2017-06-07 : Failure in RPGs (by Paganini)

Quoth my old friend Paganini:

It used to be like this:

DM: The plot is behind that locked door.
Fighter: I pick the lock.
DM: Ye can't pick ye lock, you're a fighter. Bring a rogue next time.
Fighter: *goes and does something else, missing the plot*
- OR -
DM: Roll!
Rogue: *rolls 100 or so times over the course of the next 3 days, fighting off concomitant wondering monster attacks, until one of a few things happens:*
1. He finally rolls that 20
2. The party gives up and leaves, thus missing the plot
3. The wandering monsters wipe out the party
4. The DM gets bored and has his Precious Favorite NPC, Dios ab Mechanicos, briefly poke his head around the corner and wave his Wand O' Knockin' at the door, leaving the party wondering why good ol' Dios doesn't just finish the whole adventure for them.

It didn't take folks (at least, some folks) to decide this was stupid, so in the 80s and 90s, when I got into RPGs, we had lots of pithy Wisdom Slogans, like "don't hide the plot behind a locked door" and "don't make the players roll to cross the room or tie their shoes." I.e., if the mechanics are causing a problem, do an end run around them. "Use the mechanics when there's a reasonable chance of failure." Also known as "use the mechanics when you decide to use the mechanics." I guess this is what most gamers are still doing, since they mainly play Pathfinder, apparently.

So then (for me) was the Forge, System Matters, and lots of games that handled this one way or another, like Burning Wheel's "your roll is your best shot; you can't pick this lock until something changes, so go change something then come back and try again." Or your "only roll when there's a possibility of interesting failure." I think this became the default approach incorporated into basically every Forge game. So that is both reactionary in an understandable way ("whiffing is boring!"), and also good for story gaming in the sense that I take "interesting failure" to mean "some real person has feelings about that failure."

That, to me, was the real point of "conflict resolution." It wasn't, in the long run, about whether or not the plot got stuck behind the locked door, it was about whether or not the mechanics would occasionally force me to feel sad (or whatever) about what happened to a character so that when I felt happy (or whatever) about what happened to a character it was that much more real. That's what "In a Wicked Age" is about right? I'm my character's biggest fan, and the characters are set up so that the biggest fans of the other characters are going to screw with my character in a way I don't like, and we'll all naturally go straight to the dice, where I'll win (hah HAH) or lose (AUGH, MY POOR CHARACTER) and have feelings either way.

What I'm thinking about right now, though, is that in stories we consume - books, movies, whatever - characters do actually whiff. Sometimes Elric tries to summon Arioch, and he just can't get it up. I have a couple of thoughts about this that are basically questions.

First, maybe I'm just whistling in the dark. I don't totally understand those whiffing scenes and why authors include them, so maybe the're just *bad writing,* and it's good if we don't have them in our games.

Second, maybe emergent group-authored RPG stories are different in some way that disqualifies dead ends from being interesting. What is that way?

Third, maybe we can "rehabilitate the whiff." Maybe there's a way to make "meaningless failure" (from the character's perspective) into "meaningful failure" (from the player's perspective). That means I have to answer the question "why was it interesting for Elric to fail? - why did the author include that scene at all?" This seems usually to be something about cost, like "afterwards Elric is exhausted, so pushing through the next fight is that much more of a heroic effort." But sometimes it seems like it's just there for humanizing effect: "you couldn't manage that climb; you'll have to go around."

I put this idea into the sword & sorcery game I'm working on, but I'm not totally satisfied. I have "Obstacles," basically, unmotivated features of the universe that get in your way. Typical Sword & Sorcery stuff like chasms to cross, wizard towers to climb, deadly ice fields to trudge across, etc. You get a free shot at overcoming an obstacle. If you fail, you can just walk away. At the last second, the chasm was too wide, so you didn't jump after all. You made it part way up the tower, but your grip slipped and you fell off and landed on your feet. But if you can "double down" if you want; you can sacrifice some WILLPOWER to try again, and this time there's risk: if you fail again, there's some extended complication, depending on what you were trying to do. Either the GM gets to spring a bunch of nasty shit on you, or you can buy off the failure just by taking straight up damage. (You fell and twisted your ankle, or whatever.)

So this works, but it's not that much different from our old friends "no," and "no, and... ." Mainly, what it doesn't do, is make obstacles and straight failures do whatever it is that they do in literature. All that it does is give the player the opportunity to invest some game currency in a situation and trade for narrative currency.

Maybe I can summarize like this: I want to have these scenes, because without them what my game makes is less like what I'm trying to get (Sword & Sorcery fiction). But I'm not totally sure why those scenes are in the fiction, so I'm not sure how to make them work in a game except in a sort of "monkey see, monkey do pastiche" kind of way.

