Respectful Failure

Stick-Figures-Slips-Trips-FallsThis is another one of those ideas that I make no claim to novelty of, but i want to talk about because it’s pretty important. Game design has been slowly getting its hands around the role of failure in play. It’s a big and complicated topic (that can look surprisingly simple) with many different answers, but a lot of good conclusions have been reached, at least intellectually.

Now, first, it’s important to note that there is a mode of play where failure is supposed to be educational, presuming you survive it. It is a tool of exploration, and a necessary component of trial and error. If you miss a clue, then you might not solve the mystery, and the consequences will roll forth from that, so maybe you better hustle to find another solution. RPGs are pretty good at this type of failure, and it has its own body of technique which I’m not speaking to today, except to say that if this is what you’re looking to do, then totally don’t worry about the rest of it.

Another approach is based on the idea that failure should not stop play, and arguably should not stop fun. Failure, in whatever its form, should keep the game moving – failing forward, as it were. This idea is most clearly crystallized in Gumshoe, where investigation skills cannot fail, so long as there’s something to look for, because having a game come to a dead stop because of a failed roll is pretty dull. This same thinking can be applied to rolled failures – the character may still fail, but the plot will unfold in such a way that play will keep moving forward.

I am, I admit, a little skeptical of this approach. I heartily applaud the sentiment, and there are definitely situations where it’s applicable, but it shows some cracks in practice. It provides a lot of opportunity to showcase how many ways a GM can say “no” without actually saying “no” for one thing – judging applicability of the situation or requirements produce the same result as a no, but with a bit more absolution.

Also, practically, a lot of games with very generous theories of failure have very concrete mechanical measures of failure. Even if the game is going to be very generous about what failing a Socialize check might mean, odds are good the attack and defense rolls are pretty darn explicit in their outcomes.

This is not necessarily bad, but it’s worth being cognizant of.

The problem, I think, is one of mindfulness. GMs are busy, and when presented with a specific failure, they have incentive to take the simplest path through, and that is often either a flat no or a mechanical resolution. This is just human nature. But if you can get a GM to stop for a second and think “how can I make this result interesting?”, i think that almost every GM is capable of providing a satisfying answer.

That is to say, the problem is not one of creativity, it is a challenge of helping the GM stop and think. This is the real genius of the Powered by the Apocalypse (PBTA) 7–9 result – its specifics may be good or bad on a particular move, but it does not allow the GM to fall into a rut – she has to stop and think. And once you’ve gotten the GM to think, good things happen.[1]

Other rubrics can help. “Failure should move the plot along” can force the GM to think, but it’s a little bit plot-dependent. When it works, it can really keep things moving, but it definitely relies on a strong idea of what the plot is. I usually don’t, so that only helps so much.

My preferred approach is fairly predictable – as usual, I look at something plot centric and wonder about making it character centric. With that in mind, I practice something I call Respectful Failure. That is, the failure must respect the capability and concept of the character taking the action.

For example, if the character is a world class sniper, and they blow a roll to hit, then I cannot simply say they miss. That pretty much denies their concept. Instead, I must come up with an explanation for why they missed which is respectful of the character’s competency. That forces me to think, and it gets me a lot of what I love out of 7–9s in PBTA – it complicates the game. Why? Because when characters are very competent, their reasons for failure need to be interesting. To get back to our sniper, if he fails, then it might be because:

  • The shot was lined up but that’s when the counternsiper opened fire
  • Someone else shot the dude first
  • It was a hit, but it was the body double!

And so on.

Note that my priority here is respecting the character, but the result of that is something that moves the action forward. This resembles advancing the plot, but it’s a subtly different beast, because I have no plot to speak of (also, it posits a very fluid gameworld, which is not to everyone’s tastes, and that’s fine – see the original disclaimer.)

Now, this is not necessarily something I will do on every roll, because not every roll is a showcase of the character’s concept. If our sniper tries to pick a lock, and the dice turn against him, I have no problem saying the lock is too well made and that he fails to open it (though I will not create a situation where picking that lock is the only way to keep playing, because I don’t hate my players) because picking a lock is something incidental to his concept. If he were playing a cat burglar, it would be a different matter.

Some games give very clear flags for which rolls deserve respect, and things like very high skill ranks and things like aspects are all useful pointers. But I admit there’s also a bit of reading the table and the situation involved – how much spotlight has that player gotten? How much do they want to have? What is the rest of the table interested in? Can the consequences of this toss the ball to someone else? The answers to questions like that help me adjust my decision making on the fly.

To go back to the lockpicking example, I might interpret a failure as picking the lock but triggering the alarm if the team’s hacker has been sitting on his hands for a while – the failure gives me a chance to toss the hacker the ball and give him a challenge to overcome.

