Thursday, September 1, 2016

Thoughts on Measuring Success in the Games we play

Thoughts on Success (and the mechanics of proving it in Gaming)


All right Game Fans, we’re about to look at some deep thoughts about what success is as it relates to a couple of different ideas.  The first half of this we’re going to talk about how success is measured as an outcome in terms of game play.  The second half we’re going to look at the underpinnings of the statistical basis for why those are good metrics for success (unless they are bad metrics, and if they are we’ll look at why they aren’t good metrics.  Finally, we might just take a look at how similar the underlying components of game design and educational theory might be.


Fair Warning number 1: This article is going to involve some mathematics and some discussions of statistical concepts that involve numbers.  I’ll try and go easy, but some of this is going to be expressed in numbers.

Fair Warning number 2:  This is article is partially expressed in terms of games and the theory behind them, and partially expressed in educational terms and theory.  If you don’t understand one of these portions, find a teacher and ask them, or find a gamer depending on which part you don’t understand. 

So what is success in a game?  In most board and card games, the task at hand is the completion of the game from start to finish.  Even in a larger more complex board game, the overall task at hand is winning the game.  From something as simple as winning a game of Sorry ( a game I highly recommend for teaching young children the wonders of taking turns and following the rules) to dominating the economic phase of a round of Twilight Imperium that wins you the game, the basic fundamental task is the same.  Win the Game.  Winning is success. 

Role-playing Games (and board games that are co-operative rather than confrontational) alter this dynamic and often introduce more complex subroutines into the gaming narrative.  A Role-playing game can be described as a series of interconnected tasks that must be completed in an appropriate narrative sequence to share a story among all players.  Let’s break that down so that we can all understand what we’re talking about. 

A series of interconnected tasks:  In most role-playing games, the players are participating in a narrative event (session or adventure are terms that can be used to describe this event) that emulates the exciting portions of a story.  They start the story in one place, encounter characters and situations that move the story in a direction.  In most games, these stimulating encounters require some sort of interaction, and those interactions can fail.  Games use a variety of impartial tools to determine the success or failure of these individual tasks.  Each task is connected to either the next task in its chain or other tasks in its web (depending on the structure of the narrative).  Following the chain or navigating the web becomes a driving force behind player interaction in the game environment. 

That must be completed: This is something that a lot of people struggle with when it comes to games.  Completing doesn’t mean winning the game.  Trying, learning and getting better at the game are all marks of progress that indicate growth for gamers.  Winning can be a completion of the game, but losing can be just as valuable as winning.  Success and Failure are just outcomes to experience and learn from, and I think that’s a problem that most of us struggle with.  Nobody really likes to lose.

An appropriate narrative:  The narrative behind the role-playing game comes in two important parts.  The setting itself comprises all of the background elements, historical lore and other forms of information that define the game’s setting.  This will include a genre (fantasy or Sci-Fi?) a tone, (Grim Dark or Noble Bright?) a theme (Post-Apocalyptic survivors or Island Hopping Pirates?) and can include a wealth of other information that helps the players understand the world they are in.  The other element of the narrative is the active series of events (or interconnected tasks) that the players will encounter during the event the players are experiencing. 

To share a story among the Players: Co-Operative Games (Some board games and almost all role-playing games) are a shared experience for the people partaking in them.  The players are working to accomplish some narrative goal together.  Hilariously, Dungeons and Dragons is essentially a team sport where you succeed or fail together (Go Team Sports).

Since we have to look at a role-playing game as a series of individual tasks, how do we determine success or failure?  There is an astonishing array of role-playing games on the market, and while a few share an underlying engine or premise (the D20 system and the GURPS Generic Universal Role-Playing System come to mind immediately) most games have a specific system that is essential to their game.  Because of this, most systems determine success and failure on a variety of methods and statistical systems. 

Let’s look at a couple of different models for statistical success in gaming. 

First up, we have the D20 system (in its myriad incarnations) the beating engine that’s driven the last three editions of Dungeons and Dragons (and Pathfinder); the D20 system has a simple core mechanic.  “Roll 1D20, add all relevant modifiers [positive and negative] and compare to a fixed numeric value (Difficulty Class). “  Any result that equals or exceeds the DC are a success, any result below are a failure.  Within this engine you have options for creating as many variables and modifiers as your heart desires. 

