Sunday, November 29, 2009

Failure and Checks

Today DW and I watched Return of the King. Towards the end of the movie, Sam the Hobbit cries, "I can't carry it [the McGuffin Ring of Power], but I can carry you!" He then hefts Frodo the Hobbit and staggers up a steep climb, while laden with both of their gear to boot and barefoot.

If this was modeled in D&D, I'd imagine it'd go down in one of three ways:

1) ENC Bookkeeping. The DM would say, "Hey, you can't carry all that. Add up what you're carrying." They'd then see if gear needed to be dropped to get to maximum encumbrance.

2) STR check. The DM could call for some sort of check. Perhaps a bend bars/open doors roll or save (in 1E), or some sort of skill check in later editions (climb with a penalty, for example). Generally, failure indicates that the task is not performed.

3) DM Fiat. The DM just handwaves it and allows it to happen, perhaps making some sort of ruling on the fly ("You take 1d6 damage, or you take this penalty to AC, etc...").

I want to zero in on case #2 here. The problem with most traditional checks is that there is either success or failure. If the check succeeds, then the action succeeds too. If the check fails, then there is absolute failure. This probably leads many DMs to go to case #1 (obnoxious bookkeeping but no arbitrariness) or case #3 (arbitrary rulings that seem to fit but can cause consistency problems in the long run). Additionally, I think it leads many players to play conservatively. For example, how many will attempt a daring leap over a pool of lava if there is an 85% of success and a 15% of instant death?

What is needed is an additional level. Say checks could result in Total Success (~1/3 of the time), Partial Success (2/3 of the time), or Failure (very rare, save to upgrade to Partial Success). The consequences for partial success should be painful but manageable. In this system, the skill check doesn't determine if you can do it; the skill check determines how costly it is.

Let's take our climbing Mt Doom example again. Say the DM could call for a STR check. If the check is succesful (about a 1/3 chance) then the task is performed with no adverse consequences. If the check fails (about 2/3) then the action succeeds but there is a cost: perhaps Sam takes some damage or loses a healing surge or something. If the check is a dramatic or total failure (say, they roll a 1), then Sam suffers the Partial Success negative consequences AND must save to avoid a dire fate (like slipping into a pool of lava). As a twist, you could allow the player to abandon their action which means that they don't succeed at all in order to automatically pass the save.

I like this because it says Yes! to the players. If the player of the spindly wizard wants to heroically haul the hulking dwarf in plate mail out of the battle, or the player of the retarded half-orc wants to match wits with a cunning lawyer to get the deed to his castle, you don't have to consult ENC rules or say that success is impossible. Instead, you let the player succeed at what they want to do and use the rules to determine the negative consequences. The player gets what they want... But not for free.

Definitely something to flesh out further.

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