Saturday, September 21, 2013

System Shopped: Falling Forward

Falling Foward
System Shopped: Any
by Tobie Abad

My first encounter with "falling foward" was way back when I used to run this game called Marvel Super Heroes.  It was a fun classic role-playing game that made use of a bunch of color-coded tables to determine the success of your actions as well as the power level of the character's abilities or powers.  One of the interesting things about this game was that when you created characters, you were expected to ROLL randomly what power set you were to have, how you got them and the like.    Now, random character generation is a classic approach which Dungeons and Dragons introduced way back when three-six-sided dice were rolled to generate your stats.  But Marvel Super Heroes went far more than just numbers.  Where else would a game have you end up being a solar regenerating robot with digging powers who can animate drawings?  It was a game the insanity of your random rolls made you go, "Okay, how do I work with this?"

And that for me was the beginnings of falling forward.

I know for most, the concept of making failure something that still moves the story forward a landmark change of mindset which was introduced by Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel in Dungeon World.  For others, the idea was born from the Play Dirty ravings of John Wick who loved the drama and the narrative opportunities born from bad rolls as evident in his Houses of the Blooded game.   But for me, it all began way back with Marvel Super Heroes with its random character creation table.

The basic idea is to never make a bad roll to make the fun of the game come to a complete stop.

Here are some ideas on how to do that:

Quick note: Yes, these tips are not meant to be completely catch-all.  Some won't work for certain types of rolls, depending on the game.  Some might even not work for certain games.  Rather than lecture the reader on why this can or should or wouldn't work on specific games, I rather just offer ideas and let the reader judge for themselves which ones they'd want to try in their games.

1. Failed rolls don't fail the action, they just complicate the intention.

The warrior wanted to blind the minotaur by flinging the barrel at it?  The failed roll doesn't have it miss.  It hits, blinds the minotaur, which then tramples the others nearby.    The telepath attempts to read the mind of the suspect to discern if he is lying?  The failed roll doesn't have him read nothing.  He reads the mind and learns he is lying.  But also learns that the suspect is aware he's a telepath, and considered that in his plans.

2. Failed rolls don't halt the mystery, they instead throw a chance to explore something else.

The detective was inspecting the room and failed his roll to locate the signs that the murderer used a hook instead of a knife?  Then tell the player outright, "You end up following for the next three hours a false lead.  You mistook the markings on the bedside to be caused by a knife.  It wasn't a complete waste of time, however, since while you were focused on this..." and you then run another scene which adds to the narrative.  Maybe a side discussion from a fellow detective about how the city seems to be targeted by more and more dark acts? Or maybe while waiting for test results, the character's sister calls, worried about him.  Or maybe an old college shows up, and the two chat up about their lives.. and from that scene, you get to slip in a new detail worth considering.

Or maybe, just maybe, you don't have it clear that he failed, but as you go through the narrative, have an npc mutter, "Sir, I think you got things wrong.  That mark?  Its tapering at an angle, suggesting a different kind of edge.  That's a hook."  And the player knows he failed, but the story doesn't come to a stop.

3. Failed rolls delay the success.  But the delay may hinder the player from ever benefiting the success.

The science hero realizes the alternate earth Beefeaters are invading the world using portals that are opening all over the world.  He studies the portal device and determines a way to reverse the transmission.  The failed roll?  It doesn't shut the portal down, but instead has it key into one specific place instead:  where he is.  So now the Beefeaters emerge and force him to take a strategic retreat and hide in the woods and formulate a new plan.

Later, when he tries again to shut the device down, there might not even be a need for a second roll.  Genre-wise it would make sense to have him succeed this time.

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I'm a late bloomer, admittedly, and I only recently started to appreciate the Gumshoe system (specifically the Night's Black Agents approach to it) and while I do like the idea of having the player merely spend points rather than roll to find the clues they want, I know not everyone would be keen in having two different resolution systems (one via rolls and the other via spending points) in a single game.  

Not to mention, it still is kinda limited to Investigation related rolls.

So I do hope these tips help those who haven't gotten the idea of "falling forward" to try adding them to their games.  Remember, keep the tension and narrative moving forward.  Keep the story flowing.  Make failed rolls just as interesting as successful ones.
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