A heroine scans the horizon, searching for the army that is pursuing her and her friends. Failing her Spot check, she does not see them in the darkness of night. A hero attempts to convince a king of his party’s noble goals, but botches his Etiquette roll. While battling a nefarious deathknight, a whole group of adventurers is wiped out.

Failure is common feature of RPGs. Most RPGs include the option of failure (and those that do not often provide other avenues for expressing similar results.) The potential for failure creates investment in the story being told. But not all failure is the same, and the way failure is treated changes the feel of the game.

For example, Dread is a game of growing tension and sudden loss, and its way of expressing failure plays into that theme. Failure means death, or at the very least, inescapable doom. Success is, by comparison, a fairly mundane result. But in Dogs in the Vineyard it’s literally impossible to have a conflict in which nothing changes about your character. This plays into the character drama that the game is built around. In a more traditional game like D&D, failure may mean “nothing”. It’s the simple absence of whatever change was sought. Clearly, when we’re designing games, we need to consider the impact of how we deal with failure in our system.

Parallel to this concept of failure is the idea of consequences for our actions. Failure—and success, for that matter—is most interesting when there are consequences as a result. Some times, a Spot check is crucial. Many times, it’s superfluous. The difference is in consequences.

But balancing consequences against actions is surprisingly hard. The scope of the consequence needs to match the scope of the action. The outcome needs to be plausible for the action. The result needs to match the style and theme of the game. Worse still, situations that come up in RPGs are frequently unique, which defies any attempt at providing a by-the-numbers system for resolution; any system provided needs to allow the people using it to customize the results.

Further complicating matters are failures that produce results that make the game less fun, as Kit described in yesterday’s post. Here’s an example: a super spy wrestles with a deadly but unnamed thug on top of a train in eastern Europe. This is obviously a scene fraught with danger, but having James Bond get beheaded by a iron girder by Bad Guy #7 is a bit unsatisfying. We want there to be consequences for losing the fight with this nameless agent of evil, but some outcomes which are plausible intellectually don’t match our social frame of what’s right. Most of the time though, the system by which we resolve a fight with faceless minion is the same that we use in our climactic battle versus the Villain of Doom.

D&D attempted to solve some of this problem in its latest edition by establishing a split system for minions. Minions are 1 HP monsters that do a fixed amount of damage when they hit, and take no damage when someone misses, regardless of what power they’re using. Nor is it alone: Feng Shui is another system for which Mooks are handled differently from named villains that pre-dates 4E. Split systems are tempting, and possibly even appropriate when the consequences of those scenes are a reduced capacity to fight on in later scenes. I’m not a huge fan of them, because they often don’t blend very well, but it’s definitely a way to solve theme issues.

Spirit of the Century called attention to the dichotomy of success and failure and called upon GMs to ensure that both sides of the division are interesting outcomes. Really, this is the same theory of consequences as stated here. If there’s nothing at stake, then failure is meaningless. However, as we found out in designing In a Dragon-Guarded Land, the stakes at the beginning of a conflict can frequently change by the end. There’s inherent messiness to the consequences of failure and systems frequently phone it in with figuring out how to handle them.

The point here, though, is that an RPG system is more defined by how it handles failure than how it handles success and rightly so. While success is fun and ultimately rewarding, success devoid of challenge is empty; failure is how that challenge is expressed.

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