The Old Gods and the New

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It’s a bit of a busy Memorial Day weekend, so I hope you’ll enjoy some setting notes I put together for an upcoming Pathfinder game in lieu of a systems post I didn’t have the time to write this week.

To the elder races, the time when the old gods walked the world is still within living memory. To the younger races, it is the distant past. Nonetheless, all histories agree that there was an epoch when gods were flesh. When gods demanded that all participate in their great works, whether they wished it or not.

The line between the old gods and various other powerful entities from the cosmos is blurry, though scholars tend to split the difference at agendas: demon lords and the like share a nature and a mandate with an unearthly realm, while each of the old gods seemed to have his or her own unique goals, petty though they might have been.

Some were more agreeable than others. And, in the beginning, each of them gathered a following of mortals, if for nothing else than support against enemies. But those that were content to protect and rule were outnumbered by those with a towering need to reorder the world. Their conflict etched the world into the state it is in, even today.

Eventually, it became too much. Mortals sought out new gods that were less present. Entities that were more concept than flesh, with no need to reshape the world on a whim. Many believe calling them the “new” gods is a fundamental error; they were always here, but the arrival of the “old” gods temporarily blinded the world to the protectors that had always been among them.

Nonetheless, the old gods could not contend with an uprising of mortals backed by gods that had no physical forms to slay, no presence to fight directly against. Over eras, the old gods were defeated and killed.

The new gods are quieter, on the whole, content to lend power to their clerics and allow the churches of different nations to color their worship. Some are all but silent, and many prophets claim to speak for them, causing schisms. But the worst of these holy wars is but a simple disagreement compared to the war of the old gods.

The Gods

There are four gods that are openly worshiped, and two others that few will admit to worshiping directly (or even believe exist).

The Sun

Known by many names, each agrees on one salient attribute: the Sun knows everything upon which its light falls. As the Sun is also extremely fond of life and justice, those that mean ill to their fellow mortals must make their plans in darkness, lest agents of the Sun stop them before they have even begun.

However, despite its essential light and strong gifts given to its clerics, the Sun seems unable or unwilling to intervene directly through a show of force. It is also hard to commune with: sometimes, at great need, it gives visions or omens to the faithful to seek out an unfolding ill, but otherwise only clerics with strong magics may communicate with their god.

Domains: Fire, Glory, Knowledge, Protection, Sun

Nature

Few can agree whether Nature is the planet herself, or merely the ecosystems that lay upon her. Whatever the answer, Nature is unafraid to act: from titanic natural disasters to fortuitous shifts in the wind, the roused god can alter many things. It seems deeply aware of all that happens within its domain, as well, as many disasters eventually reveal a problem mortals were unaware of.

This brute-force problem-solving is important, because it is the only way Nature communicates. Any who claim to have gotten a direct message from the god, even its powerful clerics, are understood to be liars. Fortunately, Nature seems to have a mild benevolence; scholars that have done studies tend to find that the innocent are spared much more often than the guilty by the chaos of the natural world.

Domains: Animal, Plant, Strength, Water, Weather

Progress

The most esoteric of the four openly worshiped gods, each culture places its own stamp on Progress: to some, she is an artist or a freedom fighter, and to others, he is a smith or an engineer. All agree that, of all the gods, Progress is the one most inclined to work to see mortals succeed and grow. Helpfully, Progress is also free with communion and visions, often granted as dreams or just flashes of inspiration.

Unfortunately, Progress is limited in ability to act in the world and almost totally blind to what’s going on but for what its priests tell it. Minor miracles of enhanced creation can sometimes emerge as a response to prayer, but otherwise the world’s progress is unevenly and very inefficiently distributed… almost as if the god is distributing inspiration entirely at random.

Domains: Artifice, Community, Earth, Healing, Liberation

Fate

The world is flooded with prophecy. Many speculate that these are merely messages from Fate about things the goddess (often rendered in triple-form by various cultures) would like to see enacted, and will back with divine potence. Others wonder how you’d tell the difference between seeing the future and using divine might to cause it.

Most believe that Fate is blind to the present, and only able to see the world that may be. Even Fate’s priests also agree that she is the god with the least interest in helping mortals: what will be, will be, whether or not it rewards the virtuous and punishes the guilty.

