Failure Padding: Stealing Success from the Clutches of Failure

As a gamer, I’ve never been a fan of “casual failure” in any test mechanics. It just isn’t fun. Failure in an exciting story should have purpose and effect, and should be just as interesting and – dare I say it – rewarding as success. I am certainly not the first gamer to tread upon this ground. So here’s a system I’ve scribbled up which can allow you to keep playing your otherwise “pass/fail” RPG systems while inserting a new degree of excitement and consequence into their failure mechanics.

Failure Padding is based upon the concept of “degree of failure” – not a new concept to many of you, but folks whose only RPG exposures come in the forms of D&D, Pathfinder, and other similar games might not have this term in their current notebooks o’ gaming lexicon. “Degree of Failure” is a way of measuring the distance between your failed dice roll and the difficulty target number you actually wanted to roll. This is usually handled simply by subtracting the number you rolled (dice result, successes, hits, what-have-you) from the number you needed in order to succeed. Thus if you needed eight successes to get the result you wanted, but you only got five when your dice hit the table, then your Degree of Failure would be three (8 – 5 = 3). Or if you needed a roll of sixteen but only scored a nine after all modifiers, then your Degree of Failure would be seven (16 – 9 = 7).

Using this degree of failure, you can very easily eyeball “how bad” your failure actually was. Some RPG systems already have rules in place for determining grades of failure, but that’s okay, because Failure Padding isn’t as concerned about grading that failure as it is about transforming that failure into hard-earned success. In other words, Failure Padding is about re-imagining your failed dice rolls as very price-heavy victories, “padded up” with collateral damage.

Let’s say you roll eight successes, but you needed eleven in order to shoot the terrorist who is currently using your girlfriend as a hostage human shield. That’s three degrees of failure, which would likely have resulted in the terrorist getting away, with your girlfriend in tow. Instead, the GM lets you “spend” those three degrees of failure to buy other consequences related to the situation, each raising your original roll up to the required level to succeed. So in this case, you buy off those three needed successes, and you and the GM work out that you shot him but the bullet went through your girlfriend’s shoulder, he got a shot off at you which went straight through your thigh, and as your girlfriend is running away another terrorist grabs you and throws a bag over your head. Your initial goal was accomplished, but now the situation remains interesting and the story evolves.

Using this mechanic, the GM offers to “sell” you extra successes in exchange for you agreeing to additional consequences of your success. Each degree of failure is one such consequence acquired. In games with greater number scales, the degree of failure should probably be based on a range of numbers. Say, every two points missed in a D20 test is one degree of failure, or every ten points missed is one degree of failure on a D100 test.

Here are some various ideas of things that can go wrong for you – consequences you can take in order to pad up the failure:

  • You take additional damage in the strained effort to succeed.
  • Some piece of important equipment takes damage, or is rendered temporarily useless or inaccessible – armor degrades, greaves seize up, electronics malfunction, zippers get jammed, etc.
  • Your situation is made narratively worse somehow – enemy reinforcements arrive, the bridge collapses, your vehicle’s airbag unexpectedly deploys, etc
  • Some threat level is increased, if your game system keeps track of that kind of thing.

Hope it works out for you!

…and yes, I have a Gamestorm 2012 post coming very soon.

6 thoughts on “Failure Padding: Stealing Success from the Clutches of Failure

  1. Neat idea, but I think it’s harder to implement than you suggest. In many RPGs, casual failure is a feature of the design.

    For an extreme (and therefore illustrative) example, consider a random D&D encounter: half a dozen goblins show up and try to kill you. Combat is where most of the rolling happens in D&D, and the entire philosophy of high HP and armor modifying an all-or-nothing hit roll is that every success or failure is casual; narrative emerges as a trend in roll results, causing a well-armored opponent to avoid every attack but a lucky one, or a big, powerful creature (or hero) to be slowly worn down by a punishing succession of attacks, even though any one of those attacks could theoretically have been lethal on its own.

    At the same time, the encounter itself is casual – a challenge in a resource management sense, not a narrative sense, as PCs seek to conserve HP, spells, or consumables. You certainly could posit Important Consequences for failed rolls, but they would be both too frequent and too significant for a mere random encounter.

