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Paradigm of success & failure

I just wrote up some text on Mythender’s success/failure paradigm on my draft. I had another great good playtest last Friday, and we got into a conversation about my take on “success” as an introduction to the game. I know I have problems explaining it, because I’m not sure where to start, so here’s my rough way of trying to. I, of course, welcome any feedback on the idea or the presentation.

Heroic Success and Heroic Failure

The key to understanding how Mythender works as a game is to understand the paradigm of success & failure, and how it differs from other role-playing games you may have played. (For those who are playing Mythender sa their first role-playing game, I am humbly honored. This section may not may that much sense to you, because I’m writing it to those who have a classic role-playing notion of “success” and “failure,” including my own alpha playtest group.)

In a typical role-playing game, a character’s success is a signal of their impact on the world. When you are successful at hitting an evil wizard, that foe is harmed. When you are successful in climbing a cliff, you have moved closer to your goal at the top. But when you fail at these things, nothing happens — failure is the status quo in role-playing games. You say where you are, your foe is no more harmed, and overall the world is exactly at it was before you attempted your failed task. There’s nothing wrong with this in general, but in many games this sort of failure is distressingly common — and that commonality & lack of story movement is what makes failure frustrating and boring in many games. One of the goals of Mythender is to avoid this boring, frustrating element, and that is done by not allowing this sort of result to happen in the game.

It should be noted that there is a form of failure in many games that is interesting, and it goes by many names: “critical failure,” “fumble,” “catastrophic failure,” and many more. This failure is not just about denying a success, but making the situation worse for the character — a critical failure when attacking your foe could result in you losing your sword, for instance. These failures are relatively rare, and even though they are not beneficial to the character, they do keep the story moving and are generally not boring. When dealing with failure in mythic stories, it is these failures, and not the common, everyday failures described above, that stand out and are worth noting. That said, one cannot simply replace the boring, story-halting failures with these critical failures one-for-one — to make critical failures commonplace would rob them of their dramatic tension and ultimately lead to a frustrating game.

That’s where the paradigm shift in Mythender comes in. Instead of common failure being the status quo, success is. Heroes are assumed to be successful at the individual actions they attempt. Climbing a cliff, striking a foe or even talking to someone about giving you aid will all be successful. But, this raises an important question: “If success is assumed, what’s the point? Doesn’t that make success pointless? Doesn’t that make it boring?”

If you don’t add anything else in, the answer is a big, firm “yes.” But tales of myth, as well as wuxia stories and many other larger-than-life genres, do add in something else. They add dynamics to success that make it interesting, so that a given success doesn’t always feel the same as the one before it. Mythender handles this in a couple different ways:

Success builds up. Every little success — climbing that cliff or striking a foe — builds up a Heroes ability to achieve greatness and perform mythic feats. Successes generate Mythic Power, a currency that can be spent during the adventure’s climatic battle to push a Hero beyond his mortal limits. The one who fights through dangerous foes and faces the worst Mythic Norden has to offer is more prepared than the warrior who has faced no tests before going into that final battle. Within the final battle, success is used to generate massive effects, much like “critical successes” in other games — though, unlike in those games, these are bought with the Heroes’ successes rather than a fluke of random chance.

Success doesn’t mean “unscathed.” To say that a Hero is successful in climbing the unclimbable cliff doesn’t mean that our Hero did so without risk or loss. The Hero who reaches the top unscathed as successful as the one who reaches the top, but with injury, personal loss, or fatigue. There is something constantly at risk when dealing with the perils of Mythic Norden, and even though our heroes are assumed to succeed, they aren’t assumed to do so without struggle.

