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The Douchey DM » General Gaming, Inspiration, Reviews » Making Failure Interesting – Part 1

Making Failure Interesting – Part 1

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

In a recent post on the Happy Jack’s forums, savagedaddy mentioned that the Bennies in Savage Worlds are rather one dimensional. He notes (and I agree) that they really only exist to turn a failure into a success, and in doing so kind of steer the plot down a specific path; one of character success. For those of you unfamiliar with Bennies (which is impossible if you’re a Happy Jacks RPG podcast listener) players can spend a Bennie to reroll any Trait test they dislike. And 99.99% of the time players will dislike a roll because it results in a failure for their character. Before someone jumps down my throat and corrects me, you can use Bennies in other ways, namely making Soak Rolls. But even that could be considered an attempt to turn a failure (you taking damage) into a success (you not taking damage).

While no one likes to fail, succeeding at everything you attempt to do is arguably just as boring as constant failure. Stories where the protagonist has no real chance of failure are pretty lame. How boring would The Lord of the Rings have been if Boromir had said “One simply does stroll into Mordor.”? Or imagine a version of StarWars where the Deathstar’s exhaust port was so big even C3P0 could drop a photon torpedo down it? (There’s an X-Wing in a Deathstar trench joke here, somewhere, I just haven’t found it yet.) There’s no tension, no drama, and no interest in the story or the characters if we know the task the hero is attempting has a 100% chance of success. I’m not saying that characters in a Savage Worlds game have a 100% chance of success in everything they attempt. Certainly not. Most games instruct you to forgo the dice entirely when there is a 100% of success (or failure), and Savage Worlds is no different. But as savagedaddy points out, the Bennies don’t really do anything to make failure more interesting, they just give players a chance to try and turn that failure into a success. They’re binary; success or failure. Which isn’t bad, I just think there are things we can do to make failure more interesting in a game other than making it go away.

Failure can be fun

Ever since reading Apocalypse World by D. Vincent Baker last year, I have really adopted the “failure is interesting” mantra in role playing games. Far too often (for my tastes at least) failure in a game simply means that nothing happens. Didn’t meet the required target number with your Pick Locks roll? You don’t open that door. Rolled double 1’s when trying to identify those tracks? You have no idea what creature made them. No successes with your Presence + Manipulation dice pool? You don’t seduce the duchess into divulging where she keeps her jewels. Sorry. Want to try again?

In all of those cases, failure doesn’t really carry any consequence (other than to possibly frustrate the players when they hit a dead end), and a lack of consequence means a lack of tension and interest. It’s worth pointing out that any GM worth their salt will try to make failure interesting, either by coming up with a consequence or by limiting the number of times a character can attempt to do something. Failed to unlock that door? The big, bad necromancer is now one step closer to finishing his evil ritual. Better hurry up! Couldn’t identify those tracks by the river? Someone in the village can, but it’ll cost you and you’re already low on gold. Botched your attempt to seduce the duchess? One of her guards decides you’re overstepping the boundaries of decent behavior and decides to teach you some manners. Good GMs make failure matter. But I really think that interesting failures should be hard coded right into the mechanics of a game. If it’s a trait of good GMs, why not help out new GMs by putting it right there in the rules plain as day for everyone to see?

Apocalypse World and it’s derivatives are games that do precisely that; interesting failures are written right into the mechanics of the system. Every die roll a player makes in an Apocalypse Engine game (which is always 2d6 + stat) has three possible results; a strong hit, a weak hit, or a miss. A strong hit gives the player everything they were hoping for and possibly even a little bit more. A weak hit gives the player what they wanted, but only if they compromise, make a hard choice, or take a worse outcome then they wanted. A miss is bad. When a player’s roll results in a miss, the GM is instructed to do something nasty. Something that will force the character to react, which leads the player to make another action that requires a roll, which can lead to another miss, and… you see where this is going? Failure drives the narrative forward, rather than stopping it dead with a GM response of “Nothing happens. Want to try again?”

Note that a miss doesn’t necessarily mean the player fails to get what they want or that they fail to achieve what they were trying to do. A miss simply means that the GM should push the fiction in a direction the character almost certainly won’t like. For example, if a player has their character attempt to leap over a chasm but misses their roll, the GM could say that the character doesn’t make it to the other side and falls screaming into the darkness. In that case, the player failed at what they were trying to do (making it across the chasm). But the GM could also say the character makes it to the other side of the chasm but looses that all important McGuffin in the process. The one that the party just spent the last three sessions obtaining. The character got what they wanted (making it across the chasm) but now the situation is so bad that the character (and player) probably wishes that they hadn’t attempted the action in the first place.

That player’s got the Moves…

But the heart of any Apocalypse Engine game isn’t the 2d6 + stat die roll. It’s the Moves. Moves are how the players interact with the fiction of the game world. But they’re not the straightforward and narrowly defined “moves” or actions of other games. They’re broad, loosely worded triggers that can apply to many different situations, but have defined outcomes for the fiction based on the dice results. Some example Moves from various Apocalypse Engine games are Act Under PressureDefy DangerHack and SlashInvestigate a MysteryLash Out Physically, and Turn Someone On. Although each game always has a few examples of what fictional action qualifies for each Move, the “what” and “how” of these Moves are largely left to the interpretation of the players and the GM. There isn’t an exhaustive list of all the situations where a character would have to Act Under Pressure, nor is there a table of all the ways a character could Turn Someone On. Instead the player narrates what their character is doing in the fiction, and the GM decides what Move best fits the situation. Or the player selects a Move that has a result they want, and then narrates their character’s action to fit the spirit of that Move. The main point here is that the player must narrate how their character is trying to obtain their desired result.

