10 February 2021

Earthdawn 4E: Musings 03 - Failing Forward and Success with Cost

This is the third part of Musings part of an ongoing series about Earthdawn Fourth Edition. Introduction and Index.

Everything contained here is the work of a fan and not associated with FASA Games.

Failing sucks.

Whether in real life or in a game, it’s not fun to fail. However, without failure there isn't that sweet, sweet dopamine rush from success. Oftentimes, the harder the success, the better it feels when you arrive. The results from failing a single test in gaming can range from wasting your turn to failure to move the plot forward or character death.

Two similar, but distinctly different concepts in gaming arose to address these topics: failing forward and success with a cost. Because the gaming lexicon is hardly uniform and more of a cobbled-together jargon, there is almost certainly different terminology and definitions for these ideas. For the purpose of this post, I’m going to use that terminology and define them as follows:

Failing Forward: The failing result from an action benefits future attempts at that action.

Success with Cost: The action meets the minimum requirements for success, but there is a significant cost associated with this success.

The benefits from failing forward don’t necessarily have to be for the character who failed. They should ideally be for the same overall goal, preferably supporting the original tactic as closely as possible, but this may not always be practical. After all, there may be a good reason it failed the first time and not to try the same thing again.

Failing forward is best used in situations where time is of the essence. Combat is likely the most common example, but whenever turns are an important resource can apply, such as a chase or ending a ritual effect.

At the same time, always mitigating failure goes back to making success feel meaningless. Even if you don’t get everything you want, you cannot really fail. This makes all the victories a little anticlimactic and failure as a concept toothless. Like with most things, the right answer is somewhere in the middle.

The mechanics of Earthdawn can make failing forward challenging to include. However, they’re already present in my Pack mask and opponent groups found in Empty Thrones. Below are two knacks to strike a balance between failure and successes, where you technically succeeded, but may as well fail. Offering some concessions for that effective failure. These can also help with a bit more diversity for otherwise low damage options. There are some restrictions on them to keep them true to their intentions and not become wholesale replacements.

Baiting Strike [Special Maneuver]
Talent: Melee Weapons, Missile Weapons, Throwing Weapons, Unarmed Combat
Requirements: Rank 2
Restrictions: None
This knack can be purchased multiple times for each talent. It can only be used with attacks associated with the appropriate talent. For example, to use it with a t’skrang tail attack, the adept must purchase it for Unarmed Combat, even if they have a knack that allows them to use their Melee Weapons Step.

Baiting Strike (Adept): If the adept fails to inflict damage after armor reduction with a successful Attack test, the next Attack test against the same target and same Defense gains a +2 bonus per success spent on this special maneuver. The initial success and additional successes spent to increase damage can be spent on this special maneuver. This special maneuver is used after the Damage result is determined. The initial Attack test must be capable of inflicting damage—e.g. it cannot use the Attacking to Knockdown combat option—and cannot be used with entangling weapons.

Spell Package
Talent: Patterncraft
Requirements: Rank 2
Restrictions: None
Step: NA
Action: Free
Strain: 0
Skill Use: No
If the adept fails to inflict damage to all targets after armor reduction with a successful Spellcasting test, the adept can affect the targets with a Spellcasting knack they know (e.g. Fluster). The spell must be capable of inflicting damage and did not affect an area (e.g. Chilling Circle) nor inflict damage over a duration (e.g. Flame Flash).

The timing implications from these two knacks can seem at odds with how the fiction proceeds and actions resolve in Earthdawn and other traditional games, but the shift in perception is minor and still consistent with how actions are interpreted and resolved. In this case, instead of the Damage result narrating the injury inflicted, it turns out the character was never trying to injure the opponent, but set them up for a later attack or with a different effect hidden within the spell to impair the opponent. Looking strictly at the fiction generated at the table, this makes it more interesting and fluid; attacks set up allies, rather than just being strikes to injure, even if determined after the fact.

Success with cost is complementary to failing forward, but they shouldn’t both be applied to the same tests. While failing forward works best when each action is critical, success with cost works best when either time isn’t a factor at all, or when failure carries a disproportionate weight or provides a story block.

Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition introduced “taking 20” as a way to deal with tasks where the character can repeat them without consequence until they maximize their chances of success. At which point it becomes a binary yes/no. Either you can do the thing or you cannot. This doesn’t quite work in Earthdawn with the existence of bonus dice. Allowed functionally infinite time and no consequences for failure, they always succeed and it becomes an exercise in real world patience of rolling dice. An excellent example here is picking a lock.

In this case, limits on the number of attempts can be placed, but this may feel artificial and if characters fail through poor luck, the story may not be able to proceed. Failure in gathering required information is a common example of blocking the story. This is an entirely separate discussion from GM planning. This is a mitigation strategy.

The other instance I indicated is when failure carries disproportionate weight. These are typically things like a character’s fate resting on the result of a single test, which feels out of step with the shared narrative. When what should be a simple Great Leap test or an important Climbing test results in the character’s death, and quite possibly a body that cannot be retrieved. No last chance salve for you.

In all these instances, utilizing success with a cost is quite likely the best way to go. This may not feel right for some groups (including failing forward), particularly in the last example. In which case, you do you, but that’s not what this is about. Allow the character to pick the lock—particularly if it is important to the story—but provide teeth to the failure of their test. Someone else knows they picked the lock, or it cost them significant precious time (if it is important), or even a combination of factors. There have to be consequences to this failure or it’s not really a failure and why bother?

The failure to gather information: the group gets the information, but their enemies know what they’re looking for and have an ambush for them later. Perhaps they’re stymied later on, have to call in a favor, or owe one to someone they find very distasteful. The story proceeds, but they have to really hope they succeeded the first time. Allow the character to make the jump or climb, but they suffer serious injuries in the process. They’re not dead, but they require time and resources to get better.

Having a cost for failure, even while offering the success is paramount. The goal is to always keep the story moving and not have the players feel as though they can’t proceed, but there are real consequences for failing their tests.

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