Von Bek has an excellent question about making character failure interesting.

Hi all,

One thing I sometimes struggle with is player failure, I’ve come up with a few simple failures, like taking more time, or breaking something, but wondered if there were others I might have missed out on.

I know of GUMSHOE, I believe a system that treats failure differently? But are there other systems out, or things that work in all games, especially for investigative adventures when failure isn’t really an option but you can’t just “give it away”?

I’d be more than happy to share my simple list if no-one else wants to take it up.

I’m interested in your list– please share it in comments. (My first attempt to address this was huge– consider this version the first in a series of posts. Thanks!)

Failure’s a big topic, and there is a lot of good writing around the net on the subject. I’ll give you my capsule viewpoint to start. Failure and suffering are necessary to a good story, but randomly failing can quickly undermine your character concept. Character failure isn’t always a bad thing– if you step back from your character’s eyes and think of the game as a story, you might even root for your character’s failure at times. Failure can show adversity (so everyone understands how mighty a feat you’ll eventually accomplish), create sympathy (a hero is someone who fails but tries again), feel right (early in a story you expect setbacks), provide material for character introspection, and more. But when you get to the climax of the story, it sucks when the dice come up ones and you’re just a sidekick and someone else laps up the glory.

Let’s look at the case you mentioned above: a failure that stops the plot. The solutions you have at hand depend on the degree of failure.

Minor: Minor failures derail the plot, but don’t change the overall goal or setting. Not seeing a clue is a great example of a minor failure. Ways to overcome minor failures include:

  • Adopt a new technique. A new avenue to overcome the obstacle or a new angle to achieving the same goal might work. Go with your player’s suggestions– they’re digging you out of a plot hole after all. A failure to find the map to the badguy’s lair encourages alternate techniques for accomplishing the same task. You might seduce the villain’s sidekick and have him invite you home, or scry, or call up an orbital scan, or spend hours staring at google earth looking for the place. If you can’t find the passcode required to enter the complex, hide in their weekly delivery of victuals. In all of these instances, failure doesn’t change the original plan, it just demands a new attempt.
  • Move the clue. If the map was supposed to be in the safe but the PCs don’t crack it, maybe the alarm company has a copy for their guards. Or this week’s edition on National Enquirer has a blurry photograph of the place… if you track down the photographer, he might tell you where he took the picture. Or crops begin to fail in the north– a clear sign of necromantic energy building up!
  • Introduce a new faction that provides the clue… for a price to be named later. Or an ex-lackey tries to make some money blackmailing his boss and needs you to protect him. If your girlfriend is the villain’s ex… well, ew, but also a great source of necessary info.
  • If time’s not of the essence, drop info into an unrelated adventure; an ancient treasure map might point to a historical castle… that is now the villain’s home.

Medium: Medium failures dramatically change the shape of the plot. A party falling to an attack, getting to the space port after the villain has left on the last ship, or failing to create a vaccine for the deadly virus are all medium failures. Below are some ways to deal with Medium failures:

  • Change the plot. Remember, anything the PCs haven’t seen in play isn’t a part of the world. If they can’t create a vaccine, maybe the villain’s not really working on tailored smallpox after all. What the PCs have seen might all be misdirection…
  • Fate intervenes. Sometimes bad luck strikes the villain… just call it karma. Their super clones might not be ready, the ship they fled on might break down in hyperspace, or the death knights that KOed the party are driven off by angels summoned by the PC’s dying cry. This can feel cheap, especially if you have to rely on it a lot– but if you use it sparingly, and especially if you tie it to PC actions, fate’s intervention can be forgiven.
  • Deathtraps. When the PCs are utterly at the villain’s mercy, fall back on cliche. Toss them in a deathtrap and let them figure out how to escape. While succeeding would have been more fun, a deathtrap can be a different type of fun.
  • Sidequest [recommended by Swordgleam below]. The villain has the PCs at his mercy.. and says, “I was going to have to expend some minions fetching the Orb of Pain from the Dread Caverns, but now that you’re here, you can do it. Bring it back for me, or I’ll kill [the PC whose player is gone this week/NPC you like].” The villain didn’t really take the last ship – there’s a swift pirate cruiser hidden behind an asteroid nearby, but if the players want to borrow that ship, they’ll have to make it worth the pirates’ while. They didn’t create the vaccine, but they hear about a scientist who was working on a parallel project, and only needs a certain very rare serum to transform his formula into the vaccine they need.

Catastrophic: The whole campaign is different as a result of the PCs failure. This can come about when the PCs have that final fight atop the volcano… and lose. Or when the black hole generator is set to three seconds and the PCs run instead of destroying the device. Or when the villain gathers the goods and the PCs don’t stop him from ascending to godhood. Or when the cultists compete their waking of Cthulhu. Here are some ways of dealing with Catastrophic failure:

  • It’s not as big as you think. If the PCs failed to shut down the black hole generator, their ship might be thrown ahead of the new black hole that swallowed Epsilon Endrini. While billions of people died and they’ll have no fun reporting in to HQ, they’re still the only choice the imperial agency can turn to. Or Cthulhu only eats three cities, then hibernates with a gullet full of fatty Californians.
  • Everything changes. The new god unleashes a plague that threatens to destroy all life, Cthulhu is rampaging, or other apocalypse descends. Chatty DM talks about changing your campaign this way in This is the End, Friend.
  • Start a successor campaign. It’s fifty years later and your new characters are trying to survive in the world created by the old character’s failure. This can be a great change of pace… but be sure the players are OK with it. A whole campaign dwelling on their previous failure might feel like you’re rubbing their nose in it.