1. On 2017-06-07, Vincent said:

My favorite true adventure book is The Ra Expiditions by Thor Heyerdahl. In it, Thor and company build a reproduction of an ancient Egyptian reed ship and sail it across the Atlantic.

To build the ship, they bring in a reed shipbuilder from Chad, who's built many lake-scale reed boats but never an oceangoing one like this one. With him they closely examine all the existing models and drawings of ancient Egyptian ships, and they show this rope tied for no apparent reason from the peak of the stern to the middle of the deck, right where everyone will trip on it all the time. They can't figure out why it's there. Finally they decide that the artist drew it there by mistake, and leave it off.

So then they cross out of the Mediterranean into the Atlantic, and the first full-size ocean swell they roll over, the ship doesn't form a spring the way it would if the peak of the stern were tied to the deck - the rope made a bow of the ship, with itself as the bowstring - and the swell breaks the spine of their ship. The whole rest of the expedition, they have to work and struggle and fight to keep sailing.



direct link

This makes...
Pag go "I read about that..."*

*click in for more

2. On 2017-06-07, Epidiah said:

One important quality of failure in fiction is to imbue your foe or obstacle with enough heft that overcoming it feels as glorious as it should. It's a lesson I learned from pro-wrestling, because those are some storytellers who really know how to draw you in with failure. I wrote a bit about this a few years back while I was developing Swords Without Master, so it's all steeped in the language of sword & sorcery.

You can read what I wrote here.


3. On 2017-06-07, Ben said:

I feel like the example you describe is a classic case of "Yes, but..."  and not really an example of failure at all.  In this case the group made a ship design roll, and didn't succeed very well.  So they got a boat, but it was unstable.  mechanically it feels like something that should be managed by a condition (say the boat has the condition "unstable" or "fragile" or something).  Now they're in the boat carrying the "unstable" condition, so whenever something happens that the GM (or players) think is affected by the boats instability, the condition could be used as justification, or as a modifier to a roll, etc.  You could also build this into a point design system (take the "unstable" flaw for your boat, get 2 extra points to spend on "fast construction" or whatever).


4. On 2017-06-07, nerdwerds said:

I think you have a general assumption that the plot is behind the door. Sometimes the plot is "can you pick that lock?" and if the answer is "yes" then the plot is behind the door, and if the answer is "no" then the plot isn't, that door isn't that important anyway so go find another door.

"No status quos" isn't something you wrote as a principle or agenda in Apocalypse World, but it was the best lesson I took away from those rules.


5. On 2017-06-07, Vincent said:

I think that this is probably necessary viewing too:


direct link

This makes...
JACN go "Man. This is fun and interesting."

6. On 2017-06-07, Michael said:

I don't think it's exactly what you're looking for here, but Blades in the Dark is worth thinking about. There's the three kinds of rolls in there (Controlled, Risky, Desperate), and the results for failure on Controlled rolls explicitly include options for just kind of missing your chance or needing to try a different approach.


7. On 2017-06-07, Michael said:

Oh, and at least the way I've seen John run it, he frequently offers the player options on a Controlled failure: something along the lines of "you can see this isn't going to work out, so you can just walk away now ... but if you want to push it, you can lean in, take X risk, and re-attempt it as a Risky roll."


8. On 2017-06-07, Ben said:

The one thing that I think is overlooked in that video is that Max (the PC, if we think about it from a gaming perspective) never has "Random" failure happen to him.  There is failure, but not for the PC.  He succeeds long enough for all the cool visuals to happen, and then fails at the dramatically appropriate moment. 

One thing to take away from the video though is making the environmental hazards (bandits, in this case) interesting.  In a chase scene its easy to have the pursuers be a monolithic block, with only the specific ones interacting with the PCs at a given moment getting any kind of importance.  In some ways it seems like trying to add random encounters back in.  In the mad max example, every round the GM rolls on the "Pursuers crazy shit happening table" (probably want to work on that name), and you end up with dramatic things happening that provide color but could also again provide conditions to the scene.  on a roll of 3 on the PCSH table, one of the cars accidentally activates its nitrous, requiring everyone to make a drive check, and the lowest drive check gets hit, taking damage or letting the pursuers get closer/farther depending on who got hit.  this would be in addition to whatever actions the pursuers and pursued are taking, so it would add an element of chaos without interfering with the PCs ability to remain engaged.


9. On 2017-06-07, Callan S, said:

The point of literature isn't to try and disappear into it, it's supposed to give a moral or lesson. When a character fails, it's because they didn't try hard enough or didn't look before they leaped or didn't save their pennies or some other message (not necessarily a correct one) about how people should do things in life.

