Aug 17

Little Wizards & Making Failure Interesting


I enjoy reading RPGs in search of ideas or Rules Widgets that I can use in my game.


The latest of these games was Little Wizards. Inside I found some excellent advice about how to turn a failure in an RPG into something interesting for the story.


Little Wizards

Little Wizards is an RPG aimed at children. It was written by Antoine Bauza, and has recently been translated by Franck Florentin and Amanda Valentine. Players take on the role of a Mage or a Sorcerer, and adventure around double-sided Coinworld. As befits a game aimed at children, this is a rules-light game with a strong narrative feel.


Click here for a digital version of Little Wizards [Affiliate Link].



Failure Options

“Do. Or do not. There is no try.”


In most games, it seems that many rolls, such as skill checks, are binary issues. Thus, for example, the rogue either opens the locked chest, or does not. If the next stage of the quest depends upon the contents of the chest, then the game grinds to a halt until the Players can figure another way into the chest. Or the GM has to intervene directly and have the Heroes find the key that they need.


From a story viewpoint, success or failure in a game should be more of a sliding scale. This creates some nuanced results, and gives the GM many more options.


See my earlier post for one way of using a sliding scale of success or failure.


Little Wizards, has another take on how to make failures interesting. This is definitely the area that needs more attention, as it is too easy for a failed roll to bring the game to a screeching halt. The last thing that a GM needs is for every little failure to stop the game. Rather, the GM needs a way to make failures interesting, which is exactly what Little Wizards delivers.


Little Wizards achieve this by listing six ways that failures can be kept interesting.


1. Not that Way

You cannot climb the tree


Of all the options presented in Little Wizards, this is the least original. This is very much the standard, binary position. The proviso is made that if the action is critical to the plot, then this is not the option to use.


So if this is such a dull option, then why include it in the list? Often a straight “no” from the GM can lead the Players to raise their game and find a more creative way to solve the problem facing them. When combined with the other options on this list, the simple “no” acts a useful spur to Player creativity.


2. Obstacle

As you start to climb the tree, you realise that the branches are actually too flimsy to bear your weight


Now Little Wizards starts to get original, as this option represents “No, and the task just got harder.” This means harder in the mechanical sense, with the GM now requiring a greater success to overcome the obstacle. Obviously the exact nature of this varies with the rules, but the bottom line is that the GM makes the task harder to achieve.


In HeroQuest 2 terms, this means a higher Resistance, while in the f20 games it equates to a higher DC. As a GM, you know how to achieve this effect in your game. This option specifically permits a second attempt at the task, only at the increased difficulty. Little Wizards also notes that should this second attempt fail, then revert to Option 1. There can be no endless attempts at the same task.


Looking at the story, many of these answers require some improv by the GM. For the Obstacle option, the focus of the improv is on explaining how a task has become inherently more difficult. In failing the task, the Hero has learned a little more about it and discovered a previously hidden facet of the task that makes it harder. A reinforced door, chain mail under the hobbit’s jacket, a fail-safe on the bomb, etc.



3. Complications

You climb the tree, but fail to avoiding knocking down a wasp’s nest on your way up.


This response is more of a plot-twist than a failure. It represents a failure to achieve something without making the overall situation any worse. The task is achieved, but at the cost of making later tasks more difficult. The Hero has climbed the tree, but those wasps will cause problems when the Hero climbs back down.


This success with complications approach makes this option a useful default answer when the attempted task is crucial for the Heroes to progress in the plot. It will create a moment of uncertainty at the table, as the Players will know they have failed a roll, only to have the GM overrule the dice and declare a costly success. It may thus be useful to have your description of the task highlight the area of failure.


Turning to the story, this option again requires some fast thinking by the GM. Alarms, guards, and wandering monsters all make useful complications for later in the story.



4. Setback

You climb the tree, but strain a muscle on your way up.


This option is very much a partner to the previous one. A Complication failure brought an external problem into the story, this option introduces a very personal one. Now the Hero is less capable of performing similar tasks in the future.


Typically, this would mean a minor injury that confers a lingering penalty to subsequent actions, but broken tools would also work in the same way. Unless it is covered in the rules, this option may require the GM to adjudicate on how long these penalties will remain. A Setback should last for as long as makes sense in the plot.


Unlike the previous options, the Setback is easier to improvise for the GM. If tools, or weapons, are used for the task, then it makes sense for them to be damaged. Otherwise, it is just a case of picking where the damage lies, and narrate accordingly. For social encounters, the GM could specify that the speaker’s reputation or honour have been damaged. Make the damage fit the task being attempted.


5. Tough Decision

Halfway up the tree, the branch you are sitting on breaks off. You are falling! You see that the broken branch is going to hit your companion at the base of the tree. Do you kick the falling branch away from your companion, or grab at another branch and save yourself?


Finally, Little Wizards then adds two interesting storytelling options. The first of these is the Tough Decision. Essentially, the GM makes the Player choose between two bad choices, and they need to be equally bad choices. In the case above, either the Hero tries to save themselves from falling out of the tree, or saves their companion from being hit by a falling branch.


This is such a clever tactic. First of all, it requires the Player to make a choice, which is what an RPG is all about. Secondly, it gives the Player a chance to reveal something about their character by the choice they make. Finally, this option can take the story to new places. A Player decision is going to have a direct and immediate impact on the plot. This is the heart of an RPG.


Story wise, this is a difficult option for the GM. It demands quick thinking, and for the GM to improvise not one outcome, but two. I love the way this option can take the story in new directions. However, it does put pressure on the GM to think fast. If you have story-minded Players, then it is possible to brainstorm this option to find a suitably difficult choice.



6. Another Player Narrates

You tell me!


If the Tough Decision option was the best for the story, then this final way to make failures interesting could be the most fun at the table. Simply turn to another Player and ask them what happens. The proviso is that the action is still a failure, although not as bad as a fumble. You are likely to be surprised at what the Players will throw at each other.


The big bonus from this option is that it brings another voice to the story. I find that I have default responses, a group of replies that I return to regularly. Using this option will bring some fresh ideas to the table.


Thus, this is the easiest story option for the GM, as another Player will be carrying that burden. In some cases the GM may have to amend or limit the narration to keep it suited to being a simple failure. Yet, this option also allows the GM to be surprised by what happens at the table, something I always enjoy.



Table of Options

So, with the six ways of making failure interesting outlined above, we need a way to bring them to the table. As there are six of them, the simplest way is to put them into a table. Simply roll on the table when a Player fails at a roll, and narrate accordingly.


1Not that way
5Tough Decision
6Another Player Narrates



These options for making failure interesting would have the most impact in a game using the traditional binary pass/fail mechanics. Systems with graded outcomes, such as HeroQuest, may have some of these elements built in. Yet, it is still fascinating to look at ways of making every outcome of a roll interesting.


I hope you have enjoyed these options from Little Wizards. Which one will have the most impact at your table? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


Happy Gaming


Something for the Weekend next week: August RPG Blog Carnival: Devious Dungeons

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