Where failure is the default state for an action

Well, now I want to hear a whole lot more about this!

How did you handle this in the game? Did you change the dice rolling, and, if so, how?

What does “success + Reaction” look like, in this style of play? Can you give some examples of how you handled it, or just make up one or two?

That’s actually quite fascinating.

(I can certainly relate to the feeling of “hoping for” failures, though, in many such games - it’s satisfying and exciting.)


Oh, wow, imagine a game like this, where you can’t fail by default, but players will eventually hope or wish for failure, and have to “buy” or otherwise get a failure somehow mechanically. :smiley:


It feels like these stories where characters don’t just catch the idiot ball when convenient, but seem to be in an active quest for their doom. I am thinking Jane Austeen, Dostoïevski more than tragedy. Picture that in a Cthulluh, Steampunk, and Elf fantasy settings. An aesthetic of the wrong way. Love it.

I can testify this is possible as I played that on a few occasions. It was a very good treatment for my aversion to loss, lead to memorable moments in play, but. These are moments and techniques not prohibited, sometimes hinted at by the rules. Not created by the rules themselves. And that always ended because one player flinched and was taken over by old habits.
For me it’s not so much about the game, it’s about shutting these habits down. Maybe the game can help.


Now that is something I have never seen! :smiley:

There is actually not much to it.
Imagine any possible Move activation, and the fictional bit is always a success. Period.
I’ll use FW as a reference, but it works exactly the same in AW and DW and MH and possibly most other PbtA, unless they present some specific exception :stuck_out_tongue:

PC rolls 1-6 to Sway a merchant to get a discount.
The World describes how YES, you convince them BUT [inject Reaction here].

Maybe I opt to Hit the Issue / Feed the Doubt… so the PC notices how the merchant has probably accepted to give the discount out of desperation due to the current economic crisis.
Maybe I opt to Take Away Their People… so while the PC barters, their friends are led astray by the wares of a nearby stall, and are (for now) lost in the crowd.

PC rolls 1-6 to Take a Risk to hit a difficult mark during an archery contest.
The World describes how YES, you hit the mark as intended BUT [inject Reaction here].

Maybe I opt to Show Signs of Trouble… so the PC notices how the current champion looks at them with unsportsmanlike hatred.
Maybe I opt to Show a Downside to Their Stuff… so while the PC notices their bow starting to strain under pressure. It served them well so far, but could break in two at any moment, or badly fuck up a future shot.

And, specifically to FW, let’s not forget all the Moves that have this approach in-built :wink:
PC rolls 1-6 to Look Around to closely examine a suspiciously lifelike statue.
The Move itself states that YES, you notice stuff and get to ask 1 question from the list BUT [inject Reaction here].

Maybe I opt to Inflict Harm… so the PC gets their answer but gets also a stony slap in the face as the statue suddenly animates, inflicting Nasty Harm.
Maybe I opt to Turn Their Move Back on Them… so someone that the PC has not yet spotted gets to ask 2 questions to the PC’s Player from the Look Around list.

But @Paul_T, if you have some specific example that give you trouble, feel free to present it. I’ll do my best to handle it :slight_smile:


Problem is…
As long as this is a technique I covertly use whenever the fancy strikes me… all is good with the universe.
Players don’t notice it at all, unless I start to consistently say YES YOU SUCCEED at every single 1-6.

But the moment I honestly announce that this is what I am going to do… that’s when people make faces.
As I said, it’s a problem of perception and expectation. People just can’t imagine “never failing” as being a reasonable and enjoyable path to adventure, excitement and fun :frowning:


Hm, while I’m musing on games that play with this:

The Colors of Magic lets players choose their level of success each time there is a “risk” by…eating a candy. Well, more or less. Basically, you have a pool of ~10 (the actual number doesn’t seem to be very important and you could literally use a standard size bag of Skittles) of each ‘color’, each of which represents a success level. And when you pick one, you eat the candy, so it’s gone. The game is intended only for a single session of 2-4 hours with 3 players, and doesn’t really expect scarcity to become an issue, though in theory it could. Mostly, the players just get to pick between:

  • Purple – Catastrophic Failure with messy consequences
  • Red – Failure with personal consequences
  • Orange – Success with minor complication
  • Yellow – Success, nothing special
  • Green – Success with a bonus

So in this game there is literally no default for what happens with an action – though you will observe that there are more “successes” than “failures” in the list. Also, I should note that “Risks” are not particularly common, though any player can say “I think that’s a Risk” and make any action into one.


Thanks, Alessandro.

I was going to say: nothing’s stopping you from playing that way now! But then you said so yourself. I use “success with consequences” fairly often in PbtA games for a missed roll.

The main issue is when a 6- and a 7-9 don’t end up feeling different, and for some moves, which really need it (in my opinion).

In 2nd Ed Apocalypse World, this is built into most of the Battle Moves, including Seize by Force, and the reading moves. I have mixed feelings about this, although I like the idea.

This is… challenging. Of course it works, from a simple perspective, but what kind of game does it serve? How do you reorient the players towards play so that the game is building towards something effective that moves forward? For instance, are the players playing villains we hope to see fail?

