a lock is something incidental to his concept. If he were playing a cat burglar, it would be a different matter.
Some games give very clear flags for which rolls deserve respect, and things like very high skill ranks and things like aspects are all useful pointers. But I admit there’s also a bit of reading the table and the situation involved – how much spotlight has that player gotten? How much do they want to have? What is the rest of the table interested in? Can the consequences of this toss the ball to someone else? The answers to questions like that help me adjust my decision making on the fly.
To go back to the lockpicking example, I might interpret a failure as picking the lock but triggering the alarm if the team’s hacker has been sitting on his hands for a while – the failure gives me a chance to toss the hacker the ball and give him a challenge to overcome.
And that’s a key technique there – a failed roll can easily be a success with consequences if you have a high trust table and loosely articulated stakes. If you’re doing strict stake-setting, this would probably be in bad faith. But strict stake setting is slow and boring, so that doesn’t worry me too much. 🙂
This works in most loose systems, but it has a particular challenge in Fate. We designed Fate pretty generously, enough so that failure is not terribly common, especially within the character’s core concept. As such, it is hard to get the cycle of respectful failure moving at the table with old habits. But I’m wondering if the right answer is to be a bit more of a bastard GM (I am usually too kind) and put more pressure on the fate point economy, enough so that the players feel more obliged to stomach the occasional failure. But that is a topic for future experimentation.
1- For the unfamiliar, a lot of rolls in Apocalypse World and other games using the engine work something like “Roll 2d6 plus a modifier. on a 6 or less, you fail. On a 10 or more you succeed. On a 7-9 you get a mixed result, like a success with complications or a failure with mitigation” with specific details varying.