"Yes, but..." Skill failure in traditional games, and changing it.

edited June 2008 in Play Advice
The folks that I currently run games for aren't really interested in small press stuff. D&D and White Wolf only. My wife is always up for whatever I feel like, bless her heart.

I tend to worry a bit more these days on how many overall rules there are in a system, and whether that system is going to deliver a play experience I'm happy with.

So right now, I'm running a variant d20 game for the group that they all seem to dig. And I'm shortly going to be doing Secret of Zir'An with my wife. And depending on how things go, I'll be doing something called Witch Hunter: Invisible World (similar to OWod mechanics) for the group.

My question come to the whole skill thing.

Talislanta has some bits for partial success, which appeals to me. I'm wondering how something similar to a partial success might be implemented in one of these traditional games, where success is usually a binary Yes/No deal.

But of course, that's not quite it. See, as I was doing the hour drive to Philly for the game, I was thinking about failure in the game. If someone makes an attack roll and fails to beat the number, I don't have 'em simply miss. No, they get their attack and groovy description, it just doesn't actually do damage.

Of course, that's still a binary Yes/No result, but at least they still get a nice description to go along with it.

so I started thinking about this more, and asked myself, "What if failure is impossible?"

Wushu does something sort of like this, with their Principle of Narrative Truth. Players chew away at a pool of points until eventually the threshold is reached, and then the player that managed to get their gets to narrate the victory.

I'm not entirely sure I want to apply the "failure is impossible" aspect to combat or what it would look like. But I really am curious to see what folks think of the idea overall, and what it might look like (or suggestions for) implementing it when it comes to skills within traditional games.

Search for a secret door (standard D&D): Search check DC22 in order to spot it. Player rolls an 18, "Nope, you don't find anything"
Search for a secret door (failure is impossible): Search check DC22 in order to spot it. Player rolls an 18, "Yeah, you find a secret door. But..."

And that's where I stumble. The "But.." part. How to complicate the characters lives. Yeah, you should only be rolling the dice when failure has the potential to be interesting, but a lot of D&D/traditional play seems to rely on rolling an awful lot.

I'm doubting it's the sort of thing I'm going to do with the group. They like their traditional play, and I have fun running the game for 'em. But I am curious to try implementing it with the Zir'An game I do with my wife, and seeing how it works out.

Any suggestions?

Comments

  • Off the top of my head, you can roll in order to (in order of creative effort needed)

    1) Avoid failure: "It doesn't work"
    2) Avoid damage: "It works, but you get hurt."
    3) Avoid other expenses: "It only works if you pay X / it works, but your tool gets jammed."
    4) Avoid incident creation: "It works, but now...."

    ...Red Box Hack does some of this, in a very user-friendly way. Not sure what else smooths it into a form where it could be easily snapped into a mostly traditional game (none leap to mind), but I suspect there are many more.
  • You get what you want, but you've added another Obstacle. Depending on what the group situation is, this can vary a good deal (as to what another obstacle is).

    You find the secret door, but...

    1): You've made a lot of noise (if group is trying to be stealthy).
    2): You've set off a trap.
    3): You just locked it.

    Or, as you are already thinking, instead of an obstacle, you've incurred an unexpected Cost. You find the secret door, but...
    1): You've broken a tool or other piece of your equipment
    2): You've injured yourself
    3): You've expended more resources than normal (if using magic points, fatigue points, or similar)

    I think that it would work out fine to just make these things happen, as opposed to calling for another roll to avoid the badness from happening. But that's just me.

    -adam
  • Adam's list ate mine. Nice.
  • The granularity of resolution in D&D and White Wolf systems make it exhausting to do this with every missed or minimally-struck attack. I would use varying degrees of this, and really push the build-up primarily when things are starting to bog down.
  • also you might want to consider where the but is going

    if the but is going to some other part of the system, then the place it is going should be at least as well equiped to empower the players as where you are coming from

    example (failure impossible) you search for the secret door (failure) you find it but.... You make so much noise that the bugbear guards are attracted roll inititive

    well the problem is that combat in the dnd setting (or most games) has a real chance of someone getting hurt, which is essentially saying no to the character. The backside of this problem is what do you do when someone fails something that is designed to avoid the system that you might try to shunt it off to. (the obvious answer is find another subsystem but it seems tired or at least to me)

    example (failure impossible) I hide so that no one can find me (failure) you hide but.... well no monsters can come because you are hid so that no one can find you, and I can't institute a inner problem (sprain etc) that would negate the hiding because that is essentially saying yes but no, so i am left with.... some other subsystem which in a game more like dnd you don't have that many (stealth is subsystem in question, combat is invalidated, diplomacy is invalidated, powers are maybe but often strain sense in story [you fail your hide and loose your daily power? what?] etc

    just my thoughts,
  • There's also "No, But..."

