Failure and complications

Failure I think we all agree that a game without any chance of failure would be extremely boring. If you always succeed things tend to get uninteresting after a while. But on the other hand repeated failure can be very frustrating. And I think we all know situations where a failed roll ruined the whole gaming session.

Especially in investigative scenarios failing certain skill rolls can be a show-stopper. When you don’t find the necessary clues you can’t solve the mystery. Of course, a good GM might find ways around this, by offering alternative ways for the players to get their hands on the needed clues or he may fudge a few dice rolls, to get them closer to their goals, but that’s not always possible nor desired. Robin Laws solved a lot of these problems with his GUMSHOE system, in which investigative abilities always deliver the wanted result. When there’s a clue and you have the right skill, you find it. While this works perfectly in Trail of Cthulhu and other GUMSHOE games, I wouldn’t want to run every game using the GUMSHOE rules.

The easiest way to overcome the problem with failure is by always letting the players succeed but if the roll failed add some complications. Imagine a character is trying to climb a wall. He makes a Climb skill check and fails. In most games that means the character slipped, fell and takes some falling damage. Ouch. I still remember when I lost a character fifteen minutes into the game. That’s definitely no fun! An alternative is to let the character succeed at climbing the wall but add some complications. The climb may simply take longer, or the character may be extremely exhausted when he reaches the top. Both outcomes may or may not influence the scene(s) after the failed climb roll.

Another example: a character wants to open a locked safe to get to some important documents inside (which are needed to advance the story). He fails his roll. Instead of letting the action fail completely, the GM could decide that the character succeeded at opening the safe but triggered an alarm. This method allows the GM to keep the story running without making it too easy or too uninteresting for the players. Failing a skill roll does not mean failure but just adds complications which make things more interesting.

A GM who wants to give more narrative control to the players may even consider allowing the players to describe how they failed or what complications they now have to face. Of course the GM should always have the right to veto, since this can be easily abused. But if done the right way this will not only make your game more interesting but also empower your players by giving them more control over their characters actions.

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

5 thoughts on “Failure and complications”

  1. A couple of years ago I found an interesting post on Yokiboy's website about the negotiation of interesting stakes for rolls in RPGs. It's titled "Setting Stakes that Rock!" and I'll post the url in case you or anybody else might be interested. I especially like the "…you go too far" option. The web address is:

  2. I think the idea that failure does not equal damage is critically important. Too many games fall into the trap of fail = damage, in part, I think, because of the combat-centric nature of many game systems. With so much attention lavished on killing things, people quickly slip into a penalty = damage mindset.

  3. It is a problem not with investigation games but any plot orientated game. One bad dice role can mess everything up.

    Part of the solution is in the adventure design. By creating multiple ways the party can achieve key goals there is no single point of failure.

    Some systems solve the problems by having Hero Points or similar mechanics that allow the player to re-roll dice for a small cost.

    However neither of these get around the basic problem – the cost of failure.

    If the GM allows the party to fail at critical points – the game session will probably be a disappointing one for players and GM. The murderer will go free, the party will fail to save the world and everyone is left with a sense of disappointment.

    Ideally, we need a way for players to penalize players for blowing the big dice rolls without having the plot de-railed.

    Maybe some sort of variable scale of XP depending on how much help the GM has to give them.
    .-= Chris Tregenza´s last blog ..A Great Day and A Great Playtest =-.

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