D&D is largely a binary system: you either succeed at something or you don’t. There are no partial successes or glancing blows, and aside from critical hits and natural ones on Reflex saves there’s nothing in the system that rewards particularly low or high rolls more than the basic yes-or-no. Results like “if you beat the Swim DC by 10, you can move at double speed” started as house rules, then became optional rules, and only recently graduated to Core rules that players should use. Being good at something doesn’t actually make you better at it, it just makes you more likely to succeed the same way everyone else succeeds.
Okay, fine, Craft checks take the result into account. But work with me here.
There’s a neat trick I’ve picked up from story-based systems like Apocalypse World and Icons. These systems rank the success of a roll on a small scale. If a player barely succeeds at something, they get some middling result. If they do better, their character does better. Often this takes the form of a list of options, and higher successes give the player more choices from that list.
I think it works best with an example. Say your superhero is using his laser vision against an enemy. The DM says “roll for Laser”, a phrase that should come up at least once per game regardless of system or character. The player rolls a nine, or a thirty, or whatever is a moderate success today. The DM replies “You did well at Laser, but not great. You can hit the enemy to deal damage, hit his power suit to disable him a bit next round, or turn off your laser in time to avoid collateral damage. Pick two.”
This gives the player a choice far beyond “I use Laser”, and they can play it however they want. If they’re playing to the character and the character is a punch-pulling boy scout, they’ll forgo the damage. If the player wants the power suit for later, they may avoid damaging it. And the character is a Rob Liefeld-esque gritty 90s antihero, collateral damage is not only expected but encouraged. The player’s input isn’t done just because they declared an attack, and it opens room for tactical and narrative decision-making.
My current players may be reading this and saying “That is a neat idea, though I can’t help but notice that you haven’t given us an option like this for the entire campaign. What gives?” Well, I’ve tried this before. I put my players into a skill challenge and started through it this way, comparing their rolls to thresholds rather than straight DCs. The first time a player (we’ll call this player “Terry”) did anything but a raucous success, I relayed three options and told Terry to pick two.
Terry froze, completely. That is, I-dont-understand-the-question, did-I-hit-or-not, why-won’t-my-tongue-work froze. I would have gotten a better response if I’d based the skill challenge on a real-world game of lacrosse. It took some serious cajoling before I got a response at all, which occurred when the party was able to band together and mutually agree on the best set of options. Terry made no actual single-person decision. For the rest of the skill challenge the party didn’t pick any results without a committee consensus.
This is, as the alert reader might note, the exact opposite of how the mechanic should work. It’s intended as a tool for character exploration, tactical and strategic differentiation, and individual expression. Instead, every character acted in the way that the party as a whole thought they should act. The entire party had a say in the turn of every other party member, which not only slowed the skill challenge but removed each player’s ability to control their own turn. Enforcing group silence in later skill challenges did little; turns were faster but each player still considered things from a “what would the group want?” paradigm, and we had to remind Terry that asking the other players for advice was not feasible. We no longer had a series of distinct personalities with different combat styles, we had a group combat style from which deviation was quietly discouraged.
I would love to blame the players for this, in the same way I would love to blame my oven for burning dinner. In truth it’s more likely that the group’s style of play was not conducive to threshold-base successes. Some players like the finality of complete success or complete failure and just want the minutia as flavor text; to them, “you hit the orc for ten damage” and “the orc twists out of the way, preserving vital organs, but your blade still makes a nasty slice against his thigh” are both good because there’s no variance in what actually occurs. It’s not a fault, but a preference, and in a world of ambiguity I get its appeal. In addition, some groups work as a team no matter what else happens or what’s appropriate for the characters. That’s a great trait for a bunch of superheroes or a dedicated adventuring party. It’s not very good in the conflict-based, split-the-party-or-else world of story gaming.
I still think it’s something for which D&D has room, more in skill challenges than in combat. I’ve seen tables for glancing hits and broken weapons and strained muscles, and none of it looks fun. If I want something that simulationist, I’ll just go out and hit a guy. But I love letting players act more quickly or succeed beyond expectations when they blow their rolls out of the water, and very few players have given me a hard time with additional short-term penalties for especially botched rolls (hint: those players and I tend not to get along).
I haven’t quite internalized the “come up with three or four options real quick and present them to the players”, but I really want to get into it. I’m already picturing a skill challenge with multiple non-exclusive paths for success or failure, like stopping the magic ritual while also disarming the traps and cleaning up the house before Mom and Dad get home, where big successes address two or more goals while partial successes let you address one situation by making the other situations worse. I know at least one of my current players is reading this paragraph and salivating. And, just as Gygax said*, drool is the best metric for player interest.
That said, I do plan on introducing some of the “present X options / pick X minus Y” into combat. Last time I talked about actions that take multiple rounds, specifically mentioning channeled spells in 3.5E. They’re a prime candidate for this mechanic, which I’ll detail more next time.
* — I can’t actually back that up.
Edit: I still would have done this post if I’d known that Left Oblique had written something on the same topic just a week ago, I promise. Yet another in a long line of “two people in our circles happen to run the same idea in different games without even having spoken to each other about it” instances. I blame the hundredth monkey effect.