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.