Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Failing Forward

My recent harrowing adventure with falafel got me thinking about how failure affects games.  I’m not talking failure as a GM or Player.  I’m referring to how a character's failures affect the narrative and how to keep it from being too damaging.  Some failure on the parts of characters is necessary in a game, being unable to fail is ultimately boring. I feel that failure is too common in most games.

In D&D, the standard has long been that failure should happen a little less than 50% of the time.  Your character should hit, succeed as a moderate skill check, or fight off a poison with the same consistency (assuming that you didn't specialize).  This ratio has advantages and disadvantages.  For an average character at a task there is tension every time the dice are picked up.  The strong possibility of failure makes every roll feel important.  This also allows the specialists to really shine. The archer that never misses and the expert climber who scales with ease stand out from the pack when their time comes.

There are significant drawbacks with the 50/50 standard failure rate, however.  With such a high rate of failure, your characters often won't feel very awesome. It gives the sense that they are stumbling through the world, getting by more on luck than skill.  Since the odds remain the same throughout the levels, this also leads to the feeling that the characters are static.  While you are adding higher and higher numbers to your roll as you grow in level, your odds remain the same. This can lead to the feeling of running in place.  There is also the issue of when multiple rolls are required for a single action and a single failure is all you need.  I see this most often when a group of characters is called to make stealth checks or a character is asked to climb a cliff or high wall.  The odds are so high that there will be at least one failure, it hardly seems worthwhile to roll at all.

You also have to look at the consequences of failure in your game.  A failed attack roll or stealth check is frustrating for the players, but ultimately serve the story.  If a character dies in combat, or the barbarian trips over a bunch of pots while escaping the prison, those scenes can become the highlight of an adventure.  When a character fails a Perception check or can't get over that wall, though, it can cause the story to stop progressing.  This seriously damages any momentum you've established at the table.

Many games have sought to solve this perceived problem.  Gumshoe takes failure out of the equation for your character's specialties, Fate provides aspects to undo a bad roll, and in Numenera players know their odds going in and can spend effort to improve them.  There is one solution though, taken from games like Leverage and Mouse Guard, that can be used with almost any game.  Practicing with it will greatly improve your skills as a game master.

I'm not sure who coined the term Failing Forward, but it is the idea that when a character fails at a check that failure should continue to move the narrative.  The Leverage RPG utilizes this concept best in my opinion, making it the central conceit of all skill checks.  In Leverage, you play elite criminals at the top of their game.  For obvious reasons the world’s greatest thieves should not find themselves at a loss for how to pick a lock and the brilliant con artist shouldn't have difficulty convincing the Prince that she's his long lost cousin.

Leverage doesn't however lack in tension when played, by simply redefining the stakes of a roll.  Rolling the dice in an RPG is an abstract action, so it can have whatever weight you want it to in the narrative.  The consequences of failed skill rolls don’t have to represent a character's incompetence, but simply that the character did not accomplish their ultimate goal.  Take for example a master thief trying to unlock a safe so he can steal the gold bullion hidden within.  When looked at in the traditional way, failing the open locks roll means that the safe did not open, that the thief couldn't do what he was trained for.

In Leverage and other games the GM is encouraged to step back and instead deny the goal without denying competence.  In this example a failed roll may mean that someone happens upon the thief before he opens the safe.  Another option is that the safe opens but the bullion is nowhere to be found because it was moved earlier that day.  In both of these cases, failure (rather than simply inspiring a request to try again), adds a new element to the story and keeps it moving forward.

I may revisit this topic in the future, as it is one that I am working on incorporating into my own games.  But next week I will be sharing with you a vegetarian take on my Turkey 'Chili' recipe that I've been working on.  Talk to you then.

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