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 through 10, 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 three sessions 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.

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2 responses to “Failed rolls for plot in action – not so easy”

  1. Rolls for understanding and behavior

    Legendary Lives is a "live wire" type system in terms of rolled results, not only for events such as Awesome and Catastrophic results, but also in terms of what you're actually rolling for, and how drastic that will be for how NPCs behave. Consider the rolled effects of Sincerity (when you want someone to believe the truth) and Lie (when you want them to believe a lie), and especially in the context of previous rolls which have set up profound misunderstandings or imperfect information. Given how things have bounced, an NPC who was not necessarily a "bad guy" might be prompted to act in exceptionally inappropriate, dangerous, unwanted, or even explicit ways.

    When you put that in the context of three men playing three female characters, having already established a rough-and-ready, tough-gal, semi-referential fantasy context, that can get you into real Sex & Sorcery, what is in-game, what is out-of-game territory. Let's break down a few of the intersecting concepts you'll see in the interaction between Grrl and Snaps:

    • All three heroines are, if not "bad girls," not played as hopeful little goodies either – they begin with "hard luck" and grade into relatively gritty or sometimes mildly-damaged territory.
    • The context cannot help but be implicitly sexualized, contributed to by the game's mandated Lifeline content, our plain awareness of real humanity, our collective age range (which is pretty old, made older by yours truly), our desire to play actual characters and not anime cutouts, and for better or worse, shaded by our collective men-ness.
    • None of us have pursued romantic interests during play, far from it, for different reasons. A lot of play has dealt with the fallout from romantic content in the Lifelines, most of which was tragic or otherwise problematic. Ross has presented a few NPCs as charismatic and at least potentially interested, but nothing has come of it so far. Some incidental dialogue has shown, however, that none of us is averse to such interactions at least in principle, but, you know, a time and place for everything.
    • Snaps, the wolfling in the situation during session 10, had been presented earlier as extremely handsome, manly, and hedonistic, as well as perhaps a bit self-congratulatory on his good fortune to travel with four, well, babes. We knew he was spying on us but also that he didn't seem to be taking it very seriously.

    Specifically, Snaps had received the wrong impression from Grrl in session 9 when she drugged his tea in their shared quarters, through a failed interaction roll on her part. He ended up drugged and snoozing, but just before conking out, he was under the impression that she was snuggling up to him romantically. Ross also stated that he was likely to be having extremely pleasant dreams while under the influence.

    Let's also clarify that this tied up in the whole context of the magic whistle Snaps was carrying around, to summon his boss Adolfo – the whole time he was asleep, Grrl blew that whistle as the narrated result of a Catastrophic roll to investigate what it was, and much mayhem has ensued because of it. Furthermore, unbeknownst to Grrl, Shining Star currently has the whistle. This breaks things down later, but not before the part I want to talk about.

    So here, in sneaking about the cabin along about the time Snaps should be waking up, Grrl fails a Stealth roll, then fails another interaction roll of some kind, and basically, given the very specific instructions per specific outcomes of rolls (see the post), Snaps wakes up with an armload of Grrl and might not even quite be aware that they hadn't been making out this whole time. It's unavoidable or un-adjustable, given the circumstances and the collective/intersecting effects of four or five rolls, that he would be bluntly amorous at this point.

    What to do? The low comedy of them actually entering into any such situation is flatly not what the four of us are doing with this game, i.e., playing our characters' sexuality for laughs. Nor does any roll dictate what Robbie is supposed to have Grrl do. But the roll system does not simply let us shrug and move on without effects – the situation has moved into actions rather than words.

    You can see all of us immediately slow down play and verbally situate ourselves relative to what's going on in the fiction, and if you know us through these videos by now, you can actually see Ross re-orient his understanding of the scene as it stands. You can also see me shift away from my mildly humorous audience-ship thus far.

    Watch how we play it carefully through there so that we maintain the effects of the rolls without depriving Robbie of full agency over Grrl's actions and words.

    As it happens, things do go much worse when Snaps, thankfully understanding that love is not in the air, decides to get his whistle out to summon Adolfo. He of course has no idea that this has already occurred and that Adolfo has killed two sailors, been pummeled mercilessly by Grrl and interrogated by Cristabelle and Shining Star, and has fled the ship, leaving no friends behind. And furthermore, there is also a potential misunderstanding at work – you can see it on my face when I realize that Robbie may not recall that, in play, Grrl had blown that whistle, or if he does, he is not sure that she realizes that's why Adolfo had shown up. Remember – this action was not stated by Robbie originally, but was Ross' (legitimate) narration of a Catastrophic roll result in the previous session.

    See what I mean by all the failed roll results, especially the Catastrophes and their more-open narrations? It's not a bad thing. But the live-wire effect is real and throws us into situations framed more by contingency than by what is ordinarily thought of as GMing.

  2. Session 11 added

    The playlist for sessions 8 through 11 forms a very distinct unit, pretty much "chapter 2" or I guess in modern publishing terms, "series 2." Here's the direct link to session 11 inside the playlist.

    At the end, it turns out that both Rod and Ross were considering a time-skip for the characters, as we've come to a good "and that's how that story ended" point. Ross suggested we all say what our characters would be up to in our new residence in Tourmaline, and each of us would make a roll that seemed most relevant to that, and he'd use the results to set up our new situation a few fictional months later. That seems like a great plan.

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