A new RPG system

Don’t ever Save or Die (okay, sometimes)

There is a mechanic that is prevalent in RPG’s.  It is most obvious in its namesake mechanic from Dungeons and Dragons.  It’s Save or Die.  An example is the “Finger of Death” spell which kills anyone who doesn’t succeed at a Fortitude saving throw.  Here I mean it in a much more general way.  I’m going to call Save or Die any mechanic which hinges on a single die roll and results in a failed adventure.

Let’s get more specific

Not everything is easy to put into a Save or Die.  In a game where Resurrection spells flow like water, this effect is arguably just an inconvenience.  I’d still avoid it, but it doesn’t in this case end that character forever.  Here’s a much worse save or die effect.

Suppose the characters have to get the Gem of Power.  However the Gem of Power is locked inside a safe made of unobtanium, and the only way to open the safe is to have the key or pick the lock.  The key has been annihilated, and if the lockpick attempt is failed it triggers a mechanism that makes it unopenable.  There is a character in the party who has a 90% chance of picking the lock.

This is a Save or Die situation even though no ones life is at stake (at least not directly).  There is one solution, and while that one solution has a very high likelihood of working, if it fails then everything fails.  All success or failure for the adventure now hinges on a single die roll.

Now, yes that situation is contrived and is unlikely to ever come up.  It was there to illustrate a point.  I’m going to bring the Save or Die to the other end of the spectrum.  Imagine this safe instead exists in a room, and has some money in it.  Whether its open will only affect the adventure in that it’s useful to have more money.  We could call this case Roll to Fail – here it’s not as big of a problem, but it is still a problem in that it’s boring.  It goes something like this:
Player: “I pick the lock”
GM: “Roll”
Player: “27”
GM: “You fail”

It’s just not very interesting.  It’s boring; even more boring with ‘repeated attempts’.  But why?

Games are made fun by giving Players options, and drama has to involve tension in conflict.  When you Roll to Fail, you are setting up a situation which just establishes a fact “you got the safe open” or not.  There are a ton of alternatives to this.  Imagine if instead it went something like this:

Player: “I pick the lock”
GM: “Roll”
Player: “27”
GM: “You didn’t open the safe, but that was enough to let you know that this is a Marshal safe.  You know a guy in the Skids that has the tools to get a safe like this open.”

This is much more exciting.  Now the Player has choices: How do I get the safe out of here?  Is it worth it?  Will my friend want half, and if so how do I get the tools myself?  maybe my friend and I can sneak in here.  There are all sorts of possibilities.  Conversely the Player may decide it’s not worth it, but that’s fine also – the drama was created just by creating the choices.  Of note, if you are good at thinking on your feet like this when it comes to failure, it’s all you need to run a Sandbox game.

Of course, doing that all the time for every failure is probably beyond the abilities of most GM’s, and for more linear adventures might derail them.  There are simple ways of handling this though.  A GM can make the action take longer, offer a consequence, or provide information in lieu of success.  Providing information is as described above, but here’s how the other two would play out.

Player: “I pick the lock”
GM: “Roll”
Player: “27”
GM: “Hmmm, it doesn’t seem to be opening.  It’s a particularly tricky lock.  You think if you spent a couple of hours on it you’d probably be able to get it open.”

This gives the Player a simple choice – spend hours trying to rob this place, which might get them caught and delays whatever else they are doing, or continue on.  With offering a consequence it would be a little different.

Player: “I pick the lock”
GM: “Roll”
Player: “27
GM: “You start working the safe, but realize the only method you know to get it open would be loud and alert the guards.  Do you want to continue?”

Now the choice is “Make sound and alert the guards or leave the safe alone”.  Again, this restores player agency.

All The Things!

