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Redirect The Critical Fail

I was watching the remake of the Italian Job the other night. Aside from being a pretty decent “Super-Thief” movie, it also feels a lot like a spy based role-playing game. The exposition, the introduction and quirks of the characters, the movement of the plot and the back and forth between the group and the villain feel a lot like a role playing game.
The one thing that stuck out to me was that there was obviously a critical fail on a social roll and a really interesting way to take care of it for the plot.

The scene was this: Charlize Theron was having a dinner with Edward Norton trying to get some information on their upcoming theft of his gold. She is undercover as a hot girl while trying to get the info. She rolls her bluff/gather info/manipulation/whatever social roll you prefer, and she critically flubs it. “People I trust, it’s the devil inside them I don’t.” Edward norton recognizes the phrase as something that her father, whom he had previosly killed when stealing the gold in the first place, had always said. The caper is up, he sees through her disguise and realizes he is being set up.

But . . . a wonderful thing happens. The plot completely changes direction based on this failure of a roll. The rest of the party walks in and confronts him, they banter and threaten, Mark Whalberg punches Edward norton, they go off to re-plan.

Here is the way I see it happening at the table:

Stella, Charlize Theron’s player, is making her rolls and role-playing her characters actions. Steve, The Gm, asks her to make a roll to get the last vital piece of information. She rolls and flubs it. Boos and groans are heard around the table. One of the other players, Charlie, says “Wouldn’t it be cooler if we had actually planned for her to fail that and we came up and confronted him.” Steve goes, “Yeah. That would be a lot cooler. If you guys want to do that, then I’m up for it.” They talk a little and say, “Hell yeah, lets go for it. We’ll have to change how we go about this, but why not. Our current plans are blown anyways.” The dynamic of the Game being played changes, but everyone has a great time because of the crit fail [1].

What’s the moral of the story?

Fun should trump the game [2]. Critical fail as a player sucks. It can be funny, it can be played up for the comedic effect but it still sucks. Just because the mechanics have turned against the players, it doesn’t mean the story has to. If the opportunity arises to re-direct a critical fail into some moment of story awesomeness, go for it. Maybe the normally dexterous character critical flubs a jumping roll and misses the cliff edge. Give another player the chance to jump in and save the day, perhaps by having her flying carpet sweep up and catch him, slowly ascending like Marty Mcfly standing on the hood of the delorean. Have one of the players make a redemption roll in order to pull this off.

Critically flub on a roll to read the conniving diplomat’s mind with psychic powers, just before he has the players arrested? Maybe instead of connecting with the diplomat to find that one piece of information that would free the players, the player connects with the president’s mind and gets to explain the situation. The players might still get arrested, but with the chance of freedom later.

The Basic Guidelines

Is it Fudging?
In a word, yes. While the Game Master isn’t changing the result of the roll, the story is being changed around it. It isn’t changing a roll, its allowing the effect of the critical fail to occur, but its also leaving the out for it. This definitely won’t appeal to gamers who like to live and die by the dice. So here is a suggestion on how to incorporate the redirect:

The Redemption Roll
The player who critically failed, or another player who wants to try to bail them out, makes some kind of roll appropriate to the system in order to redirect the failure and provide a way out. This roll should probably be highly up to random chance and not involve skills, powers or other special abilities. If you want to make it especially hard, require something like a critical success, or only a minimal chance, to reverse the critical fail.

Pay With Points
Another way to implement this is to allot the players a certain amount of points they can spend on redirects, or for other plot altering devices. This could be a unique add-on to action points, but it is also one of the uses that Plot Points in the Cortex System (Serenity, Battlestar Galactica, Demon Hunter) [3] have written in.

So if you think this is a good idea, how do you implement it? My suggestion is to wait until a critical flub happens and offer it as a suggestion to just failing spectacularly. It is definitely something that the group has to be on board with, but it can provide a fun way out of a failing situation, while still leaving the fail in place. So what do you think? Have you ever done something like this? Any other ideas for how to implement a redirect? Any places where you can see a game mechanic trigger a story redirect?

10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "Redirect The Critical Fail"

#1 Comment By theEmrys On February 9, 2009 @ 8:49 am

We had a situation where a Critical Fail turned out to save the party, and without any intervention.

It was in Shadowrun (1st or 2nd ed) and the party as usual was being lied too. The contact they were to “take out” was actually the person who had the info they needed to figure out who was really behind it. I was playing a mage and we had a few others in the group, including a suped up Troll (lots of cyber and bioware). At the last minute, something the contact said clicked with me and I realized that the guy we were about to kill was the key to our mission.. I used a spell to stop most of the party but I had NO chance to stop the Troll. At that point, the player of the Troll rolled some dice and announced he was having a siezure in the gutter. We all looked at him. He explained that he’d been rather maxed out on bioware and every time a combat started (or he used his enhancements) he rolled for bioshock… it had never affected play until now… but we looked at the dice and he’d rolled an 01 on percentiles…

Turns out that his well timed critical failure saved the day….

#2 Comment By LordVreeg On February 9, 2009 @ 11:03 am

This is the way the game is supposed to work.

