Valen’s eyes narrowed, matching his movements with his opponent. Circling left as the dark cloaked highwayman moved to his left. With every step of the dance they moved warily closer together until one or the other would decide they would move. The glittering rapier in his opponent’s hand dipped a bit weaving out to the side, a small mistake but a mistake none the less and with the speed of a striking viper Valen’s own rapier darted forward propelled by the powerful lunge that began with the ground upon which he stood. Too late Valen realized his own error in allowing himself to be baited by his enemy. Now though he stood at a forking in a road, either he would take the inevitable hit or he would roll with the motion and try to use this to his advantage … In the merest fraction of a second all would be decided one way or the other.
As gm’s we deal in absolutes, success or failure at the roll of a die. Either the attack succeeds or it does not. The trap is either noticed or it is not. Such simple decisions make for clear and obvious game play. But, they also limit narrative result. If the attack fails no damage is done and we move on. If the trap is not noticed, it will likely be discovered when it is triggered, unfortunately too late to do much about it but accept the result.
Some games though, notably Fate and Dungeon World (and its derivatives), offer an alternative. Specifically they offer the possibility of “success but with a cost.” The idea being that the die roll indicated a failure, but instead of failing outright the action succeeded but it did so by incurring a cost or penalty. In the case of Fate this is represented by the gm gaining the ability to invoke an aspect active in the game against the character. So the result being that the thing the character wanted to do worked but it is going to cost them somehow before all is said and done.
I’d been mulling this idea over for a while considering whether it could be applied to more traditional games, and recently a gm’ing acquaintance of mine mentioned that he had been doing something similar in his games. The result being this article, one way to implement the idea of “success but with a cost,” into other games, in this case Savage Worlds.
One thing to keep in mind is that the goal here is not to necessarily gain a mechanical advantage over the character though that is certainly an option. One thing I want to strongly recommend before we move on is that this is an excuse for both players and gm to be more creative and more inventive in their narrative.
So, let’s consider a basic situation, a thief trying to disarm a trap as he attempts to sneak into the enemy stronghold. In basic mechanical terms the player rolls against the standard TN of 4 and the gm applies any relevant modifiers and determines that the attempt fails. So what happens narratively? If the character(s) really have to find a way past this point to continue the adventure the gm is somewhat faced with a dilemma. Either they stand on the failure of the dice and the characters have to find some other way in, or he allows the character to try again (repeatedly) until a success results. In the case of the first answer that is certainly an option that opens up more narrative possibilities, but it might also push the characters into a position that they aren’t equipped for. There is likely a reason that they were trying to sneak past the trap in the first place. The second possibility raises the real dilemma. If success is inevitable why bother to roll in the first place?
But what if, instead of failing outright the player was presented with a choice, either fail outright with no chance of ever being able to bypass this situation, or they can succeed but with some additional ramification that they might not know about right away. As an example, instead of just failing they managed to disarm the trap, but in so doing they raised an alarm somewhere else in the stronghold and the enemies are now aware of their presence, or at least that something is going on. Perhaps the trap is disarmed but but in so doing an important tool is broken. The possibilities are limited only by the gm’s imagination.
Ultimately the decision of whether to accept the failure or to succeed with a cost (possibly an unknown cost) rests with the player.
I had occasion recently to try this with two games I ran at GameX 2013. The two games in question were “Zombie Mall 2” and “In Conflict Bound 2: Gods of Our Fathers” both of which were run in Hero System 6th Edition.
I cannot begin to express how well this worked.
In essence, a player would roll for their character to do something. They would roll what on the dice would indicate a failure. Instead of just failing outright I gave the player a choice. Do you want to fail, or do you want to succeed at a cost? If they chose to fail (and they did many times) the die roll stood as it was rolled and we went on our way. But, if they chose to succeed but at a cost I would then have something happen to complicate matters for the character. One simple way to do this would be to apply a mathematical negative to the character’s next attempt. Sure, that would work but, honestly, I don’t think that’s particularly fun, nor is it particularly interesting from a narrative standpoint. As a rule I would have a complication that was a logical outgrowth of the event itself. Another (and very interesting) permutation of this idea is to give narrative control of the event to the player. Something along the lines of, “Ok, so you want to succeed with a cost, you get the door open, but what went wrong?” I concede that this would not work with all players, but with players who are interested in making an interesting narrative story giving control to them over what happened will actually be more impactive to them than whatever I might have come up with. In essence they will likely be more cruel to themselves than I would have been.
One particular case in the Zombie Mall 2 game I think is worth relating. At one point a character took a called head shot at a zombie that was about to munch on one of her allies. The player rolled a failure but elected to succeed at a cost. In this case I took narrative control and determined that the errant shot would strike her ally. When the player rolled damage it was a truly hideous amount of damage that would have killed the other pc outright. This being Hero I offered the soon to be struck character the chance to avoid the shot but I said that there would be a cost involved. (In essence I was transferring the cost from the original pc to the one that was now acting. Since the alternative was death the player said he would totally do that. So the original player got to watch in horror as her errant shot passed through the zombie’s head narrowly missing her ally only to strike the little girl they were trying to rescue squarely in the head killing her instantly. For the next hour of the game the player who took the original shot had one single response to any question put to her, “I am in a ball in the floor of the humvee sobbing.” A TRULY memorable event that would never have happened without the idea of succeeding at a cost.
I’m not saying that succeeding at a cost solves all problems or should be used at all times, but in some circumstances it can certainly make for a very interesting game narrative and some very fun game play.