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Deciding what happens when players fail is probably one of the most challenging things to adjudicate in OSR+ because it depends on which of the core mechanics you employ, exercising GM fiat, and in the case of scene and success checks, improvisation.

Failure & Attribute Checks

The core rules suggest a failure table as a way to narrate what may have happened when a PC fails an unopposed attribute check:

  • Your tools failed you.
  • Your skill is simply insufficient to accomplish the task.
  • You lack some key knowledge to pull it off.
  • There was outside interference.
  • The target involved in your task got in the way/thwarted you.
  • The environment is the problem.
  • You lacked finesse or power (too fast, too slow, too clumsy, etc).
  • You ran out of time.
  • Your luck ran out.

These are just arbitrary examples. You can also ask the player why they failed and run with that.

With attribute checks, deciding what happens is a matter of rationalization in the fiction, since we already know the mechanical outcome is that the player doesn't get what they wanted (the attack misses, the NPC is not persuaded, the spell fails, you do not spot the creature that is stealthed and about to attack you). It's just a matter of figuring out why the player failed the check, and trying to avoid blaming their incompetence unless the fiction strongly points in that direction.

Considering Approaches vs. Risks

Alternatively, you can consult the GM Disadvantage table for guidance by determining the approach of their action, and then yield an outcome that reflects the risk posed by that approach. For example, if the PC was trying to create an elaborate disguise, that's a sneaky approach. The risk is obviously exposure. So a flat failure means the disguise is seen for what it is, and the PC is revealed.

Failure & Success Checks

Failure in success checks is where things get interesting. Technically, a success check yields success, so "failure" here means the degree to which that success is tainted by unforeseen circumstances.

On the success check table, we have five types of success that are possible, depending on how the player rolls:

GM Disadvantage

The PC did a bad job and the result is not what they intended. The GM narrates a disadvantage.

Success at a Cost

The results are as expected, but there's a catch. The GM offers a choice of disadvantages.

Clean Success

The results are as expected.

GM Advantage

The PC did a great job and gets what they wanted, and then some. The GM narrates an advantage.

Player Advantage

The results are incredible and the PC gets to narrate an advantage.

GM Disadvantage

You can think of GM disadvantage as having the effects of a minor critical failure. If critical failure is the antithesis of a fate point (the narrative is turned against the player), then GM disadvantage is similar, except the player still technically succeeds at whatever they were trying to do, which is not the case with critical failure.

This can be interpreted a number of ways. For one, the player could have actually performed poorly, and despite barely pulling off whatever it is they sought to accomplish, there are negative consequences that arise as a result. Alternatively, the player could have performed just fine, but their action puts in motion something out of left field that dangerously raises the stakes. When crafting the disadvantage, you want to accomplish two things: 1) make it logically follow from the fiction, and 2) make the risk the disadvantage poses proportional to whatever benefit the player gains by having succeeded.

When in doubt, look to the GM Disadvantage table below for ideas.

GM Disadvantage Table

If the
Action is...
Then the
Risk is...
Example of gm disadvantage
CarefulOverkillThe PC disarms the security system, but also shorts power to the whole building. The guards don't know the PC is inside, but they know something is up.
ForcefulIneffectivenessThe PC's intimidation technique gets the gangsters to flee the scene, but only because they plan to regroup in greater numbers later.
InfluentialConfusionThe PC's boastful speech about his exploits convinces the evil Queen to spare the party's lives, but now she commits them to the task of defeating her powerful rival, an ancient dragon.
MethodicalMisapplicationThe ritual succeeds and resurrects the king, but the magic involved goes out of control and also brings his royal subjects back to life... as undead.
PreparedSurpriseThe PC fortifies a ruin to hide from the man-eating raptors, but little do they realize it's because the monsters are spooked by the ghosts that live there.
SneakyExposureThe PC's disguise flawlessly matches the lookalike, but he discovers the lookalike is roaming around inside.
SpeedyDelayThe PC eludes the assassins with the explosion, but the screaming crowds that result delay his escape to reaching the train, which is now leaving early.
This table is inspired by Rob Donoghue and his approach to risk in RPGs.

In addition to these risks in designing GM disadvantage, harm (suffering physical damage or being subject to a peril) and attrition (losing some resource crucial to the effort) are always options.

For example, if the PC dashes into a bar cart to avoid detection (an approach that's both speedy and sneaky), the recommended risks in the table above are delay or exposure. You could decide that because the PC was rushing, they drop an identifiable luxury item from their inventory, which is a form of attrition.

