I recently started replaying Disco Elysium, an excellent detective RPG that I’ve already played once this year. I was drawn back to the game by the desire to do a playthrough that is completely different from the one I did before. This is possible because Disco Elysium uses a skill check system where your various skills are like voices in your head, giving you completely different information depending on which skills are good and which skills are bad. By favoring different skills during two consecutive playthroughs, you can end up with very different information about each character or situation. But skills aren’t just about getting info – they are also about accomplishing tasks. When you attempt a task, you roll the appropriate skill. Pass the check and progress – fail the check and you either have to increase the skill or unlock the opportunity to try the check again by performing certain actions or pursuing certain dialogue options.
Because it is a detective game, the final solution of Disco Elysium is always going to be the same. During my second run, I the player already know who the killer is even if my character doesn’t know that information yet. Who killed the victim, how the victim died, the motivation behind the killing – all of that information remains the same. But what has been different for me during this experience is how I get to the information I need to solve the case, as well as the substance of my conversations with many of the world’s characters. It’s all possible because of certain design philosophies that the game embraces – philosophies that are useful tools for any aspiring TTRPG gamemaster. These are not new concepts; the ideas I see working so well in Disco Elysium are ones I’ve been reading about for years. But Disco Elysium shows these concepts firing on all cylinders and serves as a great model for how to run your game using these tools.
The first concept I want to discuss is failing forward, the idea that a failed roll should not stop the momentum of the game. The dice turning up badly for the player doesn’t mean nothing happens – it just means that they may not like what happens. When you fail forward, the action keeps going even when the player did something that turns out to be unsuccessful. Disco Elysium does this frequently with special checks called red checks – they represent rolls that you won’t get a second chance to do. When you fail a red check you don’t game over – instead, you might get into some trouble or lose an opportunity to get information or leverage that will be useful to you. At its most interesting, failing forward means you think you’ve accomplished something or learned useful information but in reality it comes back to bite you.
I described one interesting application of failing forward during my article last week. Early in the game your character meets a woman who left her job, supposedly after being asked out by her boss. In my current playthrough, I was able to identify that she was actually mad at me and in fact did have a crush on the man who was pursuing her. This was a huge surprise for me because during my first playthrough, I failed the empathy check. Failing forward meant that my character then persisted through the game thinking this woman hated her boss, and went on to tell this to the boss and rant for a good ten minutes about uh *checks notes* “cock carousels.” Failing the empathy check didn’t meant I couldn’t finish the quest – it just meant that I finished it wrong, which still led to an interesting story in the end. Another smaller example: while exploring the room of a key witness, I found a bottle of drugs I planned to steal to increase my stats. When I failed the interfacing check, I didn’t actually fail to steal the bottle – I failed to not be noticed stealing the bottle. My character dropped the bottle on the floor and his partner watched him slowly pick it up and put it in his pocket, as unsubtle as as my disco-ass blazer.
So how does this apply at the RPG table? One of my favorite applications of failing forward is to give players what they wanted and then reveal that they shouldn’t have wanted that in the first place. “You run up to the monster to see if you can identify it? Yeah you know exactly what it is – if the tentacles touch you you’ll be paralyzed, and you just stepped right into its range.” I’ve also been known to give them what they want but with consequences they definitely didn’t want along with it. A few sessions ago in my current Apocalypse World campaign, the brainer tried to plant a psychic command into the mind of a key witness in an investigation. When she failed the roll, the witness passed out from brain damage and a nearby guard rushed to the scene. As it turns out, the guard was the bad guy the brainer was trying to catch – but was now on high alert because she just witnessed a crime. The session moved forward but in a way which put the players on the defensive and – importantly – encouraged them to make more moves.
The next thing Disco Elysium does well is implement what The Alexandrian refers to as the three clue rule. The rule is simple enough: for any situation the heroes must resolve in order to progress, there should be at least three solutions. Getting caught at a bottleneck where you can’t progress is not fun, and in a game like Disco Elysium where you can build your character in a variety of ways, there’s no way a single character will have the right stats to solve every single problem. So for every major barrier to moving forward, there is either more than one unique solution or there are multiple tools in place to help you overcome the one obstacle that stands in the way. This tends to manifest as what’s called a white check, a roll you can try multiple times in order to succeed.
