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How Many Shades of Gray?

gray [1]Resolution mechanics are a lot like grading scales. Some are simply pass-fail, some have a few levels like letter grades, and some are even more granular like percentages. In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the strengths and limitations of various levels of resolution. It won’t be an exhaustive, academic survey of every possibility. Rather, it will be a chance to think about success, failure, and what happens in between. If you ever decide to design your own system (or modify an existing one), you’ll definitely have to consider the question of granularity.

Call it the binary option. Either you succeed or you don’t. Many systems use a pass-fail system for attack rolls, skill checks, and saving throws. It’s simple, easy to teach to new players, and pretty direct for the GM to adjudicate. There’s little room for player complaint: either the dice cooperated or they didn’t. It’s also traditional and familiar, which is great for folks who are returning to the hobby.

However, it does have some limitations. The consequences of failure can often be quite harsh. A failed saving throw versus poison can end an adventuring career real fast. (This may be a feature or a bug depending on your preferred play style). Even if a bad roll isn’t deadly, it may still slow the game down. For example, suppose a party needs information from a town guard in order to continue the adventure. A failed negotiation roll means they get nothing. Now, a clever GM will work around this, but the rules as written don’t provide the wiggle room.

A number of games use some combination of three resolution levels. The example that we’ll consider uses Failure, Partial Success, and Success. There are others that shift the titles around including critical success (or critical failure, yikes!), but we’ll limit ourselves to this one. Let’s look at our previous examples again.

Suppose you almost make your saving throw versus poison. If you are in the Partial Success range, you don’t have to die. Maybe you take damage or another penalty. This keeps you in the game, and even adds a little realism. Not everything is black and white, not everyone dies even from venomous snake bites.

Now let’s talk to that guard again. If you can get a Partial Success, maybe they give you at least some useful information. Then you can move on from there, even if you didn’t get everything you wanted. A three tier system adds a bit more variety to each roll.

If you’d like to try a three-tier system, you probably don’t even have to switch games. Just consider awarding a partial success if the players roll with about 25% of the needed number. (Use more or less than 25% to taste). Suppose they need a 15 to succeed when rolling a d20. If they roll in the 10-14 range, then they have a partial success. In combat, you might decide that a partial success is at least a nick and does 1 or 2 points of damage. Hey, that might even take out a kobold.

A three-tier system does have some baggage. It introduces more complexity into every roll. GM’s will need to consider the results of partial success rolls during prep and will have to be able to adjudicate on the fly. GM’s will want to take some notes about how they ruled on common partial success situations to ensure consistency. A three tier system may also be more confusing for new players.

Some systems are even more granular, including four or more levels of resolution. The first Prime Directive game had Complete Success, Moderate Success, Minimal Success, Failure, and Botch (whew!). This can add even more tension and realism to each dice roll. In combat, each level of success can be linked to the damage dealt. This may even eliminate the need for a separate damage roll. Also, you won’t have the frustration of rolling a 1 for damage after hitting with a natural 20. We’ve all been there.

Obviously these levels add more complexity for both the player and the GM. More possibilities must be considered during prep and play. Such a system will be more difficult to introduce to new players. Also, if you are designing your own system (or tinkering with an existing system), you’ll need to consider the issue of diminishing returns. For example, are you really getting that much more out of having both Moderate Success and Minimal Success? There’s no one right answer for all GM’s, but just consider whether you are making your life harder or easier down the road.

The purpose of this article isn’t to sell you on any one option. If you are happy with the levels or resolution in your current game, play on! However, it’s always worth the effort to see what else is out there, to see if there is anything you’d like to port over. Also, you can always file the thoughts away for when you finally write that system of your dreams. I’m no different than you: I have my heartbreaker all set to go.

How about you? What level of granularity do you prefer? What other considerations can you add to this article? Let us know below.

12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "How Many Shades of Gray?"

#1 Comment By Tiorn On November 3, 2015 @ 4:31 am

The last game I ran (Pathfinder Beginner Box rules), I used the three tier approach: success, success with complications (of my choice), or failure.

For the most part, the players rolled well whenever I called on them to roll any such check.

There were a couple of times when I offered a player making a ‘failing’ roll the option of ‘success with complications’ though. I was surprised that the player didn’t even blink and decided to just ‘fail’ at the attempt. He thought I was the demonic DM or something, and was convinced that I would just screw his character over big time. haha He can’t say I didn’t give him the option though!

#2 Comment By John Fredericks On November 3, 2015 @ 4:15 pm

Thanks for the comments Tiorn. Interesting story about how they rather fail than succeed with complications. Good stuff.

#3 Comment By Tiorn On November 3, 2015 @ 6:14 pm

Well, he was right. I was going to screw over his character. LOL! BUT… I had no intention of it being a game changer or even an end to his character. My intent was more of a butterfly effect scenario… in which his not-so-accurate action caused a side effect. As an example, if he was looking for uncommon gear for a specific task, he’d find the gear. But the complication would be the condition of the gear: it could work exactly how he hoped it would -or- there might be 50% chance of failure while using it. I can’t remember the exact scenario and what the player was looking to accomplish/find, but it does seem right that he was looking for some kind of specialized gear, in a small community that just didn’t have the resources to have something like that in stock.

