There are going to be at least two broad types of activity in the game. The first is single actions. A persona wants to remember a fact, identify a picture, persuade someone to do something, or open a stuck door. These will be resolved with a single roll. The second type of activity is creating something. That might be a Shinto ritual, a painting, or a relationship with someone. Since these are a central feature of the game, they will not be resolved by a single roll.
Single actions are clearly simpler, and will form the basis for creation, so I want to look at their mechanic first. The obvious suggestion for the foundation is to compare the total of the kept dice to a difficulty. If the total equals or exceeds the difficulty, the action succeeds. Otherwise, it fails. There doesn’t seem to be a good reason to reject the obvious possibility, so this is what I will use.
Now, success is straightforward. The persona achieves whatever she was trying to do. This moves the game forward and keeps everyone involved, so there are no problems. Failure, however, is a bit trickier. If we simply say that the persona fails to do something, that stops the game. Even failure should move the game forward, albeit not in the way that the players hoped. That is, failure should change the situation.
In combat, this is not a problem. If the persona hits her opponent, she moves closer to winning the fight. If she misses, she gives her opponent another chance to kill her. Both success and failure move the story forward. Outside combat, however, it gets a bit harder. It is not immediately obvious how failing to remember a fact changes the situation. Before she tried to remember the fact, she didn’t know the fact. After she tried to remember the fact, she didn’t know the fact. The entire process took a fraction of a second inside her head. Why would the situation change?
This may be the good game-design reason for the emphasis on combat in so many existing roleplaying games.
One way to make failure matter is to make success essential to proceed with the adventure. That, however, is a really bad idea, because the whole point of rolling dice for an action is to allow the possibility of failure. It is bad for the game if the story comes screeching to a halt, so deliberately designing stories with that possibility is a bad choice. Quite a few recent games, such as Robin Laws’s GUMSHOE system, are designed to avoid this problem.
Another common approach is to impose a limit. This might be a time limit, or a limited number of rolls. Combat is really an example of this, as the persona is trying to kill her opponent before her opponent kills her. Obviously, this works, but only when there are multiple opportunities to act. If the limit on the number of rolls is one, then failing on that one roll just brings things to a halt. Even with a limit, failure on all the roles can still pose a problem. Total Party Kill is the end of the game, so most games these days are designed to avoid that.
The ideal solution would be a way in which failure changes the situation, but does not end the game. The precise form of this solution depends on the situation of the roll, but we can give some general guidance. I will look at this in detail from the next post, but the three options are as follows: create an advantage or disadvantage; change the context of future of actions; or create an option.