Where as in traditional RPGs PCs fail things because...they just didn't pass the roll. There is no message from an author when it happens. And gamers seem to try and treat these fail results as meaningful, even though they have no message, until meaning obliterates for them. And they are left wondering why they have fails and worse, why literature ever has failures. The message of literature (whether the message is right or not doesn't matter for now) is hidden behind a big blurry cataract.

For example, imagine if you could only fail a 'roll' if you had some character flaw associated with it - your PC just can't be bothered preparing himself, so he fails the check to see if he brings enough food on the expedition. He doesn't just roll and f's up because the dice rolled in a particular direction. Does something seem to clear things a little and something past a blur starts to be visible?


10. On 2017-06-07, Tom said:

One other point of failure in literature is to keep protagonists from solving every problem the exact same way.  If Elric can always whistle up an Elder God to handle issues for him why would he ever do anything else?

One thing that's fun about AW is the way you change up the attribute that generates bonus XP for the character.  You mention that it's there to entice the characters to work outside their comfort zone.  A gunlugger probably shouldn't open their mind to the malestrom but there's a tasty XP in it for them if they do.

Perhaps more explicit deals like this could produce this kind of failure—botch this attempt that you should be able to handle (or that relies on your most accomplished skill/trait/etc.) and I'll give you a bonus for trying to work it out through a method you aren't very good at and/or the success from that will be greater than it would if you just did what was expected.


direct link

This makes...
Pag go "This reminds me of "*

*click in for more

11. On 2017-06-07, Joshua A.C. Newman said:

For me right now, the important thing is keeping the ball in play. Eppy does this in a really enlightening way in Vast & Starlit, where failure, such as it is, makes a desirable kind of mess - in this case, a mess for everyone else - while guaranteeing that it only matters if it's difficult (if so, it tells you to effectively tell us the next thing we have to do); or it's dangerous, or both (which is the mess-making option).

So if I'm a shiny-muscled hero climbing a tower to get the MacGuffin of Blurgoroth and I slip and fall, it might be either a brief moment that demonstrates how hard it is to do; or it's an extended moment where my stakes have gotten high, and that's when I'm captured and tied up (in a sexy way, of course).

Part of the thing is that we're never actually concerned that Conan is going to fall and die. Conan, of course, is concerned that he's going to fall and die, and in an RPG we have to thread that needle. But we can feel confident, once we've seen him that elephant, that he'll either get what he wants, or, more likely, get something else that's better for us, even if it's not better for him.

(Chrome still remembers that I have to type "toaster"!)


direct link

This makes...
JACN go "Consarn it, with forgetting to close the emphasis!"
VB go "Got it!"
JACN go "????"
Pag go "This ties into an idea I have about RPGs as distinct from fiction:"*

*click in for more

12. On 2017-06-08, Ben Lehman said:

let's talk about this on the phone. I have a lot of thoughts based on playing RPGs with novelists.


13. On 2017-06-08, Emily Care said:

Maybe a narrative function test would be helpful to think about Whiffs in trad media? Do they ever actually do nothing?

Does the failure escalate tension?
Does the failure force the character to involve other characters or other resources?
Does the failure illuminate aspects of character?
Does the failure surprise, amuse or educate the audience?
Other useful things?

What scenes can you think of where the answer's always "no?" Do those scenes feel like bad writing? If not why not? What is enjoyable there?


14. On 2017-06-08, Paganini said:

This is a great thread! I will try to participate by not babbling in an unknown tongue, although I am low on sleep and high on flight time.

What started me thinking about this in the first place is that I was reading Moorcock - Elric on the Seas of Fate, or something like that - and Elric is on a ship in some alternate plane being chased by one of his ancestors on like this giant magic powered barge thing. Elric tries to summon up Arioch for help and he can't do it. His magic doesn't work well on this plane. So he fails, and exhausts himself. When I read that I thought "now wait a minute, what was the point of that? I just read a page and a half of Elric howling and dancing and freaking out his companions, and the situation hasn't changed."

Now an idea is taking vague and hazy shape in my mind. If I imagine "what would have happened if Arioch had shown up?" and rewrite the rest of the story, then that scene is substantially different. So, the whiff doesn't actually do nothing. It Closed a Door. It... narrows the situational focus I guess. So that when the conflict eventually does resolve and Elric actually has to make a thematic decision, those circumstances are different than they would have been if Arioch had shown up.

And on the other hand, if Elric just hadn't tried at all, then maybe the readers would be going "well, hey, why doesn't Elric just have Arioch come and dispatch this turkey?"

