Describing failure in RPGs

Last time I praised indie-games for creating ways to play different kinds of stories and for adding tools to express character’s in more interesting ways. This round I’ll expand upon this.

Show me how it’s done

It is not uncommon for most classic roleplaying games (D&D, Storyteller, GURPS, Shadowrun, Basic etc.) that players express, what they want to do, they roll their skill check, and then the GM describes the outcome. Besides it being the way we do things, it is also a way, that ensures stability in the fiction and that everything conforms to a certain standard. This however assumes that the GM’s vision is the prerogative, and it carries the distinct disadvantage, that it requires the GM to know, how his player wants their characters’ actions depicted. One lesson from the indie-games is that having players take part in describing the fiction is beneficial. It does however change the vision of the game, since it is not purely under one player’s control any longer. And yet my experiences are that this doesn’t hurt. It becomes are collective vision, less coherent but owned by all.

The Art of Failing

Let’s assume a player fails his skill check. The question is know how to depict this failure in the fiction? Traditionally the GM would describe the event, choosing whether external circumstances, the weaknesses of the character, the character’s general incompetence or some other reason would be the cause of the failure.

But how about letting the player describe the failure? Now tell me, why did your character fail?

With this approach player’s can choose to how their character’s look powerful, weak or unlucky and still fail. Failure can be due to external circumstances – “I would had hacked the computer, had I not been disturbed by the loud partying next door” – or due to a superior opponent – “I did secure the door, but they simply knocked it down” – or due to the character’s weakness – “My character’s alcoholism/phobia/missing left leg impeded our progress crossing the ridge” and so on and so on.

Leaving failure to the players have the benefit of engaging them in the game, and it gives them the opportunity to choose how to express their characters – and even to bring back in ignored disadvantages.

House-rule: “Your weakness is why you failed”

When a player fails a skill check, the player can choose to describe how he failed and how one of his disadvantages were the cause of the failure. If the player includes a disadvantage in the description, the player gains 100 experience points (or the equivalent).

The purpose of the rule is have disadvantages to play a positive role in the game – even though they play a negative role in the fiction. As in the Burning Wheel-games this also turns failures into learning experiences for the character.

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About Morten Greis

Historiker, etnolog, brygger, fægter, rollespiller, science fiction entusiast History and Ethnology, brewer and fencer, roleplayer and science fiction enthusiast View all posts by Morten Greis

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