What might be a meaningful consequence of failure here?
What if it the stones might belong to Cult A, or it might be Cult B. And getting it wrong could have consequences later? Like, using the correct greeting would earn their trust, but the incorrect one would make them hostile?
Somehow I'd like to give the player an answer now, but then later, when/if a critical moment comes the player would roll. But the only way I can see doing that is to use quantum dice: at the moment of the roll, the world could change. That is, I tell the player, it's Cult A. Later, they meet the tenders of the stones, and assuming they are from A, use the A greeting. At that moment they roll, and if the roll is failed...nope! They are Cult B! So I have to be willing for the story to branch either way at the moment of the roll.
STANDARD DISCLAIMER: I'm not saying I'd necessarily do this, or that there even needs to be a consequence to trying to remember things about the stones. I just think it's an interesting exercise to explore these pathways.
I'm not sure if this fits in with the "exploratory play" format being discussed, but this feels like the roll is in fact quantum, as Elfcrusher describes. The roll isn't to determine success or failure, and the requirement that there be consequences for failure in order to require a die roll don't make sense. Instead, the roll is to establish the state of the universe itself.Honestly, given the action described, I don’t really see one, other than not recognizing the runes, which isn’t really a meaningful consequence in my evaluation. As mentioned before, I think this action would probably succeed or fail without a check. I suppose, if there is time pressure - maybe there is an upcoming great conjunction and the PCs need to perform a special ritual at these standing stones at the appropriate time to prevent Cthulhu from waking up or whatever - then the time it takes to study theses runes in the way described might be a sufficient cost for the attempt, and the consequence for failure would be spending that resource without making progress.
For example, when you search a room, the roll isn't to determine whether or not you found the doodad, but whether or not there is anything to be found in the first place. There's an implicit two-step process, though most ignore the non-roll related step when discussing these matters.
1) Is there something to be found? Using approach A, this is decided beforehand, and no roll is needed to establish this. Using approach B, this is unknown, and only becomes 'real' after a roll.
2) Did the player find it? Using approach A, this is what's being rolled for, if there's a likelihood of not finding it, or consequences for not finding it. Using approach B, this is not rolled for (basically using the auto-find aspect of approach A), as the act of making it real in step 1 makes no sense if you can't discover the new truth.
Now, approach A might be the "exploratory play" system (based on further clarifying posts in the thread), and approach B is "something else". I'm not clear on how people are drawing the lines there, or what the "something else" would be formally called. Nor do I know what the various "drama" terms are really referring to.
I'd probably use the terms "exploratory play" and "revelatory play". Exploratory play explores what does exist; the truth is predefined. Revelatory play explores what could exist, revealing and defining the truth in the course of play.
In the case of the standing stone example, the roll might be for whether the character remembers anything important, or the roll might be to determine whether a connection exists at all. It's not a matter of "consequences for failure"; it's a matter of "determining truth". The roll result isn't necessarily binary; it can result in an entire range of changes to the world. For example:
- A friendly druid taught your younger self some details that are of consequence to maintaining the circles and keeping the forest from being corrupted.
- You had a bad encounter with an angry druid when you got too close to their group, and examining the stones causes a flashback that leaves you Frightened just as something starts appearing in the circle.
- The druids were actually a secret cult attempting to summon an evil deity (though you never realized that), and they taught you the proper ritual to use if you ever encountered another stone circle. You're convinced you need to perform this ritual to help protect the forest.
In this case, rolling low doesn't mean, "You don't remember anything", such as might be the case in the Exploratory style. Rather, it results in something potentially problematic — having the wrong knowledge.
The GM often leaves plot hooks for the players to follow. This type of roll is the GM allowing the players to create plot hooks for himself.
In some systems you can do this deliberately, by spending some resource (eg: fate points, hero points, dark/light side points, etc). However it's always available as just an implicit part of GMing, and is often "accidental" — the player tries to do something the GM didn't expect, and the GM finds the possibility of this new truth interesting enough to let the player make the roll, and possibly change the "truth" of the world.
Note: While @Ovinomancer makes good points about the negative aspects that this approach can have, I think he's missing the point in treating it as purely negative. D&D may not have an explicit mechanic for introducing new world truths, but it's trivial to treat most skill checks as a means of engaging in that style of play.