Making Failures Drive Progression

Making failures fun isn’t a new thought, literature is full of tales of heroes failing before they get strong enough to overcome their nemesis. Quite a few games model this, usually by giving a spendable die roll to amp up rolls at the end of the game and overcome a big challenge. That’s cool, I like it but can that idea be tweaked a little more?

Often, the players are encouraged to use the added die rolls in the current game. This is probably to keep them from hoarding them and then busting through stories with improbable rolls. But what if we made the bonuses permanent? What if instead of added die, you gave the characters experience for failing a roll? Could the phrase “learn from your mistakes” be used to model RPG progression?

The main problem with this is that usually XP can only be spent in between games. I think this convention was implemented to prevent a character from suddenly becoming an expert at something they weren’t a moment ago and messing up a challenge the GM had in mind. It’s less of a problem for level and class systems than it is for point buy systems where a fighter could suddenly know how to perform surgery on a fallen comrade in the middle of a fight. Let’s cast that fear aside for now and say that XP actually has to be spent as it’s earned (within certain limits).

What if every time a character failed a roll, they got an XP (or several dependent on the system)? At first the characters would advance quickly. Slowly that progression would level off and as the players reached a peak, they’d stop progressing all together when they are proficient in their skills.

One way to game this system is to keep a skill or stat low and keep failing, using that stat to boost others. At first that sounded like a problem to me. In a way that actually sounds like it could be pretty hilarious. Imagine a player forcing their player to try using their dump stat all the time just so that they can progress. The way we play, Charisma is actually a very useful stat so most players amp it up. Beauty on the other hand is seldom used. So imagine a character purposefully trying to think of ways to use their beauty and failing at it miserably over and over.

Still that does start to break realism, so if that kind of silliness isn’t your thing, tweak it a little. A lot of games link usage to progression, so if you use a skill several times in a game you get better at it. Well, now just do the opposite. When a character fails, on that skill, that skill progresses. To fail at a skill you don’t have is pretty easy. You try to use it untrained. When you fail, you go up.

Why would this be a useful model? It does two things for progression. One it makes it harder and harder for the characters to progress. Now at a certain point, if you’re not failing, you don’t really need to progress do you? In a game not ready for this type of system that could happen but the right conflict resolution systems would be able to keep up. Two it might drive the players to seek more and more challenging tasks to advance.

Food for thought. It might be interesting to give this a try. Getting the right balance might be a challenge for an existing game but letting the system set the balance of the game is where I see the most potential for this.


Filed under Experimental Mechanics

2 Responses to Making Failures Drive Progression

  1. If you have not had the chance, check out Mouse Guard and its system for handling failure. I have never run a game of Mouse Guard, but the concept can easily be applied to any RPG.

    Personally, I’m not sure I would want to reward failure with xp. If anything the reward is the lesson learned, but that does not mean you can’t focus on making failure interesting.

    I think, in some ways, DMs unconsciously try and present what Mouse Guard articulates, but it’s always good to read about someone else’s take on the mater, just as I’ve enjoyed reading yours.

    • Loc

      Thanks burned, I’m going to be using a modified version of this in a game. It’s not the most realistic but the game isn’t intended to be completely realistic. I find the idea of rewarding a player for failures interesting because the player doesn’t feel completely bad when they fail. It also makes it easier for a poorly generated character to level out and advance where with a lot of games, they’d be stuck with an inferior character unable to achieve much.

      Unless there’s a really well balanced system to accommodate this I don’t know if it would give results, it just seems like it could really alter the psychology of a game in interesting ways.

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