Failure is an interesting consequence. I have been reading Dungeon World lately – and on Free RPG Day I had a long conversation about it with a local GM who was running a demo of the game. He made a comment that I hear often. He said, “Hey, even when you fail a roll, something interesting happens.” This statement always catches me off guard because…to my way of thinking, failure is an interesting consequence.
So I started thinking about it more and I realized that this is actually a very natural process of evolution in game design. A system that uses skill rolls for perception checks, for example. Skills as a design element started off very binary. You roll and you either succeed or you fail. But you start to think about something like a Perception skill and sure, it seems like failing such a roll would really be un-fun. It’s especially not fun because these rolls determine what you learn about the world around your character.
It makes sense that game designers unsatisfied with this would work to evolve mechanical solutions to the problem. They would look for ways to mitigate failure or at least morph that failure into something else. So you get efforts like Gumshoe or Dungeon World or more extreme examples of story-based mechanics.
But here’s the thought I keep coming back to…
Failure is already an interesting outcome.
Failure means you are forced to move in another direction, to take an alternative path. Failure shapes the story entirely on its own.
An example I come back to is the old Pick Locks rule that if you fail, you cannot try again until you gain a level. This makes perfect sense to me. It’s simple – the lock is too hard. Sure, it’s sad that you ran into something your character wasn’t good enough to defeat but unless the adventure is such a linear nightmare that there is only one path (which is its own, separate problem) the failure is an interesting outcome. Once I fail to pick that lock – I don’t need to be allowed to Take 10 or another chance – I need a new plan. I would contend that this encourages players to think beyond the numbers on their character sheets and the numbers on the dice. This is an outcome I really hope to get in a gaming experience.
I know that it would be easy to reduce this argument back to the old Player Skill vs. Character Skill argument – but I think discussion of failure goes beyond such a simple argument.
Failure does not need to be marginalized or morphed to be interesting – it already is.