A Closer Look at Whiff Factor

March 5, 2012

Forge Definition of Whiff Factor:

The effect of a high failure-rate for a given Resolution mechanic, especially when the rate does not accord with the character’s expected competence. A common source of Deprotagonizing; usually considered a Design flaw.

Basically, you roll dice/use cards/go through mechanics and “whiff”. My thoughts on it are slightly different- it’s not just the high failure rate, it’s this:

1. The easiest technique for any rpg is, “Somebody says something, that’s what happens”.

2. Every other mechanic is more effort and as such, needs to provide something worthwhile, to add to the play or imaginary events to justify the work put in.

3. Whiff factor is what you get when you have mechanics that do not change the situation- people have followed the step-by-step process and gotten no change for their work. It is, literally, a waste of time.

And, while I say, “No change”, it also includes negligible change as well.

Now, mind you, there’s a lot of design tricks to avoid whiff factor.

No Passive Results

Any easy one is that there’s no “roll to defend” that results in “I guess you don’t get hurt”, but rather, each resolution means one side or the other comes out ahead. This means both mechanically and for the imaginary events, either the resolution solves the whole situation, or at least pushes it towards spiraling to a conclusion.

Primetime Adventures, Hero Quest, Poison’d

Defense feeds Offense

Defensive actions, the kind that negate results, at least give a bonus to respond on the next action. It’s a lighter version of spiraling towards a conclusion but at least gives a solid nudge. Sometimes this involves winning initiative or similar benefits.

Sorcerer, Shadow of Yesterday, Riddle of Steel, BWG, some versions of FATE

Degrading Defense

The ability to negate results drops as you go, also pushing towards resolution. This is typically seen in “hit points” type games, though luck points, degrading armor, these things all fulfill the same function. The effectiveness of degrading defense depends on how quickly it degrades – if there’s too much buffer it means doing more work than what it’s worth.

Burning Wheel, Hero Quest, D&D

Fictional Positioning Pushes

The mechanic pushes for specific results in the imaginary events which changes the situation even if you avoided another result. Stuff like, “Well, you don’t get hurt but your sidekick does”.

Polaris, Trollbabe, Apocalypse World

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