Monday, July 11, 2011

Mitigating Lows Means Mitigating Highs

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.


  1. I totally agreed with you in the past. Take a ride in my DeLorean...

  2. That is a good post Greg. Others should definitely check the link out, and the two linked videos. Honestly, I could see this divide becoming almost as big a stylistic difference in RPGs as the choice between Sci-Fi and Fantasy. Do you want the kind of game where failure can be mitigated if it is really important, and go for a much stronger story feel; or to make the dice the sole determiner of events (and that, only once) and go for a more game like feel.

    Honestly, I like both, and I can see the reasoning behind both.

  3. I also completely agree -- and I think that this type of thinking is what has steered me away from 'new school' games as much as anything else.

    Let me submit this as an add on -- you mention narrative failure and your example of the pitcher is a very good one. I think an issue with a lot of this is going beyond the dice...

    The pitcher in question is rolling his "Pitcher" skill, right? And he's good at it, and the batter opposing him is (presumably) good at it as well... So it's a difficult task, but what makes the fear of failure so powerful isn't the roll of one pitch -- it's what meaning the game their playing in has.

    I mean, it sucks to lose game three of the season, but it's a long season... It matters a lot more when it's the last strike you need to throw at the end of the ninth inning in the seventh game of a World Series...

    Not every moment should be that HUGE (or it creates, narratively, the same problem) but situations matter. I find combat (for example) to be less meaningful when it's random, rather than when I'm fighting for something...

    I know this is a bit of an aside -- but I think that this is also part of the problem... keeping the focus on making sessions/plots have some weight instead of just being a numbers exercise... "oh, I missed, well, let me spend a fate point and now I hit..." Or maybe I'm crazy.

  4. You make a good point Rhetorical, and if I had to guess I would say that that was the point with some of the things I talked about above. The idea was this: players accept failures, or have failures, early on but have the ability to change the outcome of the super big important things.

    This way, you still have growth and loss, but when it comes down to the absolute top tier important matters for the game, you can take another stab at it.

    Then, in practice, players just find ways to extend them, and GMs run with it. Not that this is a bad thing, mind. Especially if your group likes it. I know Mutants and Masterminds is specifically designed so that you hit players with complications during the build up, and that way they are supposed to have a large pool of Hero Points for the end, when all the stops are pulled out. I've just yet to run a game where that happens, which is as much on me not figuring out how to do it, as it is on players spending their hero points since they come back so quickly.

    There is definitely a happy middle. I'm just not sure anyone has found it yet.

  5. I disagree with the idea that you need lows to have highs. I do agree that highs and lows are needed to have dramatic situations. For instance, in my life, there are elements of it that have been relatively smooth. No spiky highs, no real lows. I like those parts of my life. They're comfortable. They would also make the most boring story ever and that's why they don't belong in an RPG.

    An RPG needs to have challenge or it's not dramatic. If it's not dramatic, it's not an interesting story.

    To that point, I think that eliminating a challenge makes for boring play. I don't really like fate points because they are an artificial commodity that have no purpose other than to be spent. A bit ago you (A.L.) wrote about spending XP to buy a re-roll and I like that idea a lot better. You're really sacrificing past success to be successful now and that is a dramatic choice.

  6. Not to get into philosophy here Emmett, but while I agree that you don't necessarily need to have the low right then and there, the chance to experience it is still what allows the highs.

    Like you said, eliminating a challenge makes for boring play. But, what is a challenge if not a possibility for things to not go your way?

  7. Done wrong a low right as the hero, who has never missed in the story (overemphasizing for effect) suddenly can't hit a fly, would seem like an awful inconsistency and burst suspension of disbelief. Done right, it can be extraordinarily dramatic. Missing 'just then' can seem an awful mechanic for a dice rolling game but when the players and GM role play and explain what just happened and what made the PC miss, there can be a lot of compelling and dramatic reasons for it. I admit I don't do this kind of storytelling around rolls to make failures interesting enough but I have seen it done to great effect.

  8. Oh, definitely. It can be done great. There are also times when everyone, even the GM, wants a roll to go one way. Just as there are times when something should be a sure thing. These are all issues the GM can go around as fit.