This post originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2004 and 2007.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

A few columns back, I mentioned the iron rule of theatrical improv: never negate. The idea is this: when you’re working together to create a scene on the fly, you have to accept, and build

on, any contribution made by another actor. You can’t deny it or rule it out; that takes the scene backwards and wastes time. The results are, in other words, boring. The rule requires the performers to relinquish a degree of personal control over the storyline, embracing spontaneity and forward movement.

In almost any typical roleplaying setting, however, there’s a force at work that regularly negates the storyline’s forward movement, and does so way more often than any GM or player: the dice and the rules set. Those polyhedral control freaks in your dice bag, in conjunction with your resolution system of choice, are constantly saying no to the PCs as they attempt to take action in the world.

Failure is usually boring. It is the credible but unrealized threat of failure that is interesting.

In other forms of adventure storytelling, failures by the protagonist and rare and remarkable events. They are dealt out sparingly, if at all. When they do occur, they are pivotal events marking an important and dramatic turn in the storyline. They mean something profound, about the hero and his role in the world.

(Reversals, in which the hero is put in a bad position by successful action on the part of an antagonist, work differently. Here we’re talking about flat-out failures, in which the protagonist has only himself to blame for his poor fortune. Another separate phenomenon is the instance where the heroes find out that a given course of action is for some reason impossible— the fortress is impregnable, or atmospheric conditions on the planet prevent a proper sensor scan. These narrow character choices to make the situation more challenging; they are not failures per se.)

Routine failures are just about unknown in non-rpg adventure fiction. They make the protagonists seem incompetent, and unworthy of our sense of escapist identification. More importantly, they bog down the story. When was the last time you saw:

  • A featured lab tech character on CSI accidentally contaminate a sample, ruining its value
    as evidence — in an episode that does not specifically revolve around that failure?
  • A Star Trek character failing to accurately read a tricorder?
  • A superhero’s danger-detection sense reading a false positive or negative — in a story where this was not itself a clue that something strange was going on?

A hero’s failure to accomplish routine actions contributes nothing of interest to a story. They’re just a drag. First the character must cope with any untoward consequences of the failure. That’s X amount of time expended merely to get back to square one. Then the GM has to find a workaround to deliver needed information, resources, or other plot-forwarding material via some alternate means. This requires the insertion of further scenes, dialogue, plot points, and setting descriptions that add nothing and advance nothing. Given the unpredictable nature of RPG narrative, it’s possible that any of these new scenes could spark an interesting and unexpected new direction for the story. But then that’s equally true of the sequences that would otherwise be moving the story forward, had the gratuitous failure not occurred.

The believable potential for failure must exist, on the other hand, when the stakes are high. Then it generates suspense, one of the key emotions that keeps us coming back to the gaming table.

Most rules systems ask how hard an action is to accomplish in the fictional world of the game, compare that difficulty in some way to the character’s abilities, then call for a die roll. I’d argue that, if you’re trying to create anything resembling a storyline, your GM needs to stop and insert a couple of other questions before the dice crawl out of their bag:

1) Will this die roll generate suspense? Do the players really care all that much?

a) If yes: proceed to die roll

b) If no: proceed to next question

2) Will failure be at least as interesting, introducing as much forward plot movement, as success?

a) If yes: proceed to die roll

b) If no: success is a “gimme.” The character automatically succeeds

Calling for die rolls is a hard habit to break. The tool is there, so we’re tempted to use it. However, just because you have a bag of uncooked macaroni and some gold spray paint, there’s no reason to go and make it into a Christmas ornament.

Many players want to make lots of die rolls. It’s fun to interact with the rules. The players spent all that time selecting and pumping up their abilities, and want to use them. Sometimes die rolls make successes at difficult tasks easier to believe.

It is still possible to tie character abilities to gimmes and allow those all-important die rolls to proceed. When a character wants to attempt an action the GM decides to treat as a gimme, the player may still roll — to garnish his guaranteed success with a minor, additional benefit. Generally this secondary success will be that the task is accomplished in a particularly cool and impressive manner, validating the player’s sense of escapist power fantasy.

  • The DNA expert not only identifies the sample as belonging to the chief suspect, but beats
    the speed record established by the lab’s resident arrogant jerk.
  • The character scales the wall, landing on top of it with a graceful flourish. Behind him, his
    cape flaps in the wind, forming a dramatic silhouette against the full moon.
  • The bard’s performance not only distracts the guards, but attracts the attentions of a
    ravishingly beautiful courtesan.

A sample GM-player negotiation might go like this:

Jack, a player: I want to sneak into the guard post, overpower the sentinels, and take their uniforms, so we can sneak into the palace.

[The GM thinks: Finally! A credible, genre-appropriate way to get into the palace after half an hour of dithering! Will this generate suspense? Maybe for Jack, but if this is a solo mission, the other players will be only mildly interested — especially since they have to wait for him to succeed before they get to do anything. Overall, not enough suspense to be worth it. Will failure be as interesting as success? Definitely not: Jack’s PC will get captured and hauled off to the guardhouse, forcing them to rescue him — they’ll be even further from the real goal of getting into the palace, and we had a capture/rescue scenario just last week.]

GM: Okay, this is a gimme.

Jack: Can I still roll?

GM: Um. [Thinking of a possible secondary benefit.] Sure.

[The player rolls and, sure enough, scores a win.]

GM: You get in and out in a flash. You’re back to the others with the uniforms before they
even realize you’re gone.

Voila! With a simple meta-rule you can impose on any rules system, you’ve got a way to make the successes feel chancy and rewarding. You’ve eliminated pointless failures, preventing them from gumming up the storyline or turning it into a non-stop comedy of errors.

Preserve momentum. Keep the characters cool and competent. It’s a gimme.