A couple of weeks ago, I talked about how the use of dice in an RPG don’t always cooperate. In some games, this is a feature, not a bug—a D&D campaign where the story emerges through play is one example where each roll of the dice may send the adventure (or the entire) campaign off in a new direction. The dice rolls determine success or failure, and it’s up to the players to determine how they react to those outcomes.
In other games, straight success or failure may not be an appropriate way to determine what happens. If a group is trying to emulate a high-action setting (like Star Wars, for example), then it’s not generally about success or failure. It’s about choices, and position, and advantage.
That’s not to say that characters in Star Wars never fail. Much of Han Solo’s activities in The Empire Strikes Back are his reactions to one failure after another. But those failures are not generally the result of his own attempts at actions. Rather, the failures are baked into the situations, and the story is about how he deals with those failures.
Okay, I know some people will disagree with me on this, so I’m going to unpack it a bit. I’m going to use The Empire Strikes Back—the best Star Wars movie of them all—to demonstrate what I mean.
In an RPG, dice rolls are always decision points of some sort. At its simplest, a decision point could just be “do I hit the goblin with my sword or not?” It’s a straight success/failure determination.
Let’s assume there is a party of D&D characters and they’ve encountered a roving patrol of goblins in a dungeon, and the goblins ambush the characters. During the first surprise round, the goblins have an advantage (they have an opportunity to hurt—or kill—one or more characters, while the characters don’t get to hit back yet). If the dice rolls determine that some goblins do succeed with their attacks, then the advantage swings even more toward their side.
But then, in the next round, dice are rolled to determine Initiative—what someone on RPG.net cleverly called “rolling the dice to see in what order we roll the dice.” Let’s say that the goblins manage to beat the initiative rolls of all the characters. This swings that advantage even further in the goblins’ favor.
However, the goblins don’t have good odds to hit the armored characters at the front of the party, and this time they fail at their attack rolls. The advantage swings a bit back toward the characters.
And as the characters start taking their actions, the fighter succeeds on his attack roll, and inflicts some damage with his damage roll. The wizard makes her ranged attack roll and takes out a goblin entirely with one flaming bolt. The cleric successfully bashes a third goblin over the head, inflicting further damage.
By the end of the round, the advantage has swung right back into the characters’ favor. So the players decide to continue the fight, and soon they are wiping goblin blood off their weapons and ransacking the bodies for copper pieces.
But what if the dice buck the odds and send the battle off in a different direction?
Let’s say that the goblin attacks are all successful, and the character attacks are failures. After the first round, all the characters have taken some real damage, and the players now see that if they continue the fight, they might actually all be killed. With the advantage currently so heavily in the goblins’ court, the players decide to run away, or parlay, or something else.
The success and failure of the dice rolls moves the situation toward one result or another, and the players then make their decisions based on those successes or failures.
As I said, this is a simple example, but it’s a common one and illustrates how such die rolls impact future decisions and thus, the direction of the campaign. Ultimately, the players may decide to have their characters retreat from the dungeon entirely. Perhaps that results in them exploring in a different direction, or grabbing different adventure hook. And that might mean that none of the characters end up with a certain magic item that was sitting in the goblin chief’s treasure hoard.
All of this is how the D&D game is supposed to work. It’s a game about interaction, exploration, and combat (the “three pillars of adventure” as described in the 5E Player’s Handbook). In many campaigns, it’s about “playing to find out what happens” (to use a phrase from many Powered by the Apocalypse games) rather than about authoring a story.
But other games are often about other things. Sometimes, a game is about situations that require more than just a simple pass/fail determination. It might be just adding gradations of success or failure (e.g. partial success or partial failure), or including some kind of metacurrency (e.g. Hero Points) to allow the player to have some influence over the dice to encourage success or failure when it is more dramatically appropriate.
The Fate Core rules, for example, are still concerned mostly with pass/fail. You make a roll to overcome a resistance, to establish an advantage, to inflict harm (stress), or to defend yourself from harm. But the player can also spend fate points to turn a failed roll into a success. On the other hand, to earn fate points, the player must either take penalties on some rolls (thus making failure more likely) or put herself into situations that are not in her favor.
