You Must Be This Tall To Ride

When your players fail a roll is it exciting, or is it boring and frustrating? If the latter, you’re doing it wrong.

It’s my inclination as a GM is to think of success and failure in terms of success vs. non-success. Of progress vs. non progress. Of pass vs. try again. Before I started this blog, a success for my players meant they got past the obstacle they were concerned with, and a failure meant they were still hung up on it. Which really meant that they’d just try again in a moment, after they’d lost some hit points or whatever.

The problem with this is it makes failure pretty inoccuous in-game and pretty devastating out-of-game – what player wants to stick around after the third failed roll to land a hit on an enemy, pick a lock, etc. Failures should be just the opposite: bad in-game, but innocuous and even exciting out-of-game.

How can failure be exciting? Well, when the good guys get captured in an adventure story, it’s exciting to keep reading and see how they’ll get out of it. In a story, a characters failures make the situation more interesting and suspenseful. And an RPG storyline is no different.

So how do we make failure exciting?

Well, in my old method, a failure result essentially means that something doesn’t happen: the player doesn’t hit the monster, doesn’t open the lock, etc. Failure is exciting when something does happen.

Success and failure should be two lines on a flowchart, leading away from the skill check. Both lead somewhere that’s interesting and brings new material into the story. And I don’t mean the lame flowchart of “if you succeed you get through the trap and if you fail you get through the trap but now have a dozen darts stuck in you.” Some possible examples of what I mean are...

  • Streetwise: on a success, the party finds what they were looking for; on a failure, they don’t just not find it – they get mistaken for part of a criminal organization, by its rivals or by the police. OR they actually find what they were after, but at the cost of getting captured by some very bad people.
  • Lockpicking: success gets the door open. What if failure gets the door open too – but you fail to notice the trap which locks you on the other side once you’re through? Note that this would be a trap the GM only made up when he saw the roll
  • Survival: success gets you where you are going, failure gets you into hostile territory, where you are captured. (note, this has added to the story, because the GM had to add enemies – maybe even major enemies – to the area the party is traveling through. Why they are here and what they want is yet to be determined, but will make your story bigger)
  • For combat: a failed roll can mean so much more than the loss of a few hit points. The party could fall/be pushed into some kind of trap area. The enemy could escape. You could be defeated and surrounded, only to find out that you’ve been fighting people who are on your own side – and the real bad guy has progressed without you.

When failure is treated this way, a skill check stops being a “you must be this tall to ride” checkpoint, and becomes crossroad between two equally interesting options (and on occasion failure might even be more interesting). AND I believe that thinking in terms of what I’ll call “interesting failures” can stimulate GMs’ imaginations to come up with more interesting stories in general.