Creating Complications

Posted on Wed Jan 25 2017

Many modern RPGs give you a triad of outcomes when you roll dice: Pass, Fail, and Complicate.

Pass is pretty simple: "the PC gets what the player wanted." Fail is sometimes equally simple: "they don't". Complicate, and more recent incarnations of Fail, give you something else: hard bargains, extra costs, or unexpected outcomes.

Where do Complications come from?

The Action

Apocalypse World and derived games often bake soft failures into their move text. For example, here's the Tricks of the Trade move, from the Thief playbook in Dungeon World:

When you pick locks or pockets or disable traps, roll+DEX. On a 10+, you do it, no problem. On a 7–9, you still do it, but the GM will offer you two options between suspicion, danger, or cost.

There's still work for the GM, but the skeleton is there. Because of the move (you're stealing something somebody would prefer stay safe), the source of the risk is usually obvious. The GM just needs to decide the specifics.

The equivalent skill in Pathfinder, Sleight of Hand, has one failure type: "you're spotted". Some uses of Sleight of Hand let you do the action anyway, you're just not stealthy while doing it.

Traditional games often include critical failure tables, fumble charts, or similar random lists. If you blow it, roll some dice and find out just what happens. These tables usually operate at a high level, like "all combat" or "spellcasting", rather than being specific to an action. For example, GURPS players who roll a 17 or 18 on any attack critically fail. They roll 3d6 again to determine how you specifically fail. This outcome might be "dropped weapon", "lose your balance", or similar outcomes.

On the flip side, such games also include critical success tables, rewarding a lucky die roll with bonus damage or more interesting results.

The Character

Another option is to tie complications not to the action, but the character. Fate Compels, Hero or GURPS Disadvantages, and similar mechanisms make a character element the focus of failure. The player implicitly suggests these ahead of time by designing their character. For example, a Fate GM might offer a Greedy player a Compel: "instead of sneaking by the statue, you decide to pry one of the jewels from its eyes, activating a pit trap beneath your feet in the process."

The Scene

The GM, sometimes the player, and occasionally other players, can suggest outcomes based on what's actually going on in the story.

Since each scene is different, consequences will be different as well. You swing a sword in any number of battles, but fighting a dragon vs. fighting a slime can yield very different risks.

Coming up with scene-specific complications can introduce creative fatigue or delay while the GM thinks up something suitable. On the other hand, the result will be more appropriate to what's going on. It only takes a moment to roll percentile dice on a fumble chart, but the result may not make sense or feel dramatically suitable for the moment.

Complications as Conjunctions

You could think of Complications as a phrase in English. In each of these examples, a conjunction combines a goal with a catch.

  • Alice decapitates the Orc AND another Orc next to it.
  • Bob rescues Dave from the falling portcullis BUT loses his weapon in the process.
  • Carol can cast her spell OR avoid getting struck by an arrow.
  • Dave wanted to pilfer the jewels, INSTEAD he falls into a trap.

"And" is the critical-success scenario, or the case where something unexpected happens. You get your goal, and the catch happens to be good for you. "But" is success at cost or the soft MC move. You get your goal, along with a neutral or negative catch, and hope the former was worth the latter. "Or" is similar to "But". It often introduces an alternative goal as the catch. With "Instead", the goal is no longer on the table. The catch takes effect instead of the goal. This is a failure rather than a complication, but it's useful to mention here.

When the player is given a choice, "Or" is a choice between alternatives, while "But" is an  all-or-nothing decision. Often it's more interesting for the player to choose, because their choice reflects their character's identity and purpose. A price paid willingly, rather than a punishment inflicted by the GM, is often more interesting. At the same time, more mundane consequences should just be assigned for the sake of speed and tension.

A fifth conjunction, "If", ties the others together. IF I critically succeed, Goal AND Catch. IF I succeed, Goal. IF I roll a Complication, Goal BUT/OR Catch. IF I roll a Fail, Catch INSTEAD of Goal.

Putting it together

When introducing a complication or failure, decide whether the complication emanates from the Action, the Character, or the Scene. Also decide on the appropriate conjunction (nothing, And, But/OR, Instead).

For example, Alice is a brave warrior with a creed: "nobody dies on my watch". Orcs are overrunning the castle where she and her friends are staying. One Orc charges her friends, and Alice leaps into action, sword drawn! If her action doesn't succeed, the GM can look at what's going on. The Action suggests "dropped weapon" or similar combat-type complications. Perhaps the GM has a fumble table ready for combat. The Character suggests that Alice might take the blow for her friend, if she can't otherwise stop the Orc. The Scene includes things like "the Orcs want to invade", "the defenders want to secure the castle", "the castle is equipped with stone walls and towers", and so on. Perhaps Alice can fight a holding action while her friends run, but she's cut off by some defense coming into place, or hemmed in by other Orcs.

The GM can then offer complications like "you kill the Orc BUT are hit by another", or "you can kill the Orc OR close the portcullis to prevent others coming in".

In Fate, Aspects are a convenient tool for generating this sort of complication. Character and scene Aspects will be sources for complications. In this example, Alice's creed can be a character Aspect, while Fortified Castle and Invading Orc Barbarians are on the scene.

Conclusion

Complications can make a game interesting, but might also slow it down if the group needs to stop and think of some unique twist on an action. To make this process easier, do any or all of the following:

  • Have pre-written complications ready in the form of a table, complications tied to actions, and so forth.
  • Keep a short list of character traits and scene details handy, and select from that list rather than starting blank.
  • Frame your complication as a conjunction.
  • Offer a choice to the player when that choice is a source of fresh drama.

If you have suggestions or critique, please leave a comment!