Considering Failure Mechanics

Some recent experiences, particularly with going back to D&D after a long bout of dabbling in a variety of other systems, got me thinking about failure mechanics and how important they can be to a player’s experience.

A lot of the systems I’ve dabbled in have had some way of working around failure, making it somewhat less likely, or making it more of a sliding scale than a “you have it or you don’t” thing. Mouse Guard manages this masterfully; its mechanics are built around the idea of failure simply being success with a price. My system-collector GM recruited  my boyfriend and me into the Atomic Robo RPG playtest, and its “a tie is success with a price” mechanic has already put it high on my list of preferred FATE-variants—I like the way it renders the closer result as actually between a good and a bad result. Legends of the Wulin doesn’t let you decide on your action until you roll your dice, and it’s only after that that you start figuring out what you’re going to do and which of your bonuses and effects you’re going to do it with.

What’s useful about these things? First, from a player perspective, it can be less frustrating; as I’ve learned recently, there’s nothing quite like a string of really pathetic rolls when your character’s functionality depends on it, when the action being taken is part of your schtick, or when you know perfectly well that this particular plot isn’t going to get anywhere if you don’t succeed. If there’s something you can do in case of misbehaving dice, the tendency of dice to misbehave is somewhat less frustrating. And if even misbehaving dice get you interesting things—failure becomes, if not as welcome as success, than at least likely to be fun.

For GMs, it can be a bit more of a two-edged sword. Yes, degrees of success may mean that a particularly spectacular success can completely bypass a plot point—but straight success or failure has been known to do that anyway. On the other hand, blurring the lines between success and failure means that they can both succeed and get the complication you wanted, and it’s slightly easier to save your party with a price if you really don’t want them dead but do want their failure to have some sort of consequence.

For some people, it’s how you succeed, or what you can do to ensure that you succeed, that makes or breaks a game system. But sometimes, how it handles failure can be at least as important.

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