Domains: Air, Luck, Magic, Nobility, Trickery

Discord

Some postulate that there must be a new god responsible for all the conflict that still exists in the world after the death of the old gods. Brutal, uncivilized cultures often seem to field clerics with access to powers different from the followers of the four primary gods, but these may be awarded by the remnants of old gods or demon lords.

Domains: Destruction, Death, Madness, Void, War

Sin

Meanwhile, another force is often invented to explain why civilized society often seems to break down from within, despite the best efforts of Progress. It’s hard to be certain whether the leaders of debauched mystery cults are truly clerics of such a deity, or draw their powers from the remnants of old gods or hellish princes.

Domains: Charm, Darkness, Repose, Rune, Travel

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Beyond the Wall: Criticals and Gear Damage

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Beyond the Wall doesn’t normally have any rules for criticals (success or failure) or for gear damage. But, pursuant to my last couple of posts, I’d like to increase item turnover and adding those seems like a good first step for doing so. These are optional rules for Beyond the Wall (or any other low fantasy d20 game, particularly ones that don’t already have critical rules). They add some extra combat complication, but are likely to be rare enough occurrences (and mostly player-directed) that it shouldn’t slow down play too much to reference them when they do come up.

Critical Results

The Success Hierarchy

Whenever the rules below refer to stepping up or down a level of success, they’re referring to the following progression:

  • Critical Success: Usually has twice the normal level of success
  • Success: A normal successful result
  • Partial Success: Usually has half the normal level of success, or success with consequences
  • Failure: A normal unsuccessful result
  • Critical Failure: A really bad failure

When rolling normally, a partial success is only possible if a result steps up a failure or steps down a success. If you’re using the rules for acting cautiously, it also occurs when one die succeeds and the other fails. Remember that, when acting cautiously, you have to get double 20s or double 1s to trigger a critical result.

According to the normal Beyond the Wall rules, an extreme result automatically succeeds or fails (e.g., 20 always succeeds on attacks and saves, and always fails on ability checks). Under these rules, an extreme result also triggers a critical result, unless there was no chance of success or failure except for the automatic one. For example, if your modified target number for an ability check is 20+, a 20 still fails but is not a critical failure. Similarly, if a low ability and high difficulty modifier have reduced your chance of success to 0 or less, a 1 still succeeds but is not a critical success. This will usually not come up for attacks and saves, but applies if it does.

Critical Success

A critical success usually has twice the normal effect.

  • For ability checks, it has twice the normal effect: either significantly better success, half the normal time, or half the normal materials depending on what makes the most sense to the GM.
  • For saves, not only was the dangerous effect avoided, but the character gains a +2 bonus that can be used within the next round to attack or circumvent the source that triggered the save (e.g., +2 to attack the caster of a spell,  +2 to a check to disarm or bypass a trap, etc.)
  • For attacks, it does double damage (just double the rolled total rather than rolling twice).

Critical Failure

A critical failure may result in something unusually bad happening from a failure.

For ability checks and saves, it presents the GM an opportunity: if the GM offers the failing character a fortune point, and it is accepted, the GM may narrate a particularly bad level of failure. Players may not spend fortune points to reroll after accepting a critical failure opportunity, and are stuck with whatever the GM describes. A player in direct opposition to an NPC may pay one of her own fortune points to trigger an opportunity caused by that NPC (the NPC does not get the fortune point, it is just spent); this will usually only happen when the player does something that forces the NPC to save, or the player is in a contested ability check of some kind with the NPC.

For attacks, a critical failure forces the character to roll for a fumble result. Roll 2d20 as if acting cautiously, attempting to get 11+ for a success, and compare the result to the following chart:

  • Critical Success: You are knocked fortuitously off-balance, and gain a +2 to your next attack against the same target within a round.
  • Success: Your failure is a normal one, with no additional effect.
  • Partial Success: You are knocked off-balance, and take a -2 to all attacks until you spend a round recovering your balance (this is cumulative if you suffer multiple off-balance results before taking time to recover).
  • Failure: You are disarmed. It will take you a full round to recover your weapon (and certain terrain may make this even harder).
  • Critical Failure: Your weapon is broken and useless until repaired.

