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Fail? Can the world survive failure?

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:

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:

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:

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17 Comments To "Fail? Can the world survive failure?"

#1 Comment By Rafe On September 9, 2008 @ 7:13 am

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.

That happened in a campaign I played. It was a 2-year campaign and the primary party’s progress halted around level 7 or so, and we created a level 13 party that existed 6 months ahead, during the apocalyptic aftermath of… something. The DM wanted the primary party to fail, and assured us we would, and the secondary party knew that some group had done something to make the world the way it was.

Though we never finished it, the secondary group was to encounter two NPCs from the primary group’s entourage and then try to find a way to tell the primary group (6 months earlier) how they’d failed. We encountered the two NPCs, then the DM cut us back to the primary party. We never arrived at the primary group’s failure point.

It was a really interesting concept. As you said, Scott, failure isn’t the end-all-be-all, it just forces a change in story direction. How big a change depends on how involved the failure is.

#2 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On September 9, 2008 @ 8:38 am

I’m looking forward to the replies. For me, the question revolves around, “If there’s no risk, then there’s really no reward. But if there’s risk, then there’s a chance of failure.” And the “new math” gaming theories tell us that failure is not Fun, and Fun is God…

So, do you go old-school, and have a very real chance of failure? Or do you go new-school, and The Heroes Always Win? What techniques can the GM use to include risk without it really being The End Of The World? Or am I ridiculously oversimplifying the topic in order to encourage debate?

(OK, the last one is a gimme.)

#3 Comment By Fang Langford On September 9, 2008 @ 8:45 am

Actually, the problem you’re trying to address isn’t the problem at all. You even seem to feel that way later in the article.

Failure and suffering are necessary to a good story

Not quite; failure and suffering IS a good story. If not the only good story. Never given random failure a chance to control your game. When things are important, avoid dice; the more you roll the more likely a failure.

…A failure that stops the plot.

This is the critical mistake. It exposes a pre-existing plot. That is an automatic failure. Any kind of pre-existing plot is railroading. If you already know the plot save yourself the trouble; never roll anything.

…Failures derail the plot…dramatically change the shape of the plot…the campaign is different as a result.

As I said, if you go into the game with a plot, expect it to get ‘derailed’ (that is such a railroading reference).

If you want a certain ‘shape’ of story (for example, story builds => opponent appears => crisis => final confrontation => climax => denouement), don’t plot the ‘story’, [2].

I’ve made a simple decision about my games; there is no failure. Simple as that. When the dice come up ‘no’, I make it into ‘not yet’. What would have been a failure becomes another complication. And complications are something you can [2]. This article even talks about some of the basics:

…New avenue to overcome the obstacle; failure doesn’t change the original plan, it just demands a new attempt.

Move the clue….

Change the plot. Remember, anything the PCs haven’t seen in play isn’t a part of the world.

All good advice!

#4 Comment By LesInk On September 9, 2008 @ 10:00 am

@Scott: I’m having a hard time thinking of additional cases you have not covered. Most of the ideas I can think of are only shades of the same thing.

@Kurt: I think failure for this article almost needs to be better explained. In the sense of TPK, yeah, that’s failure. Bang, you’re dead! Maybe give the party one more unlikely chance in the death trap as Scott mentions, but it should be horrific. I once had a TPK and decided that instead of killing them, the party woke up naked and strung up by their feet in the forest. Talk about an adventure worth remembering. They lost all their valueables and now where out for revenge (side note: a previous article suggested trying to evoke players emotions, especially hate, and that is a good way to do it). As for non-TPK, continue below.

@Fang: I believe what you are trying to say is that the game should revolve around a setting presented by the GM and effectively be action/reaction — with failure leading to complications. Short of TPK, failure to complete the quest usually does not end the world/story/campaign — it just makes it different and potentially harder.

Instead of helping, I’ll add a complication (sorry, can’t resist). What does one do with parties that have characters killing each other and causing huge problems to the existing plot line (usually in the form of lost information and opportunities, i.e., the leader of the party gets assassinated by a party member)?

#5 Comment By Scott Martin On September 9, 2008 @ 10:04 am

LeSink: Your “knocked unconscious and strung up” TPK result sounds like a good game… and a lot like many 1e adventures, like the Slavers series. [And you’re right; failure’s really too broad to fit into any one article– I’m mostly trying to respond to failure as Von Bek presented it. You’ll see other forms of failure later.]

Fang: No surprise; a lot of the “good advice” is paraphrased from reading you and many others. I agree with much of the rest of your advice for many games and circumstances… it was where I started my response. It didn’t answer the question as directly as the above, so I moved it to a followup post.

Kurt: Your risk/reward is similar to my view that character struggle and suffering make the opposition impressive. If every fight is a cakewalk, it’s not terribly heroic when you finally win. Of course, reading the Fionovar Trilogy recently skews my viewpoint; self sacrifice is a huge theme.

Rafe: I think my mention of the successor campaign came directly from you talking about your experiences. It’s a cool concept… but I’d have to like the way we lost or it would feel like months of rubbing my nose in it. (Unless the world was cooler than the character I was playing; while rare, it has happened.)

#6 Comment By Fang Langford On September 9, 2008 @ 10:21 am

@LeSink: Actually, I’m not advocating exploring the setting at all. I’m saying that the game should revolve around the significant choices of the players without things like setting, non-player characters, plot or anything getting in their way. [2] is about keeping decisions ‘in front of’ the players; all other things are secondary IF the matter.

@Scott Martin: Thanks!


#7 Comment By LesInk On September 9, 2008 @ 11:41 am

@Fang: Ok, I probably used ‘setting’ incorrectly (I meant more loosely as in action/reaction). But alright, I can buy into the fact that you need to keep the interesting choices front and center.