I think with the Ra Expeditions there's also an emergent element that would be cool to capture. We make our ship-building roll, and we think it's a success. We sail on some calm waters and everything is fine. It's only later when we face tougher adversity that we discover the flaw.

This makes me think of danger dice in Danger Patrol, and rollover bonus dice in Sorcerer.


15. On 2017-06-08, Ajaxnz said:

I've always interpreted those failures in fiction as akin to an apoc-world failure.
The MC move is harm or the consequences of time passing, do the determination that help/desperate measures are needed to try again.
The odd exception that feels like a 'no, but here's another opportunity' are either MC generosity on a fail or a particularly harsh partial.

I've always thought the key to the boringness of the D&D whiff was the ability to just try the same thing again in the same circumstances. Fiction doesn't tend to do that.


16. On 2017-06-09, Paganini said:

Ajax said: "I've always thought the key to the boringness of the D&D whiff was the ability to just try the same thing again in the same circumstances. Fiction doesn't tend to do that."

Absolutely. I didn't get to it earlier, but one of the things I've been thinking is that real-life tasks aren't statistical. There's no guaranteed "chance of success" if you just keep trying enough times. Doesn't matter if Elric "summons him again," Arioch is just not coming. So it seems like part of handling this right is to do what Burning Wheel does - one roll for every possible "try" or contingency.

I got locked out of my house a few times over the last year as I was getting used to the new routine. It's a kind of funny feeling - actually being blocked and unable to proceed. The first time I got back in through the window with the AC, but the second time the AC was winterized and the house was sealed up tight. 

I think there are three related interesting things here.

The first one is sort of "conflict resolution" adjacent. The overall question was very clearly not "can you open this door," but, "can you get into the house?"

The second one is that that made it about cost. I either had to spend time waiting for my girlfriend to come let me in, or I had to damage the house in some way necessitating actual financial cost and additional time for repairs.

The third one is about scale of action. It's sort of like Pace in Trollbabe I guess. My Goal was "get into the house," and my first try was "I open the door." But the door was locked, so I had to change my approach. "I'll try going in through the
window where the AC is!"

Having the camera "zoomed in" some can generate content. "That way didn't work, come up with a new idea," rather than just applying some blanket resolution mechanic to the whole scene. 

So this is more about the kind of "conflict" where the world is getting in your way, and the GM is standing in as the world's advocate. Not so much about missed attack rolls.

Is that making sense?


17. On 2017-06-10, Andrew Gronosky said:

Hi, I'm new here, so I hope you don't mind if I chime in. :-)

I think the reason characters "whiff" in fiction is to create dramatic tension. Specifically, what was described to me in a writer's seminar as dramatic reversal—changing who has the upper hand.

Basically, winning all the time or even being in control all the time is not fun. Human nature is to strive and being in control is the opposite of striving.

In the Elric story Paginini cited, I would say the narrative purpose of whiffing the Arioch-summoning "roll" is to say to the reader, Elric is not in control here. His best power didn't work. He's in real trouble. How is he going to get out of this? Similarly, in The Ra Expeditions, the ship's spine breaking shows the crew is in real trouble.

In a good story, the reversal of fortune happens several times. Let me refer to Star Wars: A New Hope. It starts out with Princess Leia's ship as she gets captured. Darth Vader has the upper hand. But wait! The two loyal droids escaped, and one of them had the Death Star plans! But wait! The droids are lost and helpless on a rugged alien planet and got captured by mysterious cloaked villains. But wait! Here's the obvious hero, Luke Skywalker, buying the droids and agreeing to take them to Obi-Wan Kenobi! But wait! During the search for Obi-Wan, Luke gets his butt kicked by a Tusken raider! But wait! He gets rescued by kindly old Ben Kenobi! and so on...

There has to be that back-and-forth for the story to be any good. There's more to a good story than characters overcoming challenges: they need setbacks, they need the sense their goals are imperiled. Sometimes—often!—they need to be forced to try Plan B.

Die rolls in RPGs aren't a great surrogate for these kinds of narrative setbacks. A die roll is usually too limited in time and individually too small in importance. So I don't really have an answer to "why does Elric whiff his roll?" other than to say, in non-interactive fiction, things are different, and the author did that to create tension and draw us into the story.

Can we use dice rolls, especially failed dice rolls, to draw the players more into the story? Hmm ... maybe. If it's possible to rehabilitate the whiff, I'd try the approach of the whiff as a dramatic setback of some kind.


