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Failed rolls for plot in action - not so easy

This photo shows the character Laura Wolf, as played by Ava Layevska, in the Mexican TV series Yankee. I was a couple episodes in when she just seemed so familiar to me, and then a bit later, I said, “Ah ha, not because of some other TV or movie character, but because that is Shining Star!”

The embedded video is the playlist for episodes 8 and 9, which are all about our heroes finding a ship, getting into it, and sailin’ away across the ocean, leaving behind the travails of Smith City and looking forward to new lives and (hopefully) less travail in Tourmaline.

Today, I want to talk about failed rolls, including the meaningful subset of utter pooch-screw, or as we more politely say, “fumbles,” or as it’s termed in this particular rules-set, Catastrophe.

So, here is the Action Result Table (ART) for the game, and before you skim along in the confidence that you know this, you’ve seen this before, you’ve seen it in a thousand games, please stop and look carefully. The term “Roll” applies to the row it’s in, not the column it’s on top of. That column is the number of the Ability being used, like a 9 in Strength or a 13 in Lie.

So let’s say I have that 13 in Lie, and I roll my d100 – it comes up 56. Go across the row from 13, and you’ll see I’ve just broken the threshold for a Good result.

If you’ve been following along, you will have spotted that we didn’t start sticking closely to these terms until the second or third session. Until then, we used the “in-between,” success/failure cutoff and the specific words prompted some color gab, not much more. But Rod pointed out that the rules are explicit about how they’re to be employed. We’ve been really interested in that mechanic and careful to look up and (try to) use the terms well.

Well, for context, there are two ways to end up with your verbal result. Summarizing them quickly:

Type 1 is “naked,” as described above – you roll, check your table based on your Ability number, and see what the resulting word is. I want to stress that the terms are stated extremely clearly with no grey zone between adjacent steps. I’ll use their fiction-based example for these:

Type 2 is “comparative” – you’re starting with a word (from the precisely same list) already, and you’re seeing how your result falls relative to it. As before, I don’t expect this to be any kind of revelation, but I do want to focus your experienced attention and for you to acknowledge it as a difference.

OK, that stated, we could talk a lot about how rolls turn into emergent plot, both as openers and closers of problems. Especially since the text is similarly explicit about “one roll,” meaning, you get the result and you gotta turn it into game events, you can’t just “try again.” (You may be familiar with this as Let It Ride from Burning Wheel.)

But that’s a really big topic, and as I said, I want to look at the bottom end. I’ve known for a very long time that “fumbles” are a primary qualitative adjuster moment for many game-master techniques for control of the events, and that they vary considerably from literally bad to moments of comedy to “oh whatever,” and lots of others – in other words, they are generally taken not as the obligation to describe a mandated result but as the signal to steer what happens.

This has particularly caught my attention in observing and experiencing games designated (by their authors) as Powered by the Apocalypse, for which a result of 6 or less on 2d6 is supposed to be pretty bad, at the very least, flat and utter failure, and often, wretched pooch-screw. Bluntly, it seems to be very hard for many GMs to do, and characters “bump along” from such rolls instead of coming a-cropper or ass-over-teakettle. But it’s not limited to just those games. I know very well the internal wrench one feels at such a result, and the extremely seductive knowledge that I have more power in this moment to modulate the result than usual – especially, not merely as a colorful description, but in terms of what happens next. Plot steering.

Let me distinguish between such steering and outcome-based plot effect.

  • In the former, the fumble sprays a bunch of fog over the available area of upcoming narration, so that I can say “stuff” in it that would otherwise be obviously quite non-causal, now-I-feel-like-it intrusion.
  • In the latter, the mandated effect is simply so extreme that we cannot help but consider it a “turn” or “shift” in the available space of upcoming options for any character.

Check out these two videos and look carefully at the many failed rolls, but especially the Catastrophes. Ross is really hard-pressed to stay in the latter zone, which he wants to do, and is often faced with the perceived trap between hosing the player as they richly deserve, in a fashion that genuinely changes the whole situation for them and others, vs. imposing intrusive, directive “plot author” talk that he knows would be, for lack of a better word, compromised. Without turning this into a criticism-session, I’m interested in your own experiences that match directly to any one of the Catastrophic moments here.

Actual Play