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The Try/Fail Sequence as a Mechanic

Started by SlurpeeMoney, October 23, 2004, 12:09:45 AM

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The Try/Fail Sequence is the term commonly used for points four and five of Algis Budreys' Seven-Point Plot. The Seven-Point Plot looks something like this:

1) A person
2) In a place
3) Has a problem
4) The person intelligently tries to solve the problem and fails.
5) Things get worse.
6) The climax
7) The denoument

As I've stated in This Thread, I use the Try/Fail sequence quite a bit in my arbitrary, fiated style of Game Mastery, but I'm more wondering if there isn't a way that this could tie into some key Game Mechanics I've seen floating around out there.

The first would be the Unknown Outcome of Inspectres. The Game Master has no idea whether or not the players are going to be right; the dice determine whether or not they are right. In the Try/Fail sequence, this woud be attempting to intelligently solve the problem; the Game Master doesn't know whether or not the idea is going to solve the problem; the dice determine whether or not the idea is going to solve the problem.

The second would be the Kicker, though I have a feeling I'm bastardizing the term a bit. Whenever the Try/Fail sequence comes out negative (more often than not; the system would have to be heavilly sided on failure), the failing player would have to describe how Things Got Worse. I've done this, very informally, in a Witchcraft game; gotta hand it to them players, boy... They're much more imaginative in screwing themselves over than I am...

How would one build a system around a mechanic like this? Would one even need character stats, or would the Try/Fail sequence be completely arbitrary? Would other system mechanics even be neccessary? I mean, combat is right out. One need not worry about skills... Or would this apply more to the over-arching storyline? Would this be an addition to an already fleshed out system?

Help me out, folks. I've got a kick-ass new toy, and I don't know what to do with it...

"Hopelessly confused and a little bit tired."



I read your other thread first, and even then I was thinking: damn, why doesn't he (right?) make a game based on this idea?  Let me note: I think the break-down you gave in the other thread, which focuses more on each problem's actual resolution is very useful -- anyone who hasn't read that first should.

I'm only vaguely familiar with InSpectres, but it doesn't seem like the Unknown Outcome mechanic quite fits: for this system, you're going to need the GM to make a call on whether the attempt to solve the problem is or isn't intelligent.  "Intelligently," here, should encompass all sorts of real-worls expectations that all boil down to: in the real world, would this be a good way to solve the problem?  

You could, I suppose, use fortune at the end, so that the players themselves don't even know how their characters are trying to approach the problem, and only decide after the roll whether it was intelligent/unsuccessful.  But this seems like a total crap shoot, and not much fun...some kind of input seems desirable.

Assuming some input (from players), this would primarily be in the form of: "my character is going to try to solve this intelligently" and maybe some specifics as well.  This is where "other mechanics" come in: you need to know what methods of problem resolution are "intelligent" for a given character.  For instance, it's intelligent for a mechanic to fix the broken space fighter; therefore, if he tries to go that route, he fails (at least initially).  So you'd still need some character definitions, involving skills or archetypes (ala Risus) or whatever.

I like your idea of making the players narrate how things get worse -- though this isn't GM fiat is it? ;)   Alternately, you could have the other players in the game make that description, or at least suggestions.

Here's what I'm thinking so far:

1. Problem arises.  Some problems have intelligent solutions for a given character, some probably don't.  A street urchin isn't going to have many intelligent options for dealing with a computer glitch though.

2. If intelligent options exist, the player can attempt it.  A roll is made, and 90% of the time, he fails. (This is assuming that only actual important problems are considered; if it's not game-critical, characters cna just do intelligent things all the time.) The chance of success has nothing to do with how skilled the character is.

3. If the character fails, he gets to "elevate" the situation by describing how it gets worse.  This is noted somewhere.  The character may then try again.  Each elevation that's been applied to the problem (and maybe related problems) increases the chance of success on the roll.

Players Will usually try to elevate after at least one roll, but they can do it before too.  If no intelligent route exists for a given character, he has to elevate immediately.

Depending on the problem and the character solving it, it may need more elevations: a really tough situation should just "absorb" X number of elevations without any adjustment in the roll (but the initial, minimal chance of success remains).  A character who is highly skilled has just as much chance of accomplishing something as a novice, but it will take him fewer elevations to bring the % down.

