Flavorful Fighting II: Retroactive Justification

You know how when a cat trips or runs into something, it gives off this look of wounded dignity that says, “I meant to do that all along”? This is an important principle when handling combat in a tabletop role-playing game. Don’t worry what your character (or NPC) intended to do when you rolled the dice! When describing the result of a roll, act as though that’s what you intended all along.

Did you miss that club-footed kobold for four attacks in a row? Are you really such an inept fighter? No, you were just toying with him. Really!

How does she keep hitting you? You’re in plate armor and have a 17 Dexterity! Could it be that she recognizes your fighting style, perhaps from training under the same swordmaster that you did? Then again, it could simply be that the cobra bite that you thought you shrugged off earlier is still slowing your reflexes.

So you were trying to take that bandit alive, but you punched him too hard and now he’s dead. Sure, maybe you just don’t know your own strength, but it could also be that knowing smirk on his face that dared you to do it. He must have wanted to die. Why? What secret do the bandits hold that’s worth dying for?

The game’s fiction need not be wholly defined in advance. Adding things retroactively can be a good thing. Writers and storytellers do it all the time, so why not do the same in your game?

4 Responses to “Flavorful Fighting II: Retroactive Justification”

  1. February 4, 2010 at 7:29 pm

    When I ran Rogue Trader this past weekend, when a PC failed at something that seemed central to their character concept – or if the player just looked disappointed when reporting their bad die roll – I’d sometimes turn the spotlight on them: “So, we know your character is a total bad-ass: what got in the way that kept you from succeeding?”

    Part of this is just avoiding making your PC look like a loser: the dice give you failure, but I give you a reminder that you’re normally awesome and some extended spotlight time to explain why your awesomeness wasn’t up to the challenge this time.

    I also think it’s useful to encourage the explanation to talk about external events, because this lets your action establish a fact about the world either way. I succeed, and so the tyrannid is killed or the cogitator reprogrammed. I fail, and it’s because the floor is slippery with blood or I’m still feeling the effects of that intoxicant liqueur – and the slippery floor and the potent liqueur are now out there for other people to interact with, just like the dead tyrannid.

    In the discussion about owning failure at NerdNYC, some folks say that they prefer to have the GM explain failure for them. I found myself doing that either if I had something I wanted to introduce or emphasize that would justify the whiff, or if I felt like the player would regard more spotlight on their screwup as extra punishment instead of a consolation prize.

  2. February 4, 2010 at 8:31 pm

    In my experience, most players don’t want to describe the results of their actions. This seems to stem from a view that players are responsible only for supplying intent and that the referee is the sole adjudicator of the results. There may also be some element of tradition or force of habit involved; if every game you’ve ever placed all descriptive power in the referee’s hands, then suddenly having that authority handed to you is going to seem mighty strange.

    And there’s really nothing wrong with the player intent/referee adjudication split! The trick is making sure the game is fun in groups where not everyone adheres to the same approach to play.

  3. February 6, 2010 at 8:20 pm

    My experience matches up with Eric’s–players who are used to the traditional intent/adjudication split tend to under narrate when given the chance. Newbies and people with indie-gaming experience tend to run wild when given the chance to describe the results of their actions.

    I don’t mind having the descriptive/narration power all in the DM’s hands, but like many other improv situations, a DM can get stale if he’s out of ideas. And it robs the DM of the surprise.

    Actually, this sounds like a perfect job for a random table! But then, that’s my answer to everything.

  4. February 11, 2010 at 3:28 pm

    A random table WOULD be excellent: “Why you failed even if you shouldn’t have:
    1. Cat allergies
    2. Bad burrito for breakfast
    3. Stayed up too late blogging

    Personally, I also find myself with PCs who are hesitant to help out the narrative. I encourage them by sitting quietly UNTIL they tell me what they did. Makes it really awkward, and I think the laughter and humor of the rest of the table makes it easier for them to just say, “Screw it!” and give narrating a try.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

February 2010

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