#8 Comment By BryanB On September 9, 2008 @ 12:33 pm

@Scott: You raise several good points about failure. I will just add that in my experience, many excellent campaign moments over the years have been direct results of player failure or mishaps. Watching the players overcome adversity and dig themselves out of a hole (sometimes self-created) can result in a very rewarding story arc.

#9 Comment By Cole On September 9, 2008 @ 1:19 pm

I believe, as Fang as pointed out, that an experienced GM does not have such thing as failure in his plots. What he has is a change in the story.

I think the examples listed by Scott are valid examples on how to make the necessary changes to the plot.

#10 Comment By Scott Martin On September 9, 2008 @ 2:42 pm

Bryan: I like the mishaps rule in d6 Star Wars (though 1 in 6 seems too often)– mishaps, like the sneaking on Endor example in the book, can really shake up a campaign. [I disliked some of the supplement attempts to codify mishaps as weapon jams and the like– an occasional weapon jam is good, but mishaps need more creativity to encourage viewing them as “strange” not hostile.]

Cole: Thanks; though plot holes and failure abound in modules… you really have to watch out for them, be ready to improvise, or proofread it for unexpected weaknesses.

#11 Comment By Martin Ralya On September 9, 2008 @ 4:31 pm

GUMSHOE is used in the excellent Trail of Cthulhu RPG, and it seems like a great solution for investigative games (which CoC/ToC always are). I highly recommend checking it out if you run mystery/clue-driven campaigns — the mechanics seem like they’d be reasonably easy to drift into other systems, and the concepts are great even if you ignore the mechanics.

#12 Comment By Swordgleam On September 9, 2008 @ 5:52 pm

I’d have to disagree with those saying that if it’s possible for the party to fail, it means you’re railroading or an immature group. (At least, that’s how I read it; apologies if I’m misunderstanding.) The GM doesn’t have to create a goal for it to be something the players want to accomplish, and if they fail at that, that’s a failure. Just because the players would rather kick ass than tell a more moving story doesn’t mean they’re immature.

They can fail at defending the village. Maybe it’s okay in your world for the village to get demolished, but if it’s a site-based adventure where everyone has a lot invested in the village, then that’s going to suck. It could lead to some great storytelling as the PCs seek to rebuild the village/redeem themselves/get vengeance, but it’s still a failure. Of course, you could just make it clearly impossible for the village to be destroyed, but suspending disbelief over that is harder than suspending disbelief over a one-time deus ex to turn the tide of the battle.

The question is, are you more concerned with recovering from failures (turning it into a good plot point) or preventing them (keeping the village intact)?

I’m not going to argue about whether or not the former option is a more “mature” perspective, but even if it is, I don’t think that invalidates the latter. Sometimes GMs or groups would rather not have certain failures happen, and options for avoiding such failures are not a bad thing.

On a more productive note, the only option I can think of that you might be missing, especially for medium failures, is sidequest. 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 forumula into the vaccine they need.

#13 Comment By Fang Langford On September 9, 2008 @ 7:30 pm

Hi Swordgleam, there’s no disagreement.

I said that when one has a plot that can be stopped by a failure, it meant that one was railroading. If there isn’t a plot to be foiled, there is no railroading.

Don’t get me wrong; handled well, railroading is actually a very enjoyable game. It takes a lot of work and a great judge of people’s reactions, but it is more than doable.

[2] is that ‘recovering’ from a failure means it isn’t a failure. You might call it a setback, but I call it [2].

If they fail to defend the village, sure they’ll feel like it’s a failure, but its a trivial to change the threat… [2]…from defending one village to defending them all. Ta-da! Instant villain. The game simply becomes more complicationed, nothing is failed.


#14 Comment By Swordgleam On September 9, 2008 @ 9:34 pm

@Fang: That makes a bit more sense, then; thanks for clarifying.

I do think that there are reasons other than wanting to keep a certain plot on track for trying to prevent a failure. I’m not of the opinion that players need to win all the time for the game to be fun, but some failures aren’t worth it in terms of payoff.

#15 Comment By Fang Langford On September 10, 2008 @ 7:24 am

@Swordgleam: You are very right! By plot, I mean a specific series of scenes leading to a planned goal. If you mean plot as in the general movement of the game, we’re all good.

Thanks for responding!

#16 Comment By Scott Martin On September 10, 2008 @ 11:56 am

Martin: GUMSHOE sounds interesting, but also a lot like my shelf of unplayed indie books that grows, never shrinking. If I had players chomping for CoC, I might pick it up to see if it’s a better system for the adventure I plan on running… but I’ve bought too many games that cry out for play.

Swordgleam: I’m glad you and Fang worked out most of the issue. I like your sidequest suggestion– you’re right, it’s a good solution and gets things rolling again. [In fact, I edited it into the post above.]

#17 Comment By The Stray7 On September 10, 2008 @ 12:40 pm

This is an interesting article, and I’d like to share an anecdote from our long-running D&D game.

The players were trying to infiltrate the lair of a cult of demon-worshipers who were in the middle of preparing for some sort of major ritual…and they were not doing so hot. They had managed to get captured, then engineered an escape and recover their arms and equipment. They decided to try and mess up the cult’s ritual, but (long story short) luck was not with them, and the cult succeed in its ritual. The result was one character dead, the other at the mercy of the surviving cultists, and the other two wound up fleeing for their lives.

This was midway between “medium” failure and “catastrophic,” as the cult’s goal was horrible, but not earth-shattering, so I went with what the article calls the “Not as big as you think” option. The tone of the game changed, and this period became akin to our campaign’s version of “The Empire Strikes Back,” with the heroes on the ropes for a while afterward. It worked out fairly well in the long run.