Failures That Hurt a Game

By JaffaCakeLover at deviantART

No matter how many bonuses a character possesses, the dice will eventually turn against them. They will fail an important roll at a critical moment. This can be a good thing, because success means nothing without the possibility of failure. Unfortunately, it can also be a bad thing, because not all failures are good for the game. I’ve seen more than my fair share of games, including my own, brought to a screeching halt because the GM didn’t know what to do when the dice wouldn’t deliver.

What Purpose Do Failures Serve?

If failures are so unpleasant, why do we have them? Why not just declare that players always succeed at what they’re trying to do, and then have a party? With ice cream. And cake. Originally, back in the ancient seventies, when roleplaying games were first diverging from wargames, the answer was simple. These were games of skill, and it was important to know when someone was winning or losing.

However, as roleplaying games evolved and became more story oriented, that answer changed. Nowadays it’s obvious that even Dungeons and Dragons isn’t a competitive game. A GM can easily wipe out the characters if they want to, but that’s not much fun for anyone.

Instead, dice rolls have become an impartial way of deciding what direction a story will take. When a player wants their character to take an action that has an uncertain outcome, a roll is called for, modified by how skilled or able said character is. That’s where the ‘game’ part comes in. The story will change based on the outcome of a random number generator.

Pointless or Damaging Failures

Stop me if this sounds familiar to you.

GM: Roll to climb the wall.

Player: Okay. Oops, I failed.

GM: Umm… Roll again.

As GMs and players of roleplaying games, we are conditioned to roll dice. When a player asks to do something, the GM’s first instinct is to call for a roll. However, there are many situations where such rolls are unnecessary because all a failure does is stall the game. If nothing interesting happens as a result of the failure, then it’s pointless.

Here’s another example. The GM has crafted a story in which the players convince the King to help them. Said GM calls for a roll to convince the King, and it fails. Now the GM has no idea how to advance the story. In this situation, the GM should have just roleplayed the King being convinced, then moved on to the interesting stuff.

Damaging failures are a worse version of pointless failures. These are failures that actively reduce everyone’s enjoyment of the story and damage the game as a whole. My favorite example of this is drawn from a scene early in Fellowship of the Ring, when the hobbits are hiding from the Ringwraiths just after leaving the Shire. A lot of GMs would be tempted to call for a stealth roll in this situation, but what happens if that roll is failed? The Ringwraiths kill Frodo, take the ring, and that’s it. End of story. Everyone can take their dice and go home.

That’s an extreme example, but it can apply to a lot situations. If the players are trying to save the only NPC who has the information they need to advance the story, it will probably damage the game if that NPC dies. This can apply to successes as well, actually. If the PCs kill the big bad guy/gal in the first session, and the GM has no plan to replace them, that’s going to hurt the story a lot.

How GMs Can Avoid Them

The best way to avoid pointless or damaging failures is to not call for rolls that create them. Know when a die roll is going to produce interesting results either way, and when it’s only for its own sake. However, all things are clear in hindsight and sometimes a bad failure is bound to sneak through. I know it happens to me more often than I’d like.

In this situation, it’s all about thinking on your feet. If possible, introduce a complication that keeps the story moving. In the Ringwraith example, maybe Frodo and company get away, but Sam is seriously injured. Maybe the King agrees to help them anyway, but secretly becomes afraid that the players are looking to depose him and thus plots against them. In the case of something more mundane, like climbing a wall, the guards could arrive and arrest the character for trespassing.

Of course, sometimes the only solution for the GM is to scratch their head and say “oops, I probably shouldn’t have made you roll for that,” and then carry on the game as if the player had succeeded. So long as the group is a good one, they’ll understand that everyone makes mistakes, and accept it for the health of the game.

When planning a session, I recommend thinking of each die roll as a fork in the story. The game might take either direction, and both are equally valid. If you want a scene in which the players try to land a damaged spaceship, you should consider the results of both success and failure instead of assuming the roll will pass and moving on. This requires a little more work, but will improve the game by leaps and bounds.

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  1. Thomas

    A concept that originated in indie RPGs and that I’ve been seeing come up more often is the notion of “Fail Forward,” where the GM takes a failed result and instead of saying “you don’t succeed,” has the option to say, “you succeed, but.”

    E.g. if you fail the Thievery check to pick a lock, then you pick the lock, but it took too long and guards arrive when you finish. Fail the Bluff check to get past the bouncer? He lets you in but takes a bribe. Fail the Climb check to scale the wall? You made it, but you’re worn out and lose some hitpoints or a healing surge to reflect that.

