Success and Failure in Role-Playing Games

My go to campaign systems has been Burning Wheel.  I’ve written quite a bit about it, but I’ve still got more to write about.  This comes in response to my experience on both sides of the GM screen.  One observation that I’ve had about our Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker campaign is that failing “mental” tests do not have consequences – or more appropriately the consequence for failing a test is that the state of the game does not change.

Before I get to far, lets break down the types of tests into three categories.

  • Character vs. Environment – Climb a wall, jump a chasm
  • Character vs. Character – Dupe someone, sneak past someone
  • Character vs. Exposition – Search the room, research forgotten lore

In the case of Character vs. Environment and Character vs. Character, we as players intrinsically understand the potential complications that come from failure.  If we don’t successfully jump the chasm, we will fall and end up somewhere unexpected.  If we don’t successfully sneak past the guard, the alarm will likely be raised.

In the case of Character vs. Exposition, what are the potential complications of failure? As a person, when I don’t succeed at learning about something, I end up “back where I started” with one door closed. But this isn’t real life…why settle for a closed door?

I am a firm believer that anytime the dice are rolled, especially in Character vs. Exposition, that the state of the game should change. That is to say some new revelation should come to light even as a result of failure.  The nature revelation is fully informed by the success or failure of the corresponding test.

However, the Character vs. Exposition is the hardest one to negotiate. As a person, I am not aware of what my failures vs. Exposition are. I just don’t expose what I was after.  So perhaps we need a list of potential complications related to Character vs. Exposition.

Quick Survey of Game Systems

The Gumshoe system addresses this by stating that investigative skills always work…but it is up to the players to interpret these things.

In Houses of the Blooded, the tests are so easy to succeed at, but it is the wagers that quite literally define the investigations.

In Dungeon World, the game master gets to make a move.  Something is going to change when failure happens.

In Burning Wheel, every failed test should have a pre-negotiated complication. Otherwise, skills advance with little consequence.

What Got Me Going

In our Butcher, Baker, and Candlestick Maker campaign, our group had access to a massive library that was created by the characters’ grandfather. The characters wanted to look up information concerning the magical portal that their grandfather had protected, as well as several other topics.

The characters attempted a handful of “Research” tests, and failed. The result was a frustrating “You learn nothing” and “Mark a difficult Research test.”

As a player, I was at the end of my patience concerning information.  We spent several days in the library to learn nothing.  I asked myself what was the point of the test? Why did some of the characters get to mark a test for her Research?

If I were at the helm, choosing the consequence for failed research I would have started with “Okay if you fail the test, you’ll learn how to find the portal, but you won’t like the price.”

With the failed research, I would’ve had them stumble upon a passage that said “To reveal the portal to the next generation of guardians, the first born of the new generation must be sacrificed.” Or some such ominous thing.  After all, every single characters’ belief is tied to protecting their family. The stakes are high so keep them elevated.

This is why the Adventure Burner beats it through your skull to separate Task from Intent.

Without consequences of failure in the Character vs. Exposition arena, test mongering becomes standard. In fact, I fired off a string of successive Astrology tests out of frustration and desperation, knowing that the consequences for failing even an OB10 test were going to be “And I mark a Challenging Test.”  In fact, without Astrology, we would be completely lost…but it is an unreliable means of story exposition.

A particularly astute reader of the Sorcery section will notice that tests already have backed in complications.  Especially when attempting a First Reading.

So, in an attempt change my micro-culture I’m going work hard to demand a consequence before I roll for a test. I ask that players in my games, be they Burning Wheel or otherwise, do the same.  I think this method of positing two outcomes before determining one is good practice as well as helpful in getting the creative elements going.  We build our narratives not only on the paths we take, but by those we’ve considered taking.

P.S. After enough closed doors and brick walls, most every player I know will eventually throw caution to the wind. In this case, my character recklessly sought out a poisoner, committed arson, and dangerously attempted to cast her first reading of Flame Breath. I’ve been playing games a very long time, and this kind of behavior is what leads to TPKs and wilting campaigns…as the players may very well be looking for sweet release.

P.S.S. VSCA‘s hopefully upcoming Soft Horizon may address this in another interesting way. From Brad Murray on a limited thread on Google+ –

“I am taking a more general approach: if you are rolling a simple check to succeed, then failure means a conflict in which you are at genuine risk. If a check is not worth a conflict, then you succeed.

A conflict could be lost, but the objective of the check successful (ie. you open the chest but the trap rips your arm off). My preference is for the more extreme: you fail to figure out the Machine and it tries to take over your brain.”