#4 Comment By JiaoshouX On November 3, 2015 @ 5:48 pm

You should also consider whether or not a system ‘prescribes’ the resolution. For example, in Rapture:The End of Days (Storyweaver Games) the is potentially an infinite range of outcomes because of the way successful dice are directed – sometimes even back at the player as ‘splash damage’! But the point is that this breadth of different results are all under the control of a strict rules mechanic. I like the multiple-shades-of-gray mechanics (but then again I also like everything from Polaris, to Monsterhearts, to Savage Worlds!)

#5 Comment By Scott Martin On November 3, 2015 @ 6:03 pm

One of the more popular systems these days, Apocalypse World, embraces 3 tiers. On 2d6(+mod), 6 or less = failure, 7-9 = partial success [usually], 10+ greater success. After advancement, you might unlock a 12+ epic success, but that seems to be uncommon both as an advancement pick and result (since +3 is the highest modifier).

I think you’re on to something with your aside under “Four or More”. A two stage roll [roll to hit, roll damage] can be a simplified 4+ outcome roll distilled down into a few binary choices that chain together.

Try to hit with a sword (attack + damage dice rolled together) can result in “Miss”, “Minor Hit”, or “Smashing hit” depending on the damage die to establish how heavy a hit you landed.

Tiorn: I love success with consequences!

#6 Comment By Tiorn On November 3, 2015 @ 6:21 pm

I think I picked up the ‘success with complications/consequences’ option from Chatty DM. I’m not sure what source he might have pulled that from though. I like using it better than just the old ‘pass/fail’ possibilities anyhow. But I do prefer to keep things as simple as possible, so I wouldn’t want to add even more shades of grey.

#7 Comment By John Fredericks On November 4, 2015 @ 4:05 am

Thanks to everyone for the replies. They have given me more food for thought (and if I get desperate, material for a follow-up column!)

#8 Comment By Airk On November 5, 2015 @ 9:57 am

I think simply reducing Apocalypse World systems to a “three tier” resolution mechanic is missing the point of why that system works though. Namely, that the “failure” option isn’t necessarily the same as “failure” in D&D; It just gives the GM an option to make something happen. This, as much as the presence of “Success with consequences” is what makes this system work the way it does.

#9 Comment By Philmagpie On November 4, 2015 @ 5:50 am

Hi John,

My beloved HeroQuest 2 definitely falls into the “four or more” camp. In descending order, the possible outcomes in HQ2 are:
Complete Victory
Major Victory
Minor Victory
Marginal Victory
Marginal Defeat
Minor Defeat
Major Defeat
Complete Defeat

Fortunately, the rules are very clear about the impact of each level. For a narrative game, the description makes it seem very granular. However, we have found these graded narrative outcomes very helpful in branching the story.

All the best


#10 Comment By Roxysteve On November 6, 2015 @ 11:14 am

In my Call of Cthulhu games I recognized six levels of “oomph” in tests:

5% of the required roll – Unbelievably great success (critical success). All sorts of good things happen in a very short time.

20% of the required roll – Very great success (Impale Success). Many good things happen.

Success – what it says on the box

Fail – see “Success”

20% of required fail roll – very bad fail (Impale fail)

5% of required fail roll – catastrophe.

So for someone who had a 55% skill level (about what people could be expected to wield) the rolls would be:

Critical Success – 01-02 Sneak up to cultist and pick pocket
Impale Success – 03-11 Sneak up to cultist unheard
Success – 12-55 Sneak up to nearby shadows
Fail – 56-89 Squeaky shoes alert cultist
Impale Fail – 90-98 Coughing fit alerts cultist
Catastrophe – 99-00 Dropped loaded and cocked shotgun fires and alerts cultist to newly disarmed (and temporarily slightly deaf) investigator.

BRP also rules that rolls of 96+ are automatic failures whatever the skill level being used.

#11 Comment By TBeholder On November 15, 2015 @ 9:00 am

> For example, are you really getting that much more out of having both Moderate Success and Minimal Success?

That’s the easiest: don’t split hair, use a number. Like Dark Heresy et al.

#12 Comment By Philmagpie On November 16, 2015 @ 7:58 am

Hi TBeholder,

Yes, I am certainly getting some value out of the distinction between a Marginal and a Minor Victory in HeroQuest 2.

On the one hand, the rules do assign different numerical outcomes to the two categories. A Marginal Victory inflicts one Resolution Point onto the loser, while Minor deals out 2RP. Take 5RP, and a contestant is out of an Extended Contest.

In a Simple Contest, a Marginal Victory can be interpreted narratively as a “Yes, but . . .” outcome, while the Minor Victory is a straight “Yes”.

Does that help at all?

Happy Gaming