A great early game example of this is getting into the warehouse where the Union is held up. The button that opens the door is guarded by an imposing figure called Measurehead, a racist and skilled fighter. You can get him on your side by learning his racist philosophy or you can knock him out with your physical prowess. Alternatively, a shack in another part of the district reaches close enough to a part of the warehouse that you can jump across. You’ve got three different solutions to the same problem, each appealing to a different preferred stat and skill. Additionally, these are all white checks, meaning that even if the solution you like doesn’t work the first time, you can gather useful tools to try again. In my current playthrough, I tried to knock out Measurehead and failed, but after getting some combat advice from another character I was able to move in and defeat him on my second try. Most actions in Disco Elysium not only have different ways to accomplish them, but also have steps you can take to change the circumstances so that a second attempt at the same solution can be more effective.
Here’s a couple of different ways I’ve used the three clue rule at my own table. One is the way that I design spaces when making a dungeon. If there’s a room my players should be able to reach, I’ll make sure multiple paths exist to get there. Maybe they need to enter a chamber guarded by a huge monster. If they can’t defeat the monster, there might be an alternative route on the basement floor that they can navigate to enter the chamber from below instead. Or maybe there’s a locked, trapped door that someone could try to disarm and break open. I’ve also used the three clue rule to give players different kinds of tasks they could pass in order to accomplish the same goal. During a game of Reclaim the Wild, I designed a tournament where the heroes needed to qualify for the finals. They could choose whichever events they wanted in order to qualify: a smithing competition, a duel, a display of magic, an obstacle course, whatever. By giving lots of different tools to solve the same problem – qualify for finals – the players were all able to push through the bottleneck without anyone getting stuck because they didn’t have the “right” skill to score high enough.
I don’t have a fancy catchphrase or “design philosophy” to describe this last concept. But the final thing about Disco Elysium that I think is deeply important for a tabletop gamemaster is to reward player creativity. The first time I played Disco Elysium I tried to take it kind of seriously; portray my character as smart and respectable, behave in ways that respected social norms, make no decisions that seemed reckless or silly. As I went on, though, I discovered that it’s actually a lot more fun to embrace the chaos of the game. That’s a big part of what made me want to do the playthrough I am on now – because the game taught me via failing forward and the three clue rule that it was safe for me to try bold and daring actions, I wanted to make a character that fully leaned into the wild possibilities of the game.
One of the first things I did during my playthrough was try to run away from the owner of the Whirling-in-Rags where the player is staying at the beginning of the game. He was trying to force me to pay the money I owed him for the damage I caused before the events of the game. I totally botched the roll to escape and crashed into the floor after tripping over a woman in a wheelchair. While both my body and pride took some damage, the bar owner actually felt sorry for me and reduced some of my tab. I’ve repeatedly had my character express his anger by hitting objects or try to physically force his way through obstacles. Over time, this has given him a thought that increases the chance of success for breaking stuff, encouraging me to continue breaking things even more since I’ll be more likely to succeed. By rewarding me for making the most interesting choice instead of the safest choice, Disco Elysium has encouraged me to continue to make interesting choices and increased my enjoyment of the experience.
This often feels like the most challenging thing for me at the game table because sometimes the stuff players think up really just defies any logic my brain can fathom. But I’ve found broadly that letting players do fun, ridiculous things – to make bold and unexpected choices – often lead to some of the most memorable moments of roleplaying in my tenure. In one particular game during the final battle of the campaign, I had a player who wanted to turn one of the bosses into a bunny rabbit using magic. I could have said “no way, that’s too humiliating and silly of a defeat for my Very Serious Villain.” But instead I let him roll and allowed the dice to decide. When he succeeded and a horrible demon became a harmless bunny rabbit, everyone in the room was excited and it injected a lot of joy into the final session. When players feel comfortable bringing their wildest ideas to the table, you have the perfect ingredients to create a truly memorable story together.
If you’re a tabletop enthusiast and you haven’t tried Disco Elysium, it is a game I cannot recommend enough. The tools that the game uses to tell stories translate excellently to the gaming table, and any aspiring gamemaster can learn a lot from what the game has to teach. I’ve been having a blast revisiting it for a second time because of the many ways that the game rewards silly decisions while still giving you the tools you need in order to progress and experience everything the game has to offer. It may not be teaching me any ideas I’ve never heard of before, but it is taking those concepts and blending them together at a high level of quality that sets a high bar for other games to reach. If I can become a better gamemaster in the process, then that makes the experience all the more worthwhile.