The Bad Whiff of Role-Playing
Updated: Aug 3, 2022
Taking Another Look at TTRPGs Most Common Result
This is the moment—it has all been leading up to this. Roll the dice, and if you succeed it will all be worth it. And if you fail...then...well, you just whiff. Nothing happens, really—perhaps within the fiction, sure, but at the table there's a big whomp-whomp and play moves on without you. That's role-playing, I guess?
"Whiff" is a term typically used in the video game fighting community to refer to an attempted hit that does not connect, but I've seen it applying to other things in life lately, even if the dictionary is slow to catch up with definitions.
When you've played ttrpgs for a while you can come to forget what it was like as a new player, and one thing new players notice pretty quickly (a lot more than experienced ones) is how much it sucks when you plan your turn around what you think will be an interesting plan, and the result is worse than it all going awry, the result is...nothing.
In ttrpgs the penalty of failure is, too often, boredom. I'm being a tad hyperbolic, but I think my point is solid...whiffing is bad for fun in a role-playing game.
Why is this Happening ?
Why is whiffing such a common problem? I won't tease—the answer seems pretty obvious: people have come to expect it. The reason being, the world's most popular fantasy game has wargaming roots and such a mechanical structure is common there. If whiffing has maintained in ttrpgs I think it is largely because it is a legacy aspect—that's just how games work, apparently.
What Are the Solutions?
There must be something better to offer from a design perspective than killing your game momentum with a stall in the table's energy. Recent games (21st century games, at least) have offered a few solutions:
a) Failure is Not an Option
Some ttrpgs have recognised this problem and combat it from the ground-up with their design by saying that whatever the player says happens, happens. You cannot fail unless the rule is contradicted by a superiour rule. That seems...fine. But I think it robs tension from events, and as a player it makes me feel less like the embodiment of my character and more like an author. That's not my cup of tea.
A better solution to me is not to not fail, but just to make failure interesting. That's tremendously difficult to do from a design perspective. Many games (and their proponents) claimed to have solved it, but I—mostly—disagree.
b) GMs Are Super Creative Beasts
I'll focus on the Powered by the Apocalypse umbrella of games because they receive a lot of (to my mind, mostly undue) credit for pioneering "something interesting happens on every roll result" structure. Big claim. Most PbtA games require a few different rules working together to try to do this.
The first solution, under the various iterations of PbtA is to bake-in an interesting failure alternative to the "Move" being used. It's a good idea, although it runs the risk of the Moves becoming so overweighted with their own structures that playing the game becomes like pushing a series of buttons.
The other structure PbtA offers to get around flat failure and at least encourage an interesting event in response is to rest the onus of creativity squarely on the GM, (or attempt to disperse this among the players as a whole.) Oh, you failed? The GM will now proceed to look off in the distance for about two minutes muttering: "Uhhhh...what would be good here?"
I'm a big fan of counting on the imagination engine of players/GMs but...I don't think this is a reliable route. You cannot design for "best case scenario". Not all GMs are super-creative and they still deserve to play the game. To design a game that can only be run my amateur authors is a weakness. Designers should design their rules for GMs who are tired and a little hung-over on the third day of the con so they can still run the game. To come up with an interesting consequence of consistent quality can be difficult even for the most creative GM.
Ideally, a system should provide more structure than "refer to GM's tired brain", but it's a big ask. The structure of failure is so broad and its cases so varied that it would be very difficult to accommodate all situations sensibly, so I can see why PbtA went the route they did.
The problem with throwing the same question open to the players as a release valve (or in a GMless game) is that some of them are shy, others are arrogant, and the more boisterous players will dominate the dictation of consequences. Again, like favouring only the most on-the-ball and accomplished GMs, the structure of trying to get an answer from players is often flawed because they are not typically approaching the game equally, with equal voice and say.
Lastly, some PbtA games—and other games, too—offer structure of GM behaviour where player failure is what provokes severe GM response. You'll even see this to various degrees in Avery Alder's Dream Askew / Dream Apart and games based on it like Henshin. You failed? That means you're the one getting hit! It sounds like an answer but I've never seen it executed without substantial compromise to the sense of the in-setting likely behaviour, at least on a consistent basis. Sometimes it works beautifully, but, again, it's not terribly reliable as a mechanic.
Do PbtA games solve the "failure stall"? Only sorta-kinda. If you have a table of players with truly equal ability, sense of security, social clout, and imagination, then sure, yes. Everything call fall together for an amazing game experience where a whiff is not a problem. I posit that this is rare, and difficult to repeat. I don't think this is a reliable answer to whiffing.
c) Creative Fallback
It's difficult to talk about PbtA with any generalization, because it's not really a system but a moment of like-systems that sometimes are not very alike at all. Some of them offer a creative safety-net for failure that I think is pretty brilliant, but I encountered it first in Luke Crane's Mouse Guard.
The rule is—if the GM can think of a creative consequence in the moment, great. If they can't, there are handy checkboxes on the PC's sheet that can be check-marked: sick, tired, hungry, that kind of thing. I've seen this adapted to Root and some other games with various degrees of success, but regardless of individual implementation what I love about the idea of it is that those checkboxes can be both intuitive to the kinds of conflicts the system is designed for and emulate theme well. A "sick" checkbox isn't great for heroic fantasy. It's great for a grubby post-apocalypse or a plague-riddled middle ages setting.
The only problem with this solution is that it adds weight to the system. I'm a fan of Mouse Guard but the damn thing is juggling three different meta-currencies, and I see that as a design weakness. (Yes, I know Mouse Guard is the streamlined Burning Wheel, but I insist it can be sleeker!) If play is not designed to be intuitive then it needs to be proportionally rewarding to the investment, and accept that its learning curve is a kind of gate against new players. Systems can be heavy in their rules depth, but in that case I insist they should have a proper "funnel" to investment. You can involve yourself broadly, and go deeper if you're keen, and eventually find yourself on the inside of the cult of the game. Tacking on failure checkmarks requires a system of consequences to support it, which can make the game "top heavy", such that a rules info-dump is required even to get started. I'm looking at you, Blades in the Dark. Sure, it's a beloved system with some brilliant design aspects but it utterly fails to "funnel" it's approach for new players. You have a lot to learn before you can really get the most out of it, and new players for BitD generally frustrate the experienced ones. For some people that's not a problem, but it's still exclusory design, so not ideal.
The ultimate extension of the creative fallback is a mechanic where the GM takes action on player failure, which—again, really works when it works, and really does not when it does not.
Is a creative fallback the answer then to "fail stall"? I think it can be, if the system is not already too heavy, and not an orphan rule. This lattice-work of smaller rules to eliminate whiffing adds a lot of weight to a system, makes it less approachable, and regardless of how great of a play experience it could lead to, keeps people from playing in the first place, or understanding what the heck just happened in the game when they're new.
d) Change the Engagement Parameters
What I did in Fight to Survive: Role-playing Martial Arts Meets Heart is change the parameters of engagement; you generally know when you're going to fail, so don't do it if you're going to fail, or if you do then consequences are huge and pronounced. We'll see if that solves it in a more streamlined way. The down-side of that is that rolling dice is fun, and the F2S is without that particular fun. Like all design decisions, weigh it against the benefit of play.
In the end, I'm adamant that getting punched in the face in response to your failure is more interesting than a whiff, and moving on. There, that's the endcap of this—I'd rather be punched in the face than whiff.
Radio James Games