The Whiff Factor
Some tweets yesterday made me think about the “whiff factor” thing again. In short, it tends to suck, and shows RPG’s wargaming roots.
Where it comes from
In wargaming, every moment is of risk followed with opportunity cost. If you miss a roll to hit the other guy, that’s part of the design: you risked exposure and now you’re going to deal with the lost opportunity and the consequences on that guy’s next turn.
Why it’s in RPGs
Many RPGs use wargaming-lite (or not so “lite”) combat systems. with all the assumptions and issues that come with it. This is an interesting choice, and not in a good way, but I’ll get to that in a second. Still, the math for these games is worked out similar to a skirmish wargame (the sort of smaller number of units on the board).
Why it sucks
Handling time. One of the typical assumptions in war games: there are two participants fighting against each other. In an RPG, you could have six people fighting against one person, which is a fundamental shift in handling time. If you fail on a roll, nothing happens — again, the consequence of failure is opportunity lost and exposure to the enemy. But because the player is in control of one single unit rather than several, your sliver of handling time is shown to mean not a damned thing. And that disappoints many people.
How to unfuck this
There are three assumptions that should be true for wargames but needn’t hold true for RPGs. I’ll go through them one at a time.
Rolls can change
This is the fate point approach — the currency that can be used to modify a roll afterward in order to make it better. This doesn’t work well in a war game, but it can work great (as demonstrated by many systems) in a RPG because it creates an economy of action. You get rewarded this currency for something appropriate to the game — in Fate, being compelled; in Savage Worlds, playing to your hindrances; in Leverage, playing against your distinctions; etc. This currency then aids you in succeeding, so it drives both success and moments of drama or interest.
Beyond that, it turns failure into player choice…at least when there’s enough currency to affect the roll. You can look at your stock of points and say “Oh fuck yes, I’m rerolling that shit!” or say “No, I’ll take this failure; I’m saving these points for the Big Bad.” Either way, it turns a moment of whiff, which is inherently depowering, into a moment of player empowerment.
And when you don’t have enough points to be empowered, you know know to replenish that stock. So you may be depowered in that turn, but you know how to fix it. Empowerment on a slightly longer timeline.
You can do this with triggers rather than currency, like the Passions in Unknown Armies, where if your Passion comes up and you want to flip-flop your percentile roll (so that your 63% can become a 36%, making you succeed), you can exhaust that Passion. This is different from the currency setup because it’s saying “If you want a better chance of success, you need to put yourself in these situations.” (That said, Unknown Armies is pretty whiffy — one of the complaints about the system, even from me, one of its biggest advocates.)
Fuck the GM rolling
The other assumption here that can really fix things is to take out the GM acting as an independent agent. In war games, the other side needs to be an independent agent, because the two sides have a relationship of equals. They’re both players in the game going for the same thing. Not so with RPGs: there’s one GM to several players; the GMs goal is not necessarily to defeat the players in every single case; not all adversarial moments or encounters are equal; the nature of what’s at stake is rooted in the idea of a consistent narrative with lasting consequences; etc.
Turning the GM’s role during an extended combat into one that’s purely reactionary (as is the case with Dungeon World) does a couple cool things: it reduces the handling time as the GM isn’t taking turns per se, and it turns player failures from whiffs into moments or crisis, which means that at least something happens. Games that use this dynamic (like the other *-World games, ones that use Otherkind dice, etc.) also tend to build in the notion of partial success — that is, you don’t just roll for binary success or failure, but there are degrees in between, depending on what you roll and how the system sets that up. I think this is the part that actually makes this dynamic work, because otherwise you have situations where character competence turns a real threat into a paper tiger.
Don’t draw things out
Finally, and this has been a thing for years in the indie scene, not everything needs to be a drawn-out fight. Plenty of one-roll conflict engines out there, especially where there’s nuance — again, the various *-World systems, or Primetime Adventures and the handling of narration rights, etc.
These are very different games from extended combat ones, and satisfy different player types, so it’s by no means a silver bullet to the problem.
There’s middle ground, like the back-and-forth mechanics in Cortex+ games or Dogs in the Vineyard.
The Battle Mat
In my opinion, these problems exist a bit less when you’re playing an RPG with minis. Rules for handing spacial issues is as much a part of the game as rules handling a successful attack. The more than a game uses those rules to influence the play of everyone at the table (like flanking bonuses or combat advantage, for starters), the more than your given turn actually has impact even if your attack fails.
Whiffing is about boring statis. At least with movement around a battle grid and related stuff, the situation doesn’t feel as static.
Bullshit I hate
Real quick, I really hate games that have the “you successfully hit with your attack, but it does no damage” bullshit. Hate that to pieces. Those turns increase handling time to give the exact same result as missing. Both of the Savage Worlds games I played in had this, which turned me off of playing more SW games. It’s one reason I stopped playing GURPS. I get that it’s a wargaming thing, but seriously, fuck that noise.
This is one of the last things I talked with Lenny Balsera about for Fate Core before leaving Evil Hat, and I’m pretty happy with what we devised.
Check those games out
If you’re not a fan of whiff factor, and you’re not familiar with the various games I mentioned that handle the idea differently, please check ’em out! You might be able to port ideas over to your favorite system, or just change up and try something new.
In theory, the whiff factor can be used well — but that goes for pretty much every tool. In practice, this is nearly always some bullshit holdover from older gaming.
 To address a comment elsewhere: yes, I expect many of you know this. Gotta start from a foundation to build a point, yo.