Success and Failure in Role Playing Games

Note: This post has content disclaimers.

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 Game Master (GM 🔍) screen. One observation that I’ve had about our 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 Gold 🔍, every failed test should have a pre-negotiated complication. Otherwise, skills advance with little consequence.

What Got Me Going

In our 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 Obstacle (Ob 🔍)10 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 Total Party Kills (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.