Three Axes of Outcomes

A swing-and-a-miss just doesn’t cut it anymore. Every roll in a tabletop RPG should be interesting. Our hobby now has more mature systems, like FF’s Genesys, that show us how a variety of possible outcomes, and a system for sub-goal effects, can make every character action propel the game forward.

Success or failure on the action roll is important: do the characters accomplish their goal? But even D&D has critical hits and misses, which, adds two additional, time-tested exciting outcomes. In Genesys, there are also minor advantages and minor threats, for a total of six. Even better, each result is only mutually exclusive with it’s counterpart (and not even true for criticals in Genesys!), giving us a satisfying variety of results: success with minor threat and failure with an advantage being the most interesting. This mix of results seems to be both the minimum required variety for keeping us entertained, but also the maximum amount of complexity we can still enjoy.

Systems like Powered-by-the-Apocalypse are successful examples of how failing forward can keep a game progressing while constantly introducing new challenges for the players to face. But some players quickly grow tired of the average 7-10 roll always being the result (generally over half the rolls in any given game!). A system can also be too loose and overcomplicate things by leaving too much up to interpretation, such as in FATE or Mistborn. In these systems, the possible outcomes are mentally taxing to wade through, and are often just hand-waved away when the players’ stamina drops. The ideal, it seems, is a system that gives us a focused set of possible results, but lets those results vary just enough to keep our imaginations hooked.

Systems like Numenera and Blades in the Dark have another unique perspective on these rolls: that of the future. In both systems, players occasionally get the choice to take bonuses or penalties on their current momentary action, that also have an unknown effect on the future. Being explicit about these rules is a fantastic tool for the GM, and draws a clear line between the characters in the world and the world of the future. This grounds the players in the game, reminding them that every action has consequences; it’s just a question of how much, and for how long.

For any given action roll, we want to know:

  1. Always: The degree of success or failure of the action.
  2. Sometimes: The degree of side effects on the current scene.
  3. Rarely: The degree of side effects on the future.

This formula is the key to keeping a system both simple and varied.