Describing the outcome of Heroes’ actions forms one of the major roles of the GM. Can the Hero hit the goblin, climb the wall or bargain with the merchant? For many games, this is a binary decision. To paraphrase, the Hero climbs the wall or does not climb the wall, there is no try. Yet, such tasks in real life are not always so black-and-white. Possible outcomes for a climb check include:
- Climb the wall very quickly
- Climb the wall steadily
- Climb the wall slowly and fatigued at the end
- Start to climb the wall, only to become stuck halfway up
- Climb a little, then give up
- Study the wall, and decide it is too smooth to climb
- Climb a little, then slip back down suffering bruises
- Climb a lot of the wall, only to fall off and suffer a serious injury
A good narrative set of rules should be able to produce a similar variety of outcomes in response to Player actions. HeroQuest has graded outcomes as part of the contest resolution system and this proves very helpful to me. Yet, it is too easy to forget to describe enough of a difference between the various grades of victory or defeat. This shortfall became even more apparent to me as I read through a copy of FU, the Freeform/Universal RPG. This little gem of a system is currently available, for free, at DriveThruRPG.
FU lists six possible outcomes for a contest in a way that can easily be applied to other rules systems. Under FU, the possible results, in descending order, are as follows:
- “Yes, and…” The best outcome, with a bonus additional result.
- “Yes…” The basic successful outcome of any task.
- “Yes, but…” A classic Marginal Victory, where the action is successful, but at a cost.
- “No, but..” The action fails, but it was close, and some new, beneficial detail comes to light.
- “No…” The action fails.
- “No, and…” The worst outcome, where the action fails and there is an ongoing penalty.
Here was a narrative structure to combine with the graded HeroQuest outcomes and provide a more nuanced set of narratives for the Players.
By adding “Yes, Totally” to the top of the list, and “No, Totally” to the bottom, I turned the six FU outcomes into the eight needed for HQ. I then added mechanics to the mix to increase the impact of the results. There is a ninth HQ outcome, the Tie, which is little more than a dramatic pause in the narrative.
These FU outcomes lead me towards a simple upgrade to the HQ rules. The narrative prompts help the GM present the results to the Players, yet it is possible to weave in a few more effects. Adding a layer of mechanical consequences to the narrative results helps to highlight the flow of the contest.
First of all, the two “Totally” results see the full five Resolution Points inflicted on the loser, so those outcomes needed no further tweaks. However, in a Group Extended Contest, it might be worth handing out a Lingering +3 Bonus to the victor, to reflect their momentum for having achieved a perfect result in the contest.
Likewise, the pair of “and” results see the Player Hero receive a Lingering effect, in addition to the RP assignment. So, a +3 Bonus for the “Yes, and”, or a -3 Penalty for the “No, and.” Morale, momentum, fatigue or injury can all be reflected here. Alternatively, the GM can impose narrative bonuses and penalties. Dropped swords, additional opponents, falling to the ground or similar changes in the situation would all apply here. For a Player Victory, then the opponent is affected, or vice-versa.
The simple “Yes” and “No” results represent Minor Victory or Defeat and do not need any changes. Finally, the Marginal outcomes, which are likely to be the most common, are the “but” results. A Marginal Victory for the Player, under this system, bestows a single RP at the cost of a -3 Lingering Penalty to the Hero. Meanwhile, a Marginal Defeat inflicts the single RP on the Hero, but the opponent takes the -3 Penalty. In a Simple Contest, this could be replaced by some minor change in the narrative that would permit a second attempt at the task, but against a Resistance one step lower.
This method produces a lot more Lingering Penalties, as these are generated through the course of an Extended Contest. Yet, I found my Players remove these relatively easily, so there is no long-term effect. However, what this method does give us is an element of attrition in a Contest. In turn, this leads to greater creativity on the part of the Players as they avoid grinding contests.
At the Table
I noted two main results when I introduced this expanded system. Firstly and foremost, the different levels of Victory and Defeat felt more distinct. These differences become more pronounced as we all became more familiar with this House Rule.
Secondly, the Players took a different attitude towards the Marginal Defeats. Now, there was a small benefit from a Marginal Defeat, so was not always “bumped” away. Likewise, a Marginal Victory is something of a two-edged sword.
The Updated series of posts are articles taken from my archives, given a fresh edit and generally rewritten in light of my current GM style. I doubt I can update every post on the blog, but I am pleased to give a least a few of my essays a new lease of life.
To save memory space, I plan to remove the old version and re-direct links to the updated essay. If you spot a broken link, then I would appreciate a quick email notifying me of the problem.
- The Updated version of this essay previously appeared several weeks ago at Ennead Games.
- The previous Updated essay was GMC Body Language
- The next Updated essay was Yes/No, but Little Wizards