Dungeon Craft: Pass or Fail is Stale

The goal of this ongoing series is to improve all of our RPG and Table-Top gaming experiences with anything from miniatures to world-, dungeon-, and character-building toolkits. Alan has been DMing/GMing for over 10+ years and painting for 2 years.

Dungeons and Dragons is “The World’s Greatest RPG” by Wizards’ own claim. Sales numbers do not dispute this claim, nor do I. However, this does not mean we cannot learn from other RPGs. Lately, I’ve taken to playing pooled D6-based systems, like Shadowrun and Warhammer 40,000: Wrath and Glory. Now, I use these tools in all of my games.

Page 319 of Warhammer 40,000 Wrath and Glory
Revised Edition.

Like any good RPG, players narrate what actions they want to take, the Game Master takes the rules into account, and makes a call for a roll. In d20 based systems like Dungeons and Dragons, Path- and Starfinder, the player rolls their d20 and adds their bonuses. If they beat an arbitrary number the Game Master is assigned for difficulty, the action succeeds and the story progresses. However, if they do not, the action fails, and a new plan must be formulated. This is a creative quicksand; perhaps the GM didn’t anticipate failure or didn’t think the players would use their skills, rather than combat, to solve an issue. I found myself many times scrambling to allow players to try again, but that breaks the spirit of the game. A single dice roll takes seconds in reality but may represent hours within the fiction of the game. Wrath and Glory, a Warhammer RPG, introduced me to what they call ‘Fail Forward’.

Let’s look at this in action. Just this past Sunday, at the time of writing, our Warband of heroes (If the grim-dark future has any) had been tasked with finding a squad of soldiers who were missing in action. The party had an energy signal they were following and decided a forced march pace to cover the 5 miles as quickly as possible. I, as the Game Master, decided that a toughness check was to ensure they would be rested enough to fight; a massive storm swirled around them, and the loose sands made running difficult. When all the rolls were done, a member of the Party had made a critical failure. Did this mean they could not keep up? Were they simply unable to move because RNGesus decided it was so? No, I decided they were able to make their swift pace, but they encountered a setback; a squad of enemies intercepted them.

Applying this to a d20 system is easy enough. Unless it’s the most powerful dwarven-made lock, enhanced by powerful magicks from a mighty Archon of magic, a slight exaggeration, the rogue who has been picking locks most of their life should be able to get in. If they failed the target number, perhaps the lock made a loud noise as the catch is released, raising the alert level of the enemies in the room.

Page 45, Shadowrun 5th Edition, First printing.

Next, let’s look at degrees of success, and consequently, failure. Going back to my pool-d6 systems, Shadowrun allows players to spend their extra “hits” to further their success. In some instances, like combat, that just means extra damage, but in skill checks, you have a lot of leeways. A prime example, our party had a hacker who wanted to access the files of a security corporation to find out the timetable on a high priced object moving through the city. Once they navigated the server (or “Host”) to the actual file, they had to try and bypass the file’s security. In this case, the Firewall was 5, and our hacker rolled 10 hits. 5 were used to bypass the firewall, leaving them with 5 hits. This means they could gather more information than what they were initially looking for, perhaps download the information faster and avoiding the countermeasures of Shadowrun’s Matrix, or even editing information so that the corporation would become confused. Ultimately, he decided to use a few bonus successes to avoid the countermeasures, and gain information about the security team for blackmail.

Let’s apply this to our lock pick scenario. Let’s assume our rouge actually succeeds. The Game Master called for a 10, and our rogue rolls an 18 total. That’s a huge difference! Perhaps they were able to pick the lock faster and get the team inside just as a guard patrol rounds the corner, giving them a boost on further sneak tests.

Go ahead, give these a try, and see what your players come up with, Role-Playing is an exercise in cooperative storytelling, after all!