Each Move lists what happens on a strong hit, a weak hit, and occasionally what happens on a miss. Sometimes these are very specific, other times they’re open to interpretation based on the circumstances. For example, here is the Run Away Move from the Monsterhearts game by Joe Mcdaldno:

When you run away, roll with volatile. On a 10 up, you get away, and end up in a safe place. On a 7-9, you get away, but choose one: you cause a big scene; you run directly into something worse; the scariest person there gets a String on you.

Even without going into specifics of how the Move works or what Strings are, you can see that on a strong hit (10+ on 2d6) the player gets a good result with no ill effects (they get away to a place of safety). On a weak hit (7-9 on 2d6) the player gets what they want (getting away) but something negative happens as well (they make a mess while escaping, they encounter something much worse, or someone there now knows how to push their buttons). Note that because it’s the player making the Move, the “you” in the text refers to them. That’s right, the player gets to choose one of those options and decides what happens to their PC, not the GM. In this specific Move there’s no instructions for what happens on a miss (6 or less on 2d6) because in this case, a miss just means the GM gets to make one of their Moves.

…but so does the MC

When I said that the players have Moves, I meant all the players. Including the GM (or MC, or Keeper, depending on the game). Whenever one of the PCs makes a Move but gets a miss (rolls a 6 or less), the GM gets to make one of their Moves. Apocalypse Engine games usually have a list of “general” GM Moves as well as a number of additional lists for specific things. For example, Monster of the Week by Michael Sands (a game meant to emulate monster hunting TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, X-Files, and Supernatural) has a list of general Keeper Moves, and four additional lists for the different types of threats found in the game; Monsters, Minions, Bystanders, and Locations. If the GM needs to make a Move and the players aren’t currently dealing with a monster, minion, bystander, or location, they should probably pick from the list of general Moves. If they players get a miss when facing down a monster, the GM would probably pick from the list of Monster Moves. If they’re in a spooky or dangerous place, pick from the list of Location Moves. You get the idea. It’s not rocket science here, people.

Having multiple lists of moves that only apply in certain situations sounds like a lot to remember, right? Well, not really. Just like the player’s Moves, the GM’s Moves are very broad and open to a lot of interpretation based on the circumstances. They’re not a list of things the GM has to do, but more of list of things they can do to keep the story interesting when something bad needs to happen. Things like, separate them, put someone in trouble, take away some of their stuff, turn their move back on them, and make them investigate are all examples of GM Moves. They’re not specific, and can be adapted to just about any situation, though some will be more appropriate than others in certain cases. Say the PCs are fighting some nasty supernatural beastie and one of them Storks a Kick Some Ass Move. The monster could casually backhand the PC over the staircase railing and down onto a lower landing (separate them). Maybe it dodges under the blow, snatches up the weakest member of the team, and dangles them out the window (put someone in trouble). Or perhaps the PC’s weapon gets stuck in the wall and the monster bullrushes them into the other room (take away their stuff). Nothing in the rules says which of these things has to happen, that’s entirely up to the GM based on what they think is most appropriate, will cause the most drama, or is most fitting for the threat being dealt with.

The thing about the GM Moves is that they’re things good GMs already do to keep the story interesting. Maybe without even knowing it. All the Apocalypse Engine games do is put them into lists with examples and advice about when and how to use them. You don’t really have to learn anything new when running an Apocalypse Engine game because you’re probably already doing the things it instructs the GM to do. The lists of general GM Moves and specific Threat Moves are just there for when you get stuck and don’t know what should happen next.

Next time: The Savage Engine

Somehow this article turned into an explanation of how Apocalypse Engine games work, and how they make failure interesting. I’d originally intended to write about how we can take elements from this family of games and apply them to the Savage Worlds system, but that will have to wait until next time. Hopefully people now have a basic grasp of how these games work, and how interesting failures are hardcoded right into the rules of the system, which I think is a fantastic idea.

You can find more information about Apocalypse Engine games at the following links:

  • Apocalypse World by D. Vincent Baker, the post-apocalyptic game that started it all;
  • Monsterhearts by Joe Mcdaldno, a game of supernatural teen horror romance;
  • Dungeon World by Sage LaTorra and Adam Kobel, a game of classic fantasy adventuring;
  • Monster of the Week by Michael Sands, a game of monster hunting; and
  • tremulus by Sean Preston, a game of Lovecraftian horror.

There are also a vast number of home-brew hacks and setting modifications for Apocalypse World floating around the internet. Look here and see if someone’s made an X World game of your favorite franchise yet. If not, then why not make one yourself?


Written by

HyveMynd is a Philly native who's been living in Osaka, Japan since late 2005. When he's not sitting in front of a PC at work, he's sitting in front of a PC at home banging out notes for yet another homebrew RPG system that will most likely never see the light of day.

Filed under: General Gaming, Inspiration, Reviews · Tags: , , , , , ,

3 Responses to "Making Failure Interesting – Part 1"

  1. SirGuidoNo Gravatar says:

    I say to people all the time to stop and think about the most memorable moments you’ve had in gaming. Almost always the majority of those memories are when you’re character has screwed something up. Failed in some spectacular way. Its almost always hugely memorable, I don’t understand why so many people dislike failing in the moment when they love it so much after the fact.

  2. KveldUlfNo Gravatar says:

    Damn you! Now I’ve had to go pick up a few of the Apocalypse World settings. You made it sound too damn fun!

  3. BryanNo Gravatar says:

    How did this work out for you? I am also a fan of Savage Worlds and AW, especially the MotW hack. Part 2 of this entry would be awesome. Please. 🙂

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