Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) games have changed the landscape in a lot of very positive ways, but the one that has resonated most at my table – even feeding into other games – is the idea of “failing forward.” That is, creating a partial failure that moves the plot, or at minimum makes things more interesting. This is an idea that’s been around for a while, but PbtA turned this idea into systems, primarily by saying that players may succeed even with a failed roll, but at a cost. This is a sea change for games that had for decades operated practically under the maxim that “failure means nothing happens,” and I want to be clear that this rocked my gaming world. It’s also something that’s almost trivially easy in theory to add to other games. In practice, it’s maybe not as obvious.
The scenario I see used most often is picking a lock. If a character fails, they still pick the lock, but alert the guards or trigger a trap. This is a great example: it’s quick, easy-to-understand, and keeps the game from screeching to a halt when all the plot is on the other side of that locked door. The problem with using (or over-using) this idea is that it can strain the fiction to always have guards or traps waiting in the wings for a failed roll. If nothing else, players will rapidly begin to take precautions against these consequences, which either slows the game, makes the players feel helpless when the precautions don’t work, or both. Also, most groups do more in a given game session than face an endless progression of locks and goblins.
So how can you vary your failures in ways that make a game more engaging?
First, Figure out Your “Menu of Options”
In theory, a really good, creative GM should be able to come up with complications and difficult choices on the fly. But they also say that about coming up with names, and
Hit points are the easiest resource to remove, and this tactic works extremely well for lower-level or survival-oriented games where death is always close. At higher level or in more cinematic games though, taking away a handful of HP barely even registers to players, and the difference between your meat shield and your sorcerer can mean that a hit a fighter barely feels can kill another character outright.
Other options depend entirely on the game you’re playing. Games that use willpower, hit dice, luck points, spell slots, stunt points, or mana systems are good candidates for traps or situations that can offer your characters a choice. Simply say “you fail the roll, but realize that if you juice the system with some magic (or focus, or lean on your luck…) you can power through anyway.”
It’s important to remember that taking away resources that are usually under the player’s control (like spell slots) should always be a choice – give them the option to spend the resource and succeed. Other resources, like hit points, are usually considered to be under the GM’s control, and these can be removed without giving players a choice.
Create Challenges/Complications with a Choice
This is where the “the guard hears you” can come in. While “when in doubt, have a combat encounter” isn’t a bad choice for most sword-and-sorcery games, you can always mix things up a little by adding other kinds of complications. You may think you’re referring to your list more often than you should, but your players are unlikely to notice, or care. My list is below, feel free to modify or add your own and reuse liberally.
- The characters are cut off from part of the map.
- All skill rolls of a certain type (e.g. Deception) are penalized.
- The characters lose access to a key resource or risk an additional combat encounter to gain it back.
- The character succeeds too well, and must make skill checks to escape the consequences.
- The character succeeds, but their movement is penalized.
- The character succeeds, but all attacks are focused on them.
- The character succeeds, but triggers a combat encounter.
- The character succeeds, but a subsequent encounter or challenge becomes more difficult.
- The character succeeds, but their advantage is counterbalanced by an advantage to their adversary.
- The character succeeds, but must complete another, more difficult challenge to move on.
Most games with a page count greater than a small town’s phone book have a list of conditions. Feel free to use them. Things like blinded, deafened, and exhausted almost always add to the game. But think about other options as well. Things like “stinky” after perforating the colon of a large monstrosity, or “loud” or “dazed.” Use other conditions as a template (or just shamelessly reskin one and call it something else). Make sure your players have an easy way of keeping track of how their rolls are being modified. If you’re playing in person I recommend spraying your players with patchouli oil if they get the “stinky” condition.
Some potential options here:
- Stinky: your character smells to high heaven. If they can smell themselves, they are at disadvantage to all rolls, and stealth is impossible.
- Dazed:Â you really shouldn’t have eaten those mushrooms. Perception rolls are at advantage, but all other rolls are at disadvantage.
- Captivated: whatever you just saw is fascinating. Maybe it’s magical, maybe it’s just really pretty. But either way, you cannot willingly move away from the thing until you’ve spent at least 1d6 combat rounds interacting with it.
- Deluded: for the next scene, whenever your character attempts a roll, if they don’t succeed, they must re-attempt it until they do succeed, refusing to let anyone else try. Even if the roll no longer makes sense, they must prove that this is something they can do.
Another thing to think about is potentially (temporarily) removing access to a resource that the characters rely on. A broken sword or wand that’s on the fritz until time is taken to repair it (especially if your adventure is on a timer – which it should almost always be), can add some awesome tension.
Drive Toward DOOM
Disaster! Woe! Think of what failure that doesn’t stop the plot looks like for the scenario the characters are in. Maybe they’re trying to retrieve critical information to stop a demonic incursion: they don’t get the information, but they do find out where the incursion is taking place in enough time to evacuate the populace. Maybe they’re trying to rescue a king – they fail, but learn what his final wishes were. Think failure with a way forward. Got it? Now we’re going to find a way to make that potentially happen.
Create a tracker from 1-8 (or so). Some failures will move the tracker up one toward The Bad Thing. Let your players decide whether they want to succeed at the cost of moving the “clock” toward abject failure for the first half of the “clock.” The first few choices are theirs. After that, the GM decides which failures move the clock forward.