There are many possible answers, of course, but I suspect none are obvious or easy.

My Life with Master has a touch of this, where the Minions (PCs) are being sent out to do bad things, and hoping to earn the right to fail in those endeavours. But it’s not quite the same.

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That’s a fun idea! It’s basically the “Brewster’s Millions” of RPGs.

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A third reason why we use dice, is that it’s the strongest kind of reward system there is, variable ratio schedules. You get a lot of dopamine by using dice, where you can’t predict the outcome (because … it’s random). Another reason why I don’t want to lean too much towards that kind of randomization, because I don’t trust my judgment whether or not the mechanics can be fun on their own without dice.

Interesting thought about status.

Will poke one of my rpg pals that are hardcore into French games, and see what he has to say about these games. Am going to chase down those freeform games as well. Thanks for the suggestions!

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You’re talking about an abstraction level higher than me. I purely talk about when the outcome is uncertain, or about even creating that kind of situation when things are risky. I only talk about when you’re rolling dice, not about all the times when you don’t have to. About the situation when you’re using dice, and not all the situations where you don’t need to simulate when the character is breathing, walking, scratching or whatnot.

To me, Indy gets beaten up a lot along the way, but he always progress. That’s what my system simulates. The players are presented with tokens for each scene, and a danger that explains why the tokens are in place. Each time a player does something, they take a token and describe the result of how they take steps in overcoming the obstacle while getting beaten up, destroying things and have things get in their way. They can roll to get rid of the side effects, but those are mostly purely aesthetics. When all tokens are gone, the characters have overcome the obstacle.

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Great examples, and a good example of what I’m after. These games have fail forward built into their systems. Something I missed in Apocalypse World was the ability to trigger game master moves. It was, to me, unclear of when to use them and I wanted better guidelines. Tying a 6- roll to trigger the game master is a really simple “fix” (or explanation).

I especially like what Thirsty Sword Lesbian stated: “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.”

Like, “the players want to free the princess, but burns down the castle along the way. It turns out that the princess is part of a revolution, which opens up to a new whole adventure”.

I do think uncertainty is necessary, but it can be introduced in so many ways, without having to resort to dice rolling for actions. Collaborative storytelling, where participants come up with unexpected situations, introducing new elements in the game world, consequences to their actions (you will succeed, but at a cost). To me, to remove the element of randomness—at least in how mostly designed in roleplaying games (skill rolls)—forces me to start to think about all the other things that we can use to introduce uncertainty.

Because what I’m mainly trying to point out what rolling for actions brings to the table, and I want people to think about what the effects are if one were to design around that. To exclude the competitive part of roleplaying games.


Great posts here, Rickard. I especially like your design approach here - trying to make sure that the game’s procedures work without necessarily relying on the excitement of random outputs.

There are, indeed, many other ways to introduce uncertainty, and many worth looking into. I understand many people have tried playing a PbtA game where you always effectively roll 7-9, for example, and that probably works reasonably well.

I’m sure we are going to see more and more games with different approaches to uncertainty in the future, and I look forward to it. I like semi-random processes, myself, like rolling some dice to introduce some creative constraints, but then letting the players simply choose.


Some interesting thoughts here, but as I read them, I was thinking games generally echo reality a la “art imitates life.”

The default state for life is failure. You lack the necessary knowledge, skill or natural ability to succeed, and you have to plan or work or get lucky to overcome some obstacle.

You can certainly create a One-Punch Man game where the default for primary complication is success. But this still results in the existence of failure because we’re all conditioned to present challenges in terms of success and failure. Winning and losing. Because it’s a game.

I’ve (partially) created an RP"G" that simply eliminated conflict. So you could argue that it’s less of a game than a puzzle. But you don’t have to solve the puzzle. You can just play, and solve whatever puzzle you happen to come across in the course of play.

The problem is that without guidance that there is a puzzle, or intrinsic motivation to play such a “conflict-less” game, I lost player interest over time. I could also chalk this up to PbP format.

But I think it’s more that people don’t know what they OUGHT to do when they CAN do anything they want to. They draw on imagined limitations even when they don’t have to. They want/need/expect boundaries because without them they can’t determine what’s a reasonable course of action. Constraints provide the playing field and create concrete puzzles for players to recognize and solve. A game to win.

My game of infinite, unconstrained exploration is stagnating not because it was a bad concept, but because players couldn’t readily recognize their objectives as players or characters, and likely weren’t properly informed by the GM (me) on exactly how much power they had. It’s one thing to say, “You can do almost anything, and the default answer will be ‘Yes’.” It’s another thing to actually process that and take action accordingly. And then to imagine the consequences of being able to wield that much power.

If I can do anything, what’s my SECOND action? That’s a very difficult question to answer.


Yeah, and it’s also different to draw cards to get inspiration when setting a scene—ingoing randomness—than drawing cards to see how the action should be played out—outgoing randomness. It creates a different mind set for the participants, even if it’s basically the same thing, in a way.

I mean, if I go up an abstraction level and “delay” the outcome of an action (in a particular situation within a scene) to make it affect the next scene instead, and then you basically turned outgoing randomness to ingoing randomness.