Other Sources of Gear Damage

Sacrifice Weapon

After rolling an attack (but before rolling damage), you may choose to have your weapon break to increase the level of success by one step (i.e., a failure becomes a partial success, a partial success becomes a full success, or a full success becomes a critical success). The attack does its damage and then the weapon is broken; you are essentially breaking your weapon for additional force or advantage. At the GM’s option, this may not work for weapons harvested from the environment for free (because they’re not brittle enough to shatter, and also because this is a rule designed to actually cost the player something), or weapons that are unbreakable.

Sacrifice Shield

After an attack is rolled against you (but before damage is rolled), you may choose to have your shield break to decrease the level of success by a number of steps equal to the shield’s AC bonus (e.g., a +2 AC reinforced shield turns a critical success into a partial success and a partial success into a critical failure, while a regular +1 AC shield only reduces a critical success to a regular success or a partial success into a failure). The GM may choose to have this not work against certain attacks that would bypass the shield

You may also use this option on saves made against a source that could logically be blocked by a shield (e.g., breath weapons, traps, etc.). In that case, step up your save’s level of success by the shield’s AC bonus.

Sacrifice Armor

After an attack deals damage to you, you may choose to have your armor break to reduce the damage. Divide the dealt damage by the AC bonus of your armor (e.g., by two for +2 leather armor, by four for +4 chain, etc.). You lose the armor’s AC bonus for subsequent attacks until the armor is repaired.

Attack to Strike a Weapon

As a combat option, you may make an attack to strike your opponent’s weapon instead of the opponent. Make an attack against the target’s Strength or Dexterity (whichever is higher). Use the opposite of the fumble chart for your result (i.e., fumble gives the target a bonus, failure has no effect, partial success knocks the target off balance, success disarms the target, and critical success breaks the target’s weapon). If your weapon’s damage die is smaller than the target’s, reduce your success by one step (it’s hard to disarm or break a sword with a dagger). If you’re wielding your weapon in two hands and the target is not, increase your success by one step (it’s easy to disarm or break a dagger with a greatsword).

The “Fragile” Quality

Some weapons may be considered “fragile.” This is common for primitive materials like glass, bone, and stone. Treat all “disarmed” results on fragile weapons as “broken.”

Nonsensical Results

Some results may not make sense for certain weapons. If a target has claws or other natural weapons, a disarm result doesn’t make sense. If the target’s weapon has the unbreakable ability, a break result doesn’t make sense. In these and similar cases, step down the result to the first result that does make sense.

Repairing and Refitting Gear

Repairing

Weapons can only be repaired in the field if it makes logical sense (such as for hafted weapons in a forest with available woodworking tools).

Shields cannot be repaired in the field if broken.

Armor can be partially repaired in the field with an Intelligence (Smithing) check; in this case, it regains half its normal AC bonus. If the wearer chooses to sacrifice it again, it can only be repaired up to half that AC bonus, and so on (e.g., you can sacrifice a +4 AC chain armor twice in the field before it’s down to only +1 AC after repair and no longer worth sacrificing).

In town, a broken weapon, armor, or shield costs about half its normal value to repair (possibly less with a friendly smith or if the character has the skill and tools to try to repair it herself).

Refitting

Found weapons and shields are generally usable by anyone (unless they are sized for particularly small or large creatures). Armor, however, is generally customized for an individual. Unless the GM decides that the armor was fitted to someone with almost exactly the same proportions as the character using it, treat it as broken when found (this is particularly true if it was looted from a slain opponent, who probably took some hits to it in the fight). As normal, the character may make an Intelligence (Smithing) check to try to “repair” it in the field (adjusting it so it can be worn with some benefit), and it costs half its base value to refit it in town.

Minor Weapons

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Related to last week’s post, one of the big issues with item loss is that 3.x created very attractive magic items that had bonuses that could be worked directly into the sheet. When you have a +3, Flaming weapon, everything about that is permanently incorporated into your weapon block. It feels like a part of your character. Taking it away feels like losing stats.

In addition, it creates an impetus to price every magical effect (exacerbated by 3.x‘s formalized item economy), and there are definite winners and losers when you do that. Interesting but highly situational effects get comparison-shopped out of use. You’d only deliberately create a Ghost Touch weapon if you were fighting a ton of incorporeal creatures, and you might use it on a weapon that you got as treasure, but each time you have a downtime you’re going to think about selling it to get something with a more consistently useful bonus.

