How to Fail Well

As GMs, we fear failure. Not on our part – we’re good with that – but when our players fail. We’re well trained to handle success, to roll forward and turn it into play, but a failure can totally jam us up. It’s unfun for the player and we’re not always sure how to proceed. So with that in mind, here’s another how to: How to handle failure.

First, the disclaimer.
So with that out of the way…

The rule of the dice is that when you roll the dice, something should happen. Ideally, you’re already ready for both success and failure and you know what to do, but I’m assuming here that you don’t. “Something Happens” shouldn’t be too hard a test to past, but too often, a failure translates into nothing happens, and that’s where things go wrong.

So first and foremost, if you can, make the failure active. Things break, disasters happen, and the manure hits the rotating blades[1]. Things don’t just not work, they go wrong, and in going wrong they demand response. It may seem counterintuitive, but the bigger and bolder you get with with the failure, the more your players will embrace it because it will give them things to do.
Now, that’s great if you can make it happen, but not every failure is going to offer itself to that sort of outcome. Sometimes the action doesn’t suggest a good, fun failure, or sometimes you’re just going to draw a blank on how to bring that failure to life. In that case, fall back on this model: A failure is a success with an additional cost.

That is, the character succeeds, but it’s not an unalloyed success. The character jumps the chasm but twists his ankle on the landing.[2] The lock gets picked, but not before the guards see you. You search the room, but you damage the clue you find. You find the book you need, but it’s in a language you don’t know.

Between these two tricks you should have everything you need to handle a poorly timed failure.

1 – This is also an opportunity to respect your players by attributing flukey failure to things external to the character, If you character is good at something, you don’t want the dice to tell you that you suck. Rather, if the failure has some external cause (missing information, a broken tool or the like) then the player’s expertise is still respected, but things have gone wrong.

2 – This is also a great solution for situations which would traditionally be “Failure equals death” since those failures tend to really suck.

10 thoughts on “How to Fail Well

  1. RobertSlaughter

    Great to see this out there. The whole idea of a failure being “Yes, but …” has been in Burning Wheel since at least 2005, but most mainstream games have not embraced the concept. I love it if for no other reason it give me MORE options as a GM.

  2. Rob Donoghue

    Yeah, “success with complications” is one of those ideas that I take as so much of a given that I need to make a conscious effort to realize that it is not, in fact, a blanket assumption in the hobby.

  3. Sam

    I like where you’re going with this, but I’m curious how you’d tackle it in a combat situation. That seems to be the area where I run into problems executing this. Is a “miss” a failure? Or is losing the battle a failure?

    With a system like Pathfinder (the game I’m currently playing) it seems tough to come up with an active “miss” roll that is a “success, but…” since that usually means the attack doesn’t do damage. Would you still roll damage?

    Unrelated, but since I don’t have a great way to contact you otherwise… I think you had posted or linked to a writing strategy a while back to help with creating a Premise for an adventure/RPG-story that involved filling out a formula like “When [thing] happens, will the adventurers be able to [action] before [consequence]?” Any idea where that’s from?

  4. Rob Donoghue

    @sam Combat is tougher and much more system specific. For something fast and loose, like Fate, it’s easy to make for dynamic failures because one roll may incorporate many things. For a game with more precise actions, like D&D, you just have to trust that the mechanics handle failure well enough, because they’re really the only option.

    As to the writing thing, it’s lifted from an article that Jim Butcher wrote about writing and translated into RPG terms. I’ll see if I can hunt down the original article tonight.

  5. Rob Donoghue

    @sam That said, Dark Sun has a great active failure rule for weapon breakage. I you roll a 1, you have an option – you can accept the miss and leave it at that, or you can opt to reroll, and your weapon will break at the end.

    I actually like that as a general model, and think it could be tweaked to handle other things. On a failure you might, say, opt to “overextend” yourself to get a reroll, but that puts you at a -2 penalty to AC for the round (or perhaps something more drastic). You can move an extra 10 feet before acting, but you end your turn prone (diving!) and so on.

    Some of this absolutely blurs the line between a failed roll and something the system wouldn’t normally let you do, but I think the sentiment is clear enough to prevent any real confusion.

  6. Codrus

    Sam, you might also check out one of more of these books on screenwriting. They all provide a structure for movie screenplays and the last of the three specifically uses a paragraph styled similar to the one you mention to describe movies.

    Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need

    Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies: The Screenwriter’s Guide to Every Story Ever Told

    Save the Cat! Strikes Back: More Trouble for Screenwriters to Get into … and Out of

    I’ve been spelunking through these three books lately and mining them for ideas on how to structure my adventures.

  7. Lisa Padol

    I understand the general principle. The specifics sometimes blindside me. Fr’ex, I get, “Failed seduction roll shouldn’t mean you don’t seduce her. It means she has a jealous husband or will become a psychostalker or something _interesting_.”

    But, if you’re trying to rescue someone on the Conveyor Belt of Dooom! or trying to stop the evil priest from plunging the dagger into the heart of the sacrificial victim, what do you do with a failure? If a player says, “Can my PC take the fatal blow?” I’d likely allow that in the latter case, but even if I thought clearly enough to suggest it, it would feel like railroading, denying the right to fail. As Kat Miller once said, “Yes, I would absolutely have allowed you to fail. Without a real chance of failure, success is meaningless.”

  8. Rob Donoghue

    @lisa The problem with the right to fail (which I actually support) is that a poorly constructed situation can combine with ham-fisted failure to make for a drastically unfunny situation. Consider the beginnign of Raiders of the Lost Arc – there are lots of situations there which would qualify as skill rolls that are life or death, and you could totally model it that way in play if you wanted, but it means that if you blow a roll then Indy dies in the first five minutes of the game, and now what? it’s “realistic” and is has created real stakes, but it’s also crazily unfun.

    Now, if you feel that “success, but…” failures feel too soft, there are two thing syou can do. First, you can make the “but” meaner. I don’t mean that facetiously – I have often seen people use this tactic and give the but very small teeth. That’s ok for small rolls, but for big rolls, the teeth need to be big too. If players don’t feel th cost, then it’s not very useful as a tactic. Th eother option (which combines with the first) is to make it a player choice. “You can succeed, but only if….”

    Now, this lasy poitn is one that is more subtle than I wanted to get into with my intent of a simple method, but since you bring it up, yes, the “but…” can be misused by the GM to lead things around, and it’s a good check to allow players to be able to opt to “take the failure”. In reality, if you’ve got the players engaged, they will almost always pay the cost, so in reality the process of asking them is a little bit of smoke and mirrors to make them feel better, but I will never underestimate the value of smoke and mirrors.


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