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Friday, February 10, 2012

Saying Yes: Dynamic Tests

And I'm finally back to a post about Burning Wheel! I seriously can't get enough of this system... Before I break into some sort of rant, let's have a little summary of the topic to be covered today. It's a rather simple principle that Luke Crane has instilled into Burning Wheel, actually taking the concept from Vincent Baker's Dogs in the Vineyard. It's a strong way to make every die roll meaningful: "Just say 'Yes'."

Know the Stakes
The "Say Yes" principle boils down to a very simple directive: if there is nothing at stake for a player action, nothing that they risk to lose, and nobody who really badly wants them to fail, then just "say yes", and don't make them roll for it. Do the characters want to do a little checking-in with locals about rumors? If you don't have anything interesting cooked up for a failure, just give them the info. Do they want to climb up a cliff? Don't make them roll an Athletics check unless you can think up a way that failing pushes the story forward.

In a way, this is exactly what many GMs already do with food rules in RPGs. Failing to have enough food on hand is often considered to have no really interesting consequence, so the GM just handwaves it: "There's enough food along the way." This approach suggests another corollary, though: dynamic tests. When you fail a test, there should be an interesting result in store. Many traditional RPGs have a "result or bleh" paradigm for skill tests: either you succeed/fail, or it's a neutral, stagnant result. This can be seen in skill checks (which are succeed or neutral result) and traditional 3.5 "save or suck" spells (fail or neutral result).

Boring Whiffs
The problem with this neutral state is that it's boring. It's a "whiff". It doesn't do anything to the status quo, and there's no consequence to it. It reminds me of the reason that Wizards of the Coast put "half damage on a miss" effects into Daily powers: people don't like missing, and they at least want some consolation. My question is, why stop at consolation? A great many players love critical fumble tables, because of the ridiculous and memorable failures which they allow for. To a lesser extent, you can make every failure memorable.

If the players are looking for information, failure means that they have to cut a deal with the unfriendly librarian, perhaps. If they fail the climbing test, they get to the top, but lose precious supplies. If they fail their Streetwise check, their rumor-gathering has drawn the wrong sort of attention, even if it gets them information.

But why stop at improving failure? Every roll should be a memorable success/failure situation. Remember those "save or suck" spells I mentioned earlier? In 3.5, those were magic attacks which didn't have an attack roll. Instead, the target made a roll to avoid their effect. On a failure, they took the brunt of it. On a success, nothing happened. The extreme excitement of this is no more readily demonstrated than by this comic. Thrilling, huh? What if a success did more than preventing the bad effect? What if it introduced a complication on the spellcaster's side, or some sort of reserve of new energy for the attempted victim of the spell? That would be cool.

Two Outcomes
What this most readily demonstrates is that for any die roll to be interesting, you need to have two interesting possibilities: one is what the player wants, and one is what somebody else wants, usually an opposing character or group, but you could just as easily think of it in an abstract sense, that it's what "Fate" wants to happen, to make a character's life harder.

When you have a roll deciding between those two options, with no middleground, dice rolling suddenly acquires a certain gravity and drama. No longer is there any lukewarmness. Simply choosing to make the roll means that you risk something. There's no "safe ground" if you fail. You're gonna see something happen that you don't want to happen.

And having to deal with that reality, that risk, is what makes the mechanics of a game interesting, in my mind.

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