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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