I’ve been giving failure a lot of thought.
As depressing as that sounds, I’m talking game mechanics. I come from the school of thought that player failures are an important part of adventures, especially in relation to dice rolls. The chance of failing in combat is what gives the game an edge and forces the players to decide to engage, avoid, or flee. Failures in diplomacy rolls can lead to new plot twists and challenges that will follow the party throughout a campaign. Overall failure to stop an evil plot can change the course of entire campaigns, or begin all new ones.
In a recent episode of the excellent podcast Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff, Robin Laws talks about removing failure as an option for research rolls. Laws is usually of the mindset that failure is an important and positive element in games, but not for the aspect of investigations. In other situations failures mean something happens that changes the way the adventure will proceed, but failure in research rolls, such as the Library Use skill in Call of Cthulhu, is a null result. No plot twists are created, no new challenges arise, it’s just a road block that stalls the game. Worse, it might mean failure for the mission, not to a dramatic hail of bullets or blasphemous Elder God, but at the hands of a card catalog.
For that reason his Gumshoe game system doesn’t have a Library Use skill. A player is expected to describe how the investigator is going to look for information; for example, “I will go into the library and look for books on alchemy. Then I’ll read through them keeping an eye out for anything regarding the Elixir of Mercury.” If that information is there, then the character will find it. No roll is necessary, the player is rewarded for good planning, and the game continues. If the player doesn’t get the information, it’s because it isn’t there and not because they failed a roll.
This is a concept that I agree with… to a point.
I love the idea of encouraging the players to be descriptive about how they are searching for information. For similar reasons in my Lamentations of the Flame Princess game I give a bonus to searching for secret doors if the players give details. “I search the room for secret doors,” gives then the standard chance but, “I check the north wall, especially the area around the book case,” will give them a +1 bonus. This also adds to the atmosphere of the game and makes the characters more a part of the setting.
As to not requiring any roll on investigations, it depends on the game concept.
If the game is one that isn’t focused on research, then this is a fine way to handle things. Dungeons & Dragons is a good example. I would use the descriptive no-roll solution for a party trying to search an archivist’s library for historical information, or to find the lineage of the would-be heir to the throne. Dungeons & Dragons has no research mechanic and isn’t an investigation based game, so I’d rather keep things moving and rely on the players’ creativity over cludging some kind of Wisdom or Intelligence based skill check.
Another case where I’d use this solution is when the characters are assumed to be investigators by nature. In a game where everyone is playing a private eye then it’s reasonable to go with the no-roll descriptive option.
I don’t agree with this method in games where investigation is a major component, but where not all the characters are assumed to be investigators. Call of Cthulhu is an excellent example of this kind of game. In this setting I want a mechanic that allows the scholar-type character to shine. I want the professor to be able to accomplish things that the marksman and the thief can’t, but by the same token I want the professor to face a risk of failure within their specialty.
Another benefit of the skill based research roll is that it allows for jack-of-all-trades characters, like the private eye who’s good with a gun or in a library, but not to the level of the soldier or the scientist.
For these reasons I value the possibility of failure in research rolls, within the scope of investigation games like Call of Cthulhu. However this doesn’t remove the concerns Robin Laws brought up about the impact failed research rolls have on this kind of game. In part two I’ll give my thoughts on how to better handle these situations to keep the game interesting but still have a price to be paid for failure.