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:
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:
|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:
|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.|
SIMPLE SUCCESS TEST
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”.
A 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.