It’s like the fog of war—but different. Where the fog of war usually refers generally to battlefield confusion, the concept of friction goes a step farther, quantifying the natural unpredictability of human reactions to threat, surprise, and stress.
People who study human performance in combat have found that a predictable percentage of people—even trained soldiers—will fail to perform under combat pressure. Their precise actions can’t be predicted, but a certain percentage of combatants will inevitably fail to act productively under great stress.
So that’s where friction can help your game: realistic unpredictability.
I’m building a friction mechanic into the FAR System, and it’s something you can easily add to any tabletop roleplaying game as a homebrew rule.
I playtested it with the Harry Potter-based Broomstix game I’m running for my kids, and it worked like a charm (pun intended). In its game-play debut, it turned what could have been a fairly mundane scenario into an occasion for cheering and laughter.
Why? Because realism plus unpredictability equals excitement. That’s why tabletop RPGs use dice and have variable combat damage: to model the inherent unpredictability of action in the real world.
Here’s how I implemented a friction mechanic in a D20 system.
Military studies show that the friction-failure rate for most military combatants is about 75%. In other words, on average only 25% of troops in any given engagement will fight effectively. Well-trained or experienced troops can be significantly more effective, raw/undisciplined troops significantly less so (to say nothing of the average civilian).
Obviously you can’t have your players fail 3/4 of the time. It wouldn’t be good for business. (Wouldn’t be good for anybody.) So I came up with this little table, which aims to maintain the 75% friction rate while making failure seem more like a fun option than…well…failure.
Whenever a character is confronted by an unforeseen or sudden attack—or anything that I judge would trigger serious fight-or-flight reflexes—I have the player make a friction check before declaring their action. The result determines what kind of action they’ll be allowed to take during the next round. (Friction rolls also come in handy when I want some randomness in NPC reactions.)
1-5 = Freeze
Temporarily stunned, flabbergasted, overwhelmed, nonplussed. If you were already doing something, you might unthinkingly repeat it.
6-10 = Flinch
Defensive reflex. Duck, dive for cover, raise a shield, or flat-out flee in panic.
11-15 = Fight
Reflexively attack. Punch or kick. Throw or swing whatever is in your hands. If you have a projectile weapon or a spell at the ready, fire it off with a haste penalty.
16-20 = Keep calm and play on
You remain cool and collected. Do whatever seems best.
This scale applies to your average low-level character. Characters who are higher level and presumably highly trained could receive a modifier from +1 to +4 (+1 being cooler under fire than usual, +4 being Special Forces level training). Those who are clearly out of their element could receive negative modifiers.
Some thoughts on what makes a friction mechanic work
In game terms, friction shouldn’t merely increase the character’s failure rate. That’s already been carefully balanced in any game system, and is usually pretty high for low-level characters to begin with. What we’re really looking for are believable, exciting results in those surprise! moments when careful reasoning and prior planning go out the window.
The article I got the idea from (see below) recommends about a 50% pass/fail threshold for player characters, with failure meaning the character either freezes or repeats the previous action until the situation changes. (Could be anywhere from one round to maybe four or five, depending.) It also recommends using a “Cool” skill that increases the chance of success based on training, profession, and attributes. I wasn’t wild about the repeat-previous-action mechanic and wasn’t ready to commit to putting a new skill in my game, so I came up with my little table instead.
The table sticks to the roughly 75% “failure” rate without imposing outright failure on the player. You can still decide your character’s action if you fail the friction check, but it will be limited in certain ways. (You may have noticed that I based it on the stress/adrenaline reactions you’ll hear about if you take a practical self-defense course, and that you’ve probably experienced yourself at some point: freeze, flight, or fight.) “Freeze” is the closest thing to outright failure, and there’s only a 15% chance of that. The rest of the results allow for some kind of useful action—if not exactly one the player would have chosen.
And I only apply the results for one round. Player-characters are the heroes of the story, and heroes don’t just freeze up for an entire scene, so friction failure should only be temporary.
You might want to impose new friction checks in the middle of an encounter if a player’s situation changes dramatically (it makes sense), but there’s obviously going to be a point where rolling too many friction checks becomes unplayable and overly mechanical. I haven’t settled on a firm rule for how much is too much. It’s a gut-feeling thing at this point.
This is what happened the first time I used it in our Harry Potter game.
It’s the third week of classes at Hogwarts, and first-year Hufflepuffs Liliah Harper, Dundas Beezly, and Henrietta Voclain have just seen a hex in action for the first time: they’re talking with Justin Finch-Fletchley when someone in a nearby group of older Slytherins shouts Mellofors! And with a loud ka-thunk, suddenly Justin’s head has been replaced by a pumpkin.
The gamemaster makes a friction check for the victim. Result: 6, Flinch. The unfortunate Finch-Fletchley panics and begins to run wildly about, crashing his pumpkin into a wall. [His head is only encased in a pumpkin, not displaced, but the players don’t know that. As for the panic reaction, it seemed like the most fun of the options, and being an NPC, he’s totally at the GM’s mercy.]
It’s a severe shock and an unfamiliar situation for the player characters—they don’t know from hexes, and they’re not sure if the victim’s cranium still exists inside that pumpkin—so the players have to roll a friction check.
Liliah gets a 12: Fight! She’s a bold and aggressive character anyway, so she loses her head, forgets that she even has a wand, and lunges wildly at the nearest Slytherin. And—Mellofors!—gets hexed just like her classmate.
Henrietta rolls a 16: Keep Calm and Play On. She’s a mild and rather timid character, so she purposefully avoids the fight, where she feels she can’t do much good, and rushes to restrain the panicking Finch-Fletchley. It’s the most sensible option she can think of.
Dundas rolls a 4: Freeze. While his friends spring into action, he stands stunned for a few moments, mouth agape, as his brain tries to catch up with what his eyes have just seen.
[At this point, everyone is starting to laugh at the ridiculousness of the whole scene. Just as I hoped. Note that with some relatively inexperienced players in the game, this is where indecision about their options normally kicks in—not a problem this time. Everyone is seeing things through their character’s eyes and playing it for maximum effect.]
But our players are the heroes of the story, after all, so after one initial round of confusion, we return to normal player decision-making.
On her next turn, Henrietta succeeds in soothing the hapless Justin Finch-Fletchley and begins wondering how to free his noggin from the now badly bruised pumpkin. Liliah comes to her senses and starts tapping on her new pumpkin-head, trying to figure out what the hex has done to her. And upon recovering his wits, Dundas strikes back against the Slytherins with a very effective knockback jinx. [Rolled a natural 20, overcoming the haste penalty and his own inexperience. Everyone cheered.] The Slytherins, not expecting such a sharp counterattack, quit laughing and beat a hasty retreat. [After which the group had a lot of fun discussing the pros and cons of simply bashing the pumpkins to bits vs. going to the infirmary vs. wondering if Liliah and Justin could live out their lives as pumpkinheads. Purely in the interest of magical knowledge, of course.]
So far the experiment has worked very well. I’m definitely keeping it. At the very least it doesn’t cause any problems, and more often than not it adds realism and nuance—and fun—to the game.
For more about friction as a combat mechanic, see http://www.mindspring.com/~ernestm/wt&d/issue2/wtd2.pdf (page 22, “Keeping Their Heads Down”). The article goes into more detail on the nature of friction and includes numbers specifically for GURPS, as well as combat effectiveness percentages for police forces and various national military forces.
So are you willing to give it a try? Maybe you’re already using something like this?