Some games combine pass/fail with additional elements that tell the players what happens. For example, the system used in Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars RPGs use custom dice that include three types of symbols: success/failure, advantage/disadvantage, and triumph/doom. So a roll to shoot a stormtrooper with a blaster could result in a miss (failure), but an advantage (the blaster bolt hits a control panel, locking a door to prevent more Stormtroopers from joining the fight). Some players love this system, as it provides prompts for the group to come up with interesting elements to add to any conflict. Others find it artificial and difficult to always make up new elements on the spot.
And then there are other games that are not really concerned with pass/fail at all. The best example of this is the second edition of the 7th Sea RPG, by John Wick Presents.
The Risk System
The 7th Sea setting assumes that characters are highly competent right from the beginning. They are the types of characters one sees in movies such as Pirates of the Caribbean and Star Wars. In these movies, things are always happening, often too fast for the characters to fully process them, and so they must act and react, but always take some kind of action to change the situation.
In 7th Sea, a character faced with a situation that presents risks and opportunities assembles a die pool based on their Traits and Skills. This pool of d10s is rolled and the player makes sets of 10 (called Raises). The player then spends these Raises to accomplish things in the scene.
The example used in the rulebook posits the character trapped in a burning building. The GM tells the player that it will take 1 Raise to escape the room though the window. However, avoiding taking any wounds from the flames will cost 3 Raises. Furthermore, the character has spotted what looks like it might be an important paper on a table, and grabbing that paper before the flames consume it will cost 1 additional Raise.
If the player manages to accumulate 5 Raises on his roll, then he can accomplish everything—grab the paper (1), avoid the flames (3), and escape the room (1).
But what if the player only rolled 3 Raises? Grabbing the paper and getting out of the room will take 2 of those Raises, meaning that he only has 1 Raise left to avoid the flames, therefore receiving 2 wounds. Or perhaps he really feels he needs to avoid taking damage. He could spend all 3 Raises avoiding the flames, in the hopes of rolling more Raises on his next turn so that he can escape. Maybe he ignores the paper and gets out of the room, only taking a single wound in the process.
This approach majorly mitigates the success/fail question. If the player spends a single Raise on getting out of the room, then he gets out successfully. He doesn’t need to check if he “succeeds” on crossing the room—it’s assumed that if he spends his attention (Raises) on doing so, he’ll manage to do it.
The same goes for combat. It’s not about whether he hits his opponent with his sword or not. If he’s a swashbuckling hero, then of course he hits his opponent with his sword when he makes the effort (spends a Raise) to do so. However, his opponent will also spend Raises to parry with his own sword, or leap backward up onto a table, or knock a standing candelabra into the sword’s way. But doing so requires effort (Raises), and eventually one of them is going to run out of Raises first.
So What about Han Solo?
To bring this back to The Empire Strikes Back…Han Solo doesn’t generally fail directly. Rather, events happen around him at a breakneck pace, and there are only so many things he can do at once.
Let’s look at a specific example to illustrate what I mean…
The Asteroid Scene
Han is piloting the Millennium Falcon away from Hoth, with a Star Destroyer (and TIE fighters) in hot pursuit. The GM has determined that the hyperdrive is not working, but the player doesn’t know that yet. The failure of the hyperdrive is part of the scene, and is not the result of a failed roll by the player/character. For now, the GM tells the player that it will take 5 Raises to plot the hyperspace course, and that he has to spend 3 Raises each turn to avoid the TIE fighters and Star Destroyer batteries. Assuming the player is managing to roll 4-5 Raises each turn (based on a dice pool of 8-10 dice), it’s going to take at least 3 turns to get ready for the jump to hyperspace.
During this time, two more Star Destroyers arrive, and the GM spends Raises to put them into a position to trap the Falcon. But Han’s player ignores the hyperdrive for a moment and spends enough Raises to get out of the trap. And then he gets that 5th Raise and has his hyperspace route.
“Oh yeah, watch this,” he says.
But the hyperdrive engine doesn’t work. C-3PO (NPC) chimes in with “If I may say so sir, I noticed earlier the hyperdrive motivator has been damaged. It’s impossible to go to lightspeed!”
So now the GM determines how many Raises it will take to determine that the hyperdrive cannot be repaired, as the Falcon doesn’t have the necessary parts. But the end result isn’t known by the player—just that something is wrong with the hyperdrive and that spending Raises will determine what they can do about it.
