[Any RPG] Failed Skill Checks and adventure design (Building and blocking)

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Havard
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[Any RPG] Failed Skill Checks and adventure design (Building and blocking)

Post by Havard » Fri Jul 12, 2019 12:38 pm

Some of you are probably familiar with the concept of building and blocking in storytelling. Basically the idea is that if you ask the DM something and the answer is "No", that represents a block. The idea has been shot down and you need to think about something else. If the DM says "Yes", then you can continue, but perhaps even more interesting are answers like "Yes, and..." or "No, but..."

These answers allows the player to take something of what the DM says and continue the story from there. These "Build" answers are more interesting than "Block" answers like "no", and even though you will sometimes have to block an idea from a player, it is better to try to work with the players idea.

Recently I've been thinking about failed skill checks or ability checks:
  • Youve found a dead body, but your investigation check fails, so guess that's the end of that murder investigation.
  • You try to lift the bars, but fail. Sorry, that was the only way into this dungeon.
  • You chase after the Thief, but you fail your Dex. Sorry, the Thief got away.
In a way these are examples where a failed roll works as a Block. There is no way the adventure can continue. The players have to go back to their starting point or wait for something interesting to happen.

However, what we sometimes do is create a "No, but..." situation:
  • Your murder investigation check fails. This means you fail to notice the bloody tracks that would have allowed you to find the killer. However, you do find the strange knife used to kill the victim. The Blacksmith might know who would sell such an odd knife and who might buy one.
  • Your strength check fails and you cannot lift the bars. However, you notice a slight draft from a nearby wall. Is that a secret door leading to an alternate entrance?
  • You chase after the Thief, but he gets away. However, while running, the Thief's cloak rips and you see a symbol on the ripped piece. Could this be a clue to tracking down the Thief's Guild?
In the second group of examples, the skill/ability check fails, but the players are left with a clue to where they would go next. I think this sort of interpretations of failed skill checks can be used to avoid some frustrating results and keep the players hooked.

What do you think? Is this something you think about when designing adventures?

Can you think of other ideas for interesting results of a failed skill or ability check? I am looking for more ideas!


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Re: [Any RPG] Failed Skill Checks and adventure design (Building and blocking)

Post by Sturm » Fri Jul 12, 2019 3:05 pm

Probably a good DM should always have alternative ways for the PCs to get to something, to avoid blocks.
I suppose you could buy all that before in a well planned adventure, but personally most of the times in such cases I had to improvise, giving the PCs alternative ways I had not planned before.
Ideally you could build an adventure with an easy, direct path if the PCs succeed in all the fights/checks and other alternative, more convoluted and difficult paths if they fail something, to the point they may decide to give up. This would also be a legitimate ending in some cases, but probably Players have to be educated before starting to the possibility of failure and death, as many in my experience tend not to easily accept that.
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Re: [Any RPG] Failed Skill Checks and adventure design (Building and blocking)

Post by Havard » Fri Jul 12, 2019 5:34 pm

Sturm wrote:
Fri Jul 12, 2019 3:05 pm
Probably a good DM should always have alternative ways for the PCs to get to something, to avoid blocks.
I suppose you could buy all that before in a well planned adventure, but personally most of the times in such cases I had to improvise, giving the PCs alternative ways I had not planned before.
I agree. My games include a lot of improvisation. However, I think that just being aware of this can help. Also, perhaps setting up a few lists of examples can be something that can help improvise even in situations you haven't prepared for.

Ideally you could build an adventure with an easy, direct path if the PCs succeed in all the fights/checks and other alternative, more convoluted and difficult paths if they fail something, to the point they may decide to give up. This would also be a legitimate ending in some cases, but probably Players have to be educated before starting to the possibility of failure and death, as many in my experience tend not to easily accept that.
I've sometimes tried to set up city/intrigue or wilderness adventures using a flow chart similar to that of a dungeon map. Basically each "room" or scene should lead to at least two possible new "rooms".

