thread: 2017-06-07 : Failure in RPGs (by Paganini)

On 2017-06-10, Andrew Gronosky wrote:

Hi, I’m new here, so I hope you don’t mind if I chime in. :-)

I think the reason characters “whiff” in fiction is to create dramatic tension. Specifically, what was described to me in a writer’s seminar as dramatic reversal—changing who has the upper hand.

Basically, winning all the time or even being in control all the time is not fun. Human nature is to strive and being in control is the opposite of striving.

In the Elric story Paginini cited, I would say the narrative purpose of whiffing the Arioch-summoning “roll” is to say to the reader, Elric is not in control here. His best power didn’t work. He’s in real trouble. How is he going to get out of this? Similarly, in The Ra Expeditions, the ship’s spine breaking shows the crew is in real trouble.

In a good story, the reversal of fortune happens several times. Let me refer to Star Wars: A New Hope. It starts out with Princess Leia’s ship as she gets captured. Darth Vader has the upper hand. But wait! The two loyal droids escaped, and one of them had the Death Star plans! But wait! The droids are lost and helpless on a rugged alien planet and got captured by mysterious cloaked villains. But wait! Here’s the obvious hero, Luke Skywalker, buying the droids and agreeing to take them to Obi-Wan Kenobi! But wait! During the search for Obi-Wan, Luke gets his butt kicked by a Tusken raider! But wait! He gets rescued by kindly old Ben Kenobi! and so on…

There has to be that back-and-forth for the story to be any good. There’s more to a good story than characters overcoming challenges: they need setbacks, they need the sense their goals are imperiled. Sometimes—often!—they need to be forced to try Plan B.

Die rolls in RPGs aren’t a great surrogate for these kinds of narrative setbacks. A die roll is usually too limited in time and individually too small in importance. So I don’t really have an answer to “why does Elric whiff his roll?” other than to say, in non-interactive fiction, things are different, and the author did that to create tension and draw us into the story.

Can we use dice rolls, especially failed dice rolls, to draw the players more into the story? Hmm ... maybe. If it’s possible to rehabilitate the whiff, I’d try the approach of the whiff as a dramatic setback of some kind.


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