In any given role playing game, the character you play will have a goal. In a game of intrigue, for example, she might aim to use her skills as a con artist to seduce a particular duchess. (For reasons.) Let’s say she’s already schemed her way into the presence of said noblewoman, so all you need to do now is pick up your dice and roll to see how charming your character is this evening.
And the dice betray you. Your character fails.
But the Game Master might be merciful. If you happen to be playing with the Fate system, she might ask if you’d like to “succeed at cost.” If you say yes, the duchess falls for your character’s cajoling smile despite the horrific dice role. Your character wins her way into the duchess’s bed.
Most games fade to black at this point—unless you role play with a very interesting group—but wait! We still have that cost to worry about. And that’s when the duke walks in, catching your character and his wife in the act. Either a fight breaks out or you reach for your dice and frantically roll your character’s diplomacy skill.
I’ve had my issues with the Fate system, but I’ve come to appreciate this “succeed with cost” feature—especially when it comes to writing. In a typical genre novel, your character will suffer a number of disasters before triumphing at the end. But those disasters don’t always have to come as failures. In one of my favorite mystery/heist series—the Junior Bender books by Timothy Hallinan—Junior often manages to succeed at whatever robbery he’s attempting only to realize the cost of that success shortly afterward. (I don’t usually see that cost coming as a reader either, so it works as a neat plot twist.)
Sometimes a character does know the cost ahead of time, and that can add some beautiful angst to a story. Think of Sam Winchester’s only path to defeat Lucifer toward the end of Season Five of Supernatural. Knowing what he had to do in order to save the world gave us plenty of angst for Sam, plenty of angst for Dean—pretty much angst all around.
What do you think of this “succeed at cost” option? Have you ever used it or seen it used in a story that you’ve read or watched? Has it helped you come up with a twist or add tension to a story? Let me know in the comments!