Based on this type of logic I am trying to redefine what failure means. In many cases, failing could simply mean that the direct path to sucess is blocked, but still a more roundabout way to achieve your goal can be present. Often, finding alternate sollutions are left to the players, but I think it can be helpful to have ideas for such alternate paths and even simply offer them to the players so they don't feel stuck. Some paths may indeed be dead ends, but I think fewer dead ends will lead to the adventure feeling more dynamic.

PC death can be a form of failure of course. Other forms of failure can also exist, such as failing to rescue the princess before she is sacrificed. Failing to kill the necromancer before he summons Orcus. Failing to uncover the plot before the prince is assassinated. But even failing such major adventure goals doesnt mean the game has to end. As long as the PCs survive, failing at the major adventure goals can lead to new goals being defined by the PCs. If they failed to rescue the princess, revenge is an option etc.

My main interest here though is avoiding situations where the players feel lost and are no longer having fun. Sometimes that can be fixed by having the PCs be attacked or introduce a new element controlled by the DM, but I think the system above will allow the players to feel like they are in control and dont have to wait for the DM to come up with something new for them.



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Re: [Any RPG] Failed Skill Checks and adventure design (Building and blocking)

Post by shesheyan » Sat Jul 13, 2019 1:14 pm

This is called «failing forward» in more recent RPGs. These books suggest letting the players decide what the «but» is. The GM doesn't have to do all the job. You can always veto what a player says if he is clearly trying to abuse the creative freedom you are giving him. The other players will most likely agree with you.

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Re: [Any RPG] Failed Skill Checks and adventure design (Building and blocking)

Post by Dread Delgath » Sat Jul 13, 2019 5:08 pm

Something I learned about D&D in 1981: Never design a dungeon with only one entrance that the players could possibly fail to find on a find secret doors roll. :lol:

Your D&D session could be whittled down from 6+ hours of dungeon crawling fun to less than 10 minutes flat! :shock:
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Re: [Any RPG] Failed Skill Checks and adventure design (Building and blocking)

Post by RobJN » Sat Jul 13, 2019 7:46 pm

Failing forward, and giving the PCs some narrative leeway are a couple ways to ease the burden of DMing. Let's face it, the players' paranoia will always generate more (a lot of times better) ideas than you can possibly come up with yourself for just about anything (person, place, thing) you describe.

Better idea? Run with it!

No decent dungeon or mystery bottle-necks itself at any one point: a general rule of puzzle design: give the players at least three ways into or out of a given room/trap/puzzle. Doubtless, they'll come up with more solutions themselves, but having three "suggestions" on hand means your carefully thought out dungeon won't stall because of any single failed skill check.

It could be a question of diminishing returns, meaning that the players must take more steps to complete the initial task. That investigation plods along, and because the party is three clues behind, the mastermind has advanced his plot significantly.... Not finding the secret door to bypass the labyrinth means the PCs must navigate the maze.... which means more time in the dungeon, wich means more chances for wandering monsters, which eat up resources.....

The fighter might fail his roll to lift the portcullis blocking the treasure chamber. Does that mean he fails to lift it entirely? Or that he only lifts it a few inches (enough for the halfling to squeeze through)? Or that he lifts it.... but then has hold it up? Or spike/prop it open using his sword or shield? (Gosh, that portcullis was really heavy, and your sword is bent now...)

I ran one sequence of a dungeon, where one PC's successes and failures in the "control room" made for fewer/easier or more/more difficult encounters for the rest of the party trying to escape.... (No pressure!) :twisted:
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Re: [Any RPG] Failed Skill Checks and adventure design (Building and blocking)

Post by Havard » Sun Jul 14, 2019 8:44 pm

shesheyan wrote:
Sat Jul 13, 2019 1:14 pm
This is called «failing forward» in more recent RPGs. These books suggest letting the players decide what the «but» is. The GM doesn't have to do all the job. You can always veto what a player says if he is clearly trying to abuse the creative freedom you are giving him. The other players will most likely agree with you.
Nice! I wasn't familiar with the "Failing forward" term, but I like it!

I also like the idea of giving the players a chance to come up with ideas. A few player ideas may have to be shot down, but I think most players would enjoy contributing to the events unfolding like that. And like RobJN says, players can come up with really great ideas.

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