From a statistical standpoint, each face of a 20 sided die represents an equal distribution.  The difficulty class in this instance creates a cutoff score for success, while modifiers increase (or decrease) the likelihood of success.  This can lead to sharply skewed distributions (and some day when I’m feeling excitable, I’ll put together some screwy looking bell curve art to describe these distributions). 

Second up, we have the percentile system used by a variety of games (Palladium Games and Chaosium both use a version of this system, as does the family of Warhammer 40,000 role-playing games).  It works as follows “You have X% chance of succeeding at a task.  Add all of your relevant modifiers (positive and negative) to that chance and roll percentile dice (either a d100 if you can find one, more likely a pair of D10s with one clearly marked for a tens place and the other for a ones place).”  If you rolled under the percentage chance of success, you’ve succeeded.  If you roll over, you’ve failed. 

Statistically, this may seem similar to the way the D20 operates by spreading the numbers out evenly across a 100 distinct places instead of 20 gives you a potential for interesting statistical distributions.  It also gives the option from a system to level to weight extremely unlikely appearing outcomes (like rolling a 1 or 100) with more interesting outcomes.  (Note that even unlikely appearing outcomes like a 1 or 100 are still equally probable). 

Third up, let’s take a look at an additive system (we’re going to hop to our old friend Battletech for a good example of this system in action. GURPS also does it well).  “Roll 2D6 (or XDY, depending on the system) and compare to the Target Number of the task” Rolling above the target number is usually good (though in some systems low rolls is better).  System permutations affect the specifics, but this is the general method of how to determine success or failure. 

This is a much more familiar distribution (the bell curve is made for a system like this), and if you can manipulate the numeric values of a bell curve you can calculate the odds of success or failure very quickly. Check with your math teacher or statistics professor if you want a more in-depth explanation of the mischief you can make with a bell curve.

We’ll cover one more system today, and it’s a different way of measuring successes and failures (Shadowrun 5th edition and Airship Pirates both use a system like this).  “Determine your overall Attribute plus relevant Skills and modifiers to the task you’re attempting to perform.  Pick up that many D6s and roll them.  A 5 or a 6 is a success (most of the time) and a 1 is a failure.”  (Failures cancel out successes in most versions of this system).This system works under the theory that succeeding at a task can occur in wildly differing degrees of success or failure.  A task that succeeds with one success means you got the ball across the hallway.  A task that succeeds with 8 successes means that ball went through the wall, bounced off your neighbor’s head and is currently on its way to the end zone. 

A margin of success/failure system means that statistically you can qualify the value of the success.  It lets you measure successes against each other to determine qualitatively how successful a task was in comparison to other attempts. 


Each system measures success and failure in different ways, but all use metrics that a person can use to determine how likely an event is to succeed and how useful of a success that is going to be.  Some of these systems are more successful than others.   I’ll go over two different things that can adversely affect the statistical framework of a game. 

1.        Too much math

a.       If I have to roll 1D20 and add 15 different modifiers (positive and negative) to my result in order to determine whether or not I succeed or fail, I have introduced a degree of operator error into my math that is likely going to cause me to make a mistake.  It’s not because I can’t do the math, but stacking the modifiers up like cord wood means it’s possible that I will have an arithmetical error somewhere in the process.  In most cases, the easier the math is to follow, the lower the likelihood of me making a math error. 

2.       Vagueness

a.       If the rules don’t clearly explain how to adjudicate a successful or failed task, then what’s the point of having a system, and why aren’t we in the backyard playing cops and robbers?  Writing your own game is a hard fought endeavor of love, and you want your game to succeed with the best of them.  Clear, Concise rules (with how to explanations) make a game easier to teach, learn, and spread. 

It looks like our time is up for this week; I didn’t quite make it to the blending of educational and game theory, so I guess we’ll have to take a look at that next week.  I hope this article helped, and I will make sure to add a list of links to all of the games I have referenced so you can check them out


Battletech can be found at
Dungeons and Dragons can be found at
Pathfinder can be found at
GURPS can be found at
Palladium can be found at
Chaosium, Inc. can be found at
Shadowrun can be found at
Airship Pirates can be found at
Warhammer 40,000 RPG and Twilight Imperium can all be found at
Sorry! Can be found at


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Game on, Game Fans


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