Gradations of success and failure

Okay, give me a roll…

a twenty-sided die

I cut my teeth on old school AD&D 2e.  It turns out we thought we were playing RAW, but we really weren’t.  If you can imagine four to six early teens stuffed into a basement on a worn carpeted floor, surrounded by 30 year old wood paneling, … well then you might as well have been there.

I remember looking at the Player’s Handbook, all of the art and tables, and the seemingly endless supply of supplements my good friend had.  Young-me pretty much hated rolling failures.  It seemed annoying, that in this collaborative story, my ability to help shape it was so limited.  Adult-me, however, knows that none of the best D&D stories start with easy tasks and clear successes.

Still, we were probably calling for rolls that simply didn’t need to happen.  Are you thief?  Of course you can move quietly.  No roll.  Move silently?  Well, now you’ve got a 2-in-6 chance, give me a roll.  So the first fix for us would have been to roll only when the outcome is unclear, and as a GM/referee, not to permit rolls on narrative issues where success or failure is already assumed.  Sometimes it just do be like that, tho … no roll.

An imperfect simulation

Still, the pass/fail seemed rough, a little unrealistic. Especially considering we were playing when “save vs death” was still a common thing.  As I explored other games, the idea of gradations of success and failure was something I kept coming back to.  Lots of games use them now, where when using your randomizer of choice (dice, etc.) you can seriously fail, minorly fail, pass but with cost, pass without cost, or heroically pass.

These systems feel more real-worldy, and I’m trying to implement them in my own games.  We always have to choose where on the continuum of “perfect real world model” and “playability” a given mechanic will fall.  In almost every game I’ve played with firearms, they are radically nerfed.  The reasoning, while not stated is simple.  In a combat between a melee fighter and modern firearms, assuming some distance, it’s not even a challenge.  A semi-trained shooter can fire single, aimed shots with great regularity.  It would be no challenge at all to fire a modern rifle once per second for the whole six seconds of a standard combat round (six attacks per round).  In fact, this is quite slow in the competitive world of practical shooting where split times are measured in tenths of a second.  If we’re talking black powder (think muskets), a well-trained shooter can expect to fire three shots per minute (one attack every three rounds, roughly).  In the first, no combat will be difficult.  In the second, no player will want to wait such a time before taking an attack action.  So on either end, it looks like realism is right out the door.

The middle path

So where’s the median?  2e required a crossbow user to reload as whole turn.  5e often allows crossbows to load as a bonus action for some classes/specialists.  Classic World of Darkness had simple firearms rules in core, and more complicated ones in WoD Combat, but still reduced rates of fire and damage either way.  I don’t think any of these are a “wrong” choice, given the systems.  We always have to find some balance between realism and playability, and that extends to pass/fail mechanics as well.

What does a success look like, here?

I’m working on a project now, where the results table has gradations in the pass/fail mechanic, but they’re a secondary characteristic.  This project is a “narrative first” style game, so dice rolls initially report whether or not a given situation moves you towards or away from your narrative goal, and only secondarily a pass/fail value.  This style of game really drives home why pass/fail often falls short.  Of course, same games may lean into that, but most of the games I’m currently interested in do not.

In my 5e games, I will frequently ask players “what does a success look like here?” and the same for a failure.  One of the great examples of this kind of thinking comes from Burning Wheel, where the scene is presented as a duel in front of the king.  We assume you’re a master swordsman, and you can run your opponent through.  A success means the king is impressed, takes you closer to his inner circle, and your cause is deemed just.  A failure means you’ve brought barbarism into the court, injured a close confident of the crown, and show your true character!  What a great way to play a game.  You’re a sword fighter, of course you can stab a dude!  But what does stabbing a dude mean, here and now?  This is a way more interesting question to me.

Consult the Oracle

In this not-yet announced project, the very broad strokes are laid out this way.  The situation helps or hinders you.  It’s up to you to determine how.  It’s certainly my hope that this style of narrative play is interesting to the player, and maybe it’ll be a first look at that kind of play.  Personally, while enjoy lots of styles of games, I do like to take a break from checking off rounds, managing torches, and looking up attack matrices to ask, “yeah, but what does this action mean?”

What do you think?

Where do you tend to fall, what are your thoughts on this?  Do you like straight-up pass/fail, gradations of success, or narrative prompts in your dice?  Let me know, I really am interested.

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