How to Define Success vs. Failure in Roleplaying Games

Roleplaying games are some of my absolute favorite pastimes. The simple act of telling a story with friends is rejuvenating for me. I love sitting at a table — or on a Zoom call — with friends and collectively creating an adventure in our imaginations.

I know that the dice and the rulebooks and all the numbers can be daunting for new players, but honestly, they’re just the laws of physics, fate, and chance given form. In the simplest form, roleplaying games consist of you telling the gamemaster / dungeon master / game runner what you want to do, and the dice determining how it goes.

In many RPGs, there’s a success/failure line. If you roll above a certain number, you succeeded. If you roll below it, you failed.

[Image from Stranger Things courtesy of The Verge.]

That’s certainly simple enough. But it can be frustrating for some players, new and old. After all, if you had to beat a 15 and you rolled a 14, why should the result be the same as if you’d rolled a 2? The 14 is much closer, after all.

Some roleplaying games stick to the strict success/failure model. But others have a different approach that players might find more rewarding.


Fantasy Flight Games offers a Star Wars-themed roleplaying game that has one of my favorite dice systems. There are different colored dice that represent different aspects of the game (your character’s ability to do something, the difficulty of the action they’re attempting, advantages and disadvantages to their action at the time, etc.), and the dice don’t have the traditional number values you’d expect.

Instead, they have symbols that represent success, failure, advantage, threat, triumph, and despair.

So, depending on the dice roll, it’s not just a success or a failure. You can have an overwhelming success, or an overwhelming failure, or many things in between. You can fail at the task, but end up with something unexpected and advantageous still happening. Or you can succeed, but with some consequence.

It opens up the narrative floodgates WAY beyond the success/failure binary option, and it has led to some of my absolute favorite moments in roleplaying.

Naturally, this requires a little more creativity from both the player and the game runner, but together, you can tell some fantastic adventures.


Ninja Burger is a humorous quickplay roleplaying game that uses standard six-sided dice. In the game, you’re a ninja secretly delivering fast food. It’s very silly and great fun.

One rule in the game that can lead to enjoyable chaos AND take the sting out of the traditional success/failure mechanic of roleplaying games is that you are instructed to act as if you never fail. Even if you’re failed a roll.

So, say you’re using wujenitsu (ninja magic) to pretend to be a bag of golf clubs to sneak into a country club. But you failed your roll. The caddy who grabbed you is clearly carrying a ninja on his back, not a bag of golf clubs.

But you must proceed as if you succeeded, no matter how ridiculous things get.

Sure, failure has consequences in any game, even silly ones, but if you’re in on the joke, then failure isn’t so bad. Especially if you can find a way to make your friends laugh along the way.


Dread is a roleplaying game that doesn’t use dice at all. Instead, you set up a Jenga-style tower of blocks, and to accomplish certain tasks, you have to pull a certain number of blocks from the tower without collapsing it.

It’s a brilliantly simple way to add tension to a game AND put your fate in your own hands. There’s no single unlucky dice roll that can condemn you to defeat. Just gravity and your own steady (or unsteady) hand.

And of course, as the game continues and the tower grows unsteadier — and your options for wood blocks to pull become fewer and fewer — the tension mounts and mounts.

Eventually, the tower — and your character’s chances — collapse in a clatter.

[Image courtesy of Lewis Brown.]

Of course, the rules of every roleplaying game are eventually up to the people running/playing the game. If you decide that the success/failure rules of your game should be more nuanced, you can do something about it immediately.

But for new players and new game runners, sometimes it helps to remind them there are always other options available. Whether you ditch numbers entirely for narrative dice like in FFG Star Wars, pretend failure isn’t failure at all in Ninja Burger, or ignore the dice completely with something like Dread, you can still build tension and tell some wonderfully fun, exciting, and action-filled stories.

Good luck, and happy roleplaying, everyone!


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A Puzzly Success Story: The Codex Silenda


In the past, I’ve covered plenty of puzzly Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaigns that I thought might interest my fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers.

Today, I’m not so much recommending a campaign — since it’s pretty much closed right now — but I do want to share the story of that campaign, because I think they’ve learned from the mistakes of other campaigns and they’re doing things right.

So let’s talk about the Codex Silenda project.

Codex Silenda: The Book of Puzzles is a series of mechanical puzzles, each of which unlocks the next “page” until you get to the final puzzle, which reveals a prize. It’s an awesome concept, and all of the photos of the 5-page Codex look gorgeous.


Now, there are several noteworthy things about this particular Kickstarter campaign. The first is that the puzzle project funded in a day, and within two days, every tier that allowed you to receive a complete Codex was filled up. By day three, even the tier that stated you’d receive the Codex disassembled and you’ve have to put it together yourself was filled up.

So in 72 hours, if you wanted the Codex for yourself, you had to settle for the lower tier allowing you to receive a single page of the Codex of your choosing, or you had to set yourself for a long wait until the Kickstarter campaign had been fulfilled and the team had moved on to accepting orders once more.

That brings me to the second noteworthy thing about this campaign: their patience and forethought.

Many Kickstarter campaigns that turn out to be more successful than expected become victims of their success, accepting more and more backing from supporters, adding loads of stretch goals to fulfill, and basically getting caught up in the excitement of being a well-funded runaway success.

Marathon, black silhouettes of runners on the sunset

[Image courtesy of]

Unfortunately, those campaigns are often overwhelmed once they finally realize the monumental task ahead of them: producing the product for LOADS of supporters, becoming stressed by delays, missteps, and the ever-looming deadline they promised during the campaign. I’ve seen it time and time again, even with well-staffed, supremely organized campaigns. Things happen.

But the Codex team nipped that possibility in the bud early, declaring that they would NOT be adding additional tiers. Although this would mean losing out on more funding AND potentially disappointing interested customers, they wanted to fully commit to the supporters they already had and not overtax their team.

It’s an act of patience and restraint that will serve them well, even if it did leave latecomers to the campaign like me a little disheartened.

And that brings me to the third noteworthy aspect of this campaign: planning for the future.


[Image courtesy of]

Now that they had secured funding and already turned their eyes toward production, they offered an olive branch to all the interested supporters who had found them after that amazing 72-hour launch to success. You see, one of the few stretch goals they had built into the campaign were 6th and 7th pages to add to the Codex, which would be exclusive to the Kickstarter campaign.

That means that the Codex produced for customers after the campaign would only be 5 pages, and latecomers would miss out. The team thought that was unfair, so they’ve offered a unique solution: an upgrade voucher.

By adding a bit more to your donation for one of the non-Codex tiers, you would receive a voucher proving you were a Kickstarter supporter. That way, when the Kickstarter campaign is complete, all those orders are filled, and the team begins accepting orders from customers, that voucher entitles you to a Codex with the Kickstarter-exclusive 6th and 7th pages.

Now that is smart marketing and customer service.

I look forward to seeing where the Codex Silenda team goes from here, and how the campaign proceeds once they move into formal production and eventually, product delivery. With forethought and planning like this, I think they’ll be a big success.

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