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Compensating for Failure

Failure’s an important element in many adventures. We looked at some cases where failure seemed to derail the plot and looked at ways to keep the game running. Let’s step back a moment and look at failure from a bigger perspective.

Planning for Failure

In Heather’s article, Influence vs. Scripting: the Fine Line of Free Will [1], she argues that absolutes are plot holes in disguise. In the glossary, she emphasizes that “An absolute is generally a sign that you haven’t thought something through enough, or that you haven’t provided enough information about something.” She’s discussing Adventure and Module writing for publishing, but the warning proves just as true for a home game. If the PCs have to make a choice one way for the game to continue, then it’s not really a choice.

She continues, “You can use things like the fluid world principle to fix such problems if you didn’t spot them in advance, but it tends to be easier to fix these things during the planning stages of your game rather than on-the-go.” The previous post on failure [2] has a few solutions for patching those absolutes when they crop up.

Failure, in this case, includes not just failing the roll to spot the key bit of information– it includes the assumption that the PCs will go to the room with the crucial clue at all. There’s no absolute defense against plot holes like these– you have to make some assumptions when you prep if your players have free choices. Considering alternate ways to provide necessary information and/or alternate paths based on their not finding the information will help you improvise when they players fail to do what you expect. [Which is always, in my experience!]

Plotting on the Fly

Several games include advice on the structure of play. A Dogs in the Vineyard GM is instructed to set up the situation to date [via a clear process listed in the book], identify the status and opinions of the NPCs, and actively play the NPCs as struggling to get what they want. The GM is told not to plan on what events should take place later– events should come about as an interaction of the PCs and NPCs each trying to get what they want. This means that there’s never a missed clue to bog down the story– if some evidence is missing, both sides will be struggling to advance their agenda anyway. The game will play out differently if the PCs get one part of the puzzle but not another– but there’s no need to drag them back to the plot.

Doyce discusses his technique in How do I prep? [3] First the players create characters enmeshed in the local situation. “After that, all I have to do is provide Conflict and play the NPCs as they would act in the situation that we’ve created. Conflict breaks down into Goals (stuff you’re trying to achieve), Doubt (about when, whether, and how Stakes will be won), and Cost (to achieve the Stakes)”.

Fang Langford has provided a number of clear examples of this play style. Star Wars as an RPG [4] was an excellent introduction, later refined using Ghostbusters (one [5], two [6], three [7], four [8]) for an example. Dan summarizes this play style, called No Myth [9], in a great post containing the links above and many others.

Making Failure Attractive

Sometimes failure is frustrating; you’re rooting for your PC and the dice run cold. Sometimes the forces of luck smash your character flat; your mighty fighter can’t hit all night, and it’s the wizard’s lucky critical with his quarterstaff that kills the dragon. Other times, failure is more interesting– sometimes it’s unexpected failure that tells us more about the character. As players we might know that you’ve missed the sorceress because you kept rolling 3s, but you could describe it as your character’s hesitation to hurt a woman, however horrible, and we’ve learned something. Some systems build this in.

Trollbabe is interesting because the player gets something out of every roll. On a success, the character succeeds and gets their goal. On a failure, the player gets to describe how their character fails. This lets you fail the way you want to– if your character is a mighty warrior but the dice make you lose… well, you can describe how you were on the verge of victory when the crowd cheats to save their champion. Or how his blade gleams wetly, and its only as the strength fails in your arm that you realize he used poison. Failure turns out to be a great time to learn a lot about your character. (Failing to persuade someone can be even more revealing; was it because you’re a poor speaker, or because you talked over the head of your audience, or because they didn’t like you threatening them with a drawn knife in the middle of your argument? Or did you actually win, but they bought off the judge, so he rules against you anyway?)

Primetime Adventures also handles this creatively; I read some great advice about success and failure just after our game ended. Doyce had some problems [10] with game play. The key to Primetime Adventures is that each character has a driving struggle, their Issue. The key to fun play is picking an interesting issue– one that you’ll enjoy playing succeed or fail. (Over the course of the game you’ll play both sides many times.) When a conflict comes up, set up your goals around your issues. “If I succeed, I make progress addressing my issue accomplishing X; on failure my issue rears up while I’m accomplishing X.” It’s a TV show, so we know the characters will succeed in the end… but will Grisom step out of his shell long enough to tell Sara he loves her before he gets roped into another 14 hour investigation? If you pick a powerful issue, you’ll be happy when the PC fails– it shows how much they are struggling against and you get to play out interesting consequences that picking your issue implied from the beginning.

Spirit of the Century gives you a powerful tool, Fate Points, when you accept a compel (which acts as an auto-failure). Your most powerful abilities and big bonuses are powered by the fate point pool, so you have to setup aspects for the GM to compel to have increased effectiveness later.

Other Tools Encouraging Failure

Levi of Amagi Games [11] has a couple of Gambits that you can add to any existing game. From Strain [12]:

Imagine if, while playing along, one of the normal side effects of failed rolls, of taking damage, and most other negative outcomes, was that you gained points called “strain”, and could spend those points to change your character – not to make them larger, but to remove some features and replace them with others, making them dynamic in ways other than direct growth.