    Imagine a D&D game with 'whiff points'. Every time you miss an attack or ability, take a point. On any attack, you can spend them, and get +1 to hit for each. Dump them all at the end of the fight, if unspent.

    Like that, but not necessarily exactly that.
  • Why not just hack the traditional game into a conflict resolution system?

    Use intent and set stakes. No, "I search for the Door", instead "I search for the door before the Orcs find us". They automatically find the door but something bad will happen if they fail.

    Instead of worrying about what the "but..." should be, let the players help you decide.
  • edited June 2008
    Vincent Baker has some good conflict resolution advice for D&D:
    Roleplaying Theory, Hardcore: Practical Conflict Resolution Advice

    I especially like:
    It's especially effective if you always give a small bonus or penalty for the exchange before. What's it in D&D now, +2/-2? Give it every single exchange, linked to whether they won or lost the what's at stake of the previous exchange. "The broken cobblestones mess up your footing, so take a -2." "He has to shrug and shift to adjust his sagging armor, so take a +2."
  • Posted By: Levi KornelsenThere's also "No, But..."

    Imagine a D&D game with 'whiff points'. Every time you miss an attack or ability, take a point. On any attack, you can spend them, and get +1 to hit for each. Dump them all at the end of the fight, if unspent.

    Like that, but not necessarily exactly that.
    Neat. Tie these to "core skills" and you have something I like. Whenever a character whiffs at something that is their Main Thing, they pick up a point to spend at a later date - rogues at rogue-y stuff, tech guys at techy-stuff... But if you're just messing in something that ain't your Main Thing, you don't get nothing but sorrow.
  • Thanks for the suggestions so far. Levi, I'll have to mull that over. I'd thought about doing something like that, but not seriously. The idea was sparked by how Zorcerer of Zo hands out the Hero Points if "Bad Stuff" happens. Whiffing could count as being "bad stuff", and therefore would be worth some points.

    I'll have to mull this over a bit more.
    Posted By: agonyWhy not just hack the traditional game into a conflict resolution system?

    Use intent and set stakes. No, "I search for the Door", instead "I search for the door before the Orcs find us". They automatically find the door but something bad will happen if they fail.

    Instead of worrying about what the "but..." should be, let the players help you decide.
    Hmmm. Not quite the direction I was headed. For simply my wife and I, this sort of thing isn't such a problem. I can mess around with getting this whole "stakes" thing straight in my head and all that. But with a group that refuses to play anything that isn't D&D or White Wolf or at least has mechanics look like that? It's not really an option. You can get away with some bits here and there, but you're not (or at least I'm not) going to be able to sell them on something as funky as setting stakes and all that. Not everyone really wants their game changed in this fashion, and since I play rpgs for social reasons and fun more than mechanical hoo-haws, it's just not something worth pushing or getting a new group over.

    Having said that, your suggestion does bring to mind Donjon. I guess I'll just have to poke at this stuff on my own for a while, and figure out exactly what I want to get out of it.

    Thanks again folks.
  • Scurvy-Platypus,I

    'm not sure that's such a huge jump, adding stakes in I mean. I did that for years before anyone called it "stakes setting", and found it enormously useful for non-combat skills.

    Honestly, I doubt any trad gamers would even notice that you were doing it. Do you never have a negative outcome from failed skill use in any of your games? Even WW games had botches ( and still do, IIRC).

    Think of it this way: Stakes setting is like telling a player what the likely botch result would be in an game of VtM before they roll. Then, you give them a chance to modify their intended action ( if reasonable), and then state a new, if any, botch or fail outcome. Repeat until they agree (then roll openly) or abort the attempted action.

    The big thing is that you're just giving the player a bit of info that their character would likely have anyway. You're simply jumping ahead to confirm information, which really, is a GM's job anyway. Many times, the stakes are what you would imagine anyway: You try to fast talk the gruesome hulk of a bouncer. Success: He let's you in with a small bribe paid. Fail: You get bounced, literally.
  • To back up what Bob's saying, I've used stake-setting in an otherwise traditional game (Savage Worlds), and it integrates seamlessly. In many ways stake setting is beneficial to a more traditional style of play. It means that as GM, you're able to ensure the minimum level of player success needed to keep the story on the course you anticipated. Instead of a failed "Gather Information" roll blowing your whole mystery plot, it just means you get into a few bar fights first, or the bad guys find out you've been prying, or you get a couple of pieces of misleading information along with the truth. It means that rather than rolling dice that don't really matter (they'll get the information somehow, if the game's to continue), you roll for things that aren't already decided. (This brings up the whole "railroading" issue, but that's another argument).

