The Alexandrian

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Banksy - Rat on a Chain

Many GMs have been conditioned to believe that there are two possible outcomes to every skill check: The character has an intention that they are attempting to achieve and they will either succeed at that intention or they will fail: You either walk the tightrope or you fall and you die.

In reality, when we make the decision to roll the dice, what we’re actually saying is, “There is more than one possible outcome to this action. Let’s find out which one happens together.” It’s a fictional cleromancy – a casting of lots to determine a fortune. And when we say that our cleromancy can only have two possible outcomes, we are limiting the efficacy of that fortune telling.


The easiest way to step away from the simple success/fail dynamic is to assign a single difficulty number, but then interpret the result based on the margin of success or the margin of failure. A very simple, universal metric of results looks like this:

Partial Success
Partial Failure

In D&D we could set our margins to 5. If you succeed on a check by less than 5 points, you’ve scored a partial success. If you fail on a check but your result is within 5 points of the DC, you’ve only suffered a partial failure. The key idea behind any partial result is that it does not convey the full benefits of success or the full penalties of failure (and it will often carry with it the possibility of taking additional actions to improve your result).

For example, a character might attempt to leap across a chasm. The GM calls for a DC 15 Jump check. If the player rolls a 20 (a margin of success of 5), they easily leap across the chasm and land on the other side. If they roll a 16, on the other hand, they’ll only score a partial success and the GM might rule that they successfully leap across the chasm but fall prone on the other side. Meanwhile, a result of 12 (a margin of failure of 3) could result in them coming up just short, but managing to grab the ledge on the far side (giving the opportunity of pulling themselves up). Only by rolling 10 or less (a margin of failure of 5+) would the character fall helplessly into the chasm.

It’s also obviously quite easy to expand this spectrum. (Attack rolls in combat provide a simple example: A margin of success of 5 might award +2 damage, a margin of success of 10 might award +4 damage, and so forth.) In some cases the entire concept of “success” or “failure” will evaporate entirely – there is only the question of how well (or how poorly) the character did.

Another way of looking at graduated success is that, when there are multiple possible results, the GM models that by assigning multiple difficulties. I often use this technique with Gather Information checks, for example:

DCGather Information
10“Robert” was making inquiries a few months ago about stonemasons and carpenters who might be looking for work. If he found anybody, nobody knows who.
15“Robert” was attempting to buy large quantities of quicksilver. He was staying somewhere in the north end of the Old City.
20“Robert” was staying at the Broken Moon, but no one has seen him in some time.

Note that both methods are really just different ways of looking at the same thing. We could just as easily write up that Gather Information chart as:

MarginGather Information
0“Robert” was making inquiries a few months ago about stonemasons and carpenters who might be looking for work. If he found anybody, nobody knows who.
+5“Robert” was attempting to buy large quantities of quicksilver. He was staying somewhere in the north end of the Old City.
+10“Robert” was staying at the Broken Moon, but no one has seen him in some time.


Now that we understand that mechanical resolutions can produce a spectrum of results, we can also take the next step of realizing that this spectrum does not need to be all-encompassing: The possible results for a given skill check do not have to range from “abject failure” to “outstanding success”.

Eclipse Phase - Posthuman StudiosA technique I find particularly valuable is referred to as a simple success test in Eclipse Phase: It’s an action where we accept that the character is going to succeed. The only question is how long it takes them or how good their success is.

If we consider our previous discussion of Take 1, we can see how simple success tests can mathematically emerge in many resolution mechanics: Success can be guaranteed no matter what you roll, so the only purpose of rolling would be to determine the quality of that success. (You can see the same thing on our Gather Information tables above: A result of 9 on the skill check would result in failure – they learn nothing about the so-called “Robert”. But if the character has a +9 modifier on their Gather Information skill, then success is guaranteed: They will definitely learn something about “Robert”. It’s just a question of how much they learn.)

In practice, of course, we don’t always have to perform a mechanical calculation to justify the simple success test. We can simply decide that, for example, the characters are professionals and this isn’t the sort of task for which there is any meaningful risk of failure for professionals. At this point, we can either default to yes and declare the action a success, or we can turn to our fictional cleromancy to discover the degree of success the character enjoys.

