If you've played a White Wolf tabletop RPG franchise avidly, or even casually, there's a pretty good chance you've come across this situation: You roll a 10 on one die, and a 1 one the other, or multiple successes but also multiple 1s, resulting in a net 0 successes. It's not a botch, but it's not a success, either. In fact, it's not even a straight failure. What the heck is it? Is it a "10-again" if we rolled a 1? Did we win or lose? Is it possible to do both?
In the World of Darkness, I usually take the last interpretation: it's possible to succeed TOO well. One of the major themes of games like Vampire: The Masquerade, carried on well into Vampire: The Requiem and the New World of Darkness, is that something bad is always around the corner. Victories tend to be hollow, making us question whether or not they were worth the sacrifice our characters spent to achieve them. On the macrocosmic scale, Good is always matched, if not beaten, by Evil. Faith, hope, justice, and loyalty are undercut by selfishness, greed, apathy, and despair. On the microcosmic scale, we have the dice rolls, but don't be fooled by the size: any veteran roleplayer will tell you that game sessions often hinge on the cast of one set of dice. Much like I discussed in my last blog, a dice roll can be the dividing line between victory and defeat, the triumph of our heroes or their catastrophic failure. It never helps that the "heroes" in the Worlds of Darkness are usually just as bad as those they fight against.
The 10-and-1 situation makes for an ideal place to showcase this theme, as well to have a hell of a lot of fun with your characters. I will demonstrate with an example taken from "A Parable of Fire", the Sabbat Chronicle I'm running on the forums. Early in that game, in the very first scene, one of the NPCs I was managing - the monstrously fat and consumptive shovelhead the pack fought in a dark and dismal grave pit - had this happen to him. He had a modest Brawl pool, and he attacked MiQiu. He almost got a good solid grip on her leg - a 10 rolled - but he also rolled a 1, which not only canceled out the 10, but would have led to a botch if he hadn't been just lucky enough. In game terms, I played this out that he did get a good grip on MiQiu's leg - the 10 coming into play - but his grip was perhaps too tight on her plastic pants - a slippery surface by itself, plus the blood covering MiQiu's foot from kicking his face in. So his grip slipped - the 1 coming into play. He had both an unquestioned success, and might've been able to use it to turn the tables on his three attackers, but he had an abject failure, as well, that instead allowed the three women to turn the tables on him.
This is what I mean when I call this the "Icarus of Dice Rolling": it's possible to reach the heights of power in one turn, but to either have that good roll turned around on you, or to crash and burn the next turn with a bad dice roll. I'm sure just about every player out there has faced this kind of aggravation - you would've won - you ALMOST won - you were SO CLOSE to winning! - if it hadn't been for those damn traitorous dice that swept the rug out from under your victory. This is the part of random chance that comes around and bites us in the ass if we're not careful, and it's one reason some people I know don't care for roleplaying games. It's not that they aren't imaginative, or that they don't like the setting, it's that the element of chance is too large for a straightforward and "feelgood" kind of gameplay.
I can sympathize with this view a bit, because I do play RPGs and have had this situation pop up more than once. I try to find ways to deal with it in a way that makes sense for the story - thankfully in my Sabbat Chronicle, MiQiu's attire gave me the perfect excuse to pull an Icarus on the poor fat shovelhead - but in some cases it simply isn't feasible or desireable. You need the players to win to continue with or finish up the plot. So now I'm going to repeat my gaming mantra: story comes before mechanics. This is something I've read in just about every core rulebook for a White Wolf franchise I've read, and something for which I've been eternally thankful of White Wolf for including. But unfortunately, with this hands-off approach, they don't tell us how to deal with situations like the 10-and-1.
Back to our original topic, then: getting the 10-and-1 situation to work in the game that fits both the larger themes of the Chronicle and the immediate situation of dice roll. I'm going to pull out a few more examples here, for situations that should have gone one way or the other, but didn't. What could we do if you roll a 10-and-1 on what should've been a simple pistol execution shot to the back of the head? It largely depends on how supernatural you want to get. I have heard of cases where bullets have been deflected from a human skull, or simply bounced off really dense bone - but those shots have to be lined up very carefully. Perhaps the crazy coincidence of rolling both a 10 and a 1 makes this situation happen in the game. You certainly hit the target - the 10 - but you also almost botched - the 1. Miraculously, the target takes no damage. Or did he? Another way to play it would be that the bullet does in fact pass through the skull - but it lodges in a part of the brain that controls pain receptors. Now, instead of killing your target, you made him immune to pain. (Hey, if it can happen in James Bond, it can happen in the World of Darkness.) The last, and perhaps the wackiest way, is that not only did you hit the target, you actually killed them - but instead of falling to the floor like a good boy, the target explodes out into a horrible ghost or demon form, freed from the mortal coil by your character's execution. Snap. Now not only did you resolve the 10-and-1 situation, you also added a new plot element.
Let's take one more example, a social one this time, and then I'll wrap up. Your character is on trial for breaching the Masquerade, but fortunately the Prince is on your side - it's that damn Primogen rival of yours who's pressuring the court to see you executed. You make a great speech to the court - rolling a 10 - but maybe you appeal to completely the wrong kind of pathos. Not only do you come across as contrite and humble, you look too humble: now you also look young and stupid, little better than a rampaging Caitiff - rolling a 1. You succeeded at the point you were trying to make, but perhaps a little too well, going off somewhere past 10 until the dice looped back around and hit you with a 1. And like any good tragic hero, you have nobody but yourself to blame: what you thought was your major strength turns out to be a crippling weakness at just the worst possible time. The more sincere you look, the better able you are to convince your audience, the worse things will turn out for you. Well, that sucked.
But that's how things work in the World of Darkness. The potential for tragedy is everywhere, and even the highest and most powerful are not immune to it - on the contrary, the higher they climb, the further they have to fall. So if and when this happens to you or your fellow players, don't just toss the opportunity out the window with another roll, or even by ignoring the results and going straight to the story. Make the situation work for you, in a way that poor Icarus never could. Remember: if you reach up high, but fall down low, then that just means you have nowhere to go but up. Assuming you can survive the fall.