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).[1]

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.

– Ryan

[1] To address a comment elsewhere: yes, I expect many of you know this. Gotta start from a foundation to build a point, yo.


20 Responses to The Whiff Factor

  1. You know what I’d like? I’d like the handling time of UA without the whiffiness. Because there were a lot of clever things about that system.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      At some point, I need to refine my UA tweaks. After trying to make UA in AW, I went the other direction, and refined a bit of UA.

      But that’s all in my head & gut, nothing on paper. I’d have to play it a few more times to feel it out.

      – Ryan

  2. Patrick says:

    I still someday want to do a full conversion of UA into a ORE game, since Nemesis gets you so far there. Although I also have visions of doing it with a farther out there A Dirty World style ORE.

  3. RM says:

    Ryan, great analysis of this issue. I definitely agree that the sense that “nothing happened my turn” is pretty killer for player morale. No one likes knowing that they took a turn and pretty much did nothing.

    Positioning helps, but it’s notable that in many systems it only particularly matters for melee fighters. Case in point, I’ve got a Savage Worlds game going on right now, and one of the players is playing a ranged specialist. While the melee fighters get to say, “Okay, I missed, but at least I’m giving my allies a gang-up bonus and threatening the foes on withdraw,” the ranged guy doesn’t get anything when he misses.

    As far as the “no damage” thing, that’s a really interesting dynamic to me–it’s demoralizing for the player when it happens on his damage roll, but it’s one of the most uplifting moments when his character is the one that resists damage. One of my players who plays a heavily-armored warrior is quite exuberant about making the “Tink!” noise for a blow encountering armor too powerful for it to get through whenever someone fails to damage him. However, when the players fail to even Shake the target, it is clearly frustrating (especially if it happens shortly after a low-damage guy gets an Ace and nails one of the players…I’m not overly fond of SW’s tendency towards Ace Chains, either, and in fact we limited those pretty severely to put a hard limit on damage so low-damage guys wouldn’t regularly outclass the high damage guys like what was happening).

    I suspect one thing I may do shortly to account for the “no damage” issue is go ahead and grant players the No Mercy edge for free (allows you to reroll damage with a benny). I don’t mind there being a challenge, but it’s very possible in a lot of systems for a player to feel like his turn was worthless, and that’s just not good. I’m not sure how I would feel about declaring that something always happens when you hit a foe in Savage Worlds, but that could certainly be a step in some way if it got critical…have you ever toyed with that idea? Even if you don’t roll enough to Shake the foe, there’s some consequence?

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      There is a clear double-standard here — the GM cares far less when a whiff happens. But then I think I outlined that in the different dynamic.

      Of course, that’s also my preference. Back when we played GURPS, we dug on the “gritty realism” factor, so being able to hit and nothing happened was in our set of accepted expectations. But I’m not that guy anymore, I don’t want to play an RPG for strict real-world simulation.

      – Ryan

  4. RM says:

    One note on the whole “partial success” thing, as well…while I agree that degrees of success are terrific and often very helpful (particularly in engines that use the “summarized event” style of rolling rather than “turn by turn”), I’ve found I need to caution myself about always trying to use them. Sometimes you really just want to know something binary, and trying to add degrees can overcomplicate it.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Have you played any of the *-World games?

      – Ryan

    • RM says:

      Dungeon World and such? No–I’ve meant to check them out, but haven’t had the chance. I don’t want to switch my current game to that system (I have a bad habit of doing changes of system to my poor players, who are thankfully lifelong friends who have thus far not abandoned me), but if there’s good stuff in there that could serve as inspiration for dealing with the issue, I could check it out.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Try them. Those are the games I’m talking about that handle degree of success in a way that’s concrete and quick. They’re what I’m talking about — they aren’t numeric degrees, but…well, just check it out. :)

      – Ryan

    • RM says:

      Probably a stupid question, but where do you actually buy those? All I’ve ever found are what appear to be development versions. :-P

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      You missed out on the Kickstarter for Dungeon World, but I’m sure they’ll sell it in a couple months once they fulfill orders. Site: http://www.dungeon-world.com/

      For Apocalypse World: http://apocalypse-world.com/

      For Monsterhearts:http://buriedwithoutceremony.com/monsterhearts/

      For Monster of the Week: http://genericgames.co.nz/

    • RM says:

      Thanks, Ryan! I’ll check them out. (Looking forward to Mythender, too. ^_^)

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Heh! Well, Mythender doesn’t have failing in combat from a moment-to-moment state. just from a “and now you lose and die” final standpoint.

      Its one moment-failure mechanic has to do with keeping a mortal from being destroyed by your presence when you just want to get them to see you as a human being. But, that’s what we call “interesting failure.” ;)

      – Ryan

    • RM says:

      Right–“interesting failure” is fine, “waste of my turn” failure is bad. ^_^

  5. This helps me along in some thoughts for Savage Worlds-type tactical games I had while playing Max Payne 3 last night. The idea is that missing shot should give you a bonus on your next shot, as you tighten your aim and walk your shots closer. Does anyone reading this know of a system that does this already? I’m giving it a ponder.

    I was about to ask your opinion on the Dramatic Damage/Ulraviolence rules in Streets of Bedlam, but I was under the mistaken recollection that Dramatic Damage kicks in when you don’t do enough damage to hurt.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I still need to read my copy of Bedlam.

      In Fate Core, I proposed the following for attacks:
      * Failing still means failing, though maybe a Stunt mitigates that. (We weren’t going to upheave the basic Fate paradigm in Core, but someone can always hack it further)
      * Success still does damage in shifts, as normal
      * Successful hit, but no damage effect, turns into making an aspect in that moment instead. (Like, if you hit, but because you tie or because the foe’s Armor rating is too high, you do no damage.)

      But then Fate has the advantage of having something significant you can do aside from “I attack him” to fall back on.

      NB: Not part of the Core team anymore, so other changes may happen.

      – Ryan

  6. Patrick says:

    I should note that the apply a free-taggable but fragile aspect with a 0 damage hit rule is also in Dresden Files RPG, though it’s in the marginalia. Of course 0 Damage isn’t as common in DFRPG because a 0-shift success still inflicts damage if you have a Weapon value (or when relevant, Strength powers).

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Hah! Okay, clearly I argued this once before. It’s hard to remember what is and isn’t in a book when you design so many iterations of various games.

      And actually, 0-damage has been common in DFRPG games I’ve played & run, because of Armor ratings.

      – Ryan

  7. Robert says:

    Also: Houses of the Blooded.

    You know _something_ will happen; the question the dice answer is _who_ narrates it and how much you can append to the narration.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Sure, though John’s not the first person to make narration rights what’s at stake. See Primetime Adventures.

      – Ryan