Tuesday, April 7, 2015

A Great Success With Terms and Conditions

Just a short one today because I accidentally stabbed my finger this morning and now typing is both difficult and painful. If I'm going to suffer, I'd rather suffer for a project and not the blog.

A belated wish for a Happy Easter for anybody who is into that kind of thing.

Easter is a long weekend here in Sydney, Australia. The Friday and the Monday are public holidays, which means four days of weekend. Somebody, many years ago, had the bright idea to use this weekend for a Tabletop Gaming Convention. I attend every year and, more often than not, I run RPGs over the weekend as my bit to help out the community. This year I ran Deadlands, if you're interested. Much for was had.

But a good friend of mine ran a game called Dungeon World. Dungeon World is a low crunch rule system that reminds me a lot of first edition Dungeons & Dragons, only with a lot less suck. But there's a very interesting rule in Dungeon World that I've often thought should be included in RPGs but, to my knowledge, hasn't been.

And that is, conditional success.

Now it's not uncommon for RPGs to have varying degrees of success. Most games have some kind of critical success mechanic in which a good roll is a success and a super good roll is a faster, better, cleaner success with a happy ending. That's normal. That's standard. Likewise there's fails and critical fails.

But Dungeon World has a conditional success, in which you succeed on your action at a price. That price might be you take a little bit of damage, you draw unwanted attention to yourself. You succeed in picking the lock but not before the patrolling guard gets back and sees you. In my experience, this is unique to Dungeon World.*

And it works well. But of course it works well. It works well in a tabletop RPG for the same reason it works well in, say, a book. A straight up success is boring. Too many successes is really boring. Failure creates tension, creates drama, creates story. The protagonist succeeding at something without consequence should be the least common kind of resolution to problems in a story you're telling. And when I say "without consequence" I mean consequences that matter after the fact. A chase scene in which your protagonist must outrun a killer cyborg armed with a chain hammer (part chainsaw, part war hammer) is tense and exciting, but if your hero gets away from the cyborg and crosses the border into Mexico where no cyborg may follow, then the drama only lasts until the end of that scene. If your hero gets across the border but drops his teddy bear, without which he can not sleep at night, then you've created a lasting consequence and created drama that lasts until he gets the bear back. You've also given yourself more avenues for story.

Failure is harder in a narrative game. I've mentioned this problem in regards to video games before, but it must be said about tabletop RPGs, too. Failure does not feel good. Players don't want to keep failing. We're trained to see failure as bad and success as good. When a protagonist in a book we are reading fails, it pushes us to the edge of our seat and makes us bite our nails and drives us to keep reading, but it is not as though we failed. We're just spectators. But in a game, where we are not spectators, we want to succeed and feel awesome.

And I don't begrudge anybody wanting to feel good, it's just that it limits how we can tell stories. That's not so good.

Dungeon World has found a way around this by adding a very simple mechanic that replicates the way we write stories for books and movies. By adding a fifth option to the failure/success spectrum, it opens up new opportunities for excitement and conflict in the game. Dungeon World even goes so far as to making this the most likely version of success you get. It makes sense and more designers should use such a mechanic.

And so in the way that the designers of Dungeon World took from literary theory to improve their game, so can we use Dungeon World as a reminder to ourselves of how we can write better.** So I encourage you to make note here and do as Dungeon World do. Failure for your heroes is always best, but when failure is not an option, make them suffer for it, give your protagonists consequences to go with their victory. Give all triumphs conditions. Your readers will thank you for it.

*Various FATE systems make it more or less implicit that you can do this, but only as a thing that is encouraged and not as a core part of the mechanic.
** Role playing and RPGs very rarely serve as a good source of writing lessons. Role playing and writing are not the same thing and should not be mistaken for the same thing. Write to practice writing. Don't role play to practice writing.


Ray Duell said...

Hi Carl,

Just a reminder that all the 'world' games use the conditional success mechanic, as well as a game you played at Sydcon last year, Deniable.

**Shameless plug** Deniable should be published and available to the world very soon now.

Keep on writing,


Carl P said...

I've not played any other 'World' games although I was vaguely aware that there was a few of them. Started with Apocalypse World, didn't it?

I had forgotten about Deniable. Also, I played a game recently - Bootleggers, I think it's called, you may know the one - and I realise now it was built on that same mechanic.

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