It’s important to note, though, that the damaged hyperdrive motivator was not an explanation for a failed Pilot roll. Han is a hotshot pilot, and the vagaries of the dice shouldn’t make him look incompetent when he’s at the helm of his ship. Rather, an external event has caused the problem, and now he’s got to deal with it.
(This is, I believe, the core of a great deal of what happens to characters other than Luke in the original Star Wars trilogy.)
The reason I say this is because if the damaged hyperdrive was a result of their attempt to escape, then one must also imagine what would happen if the roll was a success. Boom—they get away cleanly. But we’ve already seen this scene play out in the first movie. It adds nothing for them do it again, and repeating such a scene becomes anticlimactic. If they need to get away again later on, there won’t be much tension—because they always get away once they activate the hyperdrive.
So this situation isn’t just the result of a Pilot check or something similar. It doesn’t just come out of a simple pass/fail roll. This is a set piece that the GM set up—a challenge that forces the players not just to react, but act if they want to get out of this.
(I know some people will say that the GM is being a jerk here by simply declaring the hyperdrive doesn’t work. I would expect that, if this were a real game, the ongoing maintenance issues with the Falcon is a key part of the game and doesn’t come as a terrible surprise. While the characters would hate this situation, I think the players would find it fun to play though, and that’s pretty much my take on quality GMing. You want to set up situations that the character hate, but the players love. It’s a balancing act, but if you can do it, you’ll never lack for people wanting to play in your games.)
But back to the characters. Those TIE fighters and Star Destroyers are still chasing them, and Han goes to take a look at the hyperdrive. The GM has determined that it will take 10 Raises to figure out the problem with the hyperdrive, and they still have to spend 3 Raises each round to avoid damage. Leia’s character takes over the piloting for now, and she’s able to get those 3 Raises while Han and Chewie try to diagnose the hyperdrive.
And then the GM tosses in the final complication…asteroids!
Once the characters are all gathered in the cockpit again, GM says that the players no longer need to spend 3 Raises a round to avoid the TIE fighters, as they are too busy avoiding the asteroids themselves to shoot at the Falcon. But the players do have to spend 3 Raises per round to avoid taking damage from the spinning rocks. And any extra Raises can be spent on inflicting damage on the chasing TIE fighters (represented by putting them in situations where they get hit by asteroids themselves).
After a couple of rounds, Han’s player comes up with the idea of getting closer one of the big asteroids, which move much more slowly. The GM likes this idea, but once they are out of the general mess above, the last two TIE fighters start shooting again. Han’s player manages to roll more than enough Raises, however, to destroy the last two TIEs (by having them follow him into a trench and then crash into the narrow walls).
Deciding that it’s time to let the characters regroup a bit, the GM tells them they spot a cave in the big asteroid, and they fly into it to hide from the Empire’s forces. They no longer have to roll to accumulate enough Raises to figure out exactly what’s wrong with the Falcon’s hyperdrive (and that they don’t have the parts to repair it). Instead, they just spend a bit of time while the Empire searches for them, and then they receive the bad news.
After a bit of downtime, in which a couple of players do some roleplaying of the budding romance between their characters, the GM decides it’s time to turn the heat up again, and introduces the mynocks…
Failure can certainly be interesting, and 7th Sea doesn’t shy away from it by any means. But not all games are the same, and not all settings are appropriate for the random success and failure that one finds in D&D. Personally, I love D&D and it provides one kind of game I really enjoy. The dice determinations in D&D are absolutely appropriate for that game.
However, sometimes I’m looking for a different experience. Just because I love pizza, I don’t want to eat it for dinner every single day. Systems like the one used in 7th See 2E provide a very different take on success and failure, and can be used to play games in which situations are resolved not by straight success or failure, but by seeing how the characters spend their limited resources to choose their course toward success.
It’s a different method, but it’s still about the journey more than the destination. The characters (and players) still make decisions, but those decisions come from a different place than in a traditional pass/fail system like D&D.
I hope looking at The Empire Strikes Back helped to explain what I mean by this. Competent characters can still be challenged, and still look competent, while putting them in situations that take them to their limits. And that’s where the fun truly begins in roleplaying games.