Clean Success

When the success is "clean," that means the player gets what they wanted without any advantage or disadvantage. This one doesn't require you to exercise any GM fiat, because the result of the roll is exactly what the player set out to accomplish.

Success at a Cost

In success at a cost, we're technically just creating two GM disadvantages, and letting the player decide which one he prefers as an outcome.

conferring Penalties Forward

If you want to keep things simple, you can decide to confer disadvantage on the next action the PC takes that's related to the task, instead of constructing your own GM disadvantages to offer as options in success at a cost, or in the case of a poor result, a straight -2 forward. We call this taking "disadvantage forward" or a "-2 forward."

It's also valid to offer a PC either a penalty forward or a GM disadvantage forward (as crafted by you) as the options in success at a cost.

Story Tags as GM Disadvantage

Finally, a third option is to create one or more story tags in the overworld that you can invoke against the player at a later time. For example, if the PC openly bests a deadly gangster on his home turf but yields a poor result, you could decide to create a story tag called Payback's a Bitch that you can invoke later on against the party.

GM Advantage

When the success check yields GM advantage, this is an opportunity for you to be a fan of the PC. The core rules describe GM advantage "like the use of a fate point on the player side," but what this really means is that you get to exercise GM fiat to shift the scales in your PC's favor. It's one of the only times in OSR+ that we can apply the rule of cool.

That being said, the GM advantage you grant needs to 1) logically follow from the fiction, and 2) be proportional to whatever benefit the player gains by having succeeded. Here are some examples of what you can do:

  • Confer advantage forward
  • Make their actions prolonged or more effective than expected (this could mean increased damage, heightened spell parameters, or conferring a penalty on their enemies to grant the PCs a tactical advantage).
  • Create a global story tag in the overworld that reifies the effects of their great success
  • Grant the PC something extra and unexpected (such as an additional attack roll, more damage, more treasure, additional information, etc)
  • Suspend the rules as written to make something impossible, possible.

Trying Again

If a player wants to try the same check again after failing, consider the following before letting them roll:

  • Is the same approach possible to try again? The lock is broken; the key has fallen into the psionic maelstrom and is destroyed; the magic in the runes are spent. An entirely different approach to the problem is now required.
  • Has enough time passed to try again, and what are the consequences for waiting? If the players can wait around all day and keep trying with nothing to stop them, why are you having them roll at all? Why not use a success check, or give them what they want from the get go?
  • Do they lack the resources or skill necessary to try again? It's possible they're just not skilled enough to do the thing, or they've spent the resources already. In this case, the status quo needs to change in order for anyone to give it another go.

Beware Wanton Piggybacking!

Remember that the more dice get thrown at a problem, the greater the likelihood of success. Wanton piggybacking leads to rolling until the party gets it right, which will make any challenge trivial.

Don't let other players immediately try to do the same thing after one of them fails a task.

If less skilled heroes were capable of helping, they should have been accounted for using the rules of group action in the first place. This ensures the PC best suited for the task takes point, and the others get factored into the roll to solve the problem.

And if there's plenty of time for the PCs to repeatedly try some task unhindered, that means there's no chance of meaningful failure, and we shouldn't be rolling at all. Where complications could make things interesting, a single success check in conjunction with the rules for collaboration will solve this problem.

Adjudicating Criticals

Rolling a 6 on the dice will happen about 16% of the time, whereas rolling a critical failure happens less than half a percent of the time. The latter has much more narrative weight than the former, so you want the intensity of your narration to echo the rarity of either outcome.

On Critical Success

Critical success always yields its own reward: allowing the player to explode the dice and add to the result. In the case of a success check, this pushes them up to results that have narrative benefits (GM advantage; player advantage). While you do want to celebrate every critical success with enthusiastic narration, you don't need to assign any other mechanical benefit to an exploding die.

On Critical Failure

Critical failure, being the rarest outcome in OSR+, has the most narrative power in the game.

Think of critical failure as the GM being granted a fate point specifically to yield narrative disadvantage against the player. While that disadvantage (typically) shouldn't reflect the hero's incompetence, it should reflect a major setback that derails the hero's goals in the short term.

You can follow the same guidelines outlined for fate points as inspiration to determine the type of disadvantage involved. In combat situations, attrition is always an option, such as doubling damage, destroying weapons, or conferring status effects that follow from the fiction (for example, conferring the stunned status).

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