    Also, does it work both ways? Typically in D&D, PCs are outnumbered by weaker foes. This means that those foes will fail a LOT; if they’re all allowed to turn those failures into successes it’ll be a bloodbath, and if they suffer multiple negative consequences every time it’ll also be a comedy of errors. The aforementioned goblins might well cut the PCs down, destroying themselves in the process.

    You can of course run D&D in a way that minimizes this, if you eliminate combat XP, give equivalent awards for problem solving or roleplaying, and only start fights when it Matters, with NPCs who are well-matched to the PCs and have just as much at stake. But the system isn’t designed for this; most of the mechanics are devoted to combat, and very little to noncombat (unless it involves sneaking or picking pockets), so there will be very little to functionally differentiate the PCs as they’re all equally good cooks, accountants, lovers, politicians, wilderness survivors and so forth. (3.x is somewhat better in this regard, but if you’re using 3.x just because it has a broad skill system, you might as well play another RPG – GURPS or something White Wolf.)

    I think, also, this would not appeal to simulationists (I realize it’s not intended to); they want to react and proact to the setting and story, not have it conform to them. The simulationist doesn’t shoot at the terrorist holding his girlfriend expecting some kind of Hollywood success, however dearly bought; knowing the stakes, he carefully plans his equipment, his approach, and so forth to give him the best possible chance to succeed. Or if it’s a situation where he can’t prepare those advantages, or where he’s caught by surprise and maybe he’s not really a deadeye shot, then he has to make the hard choice to let the terrorist get away. Or maybe he shoots, as an act of desperation or compulsion, and then the result is about how he wasn’t good enough to save her this time, and now he’ll have to track the terrorists to their base – but maybe that gives him time to plan and prepare, fight them his way. Or maybe he hits her, and then he has to deal with that consequence: is he guilty, tormented? If he had it all to do over again, would he make the same decision, or does he have a change of philosophy? All valid outcomes and fertile ground for roleplaying and narrative, but not the same kind of roleplaying and narrative that buying success would create.

    • > In many RPGs, casual failure is a feature of the design.

      True, but that also means that wasted rolls and thus wasted player time is a feature of the design. Each whiff in a RPG is a waste of someone’s time. That being said, this is merely a suggested add-on for those who don’t like miss-heavy games, wherein a miss means absolutely nothing but time wasted. Not for everyone, of course, and it certainly shouldn’t happen with every single roll of the dice in a game like D20.

      > But the system isn’t designed for this…

      No, and yet there are hundreds of articles online about how Story Gamers have taken alternate rewards and mechanics approaches and made them work for D&D. The D20 system (especially the 3rd Ed. variants) is totally designed for modular re-workings. Alternate experience systems, combat-free adventure design, skill revamps and more, all can be made to work with ease. The core XP structure is in no way set in stone. Take the “Sweet 20” XP system, for example. It proves that even with a complete overhaul to the CP-acquisition mechanics, the core D20 engine still functions otherwise solidly.

      > …you might as well play another RPG

      Oh, absolutely. But sometimes, that isn’t an option.

      > I think, also, this would not appeal to simulationists

      Yeah, I never have been and never will be a simulationist. I don’t think that anything I ever create will ever appeal to simulationists. I’m totally okay with that.

  2. > True, but that also means that wasted rolls and thus wasted player time is a feature of the design. Each whiff in a RPG is a waste of someone’s time.

    Each roll, even a whiff, has some significance: your foe lives to strike again, or you lose time scrambling up the wall as your pursuers approach, and so forth. And as long as those rolls are significant, they’re not really a waste of time, they’re part of running the model.

    So what I hear you saying (tell me if you agree) is that you think it’s a waste of YOUR time – in other words, YOU want the result of every roll to be important, or else you don’t want to bother rolling. Every gamble should be a big one, never a petty one.

    That’s a valid stance – but not in this context, I think. Because when you talk about grafting this mechanic onto a game using a simulation model in order to save time, what you’re saying in effect is that you want to get the results of the simulation without having to run the model, and you can’t do that.

    That’s not to say that you couldn’t use the mechanic. You could give out tokens, say 1 per session plus more for good roleplaying or taking extreme risks or something, and spending a token would allow a player to failure pad one roll. (And a well-executed failure-padding might constitute good roleplaying, thus giving the player his token back – a bit like Force Points in West End’s Star Wars.) I think that would work well for D&D. But you wouldn’t eliminate most whiffs that way, because the system is still what it is: a simulation model with whiffs as a core design feature.

