We Both Fail

This weekend I started a one-on-one Dirty World game with Robbie. Dirty World is a noir mystery/crime thriller game using an unusual variation of the One Roll Engine (ORE) created by Greg Stolze. I happen to like ORE quite a bit having played both Wild Talents and The Dreadful Secrets of Candlewick Manor previously.

The base mechanic is a die pool of d10s where you’re looking for matches. So you end up with sets like two fives or three sevens. When you’re rolling on your own, typically any set is a success. However, when you’re in an opposed roll situation the defender’s set dice are treated as Gobble Dice because they cancel out the aggressor’s dice if they are of greater value.  So three sevens will beat two fives but three twos wouldn’t.

The weird thing is that A Dirty World in particular and, if I’m recalling right, most ORE text talk as if opposed rolls are binary in outcome; like it’s assumed one side will have a winning set.  But that isn’t true. It’s possible for neither side to roll a set. I suspect that the intention is that this is just supposed to be treated as failure on the part of the aggressor as if the defender had scored a defensible set. But that has never felt right to me because in play there is at least some kind of intention behind the defender’s action and apparently that didn’t work either. So the way I read it there are three outcomes, not two.

  1. The aggressor wins.
  2. The defender wins.
  3. Neither party succeeds.

So, what does case three look like fictionally?  It reminds me of the Tie rule from My Life w/ Master or the “No Shot” rule from Spione. Here’s how this manifested in our game.

Robbie is playing Jeg Stripe, an up-and-coming film maker whose mentor has mysteriously disappeared. The game began with big-time movie producer Harry Sternwood giving Jeg a mediocre movie to make on the condition that he include an unknown, middle aged actress named Virginia Carville in the project. Sternwood tasked Jeg with giving Carville a tour of the studio and generally taking care of her needs.

Over drinks Virginia made advances at Jeg suggesting they go back to her place. Jeg had noticed that Virginia was wearing a wedding ring and decided to counter with the suggestion that they work on developing some of the scenes in the script. Perfect. So we both roll and the exact situation I had already been pondering happens: we both failed.

So here’s how I interpreted it. She doesn’t get him to go back to her place, but also she doesn’t acquiesce to go work on scenes. She just calls it a night and decides to go home alone. (Jeg did offer to give her a ride, but he didn’t go into her home after dropping her off). I think this outcome felt pretty good and pretty natural based on the die roll. But I still find it weird that the game text doesn’t acknowledge this state at all.

I’d be curious to hear about others’ experiences with systems that have a “we both fail” state in their opposed mechanics.


5 responses to “We Both Fail”

  1. This post definitely joins the family associated with Monday Lab: Whoops (https://adeptplay.com/2020/10/19/monday-lab-whoops/).

    In terms of my own game designs, it took me too long to start thinking about this. When I did, I concluded that most role-playing designs-or-play suffered from “nothing happens,” rather than benefited. Failed rolls in particular, but also for those systems with opposed rolls or equivalents in which mathematical ties were possible.

    So, as a starting point, I eventually took “something always happens” to be a good default … which led finally to the better question of when design/play benefits from a both-fail or no-shot feature.

    I don’t know if I’m successfully expressing myself. Let me try again … OK, in three steps. (1) Here’s what I came to question: that given a mathematical tie or null of some kind, one might feel forced to include such an outcome into one’s literal or pragmatic “table of results.” The math made me do it, one might say. (2) Whereas I thought instead, eventually, that no, the math doesn’t do that, as one might for example say “success means exceeding the opponent’s value” which negates the existence of a tie, or “ties go to the acting character / to the defender” or whatever, and that’s that.

    (3) Given #2 as the default, then eventually, finally (and as you spotted, playing My Life with Master), I got to thinking about distinctive effects at that point, something that’s real but not the same as “fail,” for No Shot in Spione. Whereas in Champions Now, although resolution has no ties, order of action does, and in this case I stayed in the default with the logic of #2 and closed each possibility with a fixed rule.

  2. Playing all that early RuneQuest brought forward something which is explicitly stated in their fighting example: that less-skilled opponents fight differently from skilled ones. It’s especially evident when both fail, i.e., Attack roll and Parry roll both fail.

    If someone reading this doesn’t know the combat system, Noah and I discuss it and the modern RuneQuest in Probabilities and RQG (https://adeptplay.com/2021/05/19/probabilities-and-rqg/). Attack and Parry do not interact as numbers, but their rolled outcomes interact as follows:
    Both successful: defender’s weapon is damaged
    Attack succeeds, Parry fails: defender is hurt (less armor)
    Attack fails, Parry succeeds: attacker’s weapon is damaged
    Both fail: null

    In the book’s example, two inexperienced characters are fighting and in the event of both failing in a given exchange, both look pretty stupid. Such stumble-bum fights are typically decided by whoever gets lucky with a good damage roll against a sensitive location. Whereas although it’s not mentioned in the book, play reveals a distinct difference for skilled opponents, in which (i) they both look good and (ii) weapon attrition becomes an important factor.

  3. I have been chewing on how I handle this outside of combat. I feel fairly practiced within combat. Ron’s example from Runequest is an excellent one, and also Sorcerer & Sword instructions on failed rolls too. I don’t have much to add in that regard.

    I can’t help but think double failed rolls and successful ties as the same thing, neither side gets what what they want or both participants get something neither wants.

    A classic example is from Burning Wheel Convention Demo (that teaches all the wrong lessons), The Sword. I can’t tell you how many times when running this – two characters launched themselves at the The Sword to grab it first and both wound up either grabbing the sword at the same time (a successful tie) or tangled up in each other’s way (double failure).

    Burning Wheel has one rule “Let It Ride” where the outcome of an action *sticks*, no-retrying until the situation changes, you’ve got to take another approach.

    This usually leads to an escalation; a race to grab the sword becomes a debate about tradition over monetary concerns or all the grave robbers turn on each other and it becomes a bloodbath.

    All these events were driven by player characters at odds with one other, so as a GM, all I did was provide the opportunity for the player’s to escalate the conflict.

    I’ve taken this idea into other games, it has become a habit: both sides fail, time to escalate the situation or provide the opportunity for it, at least.

  4. I’ve been reading Reign 2nd edition (another ORE game) because a buddy is planning to run it. As a data point, this later text opts to “clean up” the implied third option by putting the onus on the aggressor to succeed: if they fail, the defender’s roll is moot. The text only frames the defender’s desire as stopping what the aggressor is doing, not as something perhaps partially orthagonal to it.

    • To clarify, it’s pretty clear that’s Dirty World’s take as well. It’s kind of my emotional spin that that doesn’t quite feel right to me. It feels, to me, like “we both fail” is a third thing even though the game bundles it in with, the aggressor failed. Largely, because I feel like how well the defender did should factor into the description of WHY the aggressor failed.

      The defender was doing a thing. That’s WHY they were rolling dice. And that thing did not go well. They got lucky that the aggressor’s thing didn’t go well either. That SHOULD mean something and I think ORE gets a little hand-wavey/cop out by saying, “Oh it doesn’t matter because the aggressor failed.”

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