One idea that was floated at the Metatopia convention a week ago was the idea of failure. It came up in the context of a seminar on indie RPGs and their influence on mainstream RPGs. Normally I eschew the “indie RPG scene” because it tends to look down on the OSR (of which I count myself as a proud member), seems overly involved in self-referential navel-gazing, and is consumed with being new and edgy for the sake of being new and edgy. But I’m certainly not above acknowledging a potentially neat idea when I hear it.
The idea in question was in regards to failing rolls. When a thief has a 20% chance of picking a lock and blows it, or someone has to roll a 14 in order to use their Intimidate skill, or has to make an Intelligence check to do something. Someone on the panel mentioned that some “indie” games don’t allow for failure in such instances. The character always performs the task at hand. But if the player fails the roll, Something Bad happens story-wise. It’s almost like the player is paying karma back in order to succeed in the mechanical task.
This sort of concept has direct applicability in a game where The Story is paramount. When a character blowing a chance to find a secret door could potentially threaten the ability of the characters to continue with the plot, having such a mechanic in place makes a lot of sense.
Now, picture such a mechanic in an Old School context.
I can see reasons to include such a thing in an Old School type game, where there isn’t necessarily a plot that must be followed, so much as there are cool things that the players might otherwise not have the opportunity to discover. Think of it as “the game would be more interesting if he makes the roll.” While that runs counter to the ethic of “the dice rule”, I think it’s a perfectly legitimate attitude to take in some circumstances, inasmuch as it short-circuits the impulse to fudge a dice roll, because failure actually makes the game more interesting all around. I don’t see that as necessarily a bad thing (bearing in mind that “the dice rule” can also make the game more interesting, depending on the circumstance).
If the thief misses his pick locks roll, he still manages to open the door, but there’s an automatic wandering monster the next round.
If the bard misses his Charisma check, he still talks his way into the Duke’s daughter’s birthday ball, but one of the courtiers develops a crush on him, and clings to him for the entire evening, making whatever his actual mission is very difficult.
If the savant misses his Scholarship roll, he still knows where to find the book that has the nugget of information he’s seeking, but it’s in a private library under the care of someone he studied with as an apprentice, who hates his guts and will doubtless throw up all kinds of road blocks to accessing the book.
Etc. etc. etc.
I don’t think such a mechanic would work universally in an Old School game, because one of the tropes of our style of play is that you’re not a superman and often when you fail that means you need to use your imagination to think of an alternative. But, given the ethos of “fun is better than tedium”, I can see a GM employing such a mechanic in specific situations or at his whim, if it’s obvious that doing so will open up new opportunities for interesting interactions.
Given that criterion, I’d probably not want to open it up to the players’ choice (by earning “story points” or whatever the kids at RPG.net are pushing nowadays), precisely for the reason that they can’t know where the best opportunities for such exist in the game. But I do think it’s worth considering, and offers a neat mechanical alternative to simply fudging a roll; if you do fudge a roll, it becomes an opportunity to bring in more consternation for the PCs to have to manage.
And, as long as it increases the fun, I’m inclined to like it.