Virtually all roleplaying games feature a mechanic designed to determine the results of an action along a success or failure axis. Some systems will also determine a degree of success or failure, but in general the resolution mechanic focuses on the line between succeeding and failing. Recently however, I’ve been looking at this from a slightly different angle. I’ve been looking less at failing and more at the cost of success.
For those of you that follow us here at RPG Alchemy you know I’m a big fan of the various games based on Apocalypse World. Basically all of these games provide one of three results when you roll the dice; you do what you set out to do without difficulty, you do it with some complication or price, and finally, the GM tells you what happens. I really like the last result. While many times the GM might tell you that you failed at whatever you were attempting, the door is really open for results that are so much more interesting. With this in mind let’s take a look at some different takes on failure:
Using this allows the a hero to progress a bit in their attempt but forces them to adapt to new elements that come up due to their failure. Here’s a few possibilities:
- You are able to track the orcs back to their lair, however they were aware of your presence and have set an ambush.
- The first part of the trap mechanism is deactivated but it was more complex than you initially thought. You’re going to need to work on it again next round.
- You manage to dodge the poison dart trap and avoid getting hurt, but now your cloak is pinned to the wall behind you.
- Although the guards haven’t spotted you they seem to be aware that something is amiss and now are actively searching the courtyard.
I also like to switch things up sometimes by have the character succeed at the primary aspect of their task but fail at some secondary aspect. Doing this can keep the adventure moving forward while also presenting a new obstacle or challenge for the hero (or heroes) to overcome. Here are a few possible examples of this kind of failure:
- You manage to open the lock but your picks jam the mechanism, you’re going to have to use brute strength to force the door open now.
- You manage to craft a potion, just not the type you intended and now you’re not sure what it does.
- Your attack damages your opponent but you are knocked prone while executing it.
- You resist taking damage from the poison but you are sick to your stomach and weakened for a while.
Cost of Success
Putting a cost on success allows a hero to accomplish what they set out to do but forces them to deal with the loss of some resource or advantage. Here’s a few I’ve used in the past:
- You clear the ravine but hurt yourself in the process.
- You manage to get your opponent into a grapple but manage to drop your weapon belt and backpack in the process.
- You shove your opponent off the cliff but he grabs your weapon in the process and it goes over the ledge with him.
- You manage to convince the crime lord to help you and your allies however she demands a boon from you to be named later.
All of these options are similar and work well in concert. As a GM it is usually more fun and interesting to simply throw complications at your players than to worry about failure. In fact, focusing on complications and the cost of success is the cornerstone to building your improvisational skill set. These days most of my campaigns are built upon the “interesting” complications that find their way into the characters’ lives!