As I mentioned, you could count elevations not just towards a specific problem, but allow some bleed-over effects from one to another, or even globally over a whole scene.  So, for instance, a character who fails repeatedly to repair the engine of spaceship (and in doing so makes the situation much much worse) can apply some or all of those elevations to some other task: so he could abandon the repair and jump into the turret to blast some bogeys.

A lot of what's written down would be elevations to one problem or another.  Some of these problems could be very long term, with huge absorptions: the players can't handle 10 elevations at once -- that's just too dangerous -- so they'll spread them out over a long period, and then eventually overcome the big bad.

The specific die mechanic for all this could be worked out, but isn't probably veyr important at this point.
Jasper McChesney
Primeval Games Press


I've been reading your threads, and part of me is interested, but the simulationist in me has been screaming in protest, so I'd like to introduce a distinction, and see what you think of it.  The bit that has been offending my inner simulationist is the idea that if the characters try to solve the problem intelligently, they will fail.  Up until now, this has been making me scream 'Railroad!', but I just had an idea which makes it more palatable.

    I'm going to re-use the starship mechanic as an example.  Logically, a starship mechanic should be able to fix starships.  In most cases, when
they encounter a broken starship, they should be able to fix it. (simulationist interjection - subject to the availability of parts, tools, etc.)  However, when the GM has decided that the broken starship is a Problem for this adventure, then they can't do that (because otherwise it would be a very boring adventure: 'You're marooned on an alien world, where your spaceship has just crash landed next to some alien ruins'  'Ok, I fix our spaceship, and we continue on to our destination').    

    The simulationist in me would like to point out that there should always be a good reason for the failure of the intelligent plan (and suggests missing parts, deliberate sabotage, or a mysterious energy field from the ruins), otherwise you'll end up screwing with people's character concepts.  It's ok to say 'you can't fix this starship because X', it's not ok to say 'you can't fix this starship because you're not really a starship mechanic'.

    Finally in situations where the broken starship is not essential to the plot, the starship mechanic will be able to fix it.  If this doesn't occur, you're gonna end up with a Counselor Troi: 'I have nifty empathic abilities, but they never actually solve anything, so my only role is to hang around the bridge wearing skin-tight outfits'.  This might occur in situations where the broken starship is a result of things getting worse, but fixing it won't solve the problem.

    To summarize my point:  The intelligent solution is generally not interesting, and will therefore fail to solve any problem which is considered important to the plot.  However, it will only fail for a good reason, and when you are addressing something not central to the plot, the intelligent solution will work.  Is this an accurate clarification of what you mean, or have I misinterpreted things?


Grover: You have it exactly right. If Scotty, Janeway and Riker were all on Ipthar, and the shuttlecraft broke down, Scotty would have to be able to fix it. Unless we do something classic in Star Trek called "handwaving."

"I can't get a lock on him, sir. The tachion emissions from the polarized atmosphere are rendering sensors useless."

Um... Tachion emissions? Polarized atmosphere? Ok. You can't get a lock on him, and there's a reason for that. Transporting the characters out of Bad Situation A, which is a pretty intelligent thing to do most times, is obviously out.

Likewise, if Scotty were to try to fix the ship, sure, he'd find out what was wrong with it; it would simply be something he doesn't have the parts to fix, or more likely, this would become an "Intelligent action that will solve the problem eventually." It is probably going to work, but while it's getting done, other problems arise.

Now to address the issue of the randomized outcomes.

We are dealing with two kinds of problems. The first problems are those immediate problems, the problems that show up through the whole of the game to make our player's lives miserable. These are usually the result of the second kind of problem, but solving these individual problems has no immediate affect on the Big Problem.

The Big Problem is the over-arching problem, the problem of all problems, the root of all the evils. Eventually, hopefully, the characters will solve this problem, but only after the littler problems have driven them to the Climax. It's never fun when the protagonists lose... Unless you're playing C'thulu.

Each problem has to be taken seperately.

Let's have an example, shall we?

The protagonists see a group of thugs roughing up an old man. They attempt a quick rescue. (rolls some dice) They fail.

Things Get Worse. The thugs call the rest of their gang out from the alley to rough up the protagonists. The protagonists attempt to retreat. (rolls some dice) They fail.

Things Get Worse. The thugs, overpowering the heroes, tie them up and bring them to their Boss. The protagonists attempt to deal with the Boss. (rolls some dice). They gain a marginal success. An eventually.