    The good thing about the technique is that you can keep failure on the table as an option for when that's a genuinely interesting outcome. Your example of hiding, for example, is a case where I'd tend to make a failed roll mean the character is spotted (unless there's something more interesting that could happen, or being spotted is going to bring the game to a screeching halt).

    I think the key to making this work with your group is to be aware of what kinds of outcomes your players want from their skill rolls. Sometimes the "it all goes horribly wrong" moments are the most fun parts of the game for me, and I'd feel sad if I were deprived of that. When players try risky and crazy stunts, sometimes they want there to be a genuine risk of failure. If you're taking away possibilities that the players enjoy, they'll never enjoy the technique. On the other hand, if you use the technique to ensure that, no matter the roll, the players are getting something that's fun to play with, I don't anticipate any problems.
  • As a side note, I really never considered stakes-setting for combat ( at least not attack/defense stuff) in the old days. It was always for "other stuff".
  • One more thing:

    With stake setting, time limits are your friend. If the characters have to achieve something within a given time, having failure mean success but at the cost of time, is a great way to put on the pressure, and it can be applied to almost any circumstance.
  • Posted By: Simon COne more thing:

    With stake setting, time limits are your friend. If the characters have to achieve something within a given time, having failure mean success but at the cost of time, is a great way to put on the pressure, and it can be applied to almost any circumstance.
    Oh, yeah-that's a classic. I used that one regularly in CoC games.

    Really, wasting any resource is a good on-failure stake. Bullets are another good one, since no one likes to slow down to reload. Extra cash for any bargaining/haggling/bribing works well.

    Hmm. I guess any sort of "thing" that makes you stay the same distance or get further from a goal really works as a failure stake, doesn't it?
  • Posted By: Scurvy_PlatypusI can mess around with getting this whole "stakes" thing straight in my head and all that. But with a group that refuses to play anything that isn't D&D or White Wolf or at least has mechanics look like that? It's not really an option. You can get away with some bits here and there, but you're not (or at least I'm not) going to be able to sell them on something as funky as setting stakes and all that.
    Really? Cause I was playing a campaign with a hardcore traditional player (GURPS mostly) and another one who was most comfortable with D&D. And, during one roll, I said this: "How about instead of failing, you still get your men, but something bad happens as a result." This was a roll to recruit some workers, and I said that after the roll was made. Eager to have their men, they agreed. And then later, demon pirates attacked, killing many of them and destroying their works. As the game progressed, I did this more and more before the rolls, and they got comfortable with it. Now, it certainly helped that the system was HeroQuest (but I've found most players who resist things like that do it because of the simple fact that it's different, not because they know they dislike the style). Simple contests are already conflict resolution. However, this would be easy to work in for simple skill rolls for World of Darkness, I'm not sure how to use this for extended rolls (of which, I see combat as a special variant of). Levi's whiff points might be cool for combat, but not so much for extended rolls (otherwise, you'd always succeed), and in general strike me as too heroic for the genre style of the WoD. I've been working on a WoD-mod to do this, but it's probably too different that your players would balk without giving it a chance.
  • edited June 2008
    Most of the time I do a variable success approach.

    I set a DC for an action. (Say 20 for a listen check.) The players roll. For the one that gets a 20 I describe exactly what the sound is, what people say, what sort of noises those are (you listen several creatures talking in the next room, but you can't tell what are they speaking about, although they sound agitated). If anyone gets a 26 or more, I give more useful information (you hear 4 raspy voices and a very deep one arguing, the raspy ones seem to cower when the deep one speaks). If someone gets a 15 or more, I throw them a bone to make them dig deeper or change their tactics (you hear some voices ahead, but you can't really tell much). If they fail the check for a big range, I ominously say "you hear nothing" (and most of the time they take the cue that there is something going on in there).

    I do tend to not overuse the random rolls "to create mood". So most of the time when I ask them for a check it is because there is something in there. It works surprisingly well to make them want to know what the hell it is I hid in there.

    Basically my strategy is to be flexible, and to deliver depending on how well they did in their rolls. They got lucky? I give them plenty. They had bad luck? I give them some clues, so they can think on something else themselves.

    I use this for other kind of uses too. If they fail in a climb check, they just can't get too high this time. If they succeed, they are able to climb some. If they fail greatly, they suffer a mishap (perhaps they drop something, or cause an avalanche below, or raise the alarm, and -if dramatic enough- they fall). If they succeed greatly, they can get an extra bonus (they climb higher, faster, stealthier...).

    From your example of the secret door, my favorite is "You find a secret door, but not the mechanism to make it work." So now they have to figure out how to open it. ^_^
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