Failure can be a great time to tempt [13] the player:

Imagine if, when you were making your regular roll in a game, you rolled an extra die or two of the same type, and that these dice didn’t count, right off the bat, but they could. If you just paid a little something extra. So, it looks like you missed the orc with that roll, yep – oh, but your temptation die would be good enough to make the grade, if you switched to it. Is it worth paying a point of your health, strain a little harder, and do that?

Have you ever cheered for your character’s defeat in a game? What was one of the most unexpected failures that you had to deal with as a GM? Do you think failure builds a better story, does it signal bad tactical decisions, or is it usually a sign of the GM’s failure to calculate an appropriate challenge? Do you want to be compensated when your character fails?

5 Comments (Open | Close)

5 Comments To "Compensating for Failure"

#1 Comment By itliaf On September 15, 2008 @ 7:36 am

Great article Scott.
One of my favorite things about this blog is the way you guys can so smoothly synthesize a lot of the various ideas about RPGs floating about the internets to create a richer discussion.
Just before the first post in this series, I ran some very satisfying gmaes taking the approach toward prep and views of failure that Heather, Fang, DitV and others have espoused. It’s nice to know that there’s a whole community of people gaming like this, and that I can continue to view failure by my players as (to quote the Lard) “crisitunities.”
Also, that temptation gambit is extremely, well, tempting.

#2 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On September 15, 2008 @ 8:13 am

I file this type of article/thinking under “Research and Development”. It’s necessary, but it takes a lot of work, and a lot of failures to get something good out of it.

I’m not ready to start making large fundamental shifts in my gaming style; after all, it’s working for me and my group. (Caveat: As a new father, I’m not running a game right now.)

But this kind of experimentation is absolutely necessary to the hobby. Mainstream games have picked up on many of the elements that indie/cutting edge games introduced ‘back then’. (Action Points, etc), and will continue to do so. I’ve given The Forge and company a lot of (IMHO, well-earned) grief for over-thinking and over-engineering gaming, and especially for mistaking game theory for actual gaming, but the R&D that they do is very important to the hobby.

R&D is like mining – you’ve got to go through a lot of useless stuff to get to those few diamonds that makes it all worthwhile. And, as with mining, your customers really don’t want to do all that digging with you; they just want the finished product. (As an added bit of self-justification, criticism is also necessary to the process.)

#3 Comment By Karizma On September 15, 2008 @ 9:15 am

Once I plaid under a very story-oriented GM, and my first-level bard did a lot of failing at performing at first. I blamed it on my complete alienation from the world I was in (the GM had all our characters zapped from whatever fantasy plane/world we dwelt into his), and something interesting happened, my bard began to grow a bond with horses, in an almost druidic fashion.
My initial failures as a stereotypical silver-tongued bard ended up giving him–in a strange twist of fate–bond with an air elemental.
That’s when I realized that good gaming isn’t as clear cut as accomplishing goal X, but touching A through Z in the process.

#4 Comment By Scott Martin On September 15, 2008 @ 10:00 am

Itliaf: Tell me about a cool part about one of those sessions. Was there a failure that a player cheered, despite their PC hating the event? I know that it can be hard to ever step back from cheering your characters on to victory after victory; I’ve caught myself getting sullen when the dice turn against my poor PC.

Telas: I agree that criticism is necessary– particularly when flowery language leads you to believe play will alter in X way, and it turns out that your players actually react entirely differently. I know that even when I go into a new game with an experimental/try the mechanics mindset, it’s still hard not to fall back on habit: victory good!

Karizma: I’ve always enjoyed seeing where the story goes; that’s one reason that Prestige Classes and other paths that require planning in advance don’t appeal to me as much as a player. I’d rather react organically to the events of the session… and bonding to horses and an air elemental sounds like a great journey for your PC.

#5 Comment By Swordgleam On September 15, 2008 @ 5:06 pm

I think the greatest failure I’ve ever been involved in as a player was when three PCs and an NPC walked (well, got teleported) into some ice caves, and only one of them made it out alive. Our assassin came back as an utterly messed-up ghost, my character, as far as we can tell, got resurrected by the lizard god, and the healer, our only surviving party member, was completely traumatized.

I don’t really think there was anything the GM could have done to stop that one. We never once followed her plots as she expected, and the ice caves were certainly no exception. It definitely built a better story than “kill the lizards, save the NPC, clear your names, go on to do something else” could ever have done. After all, we had to go tell the assassin’s family that she was dead, and that in itself was a whole story arc.

We certainly made a lot of bad tactical decisions in that encounter, but we were all playing our characters. The assassin was smart, but lacked common sense, so repeatedly firing a jammed gun full of explosive ammo until it blows up in her face is something she would do. The healer would freak out and be unable to accomplish anything after being covered in pieces of her friend. My character was intensely loyal and didn’t care much for her own life, so she would throw away her only chance of survival to avenge her friend.

I wouldn’t say any of us cheered for it to happen, but that failure made a far better story than our success ever could have. (And the assassin’s family wasn’t as upset about it as one would think.)