The Boss offers them a job and they choose to take it in exchange for their freedom and a little coin in their purse. Things Still Get Worse, but they're on the right track. During the job, they would eventually meet the Big Problem (some big Pandora's box thing), and the minor problems leading up to their stopping it would eventually lead to the Climax.

Taking it a slightly different path:

The protagonists see a group of thugs roughing up an old man. They attempt a quick rescue. (rolls some dice) They gain a marginal success (an eventually). The thugs rough the heroes up a bit, but back off. Things Still Get Worse, but we're doing ok so far.

The old man is not going to make it. He's dying, very quickly. One of the characters attempts some first aid. (Rolls some dice). He fails.

Things Get Worse. The old man, with his last dying breath, pushes a note into the hands of the character attempting first aid. It is unaddressed, but has a royal seal on it. It looks like official documents of some kind. The characters ask around to see if anyone knows who the note is from, or who it is to. (rolls some dice) They gain a success! They know who the note is from (a local duke) and who the note is to (the leader of the assassin's guild). They hand the note into the authorities, hoping to stem an assassination. (rolls some dice) A failure!

Things Get Worse. The characters are arrested without charge. While they are in prison, though, they hear, from one of the other inmates, about the Big Problem (same big pandora's box thing). They attempt to find a way out of the prison (doesn't bother rolling dice; in this case, GM Fiat would be quite important to the continuation of the story. Maybe a few ideas fail outright, but eventually, they have to get out of there). They succeed, but now things are going to get much, much worse.

Really, the random determination of events is more a way to force the Game Master to improvise. He or she takes the situations provided by the players and runs with them. While I'm all for GM Fiat in most common gaming applications, I think that in this case, since we are taking away something prescious to most characters (skills and attributes affecting the outcome of an action), we need to replace it with a little more input control. Besides, when I design a rule, I don't do it to please myself; I'd end up doing it my way anyway, and we'd not even need dice ^__^.

I like the idea of elevations, of making the specific problem worse than it already was, but in my games it seldom actually works like that. Each "elevation," in my games, would be the next Small Problem in the story, which should be a little bigger and a little more frightening than the one before it. So in any given game, there could be thousands of elevations, and each elevation could be a scene unto itself.

Anyway, this post is long enough as it is.

"You fail! FAIL! You not GOOD 'nuff to play MAH games!"

Callan S.

I think it's a desire to explore what happens when the everyday order becomes broken. I mean, the everyday order is that if your star ship is damaged, you fix it. Any other handle them as common sense dictates.

As said, that's boring. Because one always wonders what would happen if that didn't would you handle it, what would you do? This is where your input as a player is needed. For the everyday order, your not needed as a player.

Most RPG's are against this...their reward mechanism involves avoiding that entirely. You become a star ship mechanic so as to avoid a broken star ship. And thus your rewarded for avoiding the interesting parts of play...the parts you can actually contribute too.

It'd actually be interesting if the character class you chose were specifically bad at what they are supposed to do: Starship engineer is bad at fixing engines, super spy is bad at stealth, cop is bad at instantly nabbing bad guy. Actually, this may explain some of the popularity of current designs (which fail to support what the PC is supposed to do).

Anyway, the first thing (and perhaps this is gamist) is that it should be confirmed that what the player wanted to do was a good and solid tactic. Second, system wise they should get some reward. Preferably something which does allow them to use their special ability (eg, star ship repair), but in some unexpected way...perhaps fitting a rocket to a car, so as to do some massive canyon jump. Some 'cool scene' point.
Philosopher Gamer

Michael S. Miller

It's late, so this'll be short.

This looks kind of like my superhero game With Great Power... Each hero has a number of Aspects (things about the character: his powers, his sidekick, his convictions, his origin, his girlfriend, whatever). Each Aspect has its own individual level of Suffering (effectively, has its own damage track). The resolution system uses playing cards. When you want to draw more cards, you can increase the Suffering of an Aspect, describe how that Suffering manifests in the game world ("Oh no. That last power blast loosened the fire escape that Mary Jane is standing on and it's starting to collapse!"), and draw extra cards. The players are rewarded for allowing their heroes to fail. If you want players to do something in a game, reward them for it.
Serial Homicide Unit Hunt down a killer!
Incarnadine Press--The Redder, the Better!


QuoteThis looks kind of like my superhero game With Great Power...