Exactly : you can’t just ban gasoline from your car or starve your donkey to death. You need to imagine new sources of energy in a new transportation paradigm, and the new socio-economical networks that go with it. If analogies mean anything.

True, but only to a certain degree. People think stories need conflict, but conflict is just one of many ways of creating uncertainty. Take, for example, how the Eastasian narrative structure kishotenketsu is story without conflict. I always talk about kishotenktsu, so should probably mention other examples, like paintings, poems and lyrics.

I think we’re kind of brainwashed into thinking in conflicts. Most of the roleplaying games tend to have that, and even all kinds of histories we consume have conflicts in them. I’m frustrated when I try to create something and I design in a space where conflict exist, because if I remove it, I don’t know what to fill that space with. (The same goes with extrinsic rewards, like XP or fan mail). When it comes to Imagine—which is a conflict free, with no dice, game master, tangible rewards, character improvements, acting in character, among other things that a typical roleplaying game has—one friend just asked me “What’s left?”.

Anyway, when I created my Theory of Engagement—in order to learn more about the potential of our hobby by stepping out of roleplaying games—I found five things of WHY we play: competition, exploration, sensation, destruction and expression. I also found five WHAT we can play around with: meaning, group, structures, fiction, and setting. Combine that with the WHYs, and you all the sudden got 25 different ways of enjoying an activity. These shouldn’t be used to categorize games, like “This game attracts Spike personas” or “That game is something for the Achiever”, because all games have a percentage of all combinations.

So I tend to start with WHY I want people to play my next design, and then I think about WHAT I want them to interact with. Do I want them to Explore Setting, Sensate Meaning or Destroy Group? How can I accomplish that? I nowadays go that way, instead of thinking what kind of dice I should use or which moves I should write. I can’t avoid the competitive part because, as I said, all activities have a small percentage of all combinations, but the focus doesn’t have to be around being competitive, and I can avoid thinking about - which can to a certain degree block me - the kind of competitive elements that are so common in roleplaying games.


I think your example does have conflict, it’s just an internal conflict. The desire to be alone with ones thoughts vs desire for a friend to relieve loneliness for the first example in that link.

Not every story has to have conflict but it does seem to make them more interesting. If it’s cooperative story telling you can have no conflict. But an rpg is still a game and I’m not sure you can have a game with no conflict.

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Although I’ve yet to play or run one of these, this discussion particularly reminds me of No Dice No Masters/Belonging Outside Belonging games, of which there are a great many examples on Itch.io. In these systems, ‘tokens’ are used to gain success.

When you spend a token, you can use one of your Playbook’s “Strong Moves”, which dictate some sort of success that is thematic to the character. This lets the players decide when and where they want to succeed, while staying relevant to the narrative. For example, in Galactic 2e’s ‘Scoundrel’ Playbook, you can spend a token to “win a fight you didn’t start” or “know exactly where you’re going when others are lost”.

To gain a token, you can use one of your Playbook’s “Weak Moves”, which dictate some sort of failure or risk that is thematic to the character. Likewise, this lets the players decide when and where they want to fail or get into some trouble. For example, in Galactic 2e’s Scoundrel Playbook, you can “start a fight you can’t win” or “provoke the suspicion or distrust of others” to gain a token.

There also tends to be a third set of moves in these games called “Lateral Moves”, which allow a player to ask for or give a token from another player. These are likewise thematic. To use Galactic 2e again as an example, the Scoundrel Playbook can “call in a favor from someone you know, and give them a token”.

I think these mechanics can solve a lot of problems presented here. Success is guaranteed, but only by either going through some adversity first or working with fellow players that have gone through some trouble already. Choices matter, as the player has to decide where they’re going to put those thematic success and ‘failure’ moments into the narrative, and importantly, all the while considering where the other player characters might have their moments. To combine the above examples, the Scoundrel player can purposefully get into a fight they can’t win, and then give the earned token to another player by reminding them what you’ve done for their character in the past, so they can jump in and win the fight with one of their moves.


Swords Without Master is built with the assumption that PCs will succeed at their action, and the die roll primarily tells you the style of that success. There is a possibility of rolling a match, which can be a failure or setbacck, but this is treated as an unusual aberration. I could see games based on Swords that have less chance of a setback (roll larger dice) or no chance at all.

Something like For the Queen goes even further, having cards not ask about success but just asking for you to imagine and explore aspects of the world and the characters. I think other games could follow a similar path forward, asking HOW and WHY things happen instead of IF you succeed at a task.

The Skeletons is another interesting case study. The PC skeletons are guaranteed to win every combat they participate in, but along the way they discover more and more about themselves and may change their feelings toward the goal of “destroy the intruders”.

In general, this becomes easier to avoid “the default state is failure” when you tell different sorts of stories, like with the kishotenketsu mentioned before. RPGs have historically been focused on fictional genres that are very external and very action-oriented: fantasy, pulp scifi, superheroes and action movie stories. These genres tend to turn on external activities. The more you turn a game to be focused on internal issues, emotional and experiential issues, the easier it is to tell a story where failure isn’t the issue at stake.