And that’s a key technique there – a failed roll can easily be a success with consequences if you have a high trust table and loosely articulated stakes. If you’re doing strict stake-setting, this would probably be in bad faith. But strict stake setting is slow and boring, so that doesn’t worry me too much. 🙂

This works in most loose systems, but it has a particular challenge in Fate. We designed Fate pretty generously, enough so that failure is not terribly common, especially within the character’s core concept. As such, it is hard to get the cycle of respectful failure moving at the table with old habits. But I’m wondering if the right answer is to be a bit more of a bastard GM (I am usually too kind) and put more pressure on the fate point economy, enough so that the players feel more obliged to stomach the occasional failure. But that is a topic for future experimentation.



1- For the unfamiliar, a lot of rolls in Apocalypse World and other games using the engine work something like “Roll 2d6 plus a modifier. on a 6 or less, you fail.  On a 10 or more you succeed. On a  7-9 you get a mixed result, like a success with complications or a failure with mitigation” with specific details varying.

6 thoughts on “Respectful Failure

  1. Sandra

    Yeah, this is something I’ve thought a lot about too. Great topic, Rob!

    “Traditional” fail forward as seen in the last few years seem to have divided it along these lines:

    A successful roll → PCs get what they want and look good
    A failed roll → PCs get what they want but don’t look good.

    I’d rather have it like this:

    A successful roll → PCs get what they want and look good
    A failed roll → PCs don’t get what they want, but still look good.

  2. Random_Phobosis

    The interesting thing is that a skill check is actually umbrella for several different questions:
    1. Was the declared action successfull? Hit, miss or some kind of critical failure/triumph?
    2. If the action was risky (and it should be!), did the character manage to avoid the danger? If not, how does the danger manifest?
    3. Did the character create advantages for the opposion or some sorf ot other negative consequences?

    Usually the single roll tries to provide interesting answer to only one of the questions, leaving others with uninspired “well… nothing”. I liked how Apocalypse engine and Blades in the Dark try to provide two interesting answers simultaneously and even deleoped my own lightweigt system, which only has “7-9” rolls.

    There’s a deck of 12 result cards (immediate sucess/no success now, but advantage in future/alternate solution) and a deck of 12 consequence cards (harmed by the threat/unharmed right now, but in immenent danger/no threat, but the chosen approach is useless from now on/pure chaos for everyone involved). To resolve an action, the player draws two pairs of cards, which form a result and a price, and selects one.

    Invoking aspects allows to draw additional pairs of cards. There are no numerical difficulties, instead the situation is judged by GM by being risky (normal), desperate (unfavorable) or controlled (favorable). If the character is particularly well prepared, instead of selecting from fixed pairs, he can select any card from any pair. If the situation is particularly unfavorable, the cards are automatically sorted in a way which pairs better results with worse consequences, so if the player wants to succeed, he’s guaranteed to pay the price.

    Both types of cards actually share on physical deck of 12 cards in such a way that worse outcomes are printed with worse consequences. So if you get a really bad miss, at least the price wont be too high.

  3. Alex

    I like these approaches, and put a variant of this in my game which was inspired by elements of ‘apocalypse’. Specifically for skill checks

    – Succeed and you succeed
    – Fail and I give you a tricky choice (e.g. do you want to abort the jump or lose some equipment as you scramble to make it on the other side? Do you want to miss, or hit the bad guy but find your gun has then jammed/overheated?)
    – Fumble it (really bad fail) and its just bad news 🙂

    I really like the way that this allows players to retain some agency even in the grip of failure.

    Your additional concept of failure respecting the core concept of a character is a neat one though… too late for me to get it into my game, but certainly something I’ll use as a GM when assigning tricky choices.


  4. Ryan H

    “World of Dungeons,” the lightweight hack of Dungeon World (DW), implements this philosophy in the way it adds a mild skill system to DW. If you have a skill (the skill list is short and gaining a skill is a big deal), then you simply never fail. If you roll a 6-, you basically treat it as a 7-9, except that the GM makes a harder move against you than they would for a “normal” 7-9 result. This makes characters really good at their particular shtick, so they look good even if a bad guy knocks them silly right after they pull off their specialty. You have, IIRC, only one skill at 1st level.

  5. sirien

    Hi Rob

    I just wanted to let you know that your blogs are so awesome I’ve decided to translate some of them into Czech language and publish their translation on (which is not just about d20 for a long time… with proper references to your originals, of course) (some of them as they are, some of them – mainly FAE related – together with Fred’s posts with the same topic). Also I’ve translated some discussion posts from here (with author reference, I thought it’s ok since they are publicly written and sometimes there are very cool things or thoughts in them which seemed to me to be worth the effort)

    I’m going to publish them kinda irregularly; I’ve noticed in some discussion that you are cool with translating your posts into other languages, so I was not asking, but it seemed polite to mention it anyway 🙂

    I hope you are going to continue writing this stuff, its really worth reading


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