Failure Isn’t Interesting

So far this week I’ve talked about my opinions on pretty standard gaming fare: different tastes I’ve developed over decades of gaming and ideas that are more specific to “traditional” roleplaying games from the Eighties or Nineties. Today I’m going to talk about how my views have been changing over the past couple of years.
To set the stage, I’m going to take you back about 25 years. I was 18 years old, had been gaming in some capacity since I was 8 or so and running my own games from about the age of 11 or 12. I had a pretty broad exposure to a lot of different games very early on, including Traveller, Gamma World and Star Frontiers in my repertoire near simultaneously to Basic D&D. It helped that in the early Eighties you couldn’t spit without hitting a store selling rpgs. In 1988, just after I graduated high school, I had found a new gem: Cyberpunk first edition, fresh off the presses in a neat black box that reminded me so much of my Traveller boxed set. Like Traveller, it was a whole new world – this time of ultraviolence and grittiness and chrome and drama.
During one of my first sessions running Cyberpunk,  the player characters got into a firefight and the Rocker lost his leg. The player protested furiously. Losing the leg ruined his character. He didn’t want a cyber leg to replace it. It made him want to quit the game. I was still firmly in the “let the dice fall where they may” and “this is what the rules say” and “the GM is always right” camp and wouldn’t hear any of it.
By the way, that player was John Wick. John, if you ever read this I’m terribly sorry about being such a douche. You wrote a terrific background for that Rocker, including song lyrics, and put a lot of effort into it – and I brushed it off in like two sessions. If it’s any consolation, you’ve been a much more awesome GM than me for, like, ever.
In the years since I’ve learned all of the lessons about talking to players about expectations and what they what they want in a game, about not letting the rules get in the way fun, and about saying “Yes” more than “No”. But there was still a piece missing.
One part of it came from reading Fate Core, but even then it didn’t quite click until I recently saw this posted on Google+ from +Brad Murray (who was quoting someone else):

[…]the dice throw in FATE is not about determining success or failure was a million watt light-bulb over my head: the dice set the price for success and therefore demand of the player, “what will you pay to make up the difference?”

Success at a price and failure being boring were such obvious concepts I’d never even considered them before. Maybe I’m just late to the party – I had flirted with the premise in the past without realizing it. For example, in the Silhouette system any roll of all 1s is a fumble and an automatic failure. One house rule I put into place was that the roll could still succeed (provided the modifiers added up to the threshold needed), but it meant something bad would happen. I just never thought about extending it in some way to normal failures.

Isn’t that more interesting than “You fail?”

Now this isn’t to say that the player characters should never fail – only that it makes for a better game if they are given the choice between the boring words, “You fail” or some new problem that arises. In games like Fate, this is a built in assumption of the system. In more mainstream games that don’t have the support built in, it’s just something that needs to be handled by the group.

Also, because of comments I’ve seen I felt the need to add this addendum (the original was written very late at night). I’m not so much talking about characters never failing or always having a choice between some other situation. The statement “failure is boring” has mostly to do with just taking a failed roll that could have interesting consequences and just leaving it at, “You fail, what next?”.

So how would this have changed that session 25 years ago? If I had been in the mindset of failure not being interesting, and given the choice between the Rocker failing his Dodge roll and losing a leg or succeeding at Dodging but with a complication – I’d have chosen the complication over the leg.  Maybe the contact that they were there for would have been killed instead, or perhaps an innocent bystander. Regardless, the Rocker would have had a chance to walk away from it (no pun intended).

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