10 thoughts on “Success and Failure in Role-Playing Games

  1. AGREE, AGREE, AGREE! It’s no secret that I’ve had trouble getting into my character in this game. I admit that part of this was me regretting some choices I made in the burning… but since then it’s felt like every time I start to make some head way… I dead end with a failed test without a consequence to at least keep some of the game flow going. After a very frustrating session of “you learn nothing,” I ended by escalating an encounter with “the mob” (they call themselves crows or kittens or ferrets… I forget) to a violent confrontation in which I publicly immolated multiple thugs.

    • Relative to Character vs. Environment and Character vs. Character, the Character vs. Exposition is a harder concept for creating complications. There is some homework a game master can do by looking at characters’ “vs. Exposition” skills and their beliefs and doing a bit of brainstorming.

      But realistically, the best brainstorming will be in the moment; I know in the case of Bloodstone, I was fully prepared for the characters to remain in Daedmyre instead of proceeding. Obviously we’d go off script at that point. But if that is what the game requires, so be it. I have no idea what direction things will go.

  2. Awesome post. I find Char. vs. Exposition tests to be the hardest to wrap my head around as a GM, and this helps clarify a bit. Love your example about the portal–it definitely gives a very specific and clear way of thinking about how to use these tests to move the story forward. Just out of curiosity, if they used the library, failed the test and got a “bad answer,” would you then let them seek out other paths of knowledge (such as, say, wise NPCs they might know) to try to find an alternate path to opening the portal?

    • If it were me… I’d look at a failed Exposition test as an opportunity to hook in a whole new sub-adventure… sort of a “Princess is in another castle” result. In this case… we didn’t find the portal… but we found a reference to the portal and Bob the bumbling brewer of Bucktown… you better believe we’d pay Bucktown a visit.
      But… hey… I haven’t actually run a game for 15 years… what do I know.

      • Learning about Bob seems like success still; a compromise if it were a dual of wits.
        Generally, the consequence for failure on the Char-vs-Exposition has been being denied what you wanted and forcing you to find another method or route to pursue the information. In an open game like this there are always other routes to be taken, probably just not all as easy or quick as you’d like. In several cases failure was the using up of resources used to make the Char-vs-Exposition checks (such as chickens, or different libraries); the tarot deck however has no “is this the question I want to use this on” thought since there’s no loss of the tool (I’m not aware of any tool taking damage on 1s rules or anything?).
        In order to make some Char-vs-Exposition failures have more complications seems too punishing; example: Randy is in trouble so I want to use a skill to locate him. He’s already in trouble so failure can’t put him in trouble, and it doesn’t feel like failure should outright kill him (I’m already sick enough of Burning Wheels likelihood to kill someone in a single-roll; and bloody-vs). The consequence most seemingly suited is that you now have to figure out another method of locating him using a different method (probably slower, or using a different skill less likely to succeed).

  3. Is Resources a Char-vs-Exposition skill? Without the added rules for tax, the character would be in the same position he was in before minus option he just tried.

    • A failed Resources test has the option of the Gift of Kindness along with Tax. Tax is the explicit state change, Gift of Kindness allows for a bone to be thrown, but with a cost. And it codifies the failure should be interesting via a complication.

      Likewise, a failed Circles test has the Enmety clause.

      Ultimately, I believe what Matt and I (and perhaps Jaron) are wanting is for the story to progress…we are at session 8 or 9, and it feels like we are needlessly grinding along, without too many insights on where to go. Perhaps we need a dungeon crawl instead of a hex crawl.

  4. Let’s consider the Apocalypse World moves. Both of these moves really tell me the player what I’m going to get…if I roll a 6- the GM can kick the shit out of me. If I roll above it, then I’m going to get something. And all of the responses adhere to the Apocalypse World principles of “Always say what honesty demands”

    READ A SITCH
    When you read a charged situation, roll+sharp. On a hit, you can ask the MC questions. Whenever you act on one of the MC’s answers, take +1. On a 10+, ask 3. On a 7–9, ask 1:
    • where’s my best escape route / way in / way past?
    • which enemy is most vulnerable to me?
    • which enemy is the biggest threat?
    • what should I be on the lookout for?
    • what’s my enemy’s true position?
    • who’s in control here?

    READ A PERSON
    When you read a person in a charged interaction, roll+sharp. On a 10+, hold 3. On a 7–9, hold 1. While you’re interacting with them, spend your hold to ask their player questions, 1 for 1:
    • is your character telling the truth?
    • what’s your character really feeling?
    • what does your character intend to do?
    • what does your character wish I’d do?
    • how could I get your character to __?

      • In Apocalypse World, you would make a GM move…and it would be a hard move. In Burning Wheel, it is recommended that the consequences of failure are negotiated up front, before the test is rolled.

        It is important to get both Task and Intent. That is what you are doing as well as why. With that information, building a meaningful failure is easier.

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