Success in battle doesn’t mean “do damage.” In other role-playing games, success in combat immediately results in damage — sometimes a devastating amount, but often times it is a small wounding, requiring a great many successes to bring down a tremendous beast. In Mythender, success doesn’t translate immediately into damage, but instead into posturing, flesh wounds, and other small effects whose purpose is only to build up your side’s ability to perform those devastating, critical hits that we see and read about in mythic tales. When you buy a damage effect with those earlier successes, you may very well cripple or end a life. (Players used to other games with heavy combat may have problems with this at first, as they narrate successful actions that should severely harm a foe even though their foe will feel no immediate effects.)

If this part still seems confusing, imagine a Errol Flynn-style climatic swashbuckling sword duel. Both opponents are constantly successful, with their thrusts, parries, ripostes, dodges, maneuverings, etc. It is only when one side spends the successes they’ve accumulated that a serious effect happens — disarming a foe, rearming yourself, kicking dust in the other’s eyes to blind him, causing him to halt in fear and, of course, grievously wounding him.

Greater success can be achieved, if great failure is put on the line. In Mythender, there is a concept called “Grandstanding,” which is where a Hero seeks to succeed and show off to such a degree that he abandons for a moment the notion of assumed success. The benefit for this is gaining Mythic Power even faster than normal, but at a chance of failure that only Heroes know — failure that cripples and denies them, failure that causes them to change their plans, failure that truly changes their world.

Failure is always invited by the Hero. The GM cannot force a character to Grandstand.

Both success and failure keep the story moving. Failure never simply causes the Heroes to be in the exact same situation they were in beforehand. At best, those who have succeeded help those who have failed, and at worst a Hero has failed so greatly that the story has been irrevocably altered. The one who fails to Grandstand striking down a foe — perhaps by taunting him with his words while performing various feints — could be rescued by a comrade who has succeeded in his own task, turning one man’s defeat and humiliation into another’s success, allowing the story to move on. But, the tale could turn worse for that Hero by truly embracing failure, by discovering that the sword use by his fiendish foe was coated in a rare poison, or by being captured by the brigands, forcing his comrades to journey after him. Regardless of what happens, the story has moved on, never resulting in a “oh, well, try again” feel to the game. This sort of failure is called Failing Big.

Even Failing Big is worthwhile. The Hero who allows himself to be rescued allows the story to move forward favorably for the group, at the cost of his own lack of success and lack of generating Mythic Power. Contrast that with Failing Big, where the story moves in a very different direction because the failure is catastrophic (such as in the example above). When Failing Big, a Hero is fueled by his devastating defeat even more than with a Grandstand success. More Mythic Power is generated when a player accepts his Hero suffering horribly at the hands of fate, far worse than he would if he simply failed.

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December 31, 2007 - Posted by | Mythender

13 Comments »

  1. looks pretty concise. I think even a non-roleplayer would be able to understand it. Any particular thing you’re looking for help with?

    Comment by jhimmelman | December 31, 2007 | Reply

  2. I realized last night, after being far, far too tired, that I forgot to add the bit about “Success in battle doesn’t mean ‘do damage.'” I just added those two paragraphs. I’m going to unpack that quite a bit more in the Battle chapter…once I can better articulate what’s in my head on the subject.

    To answer your question Jeff, I’m looking for people to shoot holes in my explanation. This is one of the two really hard pieces of this puzzle right now — the other being how to create an adventure & GM — and it’s critical to understanding the game, so I want to make sure I’m presenting the full idea correctly.

    Comment by Ryan Macklin | December 31, 2007 | Reply

  3. I did have one question. The text mentions that success can leave a Mythender fatigued or wounded. Is that a statement that reflects story elements or will the Mythender earn fatigue or wound points even in a success…

    Comment by commondialog | January 1, 2008 | Reply

  4. Here’s the quick version of the Challenge mechanics:
    1. GM tells you what the situation is (“There’s a cliff!”)
    2. You say what you risk in the situation (“I’ll put getting damaged on the line.”)
    3. Roll a d6 against your stat.
    4. Resolve — higher than your stat, and you lose what you risked. You still succeed at whatever the Challenge was, but with whatever consequence you put on the line.