So for my upcoming Beyond the Wall campaign, I’m thinking about placing a flat moratorium on enhancement bonuses and any item abilities that provide some other kind of reliable bonus (of the kind that can easily be tagged to a stat line such as +1d6 fire). Instead, items will hopefully be completely focused on their abilities, and a cool item with an ability you like might be something you hang onto throughout your career (meanwhile, items you use less often won’t cause emotional pain when they’re lost).

Below is some tinkering with how this will work for weapons.

Minor Abilities

Most 3.x weapon abilities that don’t provide a flat bonus to attack or damage are probably directly useful, particularly Brilliant Energy, Dancing, Distance, Ghost Touch, Keen, Returning, Seeking, Spell Storing, and Throwing. New abilities could include:

  • Bane: This ability is usually contingent. Creatures damaged by the weapon suffer a penalty of 2 to all d20 rolls the subsequent round (this penalty stacks from multiple hits from bane weapons). If the weapon is held to a creature’s skin (or a contingent creature tries to wield it), the penalty is ongoing and the creature takes one point of damage per minute.
  • Blessed: This weapon can harm creatures that are only vulnerable to holy items, and may be useful for various story-related reasons.
  • Elemental: This weapon sheds an energy of some type (e.g., fire, cold, electricity). Its damage is treated as that type against creatures vulnerable to it, and it may, at the GM’s option, deal more damage than a normal weapon against creatures resistant to physical damage (e.g., a cold steel sword may do nearly as well as a silver sword against lycanthropes, but does nothing extra against a winter fae). The wielder may also use the energy for utility purposes (e.g., a fire weapon emits light and ignites things like a torch, a cold weapon can be used to slowly make ice, and an electricity weapon could be used to power ancient mechanisms).
  • Functional: This weapon is especially useful for a named function as a tool. A slashing weapon may be especially good at cutting underbrush or felling trees, while a bludgeoning one may be particularly good at smashing through obstructions. It grants a +2 bonus to skill checks to perform the task when the GM doesn’t let it succeed automatically.
  • Life-Drinking: A creature slain by this weapon heals the wielder a number of HP equal to the creature’s hit dice or level.
  • Lightweight: This weapon can be wielded far more easily than its form-factor implies. Two-handed weapons can be wielded in one hand, and one-handed weapons can be treated as light (sufficiently to be used by smaller characters or easily off-handed).
  • Magic: This weapon can harm creatures that are only vulnerable to magic items, and may be useful for various story-related reasons. Unless an item specifically references this ability, possession of other abilities does not imply that it is sufficiently magic for bypassing resistances.
  • Puncturing: This ability is usually contingent. The weapon’s attacks ignore the target’s bonus from worn or natural armor (but not from a dexterity or other bonuses to AC; i.e., make a touch attack in 3.x parlance).
  • Slaying: This ability is usually contingent. After rolling damage against a target, if double that amount of damage would drop the creature to 0 or fewer HP, the creature immediately dies; if it would not, the rolled damage is applied normally. For example, against a target with 10 HP remaining, attacks that deal 4 or less damage work normally, while attacks that deal 5 or more damage kill the target.
  • Unbreakable: When wielded in combat, this weapon cannot be broken (by directed attacks or misfortune). It is up to the GM whether this effect can be used for utility purposes (e.g., bracing something to keep it closed or otherwise stuck).
  • Warning: This ability is usually contingent upon type. The weapon glows or otherwise does something to notify the wielder of nearby threats.

Contingencies

Many abilities are contingent on something. A weapon can have different contingencies for different abilities.

  • Charged: The weapon must be charged through some action, and retains the ability for a certain period afterward and/or until a certain action expends the charge.
  • Code: The ability only functions while the wielder maintains a code relevant to the creation of the weapon.
  • Desperation: The ability only functions when the wielder has been reduced to half or fewer HP.
  • Environment: The ability only functions in a specific terrain (e.g., forest) or other environmental condition (e.g., outside in a storm).
  • Inherited: The ability only functions if the wielder is of a particular race or specific lineage (possibly including being trained in particular class or order rather than bloodline).
  • Situational: The ability only functions under some other quantifiable situation (e.g., during the day, against an oathbreaker, etc.).
  • Type: The ability only functions against a particular race or other specific description of target type. If the target is usually only vulnerable to a particular material, the weapon is almost always made of that material (e.g., lycanthrope-bane weapons are almost always made of silver).
  • Unbowed: The ability only functions when the wielder is unwounded/at full HP.