    > The core XP structure is in no way set in stone.

    Well, no, it’s not. But there’s an old question here, which is “how much can you modify a game before it loses its identity?” and its corollary, “why not just play a game that has the mechanics you want?” You certainly could change success odds with failure padding, and change the XP mechanics, and graft on a new skills system, but if D&D needs so many changes, why not just play something else? Are beholders really that important?

    > But sometimes, that isn’t an option.

    I don’t see why not. GMs are in short supply, and good GMs (if you happen to be one) even more so. Which means that players will play what you want to run, or nothing. And really, as a GM, if you can’t get any players except by running a particular game that you don’t like, how much fun are you going to have running it?

    Incidentally, I hope I’m not coming off as needlessly antagonistic; I’m just trying to further discussion. “Genius abhors consensus” and all that. If I’m getting on your nerves, let me know.

  3. > if D&D needs so many changes, why not just play something else?

    99% of the time, I am in 100% agreement with this statement. But there are many obstacles to game-switching – too many for me to have a desire to go into here – and I have to allow that just switching games isn’t always an option. It really isn’t. I’m pretty certain that House Rules have existed since the dawn of all gaming, and I’m just not going to diverge to that tangential discussion. Telling someone to play a different game is the equivalent of telling someone who is looking for a certain flavor of mustard to try pickle relish instead. Sure, they might end up liking pickle relish better, but that isn’t what they’re actually asking about.

    > I hope I’m not coming off as needlessly antagonistic

    Oh no, not at all. I get you. I do. But “play a different game instead” just isn’t what I want to discuss. I’ve done it many times in many posts all over the internet. It is definitely a subject worthy of discussion somewhere else, but it deserves its own space and attention. All discussions of house rules everywhere eventually fall prey to this dismissive line of thinking, and I don’t think that really encourages creativity at all.

    Instead of dismissing it as unnecessary, I’d rather talk about how it could be made to work.

    > But there’s an old question here, which is “how much can you modify a game before it loses its identity?” and its corollary, “why not just play a game that has the mechanics you want?”

    I don’t actually think those questions need to be here, really.

  4. > But “play a different game instead” just isn’t what I want to discuss.

    Alright, fair enough. But the fact remains that what you’re proposing isn’t just a rules hack; it’s a fundamental change. As I said before, many RPGs (such as D&D, which I’m going to keep using as an example because it’s so familiar) have casual failure built into the design. Players are expected to whiff some of the time and the game is balanced to accommodate that. You can’t just rip casual failure out without fundamentally altering the way the game plays.

    So let’s talk about implementation. You’ve already said that you wouldn’t use this for every roll in a D&D game. So when would you use it? If it depends on the circumstances, how would you determine that the necessary circumstances exist? Would you allow the GM to failure pad as well? And how would you preserve the balance of the game when players can dictate when their PCs succeed?

  5. We’ve been using it in our ongoing Warhammer Fantasy RPG campaign, and it’s been working out. The rules has been: You can modify your die roll by 10% for each negative consequence you offer. The rest of the party can suggest consequences if you are out of ideas. It’s a good group of players who like tension and drama, so they frequently do a good job of coming up with consequences that make the players say “Uh, no thanks.”

    As the GM, I’ve been using the Padding system as well. The players offer me consequences when I ask for them, and I can then decide if they’re worth it.

    The nature of the consequences balance things out significantly. Is hitting that pissant chaos cultist right now worth the sprained arm you will suffer? Is ruining your climbing harness worth that final hand-ver-the-ledge that pulls you up to safety? Is soiling your pants as you burst into the noble quarter worth not getting mauled by the nightwolf chasing you?

    That being said, I don’t see anything inherently wrong in being able to dictate “success” when that isn’t the real point of our playing experience. We’re there more for good times and such, so even on the nights that the players succeed at every single thing, it doesn’t get old, because in a setting like Warhammer, those successes are usually pretty hard-fought.

    Also, it has certainly helped balance out the nights when one player just can’t roll well. We’ve all been there: no matter what you roll, or whose dice you borrow, the rolls consistently suck. Having the option to pad up those failures has made a player’s night less “I missed again, yay” and more “I’m bleeding from three new holes and I’m covered in fungus but goddamn that fight was awesome.”

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