    I need to write this up in full detail on the draft, those that’ll have to wait until next week.

    Comment by Ryan Macklin | January 1, 2008 | Reply

  5. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around this. I want myself to like it, but my trad gaming brain prefers old paradigms. I still struggle with conflict resolution mechanics versus task resolution mechanics (my hangup, I know, but I represent a part of the market that would dig this kind of game otherwise). If I’m playing a hero, I want to enjoy the blow-by-blow of a fight against a big monster. Now, in part of your explanation, you describe pulling off a big move. I got a Beast Hunters vibe off of it. But in the Challenge mechanics, you show a more overview/conflict resolving system. I’m hoping this was just a braod restatement, but that fights against big baddies still has limit breaks and finishing moves.

    Comment by orklord | January 2, 2008 | Reply

  6. Rich,

    That wasn’t an overly broad description, but this system isn’t how the epic blow-by-blow battles work. There’s another system called the Battle System that handles this. In fact, my goal is to make it a blow-by-blow system, and not a blow-whif-whif-blow-whif-etc. system.

    There are three systems in Mythender:
    Convincing — getting an NPC to go along with what you want
    Battle — epic “boss” & “mini-boss” battles
    Challenge — challenges on the way to those big battles

    Comment by Ryan Macklin | January 2, 2008 | Reply

  7. Oh… neat.
    So, a Dynasty Warriors-style hacking through a horde of enemy henchmen would be a challenge system, then meeting Sword Saint in a final confrontation would be a battle system, and then if you try to talk Sword Saint into joining you instead of fighting you would be a convincing system, right?

    Comment by orklord | January 3, 2008 | Reply

  8. Ryan, as a piece of text I think this is ok. I think you can say everything you’re talking about here in a more concise way that still gets across the jist of what you’re saying.

    Comment by robertbohl | January 3, 2008 | Reply

  9. Robert,

    Definitely. This is just the zeroth draft. “More concise” comes later, after “getting it out in the first place.” Ryan Stoughton has actually asked a number of questions based on this, and I may make a follow-up text talking about the consequences of the paradigm. Do you have any ideas on how to make it more concise specifically?

    Rich,

    Yes…provided “talking the Sword Saint into joining with you” is an option. You can’t just talk anyone into anything you want with the Convincing system — it has to be something that the could be convinced of by the PCs.

    Comment by Ryan Macklin | January 3, 2008 | Reply

  10. Do you have any ideas on how to make it more concise specifically?

    Depends, what’s it going to be used in? Is it introductory text to a chapter or something?

    Comment by robertbohl | January 3, 2008 | Reply

  11. I don’t really know, yet. I think it’ll be part of an initial Overview chapter, but the book won’t take form until after I’ve finished my Zeroth Draft and seen the information I need to present in full, then outline my book based on that information and my alpha playtest feedback at that time.

    But, let’s say yes — I’m guess that by you saying “introductory text to a chapter” that you might have an idea along those lines. As it stands, I’m thinking about including more text at the beginning of the three system chapters that go into the paradigm in more detail with each of those systems.

    Comment by Ryan Macklin | January 3, 2008 | Reply

  12. In the introductory chapter, first of all I wouldn’t address what happens in other RPGs. I’d just say something like: in this game, success and failure have a few complications to them. You can build up little successes to deliver a big whallop, and successes can include little challenges such getting scratched up. If you’re willing to risk big failures, you can do so and get even more out of the conflict.

    Obviously you want to write it better than that, but I would concentrate on giving an overview, then getting specific when you describe how to use those rules in the game.

    Comment by robertbohl | January 3, 2008 | Reply

  13. The “other games” part is there because I tried writing the text without it, and wasn’t able to get out what I wanted. When I started with “in other games…” the way I do when I start verbally explaining the idea, it all started to flow. It’s very “zero draft,” like everything else in the text.

    Comment by Ryan Macklin | January 3, 2008 | Reply


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