Different TTRPG systems try to mesh mechanics together to yield a satisfactory outcome. Some of those mechanics are character qualities, situational stakes, and randomizers such as dice. A lot has been said about success vs. failure, keeping failures interesting, and so on. What can we say about achieving your goals, even if the dice say you fail?
I want to recommend everyone read Cezar Capacle’s Twitter thread about reverse partial success, because it outlines a great system for “building” your way to success in an action.
I also want to talk about a scene from the Fate of the Furious movie, viewable here:
Our situation: Dom is defending a friend of a friend who’s been pressured by a local racing bigshot. Dom has said that the driver matters, not the car. The bigshot takes him at his word: “race your friend’s crappy-ass car against my hot rod”.
Dom accepts the challenge and uses his knowledge of car racing to soup up the shit-box as much as possible. During the race, his modifications prove effective, and he’s able to keep up with the bigshot - who responds by cheating. Ultimately, though, the car does matter just enough, because Dom’s modifications also cause the engine to catch fire.
In spite of everything, Dom crosses the finish line inches ahead of his rival, and wins the race. The friend’s car explodes spectacularly - the car he was trying to protect to begin with. The bigshot offers Dom his car, and his respect. Dom replies with “you can keep the car, the respect is enough”.
Dom is rich enough at this point to probably just buy the poor dude a better car than either of the ones in this race, but we don’t really delve into that. Instead, we can ask, if this were a TTRPG, did Dom succeed or fail at a check to win the race?
If we were reverse-engineering a set of TTRPG rules based on this scene, what would we include?
The first thing is the fact that Dom just doesn’t lose races. When he’s up against someone and a pink slip is on the line, he comes in first. Screenrant.com did a breakdown of the races from the franchise. Dom was winning one against Brian when his car got totalled, and it was strongly suggested that he let Brian win the million-dollar race in Fast Five.
Okay, so if Dom can’t lose, do we ever roll dice to see who wins when Dom gets behind the wheel? Sure - because what Dom wants out of a race isn’t always the same. Sometimes he wants to win a car, or test a car he’s got to see if it measures up. Sometimes it’s to defend someone’s honor, or put a rival in their place. So we can stack up these priorities, and roll dice to see how many of them Dom will achieve.
In the scene I linked, we know what Dom’s goals are, because he tells us. He wants to keep this guy safe from a local racing warlord, and he wants the guy’s respect. We could say he also wants his friend to have some kind of car following the race.
In our hypothetical system, we roll some dice, and we find that Dom has no success at all. Nothing in this race goes his way, from the ambush to the flameout. He even loses his car at the end - which is a very common stake for races in the franchise.
We could lean on the character trait we established earlier: “Dom never loses a race”. This trait might buy Dom one of his stakes. He chooses “respect”. Some negotiation happens, and the table agreees that he’ll come across the line but lose his car anyway. How? “What if the engine flames out?” Sure - sounds good. Dom didn’t succeed at the roll, so we’re not giving him a new car for winning the race - but how would that work? Dom manfully turns down the keys, but takes the respect.
Dom could spend another trait, like “accumulated wealth from illegal activities”, to make sure his friend has a car, but again, that feels like something that can happen offscreen.
We can rethink what we mean by “failure”. If failure just means “losing a stake”, rather than “incompetence or bad luck”, we’re free to write any kind of narratively satisfying outcome. Failure in this sense becomes far more palatable when multiple stakes exist and we get to pick and choose which stakes we lose on a bad roll. And - most importantly to me - needing to confront and explain a failure can lead us to a fun, interesting explanation for the stakes we did hold onto.