Dice Tales: Coping with Failure

Roman twenty-sided die(This is the twenty-first installment of Dice Tales, an ongoing series of posts about RPGs as storytelling.)


In any RPG where there’s an element of randomization — which is to say, nearly all of them — there’s a chance, however small, that your character might attempt something and fail.

How large this chance is depends a lot on the system and your character’s level of skill. In D&D, rolling a 1 on a d20 (that is to say, a twenty-sided die) is always a failure, even if the modifier you add brings your total up above the difficulty of the task. That means there’s an irreducible 5% chance that any roll will fail, no matter how good you are. (Conversely, a 20 is always a success, so the newbiest noob has a 5% chance of somehow pulling it off.) In Scion, where you play the half-mortal children of gods, the automatic successes provided by Epic Attributes mean that your character is incapable of failing at ordinary tasks, unless something supernatural interferes. One version of White Wolf’s Storyteller system had the odd design flaw that as you became more skilled in a particular area, your odds of failing normally decreased . . . but your odds of failing catastrophically went up. (They fixed that in later iterations.)

The way I play and GM, I only roll if I actually want to succeed. If I think it would be appropriate or entertaining to fail, I just relent — I skip the roll entirely. That’s basically the Writer Brain talking, saying that it would be a pity to let a good result screw up a chance for my character to face-plant. 🙂 So that means that when my dice decide not to cooperate with my plans, it can be a real problem, because I was hoping for success.

One key to dealing with this is to remember that rolls should rarely, if ever, be all-or-nothing propositions. I don’t make one single combat roll, where if I succeed the bad guy dies and if I fail, I die instead; that would put everything in the hands of the dice and sheer chance. Instead I make an attack roll every round, and the good ones may balance out the bad. If they don’t, well, I have chances to change my strategy or withdraw from the fight or yell for help. The same goes for conversations or investigations or anything else I might roll for. My PC doesn’t remember a key piece of information? Then she can find someone who does.

But even when you make success and failure more granular, there’s a point at which you can’t kick the can any farther down the road; the character and player have to live with the result. This is the point at which many GMs talk about “failing forward”: instead of letting that moment be a wall closing off the story, frame it as something that sends the story in a different direction. The PCs failed to correctly investigate the patrol schedule for the castle, so now they have to make Stealth rolls to sneak past the guards. They failed their Stealth rolls; they get into a fight. They lose the fight . . . so now it’s time to fail forward. Instead of killing them all, say the guards take them prisoner instead, and now there is an Escape From Prison plot. This is an important thing for GMs to keep in mind while planning sessions, because it helps avoid railroading — that model I mentioned at the beginning of this series, where the GM knows exactly how they want the story to go and won’t accept any other solutions from the players. In my current campaign, I wanted my players to bring a certain untrustworthy NPC along on a trip into a dream-world. I figured they probably would, but if they didn’t, I had an alternative scenario prepared; they would encounter that NPC’s spirit later on, after he had been captured and beaten into unconsciousness, and then there would be a chance for them to rescue him. It’s more work, setting up those variant paths, but it allows for more freedom. Not only can the players decide to handle things differently, but you can accommodate bad rolls without the whole plot just dying on the vine.

What you don’t ever want to do is to have “gating” rolls — things that the characters absolutely must succeed at, or the plot will go nowhere. For example, the PCs find a mysterious object, and must roll Lore/Knowledge/whatever to recognize what it is, after which they can act on that knowledge. What happens if they fail? Are they in a position to take it to an expert on the subject? Do they have a way of magically divining its nature, when their own brains fall short? If there’s no alternative, then the GM needs to do one of two things: either provide an alternative, or just skip the roll. Otherwise it’s mere makework, of a sort that can derail the story for no good reason.

From the player side of things, you have to be ready for the possibility that you won’t succeed at everything you want to do. It’s okay — really it is! Novels are boring when the hero never screws up; the same is true for games. (Even though failing a roll feels a lot like losing, on account of the way RPGs hybridize storytelling with gameplay.) Much like the GM, you need to avoid committing so thoroughly to one specific plan that anything else is unacceptable. Have multiple strategies in mind. Accept that maybe it will take you longer to achieve your goal, or the end price will be higher. Tell yourself that setbacks can be good, that not succeeding on your first try can make the story better. Because it’s true! Your wins will seem more satisfying if you have to work from them, and sometimes failure can send you off down a path that’s far more interesting than what you had in mind. Complications are the stuff of drama; constant success gets boring pretty fast.

But when you hit that point where failure really is just an awful, story-destroying thing . . . then I say, talk to the GM. Admit that you need this particular victory, that it really would just suck if you couldn’t manage the task at hand, because you’ve tried everything you can think of and not achieving your goal would leave you stuck in a narrative dead-end. They may have suggestions for ways to fail forward. Or they may agree that this is not the right moment for a roll, and let the story take the wheel. But the more you learn not just to cope with failure, but to use it in constructive ways, the less often you’ll need this option.


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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit swantower.com, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


Dice Tales: Coping with Failure — 3 Comments

  1. Aaaah. I was wondering what you planned to do if Rei hadn’t been all “No, you are coming with us” to Arikoto.

    The flip side of this is for GMs to have a plan of how to handle things when the players succeed unexpectedly. Frex, the whole Zokujin thing (which you handled very well). There’s nothing worse as a player than coming up with a brilliant solution or spending all day hammering out plans and strategies in minute detail, only to be railroaded into failing because that’s what the GM decided would happen *cough::MUMMY::cough*

    • The Mummy game example might wind up getting its own post at some point, because I did a similar thing in Memento, where the PCs were expected and in fact required to fail. I think that kind of thing *can* work in a game, but figuring out how you set the players up for it without just telling them outright “the point of this is for you all to die” is tough.

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