(We could also hypothetically talk about checks in which failure is guaranteed and the mechanical check merely determines the degree of that failure. I’m generally leery of such an approach because it feels as if it is most often abused in order to enforce railroads and the like. But it’s not impossible to consider a situation in which a character could deliberately choose a course of action for which they know that there is no possibility of success. The Battle of Thermopylae would be an epic example of that in practice.)


Another way of looking at the simple success test is the concept of failing forward.

In its most basic form, failing forward is largely indistinguishable from the simple success test: Mechanical failure is described as being a success-with-complications in the game world.

(The key distinction, if any exists at all, is that with a simple success test the GM is making a mechanical ruling that failure is impossible before the die is rolled. Failing forward, on the other hand, is an interpretation of a mechanical failure outcome after it has been generated. But, in practice, this is a fairly fuzzy line.)

For example, Lucas is attempting to pick the lock on the file room door and fails his skill check. The GM decides that Lucas still managed to get the door open… but it took too much time and now he’s been spotted by the night watchman. Or his lockpick broke. Or he’s gotten caught on camera and the bad guys will be able to track him down later.

Basically, there’s a large body of useful techniques you can explore as you break away from the basic success/failure paradigm. However, I would like to offer a few words of caution when it comes to the concept of “failing forward” because the terminology has attracted a few pernicious ideas.

First, failing forwards has become curiously fetishized by some players who believe that it should be used every single time. This seems to be primarily the result of people believing that failure automatically causes scenarios to grind to a halt. The classic example proffered is failing to find a clue and having a mystery scenario grind to a halt.

As the Three Clue Rule demonstrates, however, the solution to this problem is to offer multiple paths to success. And being forced to route around the roadblocks created by your failures will take you in directions you never anticipated: If you hadn’t failed to bribe the guards into letting you in through the back door, you never would have climbed the walls of the castle, broken in through the window, and fallen in love with the princess you found there. Failure is often the starting point of the most exciting situations and the most memorable of stories. Taking it entirely off the table won’t enrich your games; it will impoverish them. Like railroading, it’s a broken technique being applied as a hasty patch to another broken technique.

Speaking of railroading, the other major problem with “failing forward” is that it has accumulated a large amount of baggage from GMs who want to use it in order to keep the PCs on their railroad. (This may, in fact, be the origin of the term: “Forward” being the direction the pre-planned plot is supposed to be going.)

But neither of those problems are inherent to the basic concept, and the basic concept can be a very useful tool to tuck away in your toolkit.

Go to Part 7

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9 Responses to “Art of Rulings – Part 6: Fictional Cleromancy”

  1. Baquies says:

    I also recall an interesting idea someone once presented on “close” failures representing, knowing better than to try in the first place.

    It was discussed in the context of our heroes sometime easily knocking a weapon out of an opponents hands, and other times not even trying it. Rarely does out hero try such a move and get stabbed/shot for their trouble.

  2. Vic says:

    This reminds me a another issue I run into. I think of it as sort of a “Roll Result Limbo” where the player is unsure if they are failing or succeeding. I’ve encountered it many times, but I will use the most recent as an example.

    A character (Mine) is trying to find out information.

    We are playing out the scene and conversation, and so I roll the dice. I get a result. But it apparently wasn’t good enough. But the scene didn’t end, so basically my character continues, rolls again, and again the result was apparently not good enough but then nothing changed. I continue, trying different words, strategies, but with a series of more rolls, then again. Nothing seemed good enough, but then also nothing bad enough. Eventually I get to a roll of natural “1”. Rules of that game mean that is a major failure, for which bring catastrophic results. Suddenly all hell came about for me and the players.

    It was never clear to me if any of the rolls I did were fails or success. Nothing seemed to matter untill it was the natural 1.

  3. Justin Alexander says:

    @Baquies: Reminds me of a very old thread on RPGNet where people were talking about the way fights were resolved in the original Star Trek series. The main characters basically never lost a fight, but they would frequently surrender without a fight. The suggestion was that you should resolve the entire fight and if the outcome was complete failure for the heroes, then the fight didn’t happen: The heroes would simply surrender.

    A similar system would probably work really well for a James Bond game, too.