Um... You'll pardon if I'm not finding the corelation. Your game sounds like a pretty standard card-resolution system rewarding players with meta-game bonuses (more cards) for giving themselves damage. We're talking about Trying something, Failing at it, and deciding how Things Get Worse, and how that can best be situated in a system. Perhaps a little more light on you game system would be beneficial?

"Tired and blind..."

Callan S.

Quote from: SlurpeeMoney
QuoteThis looks kind of like my superhero game With Great Power...

Um... You'll pardon if I'm not finding the corelation. Your game sounds like a pretty standard card-resolution system rewarding players with meta-game bonuses (more cards) for giving themselves damage. We're talking about Trying something, Failing at it, and deciding how Things Get Worse, and how that can best be situated in a system. Perhaps a little more light on you game system would be beneficial?

"Tired and blind..."
It actually sounds just like what your describing. It's skipping the trying stage, but it's still the same as if it were something like 'I am a photographer for the bugle...oh no, a bank robbery I must help out with...crap, I missed my photo opportunity, what now?'. Deciding how things get worse is can simply be done by the player after this...give them a reward for thinking of trouble and they will merrily hose themselves (the more they hose themselves, the better it looks when they get out of it...another reward).
Philosopher Gamer


It is my feeling that this can only be a mechanic at a very abstract, almost metagame, level.  I fully acknowledge the rising tension feature you identify, and you may have seen that in large part this was the basis for my recent posts on Situation & Tension and more recently RPG sheet music.

Theatrix take on this approach is well worth a look if you are not familiar with it, if not least for articulating some concerns around when and how tensions is accumulated and released.  For me at any rate, these were real eye-openers: phrases  like "Let them know they were lucky.  Give them another chnace", "Give them false hope" or "Limit the damage to suit the lesson" all provide somewhat more direction than a simple measure of tension.

This is in part what leads me to suspect that the level of tension does not, except in the most simplistic of stories, simply climb smoothly toward crisis, but instead jerks up and down with an overall trend upwards toward crisis.

Theatrix seems a sound if idea, even if perhaps a bit too overt for my tastes.  However, I think that what its structure demonstrates is that a mechanism built around this concern MUST also concern itself with plot; cannot simply be used as a task resolution system.  In some senses, this produces a literal mechanisation of plot, and I think there is a fair amount in them thar hills to be exploited.
Impeach the bomber boys:

"He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast."
- Leonardo da Vinci

Michael S. Miller

Quote from: SlurpeeMoneyWe're talking about Trying something, Failing at it, and deciding how Things Get Worse, and how that can best be situated in a system.

Hi, Kris.

Noon got it right up above. In the short version of noncombat scenes I described above, the player decides that Things are Going to Get Worse, because they want the cards. In describing how that looks in the game world, they have to describe the Trying and Failing. Rather similar to Fortune-in-the-Middile, but replacing Fortune with Resource Management.

In combat scenes, the Trying is shown during the cardplay rules. Players are still encouraged to Fail, as they are able to change the rules of the game in their favor if they do Fail. If they do indeed Fail, then Things Get Worse by the GM dealing damage (called Suffering) to one of their Aspects.

You must remember that in WGP..., Aspects are not just Attributes or Powers (although they could be), they are packets of pure story-stuff, so Suffering accruing to them can manifest in all sorts of ways. Noon's example above nicely conveys how Suffering might apply to a hero's "Secret Identity: Photographer" Aspect.

Is that any clearer?

I've also got to second (or is it third?) the recommendation that your look up the game Theatrix from Backstage Press--most likely from used game dealers. It seems to have very similar design goals to what you've been talking about here and on the GM Fiat thread.
Serial Homicide Unit Hunt down a killer!
Incarnadine Press--The Redder, the Better!


I'm not familiar with Theatrix, but WGP seems like a great example of a game that follows the Try/Fail pattern. I think my own game, The Moutain Witch, implies this pattern through the PC's Fates. The premise of the game is that the PC's are trying to assault and kill the Mountain Witch. However, at some point the PC's must reveal their dark Fate. This dark Fate problemizes the task of killing the Witch. While the Fates do not literally cause the character's to fail, it does make the situation worse.

Also, Slupeemoney, while I'm not familiar with Algis Budreys' essay/book/whatever, I'm pretty sure that the phenomonon he was talking about spanned the entire story. This is important. If you focus on just the resolution of tasks or even scenes, you may end up missing the overall story-arch that he is writing about.

I mean, if you focus just on tasks/scenes, theorectically you may end up with a situation where the players roll successfully everytime. Or they may only fail at the very end or very beginning. That doesn't really follow the story arch.

