Where failure is the default state for an action

Something I grew tired of in roleplaying games is to roll to succeed. If I look at the skill/ability roll from another perspective, it means that the default state for actions … is to fail. Characters are basically walking around with a fail state looming over them, if anything challenging were to happen to them, and they can only break that state by rolling against their skills.

The first twenty minutes in this video touches this topic, and the next thirty minutes talk about how to avoid “avoid failure” in a boardgame.

Yes, I have played and read both, but you still roll to avoid failure in both games. There are other games with a fail forward mechanic, but “fail forward” is in these games just a game master technique, and I don’t have much for these “soft” mechanics anymore. I’ve grown to dislike systems with “layered mechanics”, where you, for example, got rules, then atop of that you got techniques, and then another layer on top of that with safety mechanics. These should all, in my opinion, be on the same level, presented as part of the game’s (hard) mechanics, i.e. game rules, because it’s easier to understand the system if you do it in that way.

It’s, for me, weird to have game mechanics presented and then, 200 pages later, you got techniques for how you should use the mechanics. This is my biggest beef with roleplaying games nowadays, where the game master is presented with three chunks of information - mechanics, setting and techniques - and then have to create something from it. The roleplaying games are therefor not to be looked upon as games per se, in my definition, but as game engines. Some roleplaying games stray away from this pattern, and are presented as games; I personally strive to have the manual present the game much like boardgame does, but instead of focusing on winning or mastering the game, we tell stories instead.

I have made two games where you don’t roll to break the fail state (i.e. roll to succeed). Imagine is a free pdf game (and conflict free) and This is Pulp is … coming … when I figure out how I can write that game. The game is finished. I can’t wrap my head around how to present it, because roleplaying games have such a lousy structure in how the text is conveyed, generally. Fortune Cookies and Nuclear War is a great example of a boardgame like presentation with no “layered mechanics”.

In the three pager game This is Pulp, which is inspired by Indiana Jones, King Kong, Die Hard, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Rocketeer, and the latest animated Tintin movie: You are thrown into dangers, but you never roll to fail. You always succeed with what you intend, but you roll to avoid consequences - either hurting someone, destroying things or taking more time than intended.

It didn’t feel right to fail in a pulp game, and “player vs game” or “player vs game master” is not the tone that I’m after. Instead, I want the group to tell a fast paced pulp story in 1,5 hours, and I did partly that by removing the “win strive” that is typical in for roleplaying games, and—with the mechanics—give guidelines to the players in how to describe their actions.

Another thing I noticed is what sometimes happens when I play the intrigues in the fish tank, where there are no fail states - you can’t fail in the scenario - but the emergent story takes instead a different route. That’s why it’s so hard to predict how long a fish tank scenario is going to take, because there are no ends. It’s just a constant flow of actions, where the players act and the game master react. It’s up to everyone to decide when to end.

Please, do note: I talk about my perspective here. It’s not much use if you try to convince me that I’m wrong or present other perspectives. I don’t think I’m wrong in my opinions, just as I don’t think you are wrong in yours. I rather you instead ask questions if you’re interested in my point of view, or if you want me to clarify some parts of what I wrote.


Take a look at Meguey and Vincent Baker’s Under Hollow Hills. Its plays (what it calls moves) are an interesting test case here. They are superficially structured like PbtA moves (10+ =Strong hit, 7-9=mixed success, 6-= miss), but that’s not exactly what’s going on much of the time. I some cases the default (not rolling) could be considered success more than any possible result of a die roll, and the player always decides whether they are making the play or not, there’s no fictional trigger that requires a roll in the way of standard PbtA. I dont have the text handy to provide examples, but it’s worth a look.


If a resolution mechanic is a narrative fork into two or more states, the same mechanic can be simply “declared” to upgrade, conserve or degrade the optimism of the narrative “baseline”.

Action failure/success became in RPG history more loosely coupled, with postive/negative narrative outcomes, with various definitions of good/bad outcomes, up to aesthetic (glum / jovial). Today, I feel I have a pile of weird games I can play if I want to play outside of a boring paradigm. So it seems people just have to want to play beyond good/bad. When I am tired like you of some assumptions in the hobby, I just remind myself that “I love (some play styles) because they seek their own down-going”. :wink:

Also, RPG plays with rules since it is Pretend Play. To make a rule used, there are two big design options : the first one you taught me, @Rickard is to make it material (role, prop, etc.) ; the second Baker wrote on Anyway is to make it desirable for the players, so instead of skipping encumbrance rules, they reach for the dice to have their way.

@Rickard I see where you want to take the players, but it’s not clear who you want to take there ? newcomers ? grognards ? anyone ?


I feel like this perspective flies in the face of “say yes or roll dice“.


Yes, I think that is precisely the point: to challenge some assumptions about familiar and comfortable styles of design.

