One of the great things about playing a large variety of games is both experiencing new mechanics, as well as noticing their absence in different games. Over the course of these Pandemic days, my games have been mostly of the traditional variety. I am currently playing three fairly traditional, though newer, games: Forbidden Lands, Dungeon Crawl Classics, and Numenera. Before that, I was deep into a number of indie games, especially Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) games. What I have come to realize over this last year of gaming, is just how much I miss the Success with Complication mechanic.

Success With Complications

Let me take a moment to unpack this mechanic. If we start with a binary success mechanic, such as we see in many RPGs, the outcome of a roll is one of two states: success (when we equal or roll over the target number) and failure (when we roll under the target number). That binary success mechanic is found in tons of games.

But there are more dimensions to success. Some games have a super or critical success, which is a success with something extra. This could be like the D&D critical hit or the Savage Worlds Raise.

We sometimes also see a super failure condition, which is a failure but with something worse added. The Fumble mechanic of Dungeon Crawl Classics has this, whereupon rolling a 1 for an attack, the attack fails, and the attacker has to roll on a table of fumbles to see what else happens to them.

There are also sometimes partial successes and failures, where the action either just barely succeeds or just barely fails. This could mean a partially successful attack does less damage than a regular attack, or a partially failed attack does no damage but assigns a temporary penalty to the target. I always find these tricky in terms of defining what partial looks like.

What I like better is Success with Complications. This means that the action was successful, but in doing so, something else occurs which complicates the situation, either in the short- or long-term. Success with a complication might be something like, you shoot your target but the bullet goes through them and strikes a control panel causing the room to fill with gas. The target is still shot, which was your original goal, but the room is now filling with gas, which is a short-term complication that will need to be dealt with. 

In terms of the spectrum of success and failure, the Success with Complications falls into the same place as a partial success; it is less than a success (without complications) and greater than a failure state.

My Favorite Success With Complications Mechanic

For me, my all-time favorite success with a complication mechanic is the PbtA 7-9 roll. If you are not familiar, most PbtA games have a structure like this:

To do something roll+stat. 

  • On a 10+ you do the thing, with no complications.
  • On a 7-9 you do the thing, but with complications.
  • On a 6- the GM will determine what happens.

The complications that come from a 7-9 are often in the form of some list that the player can select and then present to the GM.  

From my own game Hydro Hacker Operatives, here is the Come Across move:

Come Across
When you use the force of your personality to get what you want, describe your approach and roll + Self.
On a 10+: You get what you want with no strings attached, and the target has no ill feelings.
On a 7-9: You get what you want but the other person is (pick one):

  • Annoyed: You cannot Come Across with them again until you do something to apologize.
  • Demanding: They want something in return, right now.
  • Gossiping: Word will get out about this.
  • Stressful: Take Stressed to Mind or Self.
  • Strenuous: You Sweat.
  • Violent: They attack you.

On a 6-: The GM will tell you if you get what you want, and they will pick one from above.

This move is used when you use your social skills to convince someone to do something. So when the player rolls a 7-9 (which is the most probable result in the game), they convince the person to do something, but they have to tell the GM what the disposition of that person is after they agree to do it; thus complicating the situation. The GM then has to take that disposition and work it into the narrative. 

What I love about this mechanic, and why I keep playing PbtA games, is that the condition is shared by the player and the GM. The player selects the complication but the GM has to interpret what that means.

What I love about this mechanic, and why I keep playing PbtA games, is that the condition is shared by the player and the GM. The player selects the complication but the GM has to interpret what that means.

Why are Successes With Complications Fun? 

For me, these are the most interesting kinds of success for a few reasons. The first reason is that these successes drive the story forward into places you or your players may not have expected. Taking out a guard may be necessary and even fun, but now you have a room that is filling up with gas, and what are the players going to do now? Try to run out of the room? Try to vent the gas? 

Second, it keeps the GM on their mental game. In most systems, the GM is required to come up with the complication within the context of the current narrative. This requires the GM to exercise some creativity in an improv way. If the complication from shooting the guard is “Something dangerous is struck” then the GM needs to figure out what in the room is dangerous and how would that manifest itself in the narrative of the game. These creative activities can be very exciting for the GM. 

Third, complications can be very genre supporting. PbtA games tend to lean heavily into the genres they are set in, and the complications that are found in the 7-9 result also help to reinforce the genre which makes the game feel more like the genre that you are playing. 

The Downside to Success With Complications

To be fair, there are a few things about Success with Complications that you might not like or may have to live with if you have them in your game.

The main issue that arises is that games with these mechanics have a greater latency. By latency we mean the time it takes to return to the narrative after engaging the rules to determine an outcome of a situation. Binary systems are fast, make a roll, you either pass or fail. But with Success with a Complication, there is an additional mechanism to determine what the complication is. This makes the latency longer. 

This mechanism can also require some meta-thinking, that is thinking about the game outside of your character, and more like the person who is watching the character and deciding what will happen to them. This is especially true for PbtA games, where the player has to think of which complication they want for their character. If you are a player who enjoys a more immersive game, having to jump into the player mind-set to make decisions may not be enjoyable.

Hacking Success with Complications into a Game

If your game does not have Success with Complications, but you want to try it out, a simple way to do this is to allow the GM to replace a failure with a success with a complication. Sometimes a failure is a failure and every game should have failures, but occasionally changing a failure to success with a complication will allow the game to move forward, but create things that the player has to deal with.

As with all house rules and hacks, consult your players and get their buy-in. 

Finding Games With Success With Complications

There are plenty of games out there with Success with Complication mechanics. All Powered by the Apocalypse games have them, Fate, Genesys, Shadowrun, Over The Edge 3e, and Forged in the Dark Games have them as well. 

If you are looking at new games, jump to the task resolution system and see if the game has success with a complication. As a personal note, when I look at a new game, the first thing I do is to jump to the task resolution section to see how the game resolves tasks and what conditions do they use (i.e. is it binary, or does it have other success/failure conditions) and how they are determined. 

A Good Article But You Have To End It

Success with Complication is a fun mechanic for creating unexpected complications in your game. It can be creatively fun as well as support the genre you are playing. It can also slow your game down and break immersion.

Ultimately your feelings about this mechanic are your own; some people enjoy it and others do not. For me, after playing a year without it, I have found I miss it quite a bit, and am changing out one of my bi-weekly games to a PbtA game so that I can have that experience back in my gaming. 

Do you like success with complication mechanics? If so, which ones are your favorite? If not, what about them does not do it for you?