We play a system with lots of social skills rolls (as many as combat rolls, some sessions a lot more), and the amount of failure to some degree dictates the level of failure. And a critical fail is an in-game complete flop.

The game is also story intensive, so all succeses and failures are supposed to be part of the descriptive story.

The pertinent piece of this for your post is that once the PCs are used to playing off the amount of success or failure, they are used to playing off critical fails. And again,k this is the pertinent piece. The PC’s have to be used to playing off the results of the dice for the in-game situation to make this work. If you just wheel this game mechanic out once in a while, you are likely to get a much worse effect.

(Once, my Igbarians crit-failed a social CC with a new gate sergeant at the north gate. He checked all of their baggage and tried to confiscate stuff, despite them saving a team of Bone Knights in an undead-overrun Boneyard. He also gave them a general bad time.
This led to the bards in the group writing songs about him, one of the KNights of the Armor of Trade speaking to his superiors ‘off-the-record’, and a PC from the Underworld paying a hefty bribe to have the sergeant re-assigned to stable-cleaning supervision. Role-Play the damn dice, it is worth it…)

#3 Comment By theEmrys On February 9, 2009 @ 11:13 am

I just remembered another treasured moment. The scenario was the party was attacking the arch villain’s keep and the rest of the party had gone in via the roof on a flying carpet, but the rogue (who was turning evil at this point due to an evil artifact) decided to head in on his own as he didn’t trust the party to get in effectively (and there wasn’t room on the carpet). Rather than sneaking up or over the walls, he boldly walks up to the guards at the front door and tries to bluff his way in. (We were playing 3.5) He has a VERY low Cha and ends up rolling a 3… Seeing the player laughs and tells the gnoll guards “I’m here to your mother.” Ok… I changed the word there but you get the point. Everyone laughed, but then I rolled their sense motive check and they rolled a natural 1… so they replied “Ok.. up the stairs and on the left”. One of the more memorable moments of the campaign… 🙂

#4 Comment By Sarlax On February 9, 2009 @ 12:07 pm

I agree with Lordvreeg that this is how games should be played, and it doesn’t special rules. I’d imagine that in the Italian Job example, rather than retconning the decisions of the party, the PCs just decided to roll with it. “Crap, he spotted us. Let’s go kick his ass.”

#5 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On February 9, 2009 @ 12:26 pm

Sometimes the rules trump the story.

Sometimes the story trumps the rules.

But every single time, the fun should trump both.

The catch here is the “the fun” is defined subjectively, which is why you should have a good Game Charter or Social Contract discussion before the dice hit the table. The other catch is that you need a group who can recognize opportunity in chaos.

#6 Comment By Rafe On February 9, 2009 @ 12:57 pm

—Sometimes the rules trump the story.

Sometimes the story trumps the rules.

But every single time, the fun should trump both.—


#7 Comment By Scott Martin On February 9, 2009 @ 1:17 pm

It’s important for a lot of games (particularly ones where you only roll once per encounter) to make sure both success and failure are interesting or plausible for a continuation of the plot. PTA requires that you embrace failure or it becomes strange and flat with every failure being mitigated away.

I like examples of this coming off well– as a GM I try to encourage PCs to fail every once in a while, but it’s better if failure’s still a fun direction for the story. The filmmaker did a good job of making sure failure made for a memorable twist to the story, but didn’t derail it all.

#8 Comment By John Arcadian On February 9, 2009 @ 1:58 pm

[4] – The party was being lied to in shadowrun?!?!?!?! Never?!?!?!?! 🙂

[5] – “This is the way the game is supposed to work.” I agree with you on that aspect, but I’ve more often than not seen it work in the opposite way. Often, as a player or observer of games, I’ve watched GMs run characters who crit fail into the ground, sometimes with comedic effects and sometimes with annoying ones. I’ve also seen plenty of examples where the crit fail turned out interesting and funny, or took the game in a new direction. Like your Gate Sergeant example.

[6] – You’re right, this is definitely the sort of thing that can be done without any kind of extra rules thrown in, and its how my group usually plays. I know a lot of people who definitely feel that not making a fail or crit fail have definite consequences would make the game less mechanically sound. It’s all a matter of play style and preference for the group.

[7] – Opportunity in chaos is definitely the way to put it.

[8] – Seconded! Kurt, this is the second time today that I’ve seconded you on something. Does that make it thirded?

#9 Comment By John Arcadian On February 9, 2009 @ 2:09 pm

[9] -You’re right, it’s a hard balance to strike. If failure is swept away at all times it doesn’t feel like anything is gained in overcoming challenges, but if the failure doesn’t leave a plausible way to continue the plot it can be fun ending.

#10 Comment By Tommi On February 9, 2009 @ 4:03 pm

This is the normal way of handling failure. Never roll dice unless failure is interesting. Success, too, of course.

The rules and the story conflict only if the rules are ill-suited to whatever is going on or the story has been strictly planned. Avoid fragile pre-planned stories and rules not suited to creating stories and everything works out just fine.

All of these point are only relevant in story-based games. Dungeoncrawls work by different principles.