    @Vic: I call that “rolling to failure”. I’m going to be talking about the “let it ride” principal (which largely solves this problem) in a couple of installments.

  4. Leland J. Tankersley says:

    If failure or success aren’t apparent, then probably the referee is calling for rolls unnecessarily. (And/or not providing sufficient feedback.) And if there are ‘special’ rolls (like catastrophic failure on a natural 1) then calling for unnecessary rolls is basically lighting the fuse for disaster — it’s only a matter of time. It might be that some kind of a “skill challenge” was at work (multiple successes required before some number of failures to achieve the goal) but statistically that’s just an excuse to ask for more rolls to resolve something that could just as easily be resolved with a single roll — again except for the chance of catastrophic failure.

    It’s hard to say for sure given the lack of specific details, but this sounds like a case where the referee should have used a margin of success/failure on a single roll rather than calling for roll after roll.

    There’s also a bit of suspicion in my mind that what might have been going on was the referee didn’t really have a set difficulty number in mind, and so was just asking for rolls until something happened that was either CLEARLY a success or CLEARLY a failure. And your earlier rolls were all kind of middle-of-the-road, so the process went on. But if a referee is in that mental space, I think you either need to suck it up and pick a success threshold, or else just commit to flipping a coin or whatever.

  5. Dan Dare says:

    I liked the “uncertain” resolution system I first saw in Traveller 2300 where the player and DM both roll, the DM secretly. The actual result is a combo of the two rolls but the player only knows how well or poorly their roll went.

    An example of its use is fixing a broken engine on a car. If the player rolls badly but the car seems to start ok then the player isn’t sure if they actually got it ok or if there is a lurking failure that will come up later. If the player rolls well then there is no lurking failure but the final performance may not be as good as it could have been. The player can choose to just drive off or do some double check diagnosis to improve the certainty that all is as well as it should be.

  6. Another Dan says:

    I think that Savage Worlds adopted half of this philosophy. It is relatively simple to get a success on a roll for a competent character, but, for every four you exceed the roll by, you get a ‘raise’ and bonus stuff happens. For instance, if you are repairing a car, you roll to succeed, and you repair so much of it. However, if you roll a success and a raise, then you repair more or it takes less time, depending on how damaged the vehicle was. It would be hard to implement a degrees of failure option other than fail or critical fail, but it would be interesting to try.

    I guess what I’m saying is that this idea has had a lot different variations depending on what kind of game you want to play. I would highly suggest playing with this idea more in your own campaigns because it gives much more depth for the player with hardly any effort on the side of the GM.

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  8. Charles R says:

    Isn’t there a similar idea in Burning Wheel (or am I thinking of another system)?

    Whatever it is, the idea is that if you roll but it isn’t a complete success, you can boost the result, but at a cost – much like the partial failure examples you give of successfully picking a lock but being spotted or breaking your tools.

    It’s actually presented as a good way to keep the story going, because each such complication adds a new issue that the PCs may have to resolve.

  9. François Uldry says:

    Or stop trying to graft artificial granularity on a system that does not allow it.

    Use narrative systems to assess narrative results.

    @Vic :
    I would have played it differently as a GM: for a roleplaying scene like this, I usually ask for multiple rolls. Success allows the player to achieve a part of his objective and a total success would require multiple successful rolls. A total failure would either end the conversation with the NPC, and depending how it went before, entails catastrophic results. War 3 had a system with a progress bar that you used to solve complex interactions (even if the system was a mess, it had some nice ideas).
    For example :
    1st roll success : info 1
    2nd roll success: info 2
    3rd roll failure : NPC gets angry or starts to make clear that he’s getting bored
    4th roll natural 20 : info 3, NPC attitude shifts in favor of the players
    5th roll natural 1 : NPC shifts toward hostility

    etc, partial successes and failures can be required for some rolls, but then you can extend the skill check to actually requires multiple rolls and accumulated successes, instead of a pass/fail mechanism.

    @Dan dare:
    ok but that does not allow a particularly impressive success without surprises; if it was that important to the story, I would go for an extended check to fix the car. Otherwise, pass/fail is sufficient as it’s a simple complications on the story that does not require to waste time on it.

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