Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Using Failure as a Narrative Tool instead of a Player Frustration

How often have scenarios like these come up?

Scenario One:
Needing to kill the Goblin Chieftain, but not wanting to fight the entire goblin war camp at once, the party decides to sneak past slumbering goblins to the chieftain’s tent.  The stealthy ranger, sneaky rogue and unarmored wizard all roll well, but the scale mail wear dwarven fighter rolls poorly, eliciting a groan from the other players as now the goblin sentries raise the alarm and the party is stuck fighting the entire war-camp.

Scenario Two:
The party has just defeated a beholder and its cultist allies in a hard-fought battle.  Now catching their breath, they’re able to search the room.  Before the DM can speak, the player of the wizard says “My wizard will look at those arcane carvings in the wall more closely now…shit… I rolled a one; guess my wizard doesn’t know anything, dur dur dur.”

These scenarios and countless others like them, from the mundane, a PC missing on a melee attack to the esoteric knowledge checks.  Failure is an inevitable occurrence in any RPG, but in many D&D games I’ve played in, and yes, many D&D games I’ve run, failure just becomes boring and when it occurs repeatedly in a session due to a player having a run of bad dice luck it can extremely frustrating for a player.

Most versions of the D&D rules set up these checks as binary PASS/FAIL, maybe with a chance of automatic or extraordinary success (natural 20) and automatic or extraordinary failure (natural 1).  This works okay mechanically but in practice it can be boring, and in many cases, frustrating to players who feel like not only is their character not getting to do anything, their character falls out of the narrative of the game largely, as they repeatedly swing and miss during combat or fail perception check after perception check.  It’s a shame because many other games handle failure much better, implementing, explicitly or not, more of a “Fail Forward” approach where the player’s failures at dice rolls (or whatever mechanical randomizer is used) as a chance to continue the narrative as opposed to the way failure often functions in D&D as a narrative top (think of the dull silence that lays in wait between a player sullenly says “I got a 5, I don’t see anything” or “I rolled a 7 on my attack” and the DM picking up the narration).  In particular I’m going to draw on Dungeon World for examples of strategies to draw upon, mostly because I’ve been reading it heavily lately and also because I recently ran Apocalypse World which was the source for the Dungeon World Mechanics, but there are many other games out there that have good “Fail Forward” mechanics that you can draw on.

Now, not every roll needs to be narratively interesting, it’s okay to have the fighter swing at an orc with her axe and miss but it’s much more interesting to have some of the PC failures drive the narrative of the game forward instead of having them feel like a pause for a player, a moment where the player, due to bad dice luck, just doesn’t get to do anything.  Think of an old Final Fantasy style game from the era of NES and SNES, if you played any from that era.  Remember the frustration that would build when you had a streak of bad luck or your party accidentally ventured into an area your characters weren’t high enough level for yet?  The annoyance of watching the clunky animation of your character making an attack and then the pause before the disheartening “MISS” showed on screen and nothing happening and then having to wait for the round to cycle?  That is unfortunately what D&D emulates all too often, so below are some strategies I plan to implement in my games to turn failures from frustrating pauses in the fun for players into narrative tools to drive my games forward.

Monday, April 28, 2014

LARP's Lessons Lost

A Blog Post Wherein I Play the Fool.

I used to run and play in a lot of LARPs, or Live-Action Role Playing games for those of you who have arrived at this blog from some other dimension, and some of those games were shit.  Not "the shit" as in good, though some of them were the shit, but some were terrible shit, as in shitty and terrible games.  And I'm talking about the games I ran as well as the games that I played in.  I have run some shit LARPs in my day.  Many of these games I played in, wrote or ran, I also played in, wrote or ran with Thomas and because we enjoy talking about games nearly as much as we enjoy playing them and because it is often easier to talk about games just the two of us than to find a group, schedule a time and play a game, we talked about the problems that we found with LARPs a lot.

Of course, not having played, run or written a LARP in a few years, I forgot all my LARP gripes and lessons when I started running an online influence game using a mishmash of the original World of Darkness Vampire the Dark Ages or VtDA (actually the confusingly re-named Dark Ages: Vampire which has an less impressive DA:V acronym) and a heavily modified Influence System derived mostly from Mind's Eye Theater (MET) Dark Epics.  Since I've been more focused in the last several years on party-driven tabletop games like D&D or even more story-driven games like Dread and Apocalypse World, I let my years of LARP experience go almost completely untapped, much to the detriment of the game I was running.

A Bang & then a Whimper - The Final Dispatch from Parcher's

When we left our rag-tag band of PCs and their 50-60 hangers on (in addition to Pinky's gang, Man also decided to take the 'hav...