“Say or roll dice,” in any case, is advice that’s quite specific to the game where it originated (Dogs in the Vineyard), and there are many games where it really doesn’t apply.

Rickard, are you familiar with Dog Eat Dog? You might enjoy that, as a game which has a lot more failure “baked in” to its procedures.

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What do you mean with that? To me “Say yes or roll dice”, is just another way of saying “Just roll if there is an interesting consequence”. It’s just a way of describing when to roll; it still have a fail state looming over the characters - it’s just up to the game master to make that fail interesting.

Yeah, and I basically asking, how would a game be like if the players always succeeded with their actions?

There is a basic design assumption for system mastery in roleplaying games, where you have to overcome issues within the game, and beat them by rolling for it. Is that the only way of having “fun” with roleplaying games? No! So why is it then, that it’s something that is so deeply rooted in roleplaying games that almost every single game have included it?

“The default state is failure” is a paradigm that is not being questioned. There are games that are play to loose, like Fiasco or Montsegur 1244, and that’s fine. That’s a totally different kind of game, and not really what I’m talking about. It’s the struggle to survive that I’m questioning.

It’s not so much for the players - it’s about creating a further understanding of roleplaying games. Things that we creators seldom question.

And now I’m going to read Dog Eat Dog. :slight_smile:


“if the players always succeeded in their actions” : oh, you mean if characters couldn’t fail except if they engaged a mechanic. I must say I am a bit thick at times. Thank you for explaining.

Another reason why failure is the default state is it makes success feel important, and it triggers all sort of “status games” at the table. Status shockwaves go mechanic > character > player. Status games is a good fuel for improvisation, according to Johnstone. Given it’s you that got me to read Johnstone in the first place, I deduce that you don’t care so much for the reasons why the paradigm is such or such, and mostly want to change it. Count me in !

My french communities Courants Alternatifs and CestpasduJdR (=“ItsnotanRPG”) are into weird games, too. That can mean PvP play, where one’s failure is another’s success, and freeform, where what happens just happens. But I suspect PvP doesn’t count, because it’s still framed as a “struggle to survive”. As freeform goes, I would say Yowl!, Street magic, and Dragonfly Motel do what you want. Let’s do things like that !

It seems I also misunderstood! Rickard, I thought you wanted to think about games where failure was the default state. So I was talking about the opposite of what you wanted!

I feel like I’m surrounded by games where success is the default state, so I’m not sure what to add just yet!


I disagree—it’s great advice for any narrative-focused game. Vincent was one of the earlier people to write it down, but definitely not the first (similar advice was definitely in Nobilis, I think, a half decade earlier), and the principle has been around since Spolin and Sills. It’s just good storytelling.


I think I’m misunderstanding here, as well. To me, it feels like the “default state of failure always looming over” is more a perspective than the actual thing that’s happening. You could just as easily say that the default state is success, unless something untoward happens, whether it’s via narration or dice rolls or an oracle or whatever.

It seems that what’s actually in question here is not “failure” but “uncertainty”. There’s a band of normal (or uninteresting) actions a character can take that are generally always successful (eating breakfast, walking down the street, etc) and that are generally always unsuccessful (flapping your arms to fly, punching a building down, etc). The interesting bits in between those aren’t necessarily “failure unless you succeed”, they’re just undetermined. (And, of course, what’s undetermined varies—flying or building-punching may be automatic successes in some supers games, for example.)

I’m sure y’all know this already—I’m just saying it out loud for clarity. My general perspective (why I call out “say yes or roll” above) is the opposite of what it seems like you’re describing in the original post—for the majority of games I play, I tend to assume success as the default state, and, like Paul T says above, only engage mechanics if the outcome is uncertain, the action is risky, and so on. Am I misunderstanding?

(I’m also very curious about your perspective on never failing in “Pulp” stories—Indiana Jones almost always fails! :smiley:)


I’ll try to articulate how I interpret “default state is failure” with the light of your examples. Eating breakfast and trying to fly are not meaningful actions. For meaningful actions, in most games, if you don’t do anything you fail, if you do poorly, you fail, if you do good, you succeed. Succeeding is the odd term. Not in the fiction (you can make what you want of the fiction), but in the rules.


Yeah, this is a fairly interesting point I was going to bring up.

I’ve seen several writers in the adventure/pulp genre say that they way these stories work is that the protagonist pretty much always fails, over and over, until that’s reversed at the very end. I’ve seen a few “writer’s guides” from renowned authors describe this kind of fiction this way.

I’ve always assumed - kind of like Majcher says, above - that privileging character success (like in a lot of current game design which privileges “yes, but” outcomes, like PbtA games) is a better method for design narrative roleplaying (because of how it emphasizes player agency), but kind of a distortion of the fiction some of these games are trying to model.

Hopefully, Rickard will come back and clarify, in any case! It’s an interesting topic.


I’m curious what you mean by “don’t do anything” here. It still feels like failure and success in most games are just possible outcomes, neither of them necessarily being a default state.