Example Weapons

  • Blood Drinker: This weapon (usually a sword or dagger) may be charged by the wielder taking damage as a free action (cutting oneself on the blade). While charged, it is slaying and life-drinking until it has slain a target or the blood dries. The damage taken by the wielder starts at one HP, and increases by one for each time it is used in a day.
  • Coffin Nail: This iron dagger may be charged by leaving it buried under a crossroads during the night of the full moon. While charged, it is bane, ghost touch, magic, and slaying against undead. The charge ends after a full cycle of the moon or once it has slain a single undead. Due to its bane property, undead that cannot be permanently slain can at least be buried under a crossroads with the nail in their hearts (the ongoing damage of the weapon keeping them quiescent).
  • Commoner’s Holdout: This small, concealable weapon is slaying and puncturing when the wielder is suffering desperation.
  • Family Weapon: This weapon is unbreakable while the wielder maintains the family code, magic when wielded by an inheritor of the family, and may also have other powers related to the family’s history.
  • Hedgecutter: This functional weapon (a sword or axe) is extremely good at cutting through vines, thorns, and other undergrowth to harvest them or forge a trail. It is bane and puncturing against plant creatures.
  • Sidhe Sword: This silver blade was forged for fae nobility. It is unbreakable against any situation other than cold iron. When wielded by an inheritor with fae blood, it often displays other powers.
  • Siegebreaker: This large mace or mattock is functional at destroying doors, walls, and other fortifications. It is slaying and puncturing against construct creatures. Some say it is lightweight for those that follow the right code.

The Karma of Item Loss

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I recently read the Paksennarion novels, on the recommendation of Jim Butcher when he was asked in a Q&A about good literary examples of non-abrasive paladins. One of the most interesting things to me about the series is that, even though it seems very inspired by AD&D, the protagonist acquires magical gear rarely and, when she does, she loses it within a few chapters. Sometimes she gets captured and stripped of all her gear, never to see much of it again. Sometimes she realizes the provenance of an item and returns it to its rightful owner. Sometimes she needs to turn over an item as proof of her good intentions. Either way, she uses an item for a few significant scenes, and then it’s gone.

This is very different than the standard D&D playstyle that I’m familiar with, particularly in 3.x-era games. Magical gear is integral to the game math, and it’s not fun for players to lose the mechanical advantage it represents. Players might sometimes give up a piece of incidental gear, and regularly try to trade in weaker gear plus cash for an upgrade, but if the GM engineered Paks-style situations to relieve the players of their gear and send them back to non-magical items, they’d riot. If they discovered an item actually belonged to someone else, they’d expect a reward in exchange for not just keeping it. If an NPC demanded one of their prized items as proof of their intentions, they’d also expect the payoff better well be worth it. Players hate the idea of being captured anyway, and would hate it more if they could never recover stripped gear.

And yet, some degree of regular item turnover would go a long way to fixing the Christmas Tree Effect (the tendency of PCs to become festooned with miscellaneous gear such that they glow like the holidays under Detect Magic). When players are constantly getting new gear and retaining it, it’s hard for any particular item to become interesting or significant the way they are in most fantasy literature. The newest edition of D&D has tried to counter the problem by just giving out much less magical treasure, and limiting how many significant items a single character can attune, but that has its own issues. Like it or not, the magical item cycle is deeply wrought into the flow of D&D: if players go whole adventures without getting new gear, it can feel like they’re not accomplishing much (particularly in a game where XP awards are also standardized).

However, actually losing items (while still gaining them regularly) could have a number of benefits. Firstly, players could prioritize which ones they refuse to give up (and ideally have plot protection against getting stolen): this immediately creates a more traditional fantasy feel where the character has items of significance that stay with her for long stretches. Secondly, items coming and going could slow the need to create an upgrade path: “These monsters were easier to fight when I had a magic sword, and hope to get a new one soon,” is more interesting than, “I’ve had this stupid +1 sword forever, and I need an upgrade.” Finally, it creates more room for experimenting with the varied options for items that are so dense in D&D: there are often items that are mechanically optimal for a particular body slot and character build, keeping players from bothering to try anything that’s more interesting but possibly less effective unless they’ve lost the optimal item.