18. On 2017-06-15, Tim Koppang said:

From my point of view, failure is the defaul. We fail far more often than we succeed. So I think that failure is humanizing in a fundamental way—to the point where a character that never fails feels alien and therefore fake. Plus, failure is way more interesting because each failure is a crucible that shapes our character. It's the rare successes in a sea of failure that that feels glorious. But that glory will feel like a given if there isn't true failure.

In storytelling, failure is absolutely common. It's just that those failures so often lead to another challenge (maybe a string of challenges) that eventually lead to success that it's easy to label the entire string a success. I think that's a mistake. The eventual (maybe inevitable) success is only worthwhile after a string of failures. That we the audience know the progtagonist will probably make it out of the overall situation successfully is beside the point. It's the struggle that really matters because the struggle is what comprises all the human details that tell us about who the character really is and isn't.

Finally, thre "whiff" is something handled poorly in D&D because it's out of tune with the rest of the experience, and because it's so easy to simply roll the dice and try again (another source of dissonance). In storytelling more generally, however, the whiff is something rare but useful. It breaks the flow of the story like an exclamation mark. It can be formative or humorous, but the whiff should give the reader pause, and should point to something interesting in the story or the character. At least that's my opinion. I'm sure there are other reasons to include a whiff, but I hold there should at least be a break in the story to point out that the whiff is significant.


19. On 2017-06-19, rabalias said:

I think you're talking about two separate things.

First, failure in the immediate moment which forces you to come up with an interesting alternative (or leads to adversity). That's the "Elric can't get it up" situation. I think that's pretty easy, actually: you describe it above as "your roll is your best shot" (which means now you have to try something else) and also, in PBTA, you design it as "you fail, something interesting happens" (which covers the times Elric fails and is dragged off somewhere or whatever).

The question in that case is: how can we ensure that failure happens in a situation where it will be interesting instead of just randomly cropping up and potentially being really dull? Michael Moorcock has the advantage of being able to think out the alternatives and choose something cool. So do you! Just as long as the dice aren't set up to make things a binary choice. Like, I dunno, Psi*Run, you need a system that gives you randomness that you can then make choices with, or maybe just make it diceless.

The second situation is the thing with the boat, which is just entirely different. That's immediate success that later turns out to have been failure. Seems like you could put the failure to one side and unleash it at a future date. You failed your "design boat" roll, but I don't want you not to go to sea, so instead of making my move straight away, I write "your boat will fall apart the moment the water gets choppy" on an index card, and place it face down with an evil grin on my face. Or perhaps I just inform the players that's what's happened, but tell them their characters don't know. This requires me to have some foresight and the players to be willing to go forward despite knowing something bad will happen when they do, but that doesn't seem all that difficult.


20. On 2017-06-19, Paul T. said:

The issue of fictional failure which appears like a roadblock is interesting, and tricky to handle, I think. I haven't seen an RPG do it particularly well (except for games which allow you to edit the story more like an author, like PTA or some storytelling games I've played - the more "author/storyteller stance" there is going on, the easier it is to enable).

However, Vincent, your example of the boat-builders is something I can address!

I think that, in a story like that, you're either dealing with a problem-solving and resource-managing challenge (i.e. the characters decided not to put the rope on the ship because they ran out of time to figure out how or why to do it) or a meaningful story beat which is being foreshadowed in advance and carries meaning. The latter is most like a moral tale.

This is interesting, in practice: we are building anticipation and logical foreshadowing by describing how the characters attempt to build the boat, the choices they make, their oversights or seemingly clever decisions, and then that pays off in the long run (dramatically speaking).

I think that, in such a situation, the only way to make it happen is to *get all the players to buy into it* together. We have to be committed to building up those bit of foreshadowing and looking forward to finding out how it all turns out. The game must be focused on that, in other words, and give some guarantee (even an uncertain guarantee!) that it will pay off.

I think it would be a pretty interesting to say that, hey, this thing is important:

* We're working hard on building this boat.
* Because our characters are like THAT - or because they have these flaws or these character strengths - they make THIS meaningful decision.

Later, in an important moment in the story/game, we know that it will matter. I think it would be most interesting if we didn't know HOW it will matter.

The most obvious mechanic:

We arrive at a turning point (the storm, in this case), and we roll to see what impact the decision to leave out that rope has.

On a poor roll, it is our downfall: our characters were overly proud and they overlooked an important point - because of this, the ship snaps in half and they drown.

On a good roll, it is the opposite: the rope would have limited the ship's flexibility and it's only without it that they were able to survive the storm. (Heck, perhaps we then find out that every other expedition - with that rope in place - never made it, and they are the first to make the crossing!)

Either way, though, that decision should be meaningful, so we can all contribute to it and make it significant, building on it from the very start (as a good author does), creating a sense of inevitability.


RSS feed: new comments to this thread