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I was thinking about clocks as looming menaces, and a load of games that want scenarios with kickers and “wolves, what do you do ?” But it’s true I see a load of games where this is not the case, too. And they still speak in strength and weakness terms, and some flowerpower players sometimes stray pumping weak conflicts for drama, like out of habit. When people run in circles…

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I have played such a game. Back before Fantasy World got into its current state I experimented with just that concept, because I too felt bored by the omnipresent “roll to fail/succeed” paradigm.

What I did was simple. I just took a random PbtA game (can’t remember if it was DW or AW or a proto-FW) and clearly stated to the Players:

  • you can’t fail
  • you trigger a move? the action succeeds!
  • but you still roll to see how well you succeed, and if I get a Reaction

Depressing :frowning:

For me, the GM, it was AMAZING.
Lots of situations became much more linear and clearer to handle, much less creative stress, much more focus on “what happens next?”.
And at the same time the game was still TOUGH! Full of hard decisions, unexpected twists, and actual failures… like… you could do every action right but still fail the overall goal, like in good movies!

For the Players? Meh, they kept complaining all the way till the end.
Well, not really like this all the time, but the idea of being “unable to fail” rubbed them off the wrong way.
It was like the system worked, but for them the experience had been tainted anyway :frowning:
And this is a group of people that play many different games, from The Quiet Year to Montsegur to My Life With Master to Kagematsu to various PbtA to Polaris, etc… so not your average D&D challenge-junkie :stuck_out_tongue:

Still… the feedback after the game was awful.
The felt like no real struggle was possible, no choice was meaningful, because “you always succeed anyway”.

I don’t know. It was hurtful to me… to have enjoyed so thoroughly something, to feel like that was a brilliant solution to a bunch of my GMing woes… and that instead all my friends described as something they did not wish to play ever again :sob:
And so it was.
I did not try that ever again.

Traces of it are in FW’s dna… but nothing to complete. Not anymore.

Still, @Rickard, it feels nice not to be alone in pursuing this particular White Whale :slight_smile:


Oh… and in theory the core mechanic of Cthulhu Dark is fail-less.
You always roll to see how well you succeed on a scale from 1 to 6.
You only roll “to not fail” if someone invokes this eventuality specifically, and anyway you can always reroll if you corrode your sanity… so really, it a “roll to not expend resources” system.


@DeReel draw me here. Hi everyone.

Maybe the problem is the presence of a game engine ? In the For the Drama family, you just draw cards with questions after the starter’s card teached how to play. For safety, if someone doesn’t like the question, the card could be discard. When the last card is draw, it’s the end of the story.

Lot of PbtA can be read this way. 6- isn’t a failure, they are pretty clear on that.

Masks New Generation A miss, 6 or less, isn’t the same as a failure. It just means the GM gets full say over what happens next, and chances are you won’t like it. The GM will probably make things worse for you in some way, but it doesn’t have to be the worst possible thing that could happen. Some of the most interesting misses give you exactly what you wanted, in the worst possible way.

Urban Shadow A miss isn’t a failure either: it means that the MC is about to tell you what happens. It’s likely that you won’t like what happens, since the MC’s job is to push the story in interesting directions, but there’s no rule that says it has to be awful or the worst result you can possibly imagine. More often than not, the MC uses misses to tighten the noose…

Thirsty Sword Lesbian Down Beat: On a 6-, the GM narrates something that complicates the
characters’ lives. This is referred to as making a GM move. GM moves are described in GMing the Game, page 84. A 6- doesn’t necessarily mean that the character failed at the task they set out to achieve; it might mean that it wasn’t the best idea for an unforeseen reason, or an unexpected complication arises. Down beats are often just as fun as up beats, sometimes even moreso. Page 94 includes guidelines for narrating the results of down beats depending on the tone and pacing of the game.

I always explain 6- to ttrpg veteran by saying : “In D&D, a miss on fireball, nothing happen. In a PbtA, a miss on fireball, your opponent is on fire but the dungeon is also on fire and start to collapse”. Rollin doesn’t take away agency, what PC can do, just bring unexpected consequence. The failure on a miss seems to me to be a habit inherited from the games built around “success / failure”.


Fantasy World If the total score is 6 or less , that’s a miss
The move will either tell you what happens or give the World an opportunity to perform a Reaction. Your fictional action may still succeed , or not, depending on the World’s whim, but don’t count on its consequences being what you hoped for!

I know.
What I said was, that for the Players there seemed to be a huge difference between all the standard 1-6 rules you and I just quoted… and outright removing failure.
A difference I appreciated a lot. But that they recoiled from for some reason :sob:

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What about something like Houses of the Blooded/Blood and Honor/World of Dew?

You don’t roll for success/failure in those games, you roll for narration rights. People might still fail if someone decides to narrate that happening, but that’s not what the roll is about.