You could handle this kind of thing with a simple inclusion in the play contract: “Listen, guys, I’m going to give out more magical gear than expected, but I’m also going to engineer a lot of situations to take it away.” But I think it might go down even easier with a carrot, and I’d use something like the following:

  • Add in character bonuses similar to the backgrounds, merits, advantages, edges, etc. so common to skill-based systems. These include social bonuses (allies, contacts, mentors, retainers, and that kind of thing) and more esoteric bonuses (supernatural or at least unusual benefits not easily accessible through D&D character options).
  • The GM can award these directly when desired (often as quest rewards, or natural outgrowths of actions within the world).
  • They are primarily gained though item loss: the value of a piece of gear translates to points that can be spent on bonuses. This translation only happens when an item is disposed of through gifting (allowing the player to spend the points on a relevant social bonus) or through theft (allowing the player to spend the points on the more esoteric bonuses).
  • Thus, as characters fluctuate in practical power as they have different amounts of items at different times, each piece of previous gear is reflected in increased character options. Since players tend to value NPCs more when they add them to their character sheets anyway, it’s a win-win.

Ultimately, the benefit given for a lost item doesn’t have to be directly balanced with the mechanical value of the item itself, as long as it’s something the player couldn’t have easily gotten while still keeping the item. It just needs to be enough of a transaction that the player doesn’t feel like a piece of the character was lost without benefit, but was instead exchanged for something else.

D20: Advantage as Caution

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The mechanic of rolling 2d20 instead of one is very helpful in both the newest edition of D&D (where it’s used for Advantage and Disadvantage), and for other games that use an uncurved die for a single roll. By rolling 2d20 (or even more), you’re essentially adding a curve to a roll whose results would otherwise be linear. Particularly if you read the dice independently, you’ve made the results much more similar to a dice pool or iterated series of rolls. This serves to reduce swinginess, by further reducing the chance of fluke successes or failures (I suspect most players are more likely to try rolls on their high skills when given the option than their low ones, so are going to have a roll swing into a failure on a high skill more often than it swings into a success on a low skill).

Ultimately, there are a decent number of traits on a character sheet that get rolled far less often than others (e.g., you make attack rolls and perception checks all the time, but other skills maybe only a couple of times a session unless you’ve really built the character to make use of it as part of a combat mechanic). For frequently-rolled traits, averages are likely to kick in, but for something you roll once a session, you could wind up having a disappointing tally of failures over time on something that ought to regularly succeed. Particularly when something important hinges on your once-per-session roll of a high skill, it might be preferable to have some way to accentuate the curve.

This house rule adds the following options to a D20 game (particularly low-powered, high-whiff stuff like Beyond the Wall):

A player may roll a single d20 normally if not acting particularly cautiously.

A player may instead choose to act cautiously, rolling 2d20. The player can only do this in non-surprise situations (e.g., not on saves unless the source is obvious and the target is not flat-footed, or on rolls to notice something if the character isn’t actively searching).

When acting cautiously:

  • If both dice are successes, it’s a full success.
  • If both dice are failures, it’s a full failure.
  • If one die succeeds and the other fails, it’s a partial success/success with consequences (glancing blow for half damage in combat, resist the worst but not everything on a save, etc.).
  • Both dice must be a critical result for the action to count as a crit (success or failure).

Essentially, acting cautiously means that you’re lowering your chance of a crit (from 1 in 20 to 1 in 400), reducing the chance that you’ll fail outright, but adding in a decent chance of partial success. For rolls you’d normally fail 75% of the time, you drop total failure down to a 56% chance (but most of your successes are only partial). For rolls where you’d only have a 50/50 shot, you change full failure and full success to both be 25%, with partial filling up the middle 50% of results. For rolls with only a 25% chance of failure (which is still pretty risky on a roll that a lot hangs on), you lower full failure to only around 6% (but move 40% of your successes to partial ones).