After a year or so playing various small press games such as Mouse Guard, Burning Wheel, Apocalypse World and Leverage, I’ve come with a standard approach to task resolution that borrows heavily from them. While I’ve been using it with D&D, I think it applies to most classic RPGs based on “roll and hit target to succeed” mechanics, including all d20 variants.
Here are its core elements and how they are integrated:
A task’s outcome must be uncertain. If it can be achieved by off-camera retries, I leave the dice alone. All those perception and search checks? Dropped them unless I create a challenge structured around just that, with multiple outcomes and possibilities for conflict.
Where’s that damn tiara? I swear I saw the thief slip it in his pouch! Come on Halfling, fess up or suffer a flying body search on that wall.
If the outcome for a task is uncertain, I ask myself “are the stakes behind it sufficient to build a dramatic scene around it? Will players care if they fail or miss?” If not, I accede to the player’s request and move on.
For example, a player seeking a friendly contact in a village might automatically find one if the GM has no particular inspiration that translates to a meaningful stake. But if there’s a possibility that characters make a negative impression with clear consequences that may affect later adventures, then stakes are clear and a roll becomes worthwhile.
You know how much I value the time I spend around a table with my friends. This means I’m no longer willing to roll to unlock doors and sneak past/fight every mook of an adventure’s area. That’s why I’m a proponent of “Scene Economy”, a self-explanatory term I believe was formally coined in the Burning Empires RPG and a concept firmly entrenched in Mouse Guard‘s adventure design.
In MG, each adventure is roughly made of only 2 scenes built around one (or a few) skill check(s). Each features one core obstacle and likely outcome if failed.
In that sense, whenever a player reacts to an obstacle I’ve placed in their path by explaining what his/her character wants to achieve, I take care of breaking down the players’ intent into a series of tasks to create a scene. Once I have this informal list of tasks, I rapidly discard those that don’t meet my uncertainty and significance principles.
Chatty: Okay, you succeeded up to this point so far, but here is where it gets interesting…
Then, what I look for is the core tasks/skill rolls upon which the scene will pivot. It often boils down to just one skill check, maybe one or two more.
For example, in my Primal/Within D&D 4e campaign, a player wanted his Rogue to find a shop selling a specific magic item in a hostile city. Since they had already successfully sneaked around town earlier in the adventure, I discarded any further stealth checks from the series of task making the scene (as per Burning Wheel’s Let it Ride rule) and boiled the whole thing down to its essence: a Streetwise skill check.
One Lead, Many Helpers
Among my pet peeves about skill checks in RPGs, the one standing out the most is forcing/encouraging everyone in a group to perform the same skill check, regardless of actual competence. The most glaring examples is the Stealth check where everyone ends up being penalized by the weakest link, usually the Plate-mail wearing doofus. In reverse, the “me too” effect often kicks in when everyone in a group decides to tackle the same obstacle, hoping to “roll a 20”, often eclipsing the player for which the challenge was meant for.
Once again borrowing from Mouse Guard/Burning Wheel, I addressed this by asking for a character to take the lead on resolving the next task the group agreed to perform. Once selected, I require the player to describe how the character will go at it.
Role Playing Aside: This description is vital, it is where much of the role playing resides in almost every RPG I’ve played. Just as much as the description of a sword stroke is effective, describing how a PC attempts to overcome a task is a lost or untrained art for many players. This is where the DM absolutely must nudge, inspire and encourage everyone to come up with cool descriptions. Allow players to inspire each other and piggy back on those descriptions.
Once this is done, other players are invited to offer and describe how they will help. In my D&D 4e hack , each helper follow the standard helping rules, however, I allow a large range of skill/ability/power, as long as the player makes a good show describing how help is provided in that way.
My best example was in my recent Dungeon Reality Show post:
Between the first 2 combat encounters, the PCs were standing around a broken statue of Maïwenn’s god. She mused that she, like, totally should do something about it. So we discussed it a bit.
We agreed that this would be a hard Religion check to re-channel the divine energy back into the statue. The others would be helping, Seaendithas would climb on the statue (Thievery), Frank would hand him broken pieces (Athletics) to put back in place and Todd would fuse them back with his Magic Missiles (Arcana).