    It’s a good way to still allow players to roll their skills and have that random element in the game, without letting a failure bring everything to a screeching halt.

  2. majorgs15

    Just a thought – I had a case where the “roll to climb the wall” did cause multiple failures for ONE PC. It was one of the most memorable parts of that gaming session. a) it got to be funny; b) there was a sense of urgency that the PC (along with all the party) needed to get up the wall – each failure built the suspense/sense of urgency; and c) it forced the REST of the party to work together to figure out how to get the clumsy and heavy dragonborne up the cliff face so they could complete their task quickly.

    Was that the *purpose* of the rolls for climbing the wall? NOPE, lucky happenstance that came out of the call for rolls and the results.

    Lastly, if you *don’t* call for the rolls for something one class can do (Rogues and wall climbing) then why bother taking that kind of character, if EVERYONE can climb the rock faces without penalty or chance of failure?

    Your points are good, but the “counter-points” may well produce better story. (Even if the failures/falling caused damage (I made it VERY small/limited damage), since not only did the PC’s feel the TIME crunch, they didn’t want to face what lay ahead with wounded/less than 100% healthy party members… more suspense, etc.

    Thanks for the article. It’s a good thought piece.

    • Caffeinator

      I don’t believe you and the author are at odds in your viewpoint. The “pointless rolls” are rolls without consequences. Losing time as you race against a clock is a consequence. Your example would lead to something like this instead:

      GM: Roll to climb the wall.
      Player: Okay. Oops, I failed.
      GM: The clock ticks. You’re running out of time to complete your objective…would you like to try again?

      This is also why a lot of D20 systems (Like D&D/Pathfinder) allow you to take a 10. If there is no urgency to accomplish something and it’s not terribly risky or difficult, just let the players succeed.

      Likewise the “Damaging Rolls” isn’t talking about hit point damage to a character. It is referencing rolls that are damaging to the story/game. The risk of taking damage if I fail a roll can easily add to the game. But on the flip side, making Frodo make a roll so that he doesn’t accidentally drop the one ring into the hands of a Ringwraith might add a little bit of tension if he succeeds but completely ends the story if he fails. Though, this is only a problem if you have no plans for how the story could continue if you fail.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        That’s about the size of it. If the characters need to finish a task before a time limit runs out, multiple rolls can be appropriate, and even big failures can be fun if you have a way to keep the story going afterwards.

  3. E. H.

    When I used to play tabletop role-playing games I didn’t mind so much of a character got killed in a fight because the enemy had better weapons and was stronger or something.

    But the rules often had very petty reasons why an attack or defense would fail. You even had to role for the armor that you were wearing to work properly as if a layer of metal over your vital parts differed from moment to moment as to whether it was there or not! LOL

  4. Brenden1k

    Not sure I agree with your Frodo example, seems to me that bad rolls should be able to kill a pc, after all as rougelikes show, the harsh price of failure can make success all that much rewarding. Plus the ringwraiths were summoned by a fire aka PC mistakes and they had a ring of invisibility. Not having a risk of dying there may well be hand holding.

    I remember one of my most memorable gaming moment in my limited expernce, was where thanks to some mistakes in Star Wars FFG where I shot our reinforcements assuming they were foes thus turning them against us, the fat guy (rpg character was fat) from our party got a bank vault thrown at him by a sigh and game masters decided a failed roll would be instant death, we were so thrilled when he dodged it.

  5. kattus kittekatus

    Yeah, my GM few times was surprised by how bad dice roll screwed the battle and almost got all players killed [mage had it worse by “random” attaching monster from sidelines or ceilings to him, 6 times he had to make save rolls. It’s a miracle he survived that long]. But well, GM and most of the group has a policy “PC dies, you create new one”, so no lesson learnt.

  6. Jerry

    “Now the GM has no idea how to advance the story.”
    Well, maybe that’s the problem. The players should be the ones advancing the story, not the GM. If the Ringwraiths win then they win. Of course, the Ringwraiths themselves still have a journey ahead of themselves so it’s not a complete game-over, but the players will have to bust butt to catch up to them and somehow steal the ring back.
    And that is what creates suspense in a game. It’s not whether or not a check will fail but whether or not the mission as a whole will fail. If the mission itself cannot be allowed to fail because of plot protection then you are rail-roading. Failures are important because that’s life. Failure happens and part of life is learning to deal with it.

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