Generally speaking, I think I've come down on the side of the new school of game design on more than one occasion. I've put steps into games I've built, and games I've run, to mitigate what's known as the whiff factor (that tendency for the dice to abandon you at the most crucial moment of the story.) However, I've been thinking about it lately while comparing systems like Houses of the Blooded and Mutants and Masterminds to things like Pathfinder and old school Palladium. So, today I want to talk about what we lose in the terms of achievement when we take steps to mitigate the pains of failure.
The Sunny Day Problem
So, to get my basic point across here I have a question for you. If every day is a sunny day, then what is the point of a sunny day? My wording may be a bit crap here, but it goes like this. If everything is nice, then nice loses its meaning. In fact, what is nice back slides to normal - or even bad - and we need things to be even better in order to get that sense of 'nice' back. In a lot of ways, it becomes like drug use. You constantly need more and more to get the same effect, and all the while the lows just seem to get worse and worse.
With No Chance Of Failure
Taking this to a game design stand point, if there is no chance of failure than there can not be success. Take a moment and think about that. Now think about it as a GM. If a player had zero, zip, zilch, absolutely no chance of failure, would you make them make the roll? Probably not, after all, what is the point? Everyone knows how it is going to come out. Luckily, this isn't a problem we have in games - at least yet - but it is important to keep the extreme in mind. If only to judge how close you are getting to it.
Failure and Loss Are Necessary
Even from a narrative point of view, failure and loss are necessary things for a person - or character - to grow and develop. We grow and change very little with success, but being confronted by loss can have a powerful effect. You learn more about the person when they have just suffered a major set back. However, failure and loss can be present in other ways as well. The relief that the pitcher feels upon striking out the last batter to win the game is so strong because moments before the pitcher knew the possibility for failure and loss was present. If it hadn't been present, then the pitcher likely wouldn't have felt anything at all. Essentially, to feel the good of an outcome, we need to be aware of a negative outcome that can also happen.
Mitigation Cuts Both Ways
The point to all this? One, to once again say that failure and loss are necessary, but also to point out that when you take steps to mitigate failure, you are also taking steps to mitigate the joy of success. When does it feel more awesome for you? When you nail that 18+ on a D20 to get the last hit on time? Or when you only have to roll a 2+ to do it? I'm willing to bet it's a bigger feeling of success with the 18+, if only because the chance of failure was so much greater. Meanwhile, with the 2+ requirement, you're almost guaranteed to win. After all, 95% of the outcomes on the die means you do so. Failure there almost seems like robbery, not a realistic outcome.
Rerolls are interesting. Most new games give players a limited number of ways to do rerolls. Hell, even I'm guilty of this with the stuff I've been making of late. The question is, how far is too far? In my Deathwatch game, each character has about 3-4 fate points (each can be spent for a reroll) plus there are two squad abilities that can grant rerolls. That means that in any given session, a character can reroll 3-4 times plus a couple of free rerolls that are lying around each combat round. It really lowers the chances of failure - especially when the characters are so good at most things anyhow. Now, I'm not complaining, but I think this is partly why combat is less rewarding in Deathwatch. Everyone is simply so good at combat, that the chances of failure are just ridiculously slim unless the odds are overwhelming.
Do you agree? Disagree? Do you think there is a game out there that has the balance between chance of failure and ability to mitigate it when it matters down really well? If so, let us know. Or just any stories you have that sound like they could be fun, and about this.