We’ll call the above method “soft failure”.  The application of soft failure can apply to pretty much every skill check to increase drama and narrative fidelity.  When a person fails a knowledge check you can say “You don’t know, but recall reading something about it in the library of Marklar”. When researching at a library you can say “Given how much progress you made in this hour with that roll, you suspect it’ll probably take a week to find what you’re looking for”.  Even when these alternatives don’t make sense providing another solution is the least you can do “You can’t pick the lock, but Grognar can probably bash the door down”.  The point here is that failures should in general open up more possibilities for play instead of reduce them.  You want to keep the game moving, and you want to keep your game as far away from Save or Die as possible.  In general you can think of a game as having 4 ranks of success:

    Critical Failure – You fail and something awful happens
    Failure – You have a soft failure
    Success – You succeed
    Critical Success – You succeed and there’s a positive side effect

Doing this, every single dice roll – which means every important action the PC’s take – results in some shift in the story, or at least the opportunity for a shift.

Sometimes Save or Die is Best

I just spent a bunch of time arguing against Roll to Fail and Save or Die mechanics.  Now I’m going to step back for a moment.  A game often does, and should, involve superfluous rolls.  These are things that are worthwhile to gloss over, but you still want to roll for.  Some have argued that this should never come up in a game but I disagree.  Rolling to establish facts is a completely worthwhile endeavor.

GM: “the old man continues “when the princess was captured she was wearing The Thorn or Bordash”
Player: “Do I know what The Thorn of Bordash is?”
GM: “Roll”
Player: “15”
GM: “No.  The old man continues…”

Was this boring?  Yes.  The GM could have made it interesting as described above, but doing so would have actually taken narrative focus away from what’s most relevant to the story now.  Instead the GM says ‘No’ and moves on.  If the player had succeeded the GM would describe it to the player a little, and then everyone at the table would know that this Character knows something about it.  It’s useful information for the ‘audience’ even if it never comes up again.

So, when do you Roll to Fail?  I’d suggest never miss an opportunity to let a Player make a check.  If failure doesn’t really hinder the game, then it isn’t really important that you use Soft Failures.  Sometimes “do I convince the guard to let me in”, “do I get a good price from the merchant”, “do I win the card game”, and many other story details are great fun to establish and really good uses of Roll to Fail.

What about Save or Die though?  Yes!  Save or Die is just another instance of Roll to Fail.  It works perfectly fine when you are using Finger of Death on an NPC that has essentially no bearing on the story.  A player could easily say something like “I cast finger of death on a patron at the bar hoping to intimidate my opponent into backing down”.  That’s an awesome use of Save or Die.  Here it establishes a fact that can give a bonus to figuring out something more important – it doesn’t stop play.

That last bit is critical: Never Save or Die when it stops play.  Ever.

A Bigger Problem

The binary mechanic of Roll to Fail is a symptom of a larger problem with the implicit format presented in most RPG’s.  This relates pretty closely with issues like Player Character information, and Social mechanics – two issues I’ll grapple with in my next post.  Game designers have been slacking here, and generally Roll to Fail expresses a level of laziness that is equal measure the GM’s fault and the game designers fault.

The easiest way to start avoiding the design is to start thinking more and more about every roll being an ‘open’ test.  If a lock is “DC 20”, that just means “Opening the lock with standard tools in one round is DC 20”, so what is the “DC 15” for this lock, what is the “DC 10”?  Every check is an opportunity for the GM to open possibilities, every check is an opportunity for the adventure writer to open possibilities, every check is an opportunity for the game designer to open up possibilities, and finally every check is a chance for the player to open up possibilities.

Which brings me to my last point.  Player’s, you’ve been slacking to, or at least need to reestablish your social contract at the table.  There is no rule that says you can’t suggest a consequence for success, and I’m not talking about you needing to do anything but stay in character.  Observe:
Player: “I pick the lock”
GM: “Roll”
Player: “27”
GM: “You fail”
Player: “What if I force the lock, I know it’ll make noise, but…”
GM: “Still not quite enough to do it quickly”
Player: “In 10 minutes”
GM: “Sure.  You are forcing the lock, but about 5 minutes into it you hear the sounds of armored footsteps running toward the door”

That’s how you Fail Softly.

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4 responses

  1. Todd

    Great advice, but punctuation and spelling need a little help at the end.

    January 30, 2016 at 5:29 pm

  2. Pingback: Fixing Social Mechanics and the Player Information Gap | Living Myth Rpg

  3. Pingback: Handling Player Character Death | Living Myth Rpg

  4. Pingback: RPG Theory: Living Myth vs Forge Theory | Living Myth Rpg

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