Gaming Thursday: RPG System 9: On Success

Let me continue stalling for time from choosing the dice mechanic for my system by talking about success. No, not the wild success I expect in completing this system, but how the system itself could handle the outcomes of skill checks, and the lovely world of margins.

The idea of noting margins of success (or failure) is not a new one; I first heard about it in the 80s as it was used in the James Bond RPG*. My understanding was that everything in the game used a single table that, after cross referencing your skills with the task difficulty and the result of your skill roll, gave you a “quality” result. So, you could just succeed, or succeed with ease, or even succeed with panache. Even combat was handled through this system, forgoing a traditional damage roll and hit point type system.

Compared to the binary system I was familiar with at the time, it was something to wrap my head around, introducing me to the idea of narrative nudges in the game mechanics. And as I’ve seen it introduced and played out over the years in other systems (Silhouette** and FATE are two examples) it is an idea that I’ve liked more and more over the years.

For one, and the biggest one, it is simply exciting for players that when they roll big, they therefore win big! It can kinda suck when you “waste” (in that weird way we as gamers relate to our dice and statistics…) a good roll on a lockpick attempt and yay, you really picked that lock. Giving a bonus of some sort for the great success feels good, even if the benefit is a “small” one. Something as simple as halving the time it took to pick the lock (perhaps providing an advantage in some way), a bonus to the next pick lock attempt or all future ones in the dungeon (because you’re now familiar with how this locksmith did their work), or the ability to peer into the next room without being seen, will be well received.   Acknowledgement of the great success is what turns it into a great success, no matter if blazing through all the locks at double time just gets them to the end of the dungeon faster.

Conversely, using dice and poor rolls to introduce interesting effects and penalties can regulate the frequency and keep them from seeming arbitrary or mean. That said, missing the roll is often a big enough setback on its own, so if I were to include this axis I’d probably make the thresholds for complications much higher than the success thresholds.

Regardless of these explicit outcomes based on the result – and so even in games that don’t use this kind of thing – watching the margins helps the GM out in crafting and narrating the flow of the action. Face it, GMs are doing a lot of work running the world, running all the NPCs, and trying to craft an exciting time. Watching some measure of the margins gives them a clue on where to bring the action. Of course, the players can help a lot as well in taking this and running with this, describing how things played out.

Now a lockpicking roll, or bluff, or walking across a tightrope is not just yep or nope, it’s “wobbled precariously and slipped near the end, catching the wire and pulling themselves up, panting, on the other side” or “danced gracefully across the suspended line, taunting all around.”

Given what I’ve chosen so far for my system (Multi-dice system, based around generating a small number of successes) it is perfect for adding in implicit and/or explicit skill test results based on the margins of success (or failure). Multi-dice will keep it from being too swingy, and working on successes makes it easy to say something like 1 success is a simple success, 3 successes is a great success, and four successes is an extraordinary success (actual numbers will, of course, depend on what I finally do choose for a die system).

Fostering narrative is becoming more and more of a thing I’m interested in and looking for in a game. Margins of Success/Failure I think is a simple way to do this. Whether this gets too crazy if I also have in a method for advantage/disadvantage, I’ll have to see.


* Surprisingly, though I love me my spycraftian action, and my first RPG was Top Secret (and thus heavily influenced by Bond) I never played the Bond RPG, and never even browsed the actual rules until recently.

** A plug here for Aurora Magazine, the Silhouette Fanzine!

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