A lot of recent games have introduced the concept of paying to turn a failure or minimal success into a full success. If you roll well, you succeed fully, but if you have a near miss you can turn it into a success with consequences.
I was reading an old Delta Green scenario and noticed a frequent use of success at a perception roll resulting in additional information… and Sanity loss. This is almost the opposite of paying a cost to turn failure into success: success always costs, while failure leaves you blissfully ignorant.
I figured that might have room to expand to a more general mechanic for use with horror games (I’ll explain the thinking at the end). The mechanics for this are left purposefully nonspecific to retrofit onto your system of choice.
Every character has one or more fairly granular traits that indicate progress toward a severe consequence, and may cause problems even before reaching the ultimate end. The prototype for this is a sanity meter, but other traits could be added for fatigue, pain, stress, or even just grime (the authorities are much harder to convince when you’re unkept, sweaty, and covered in gore, after all). You can even use hit points, if they’re granular enough in your system. Some of these may be easier to repair than others, but most should be pretty had to repair during a scenario: the point is that they get used up as the characters are ground down.
And how do they get ground down? Any challenge may have a cost to one of the progress traits. You saw the monster you’re facing, but went a little mad from it. You barricaded the door, but wore yourself out doing it. You got away, but you’re all sweaty and winded. Not every test should have a cost, but the players don’t necessarily know how expensive it will be until they roll. Thus, when they roll, there are four possible results:
- Major Failure/Fumble: You don’t get the benefits of success, but you pay the cost anyway. You saw enough of the monster to bend your brain but not enough to learn anything useful. You put a lot of exertion into a hopeless task.
- Regular Failure: You don’t get the benefits of success, or pay the cost. You missed the monsters entirely, or your brain filtered out everything about it to save your mind. You realized you weren’t up to the challenge before you wore yourself out trying.
- Regular Success: You get the benefits of success, and pay the cost. You saw the monster for good and ill. You wore yourself out but accomplished something.
- Major Success/Crit: You learn the cost and then can decide to take a failure instead if you don’t want to pay it. You still pay the cost if you take the success.
Use your system’s normal rules for retries after failure, possibly stepping up the eventual cost of success or major failure if the player keeps rolling. As an optional rule, you can let a player turn a failure into a success by paying double the cost.
In general, less than half of tasks should have a cost (but the players won’t necessarily be able to predict which ones); really just the ones that seem like even success would be dangerous or tiring. The costs should be low, particularly early on and for traits that are hard to repair. Big costs should have big payoffs in information or improving chances of success. The goal is to have a reasonably successful scenario leave the characters only largely expended: they shouldn’t go mad or pass out without making a bunch of unnecessary or ill-advised rolls.
Players sometimes have a hard time with genre emulation in horror: PCs wind up being extremely proactive in a way that’s not necessarily appropriate to the fiction. The fiction is usually about everymen out of their depth that hole up, try the dead radio, and argue with one another, only striking out to save themselves when pushed by circumstance, not well-coordinated heroes that immediately start a grid search and materiel collection.
What these rules should do is make players more cautious about just trying a bunch of actions to see what works. Highly ambitious characters get worn out, leaving the more passive ones to shine at the climax. It may even result in a level of desirable passive aggression and drama, where the PCs try to goad one another into taking risks while keeping themselves fresh.
Ultimately, expending resources early should mean acquiring information and advantages that make it much easier to succeed at the end, so the game will hopefully become a careful dance of only attempting things that are necessary or dealing with problems as they’re required.