Sometimes Failure is Just Failure
Let’s reverse course a little. The point of making some failures interesting is to keep the game from getting boring or predictable. Not every failure has to be a choice or change the landscape . Sometimes it’s okay to just let a failure be a failure.
This is particularly true for rolls that don’t especially move the plot forward. We all know the rolls I’m talking about: learning more about a monster, getting additional information from an NPC, or getting some additional intel about a potential encounter. In cases where your players are trying to build an advantage, it’s more than okay to just let them fail. The overall arc of the plot isn’t impacted, and it lets those rolls that you do make into difficult choices or consequences even more special and interesting.
Bonus: Map your Complications to Your Rolls
Now you have a “menu” of all the different ways that you can complicate a roll. You could just use the table at the end of this article to roll up consequences when a character fails and you want to make things interesting. That works just fine, especially when you need a consequence in a hurry. But if you really want to make this approach sing, try mapping out specific consequences to specific failures.
If you’re using a prewritten module, this can be as easy as picking a consequence and writing it in the margins of the adventure. If you’re running the adventure yourself, or are using a bare-bones outline, pull out some possibilities for consequences for each part of your outline – ask yourself “what kind of thing might happen in this area based on my list?” Then work backward from there.
All of this is just my approach. YMMV. Do you have some additional consequences you use in your game (or would like to?), sound off in the comments!
A Random Table For Your Convenience
Need a consequence in a hurry? Roll on this table. If the consequence doesn’t make sense, guess what? You can roll again.
|Roll Result||Consequence for Failure||Example(s)|
|1||The characters are cut off from part of the map.||“The guards hear you and are on alert – you can no longer retrace your steps without having a combat encounter with the guards, potentially drawing more.” “You pick the lock, but as the door closes behind you, the mechanism collapses – the door is stuck shut, and can’t be picked again.”|
|2||All skill rolls of a certain type are penalized.||“The Countess no longer believes a word you say. All Deception rolls for the remainder of the scene are at disadvantage.”|
|3||The characters lose access to a key resource, or risk an additional combat encounter.||“You pick the lock, but in the process, your lockpicks get caught in the mechanism. You can either spend an hour disentangling them, potentially running into a patrol, or abandon them and maybe not be able to pick the next lock you run across without going back and getting them.” “You swing recklessly at the monster and your blade bites deep, but you feel a snap in the handle. Your blade has come loose – you cannot use it until you repair it.”|
|4||The character succeeds too well, and must make skill checks to escape the consequences.||“You succeed too well, and the Countess believes you are the nephew/niece/sibling she hasn’t seen in decades. You must succeed in a series of persuasion rolls to get her to let you do anything other than tell her about your life and why you’re not married yet.” “You jump the chasm, but jump too far and risk smacking into a stalagmite. Roll Athletics.”|
|5||The character succeeds, but their movement is penalized.||“You leap the chasm, but when you land, you twist your ankle. Your movement speed is halved until you take a short rest to bandage and elevate it.” “You take out the creature, but in its death throes, it lashes out with a devastating blow against your knee.”|
|6||The character succeeds, but all attacks are focused on them.||“You identify the monster, but in the process, you draw its attention. All of its attacks are focused on you until someone does enough damage to distract it.” “You successfully counter the wizard’s spell, but he glares at you with hate in his eyes as he orders his minions: ‘That one dies first.'”|
|7||The character succeeds, but triggers a combat encounter.||“You finally manage to translate the arcane tome, but…were you moving your lips while you were thinking? Oh, no. You summoned something. Roll initiative.”|
|8||The character succeeds, but a subsequent encounter or challenge becomes more difficult.||“You identify the tracks successfully. It was harder than you thought it would be because you were looking for the tracks of a single rust monster, but it looks like this is leading to a hive.”|
|9||The character succeeds, but their advantage is counterbalanced by an advantage to their adversary.||“You figure out what the Duke is really after in this negotiation, but as you do so, you realize he’s got your number, too. Any opposed rolls you make against him are at disadvantage as he begins maneuvering against you.”|
|10||The character succeeds, but must complete another, more difficult challenge to move on.||“The handsome sailor seems receptive to your advances. Unfortunately, his very jealous, very armed companion is less enthusiastic.”|
|11||The character gains a negative condition (blinded, deafened, stinky, captivated, deluded).||“You manage to drive your stiletto into the sewage-coated monstrosity’s belly, but when you draw the blade out, vileness follows and covers you. You are stinky.”|
|12-15||Remove a resource under the GM’s control (hit points) or give a choice to give up a resource under the player’s control (e.g. spell slots).||“Looking at the engraving in the wall, you canÂ almost make out its purpose, but it’s magical, and unless it’s partially activated, you won’t be able to tell anything. There’s a hole in the carving that you could probably fit a powerful-enough spell through if you aimed carefully.” “You leap the gap between train cars, but not quite well enough. Without thinking, your arm lashes out to grab the rung of a ladder, and with a sickening wrench, you stop yourself from tumbling to the tracks, but take 1d6 damage.”|
|16-20||The characters are given the option to move the clock forward (first half) or the clock is driven forward regardless (second half).||“You succeed in getting the information out of the kitchen staff, but they’re starting to talk. For a dishwasher, you are awfully curious. Your cover is one step toward being blown.”|