WGP overcomes this (correct me if I'm wrong) because the players don't have the mechanical power to defeat the GM without first risking a Aspect in order to gain bonus cards (ie, failing).
--Timothy Walters Kleinert

Michael S. Miller

QuoteWGP overcomes this (correct me if I'm wrong) because the players don't have the mechanical power to defeat the GM without first risking a Aspect in order to gain bonus cards (ie, failing).

It's theoretically possible, but highly unlikely, for the players to win against the GM repeatedly without accruing Suffering to an Aspect or two.

I don't want to hijack Kris' thread, but it's funny you should mention the Story Arc. WGP has a Story Arc that controls how rules change as the game continues. You can only fill a spot on the Story Arc when you fail in conflict. Each spot you fill changes one of the game rules to slowly shift the advantage away from the GM and toward the players.

I think by rewarding the players--in an abstract, metagame way, for Making Things Worse--you'll get the kind of progression you're looking for. It also makes the Worse Things easier for a player to swallow if they're getting some metagame reward that will enable them to thoroughly trounce the source of their trouble later on.
Serial Homicide Unit Hunt down a killer!
Incarnadine Press--The Redder, the Better!


If I may offer an even more pointed statement:  I don't think the GM should decide when the characters succeed or fail.  Players do a better job.

One of the things that fortune systems and resource systems and many other systems labor to provide is a structure in which the player can influence whether their character succeeds or fails, but cannot decide that they always succeed (because that's rightly viewed as boring).  In short, they have to choose where to succeed and where to fail.  It's that choice that draws out much of the meaning of a story.  If the GM is making those decisions then he's robbing himself of the creative input of his players.
Just published: Capes
New Project:  Misery Bubblegum


I think the Budrys model as described here by Kris has some interesting implications.

A lot of the discussion so far strikes me as, more or less, "Well, of course anything the players attempt has some chance of success or failure."

There's no inherent reason, in my mind, why a game system couldn't be created such that, at certain times, players know for a fact that what they attempt will fail.  And, at other times, it is just as certain that their attempts will succeed.

The game itself consists largely of figuring out the details of how and why they fail, and eventually, succeed.

Would this sort of game be any fun?  I'm not entirely sure either way, but I suspect it could be.  In any case, I think it's unclear enough not to be dismissed out of hand.



I don't mean to steal anyones thunder if any ideas have come about this, but reading this thread gave me an almost 'Eureaka!' moment-
I've been working off and on on a comedy system that had alot of failure and rewarded a certain degree of failure. I ditched the one statless/diceless effort about 'life in Neo Productions' and our comic Backstage, but I really got into the design of Dugeons for Dummies, where players are inept Imps trying to maintain a dungeon and what not. I couldn't hit any ideas for mechanics however. Then, reading this, I got the idea as I said and presto!
Its a touch more enforced that say just automatically determining "It Fails" upon hearing an idea, but~

1) A universal Target Number exists, which applies to all situations and all checks, starts at 2, can go to 12.
2) Players roll 2d6 against that TN, shooting for Less than or Equal to- they may spend Points to raise it (1-2 points per attempt).
3) On a Failure, "Something Bad happens" per the player, the player is out those points, the group moves on, the TN REMAINS at that raised level.
4) On a Success "Something Good happens" per the player, either for him/herself OR the group. They also earn points equal to the successful roll and the TN resets itself to 2.

The way the game was to be setup any how would require the players to work together at least a little bit to accomplish things (Each Imp would have 1 stat value, essentially the whole party would make 1 complete character with Strength, Intelligence, Charisma, Wisdom etc.), but they're also evil little creatures who are prone to backstabbing.
Thus, why this Try/Fail/Succeed Eventually idea works for me (at least I believe):  the players will succeed eventually, they will bungle it more often. They have to work together to ease the cost of the challenges, but the victor earns the spoils and the right to dictate the action for a moment. They can either help the team or help themselves- helping the team will be good but sometimes helping themselves will be better (short run) or better for the team (if they don't complete the objective, more challenges = more chances for points).

Personally, I really think it will work. I'm fleshing out some other portions of the system so it'll work the way I want, but I can't wait to start doing some playtesting and I know some people equally excited.
Nate Petersen / daMoose
Neo Productions Unlimited! Publisher of Final Twilight card game, Imp Game RPG, and more titles to come!