A recent thread on RPG.net got me thinking about success and failure and the progress of plot in an RPG again: in standard dramatic story structure, we have “rising action,” the hero(es) facing and overcoming various obstacles, until we reach a climax, a decisive moment: Luke hits the thermal exhaust port on the Death Star, Frodo and Sam make it to the cavern on Mt. Doom, etc., which decides the whole thing. The rest is falling action and epilogue.
So we can view this like stories themselves having “hit points” or “victory conditions.” It’s not just a matter of RPG characters making their way through a series of unconnected “encounters” where the outcome is largely random. It’s more a matter of accumulating sufficient “plot momentum” (or victory points, or whatever you want to call ‘em) to reach that peak moment before the other side can do so: can the Rebels blow up the Death Star before it’s able to fire on their base and wipe out the Rebellion? All the interplay leading up to that moment is just like the back-and-forth of a small scale combat.
Looked at from this approach, failure in any particular die-roll or task isn’t necessarily a plot-ender, just a delay in the process of getting to the climax of the story (just like a missed attack in combat doesn’t necessarily end the fight). Now, if the other side does exceptionally well, it could be a fatal delay, but it doesn’t have to be. If Luke & Co. had really screwed up from Tattooine on, then the Empire might have won, but it wasn’t like Luke was going to miss that shot at the Death Star: by the time he got to that point, it was a sure-thing. The last-minute arrival of the Millennium Falcon pushed the Rebel “victory counter” over the top and that was that. (You even get that from Han Solo’s “Now let’s blow this thing and go home” comment, like it’s a done deal.)
Now to actually figure out the mechanics for it…