Cards on the Table
Before dice are picked up by players, I usually adopt one of two approaches, depending on the situation.
In high risk scenes, I share the target number to hit and explain the likely outcomes, both good and bad, of the skill check. I took this from Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World where players are told what’s likely to happen if they fail (although not in full details). That gives them an option to go back and rethink their strategy if they find the risks or likely price of failure too high.
Alternatively, in less risky/intense situations, I might wait to see the result and offer a bargain if a failure is rolled. I give the scene-leader a choice: accept normal failure or succeed in exchange for a minor twist in the scene.
In the above “finding a magic item in a hostile city” example, my player failed, so I gave him a choice, I told him he could either fail to find his object, or buy one that was cursed. I would however not reveal the nature of the curse before he made his choice.
He chose the cursed object… he he he
Awesome Epic Failures
Another big issue I have with skill in classic RPGs is how binary they are. You either succeed or fail and that’s that. It often made rolling skill checks pretty unexciting. I find the problem resides mostly in the finality of the failed check. You fail at your task, now what?
However in the last decade, RPGs were developed that specifically addressed the issue of failure and how to use them to drive stories forward instead of grinding them to a halt. Burning Wheel, I think, pioneered it with the Let it Ride rule and references to avoiding failure dead ends. D&D 4e tried, unsuccessfully in my opinion, with skill challenges but recovered nicely in the Dungeon Master Guide II.
However I discovered the true potential of “fun failures” in games like Mouse Guard, Leverage and Apocalypse World.
For example, Mouse Guard expects GMs to introduce a plot twist/complication whenever characters fails a skill check. In one of its sample missions, the guards are required to bring mail to a far off city during the Spring thaw. If characters fail their challenge to get to the last city safely, they seek refuge for the night in a hollow tree… occupied by a Crow that attempts to steal a mailbag, leading to a conflict.
In Leverage, whenever characters play “1” on their dice, the GM gains “complications” that he can develop in one-liner assets that antagonistic NPCs can use, whenever the story calls for them, against players in the current or future tasks. This is great practice for on-the-spot creation of minor twists and complications.
In Apocalypse World, task resolution rolls, unless very high, always result in complications in the form of “you get what you want but…” that open the way for GMs to send the game in all kinds of interesting directions… much to player groaning and sighing.
So how do you make failure fun in a classic game like D&D or Pathfinder? It’s simple (and gets easier with time). Whenever failure comes up, the GM comes up with a complication to the plot, a new unforeseen twist to the story/scene/adventure. It can be either be pre-planned (part of the adventure notes under “likely twists”) or entirely improvised based on what makes the most sense to the GM at the time.
Failure can lead to allies revealing themselves as traitors, characters getting wounded in an accident, triggering traps, alerting a nearby patrol, nobles taking insult, young maidens falling in love with PCs at the WORSE possible time… etc. Just look at recent TV shows where characters jump from trouble into worse trouble (The Walking Dead shuffles to mind) and you have good examples of the type of failures you can spring on PCs.
This seems… complicated.
It really isn’t once you’ve tried it a few times:
- Drop an obstacle on players
- Identify the significant, uncertain task(s) to overcome it
- Identify Scene-leader
- Identify helpers
- Let players narrate what they do
- Lay your cards down and explain target number and likely consequences
- Adjust strategy if needed and repeat previous steps if necessary
- Roll dice
- Describe success or add twist to situation.
If at this point of the story, the obstacle is still there and the players are in deeper trouble than before, don’t panic, just apply this secret formula that Vincent Baker conjured exactly for this:
Look at them calmly, smile and ask them “What do you do now?”
I call this system “Mouseburning it”‘. Try it and let me know how that works out for you.
Thank you everyone for reading.
Special thanks go to Luke Crane (Burning Wheel, Mouse Guard), Vincent Baker (Apocalypse World), Rob Donaghue/Fred Hicks and Cam Banks (Leverage) and James Wyatt/Robin Laws (Dungeon Master Guide II)
Image Source: Light Sheep Studios LLC