This is a very good topic and one that typically gets little special attention by players and GMs. Heroes need failure, as gdmcbride mentions, because without failure, victory is meaningless. If you already know you're going to succeed, why even bother in the first place?
The real trick to using failure in your games is to keep it present but also that failure should not be the "end" of a story, but rather the impetus for another, interesting and challenging part of that story. It should be clear that failing will make things worse for the players, but not that a single failure will ruin the whole campaign.
The "bottomless pit" is a great example. The setup seems pretty straightforward: the PCs have to cross the pit and either they succeed and the story continues, or they fail and the story ends. But that's actually pretty boring and more than a bit trivial. This tends to lend itself to a few resolutions, none of which are appealing in the long-term:
1) The GM might decide to make the difficulty of crossing the pit really easy, thus limiting the likelihood of PCs failing and falling to their deaths. This defeats the purpose of the pit. If the pit is so easy to cross, then it really provides no sense of danger in the first place and the whole scenario is futile. The pit may as well not even exist as it was never really a meaningful obstacle to begin with. The PCs will cross and promptly forget about the pit because it was in no way memorable.
2) The GM might decide to be lenient and allow PCs who fail when crossing the pit additional chances to overcome it. They slip and fall and the GM allows them to make a check to catch themselves, or another PC catches them by the hand and drags them back up, or they only stumble a little but don't completely lose their footing. These are much more common occurances and really serve as a sort of "saftey net" when the GM sees that something bad is about to happen. "Whoops, I didn't expect him to fail that roll and fall to his death...I'll let him roll that again/I'll fudge the results a bit". This is not a great solution because its use tends to ruin the suspension of disbelief and kills some of the sense of risk. Often times, players will react to this thinking, "the GM wouldn't let my character die, so even if I fail, I'm probably safe". This is not good for your game.
3) The GM will decide it's just best to "play it by the numbers" and not risk ruining the suspesion of disbelief. If the roll fails, the PC falls into the pit...wham, bam, the end. Congratulations! Roll up a new character. This method maintains the greatest sense of risk, but it is also really demanding on your game and your players...and it's not a whole lot of fun (for player or GM).
The trick to really making the best of your adventures and encounters is that while success should obviously be exciting, failure should also be as well and should create new and more dangerous challenges.
So, if you have a "bottomless pit" scenario in your game, how do you make failure exciting? As an example, instead of failure meaning a PC falls into the pit and dies, perhaps when the PC slips and falls and thinks all is lost as he disappears into the depths, he suddenly falls into a big pile of sandy earth at the bottom (and probably is a little worse for wear from the sudden stop). Lighting a torch, rubbing his head and looking around, he sees a bunch of skeletal remains at the bottom of this pit and a large tunnel dug into the wall near him. Inspecting further, he learns that this tunnel was carved by some kind of large insects and guess what...they're still home and view the PC as an intruder/meal. Perhaps another end of the tunnel emerges into a nearby room above where the other PCs (who didn't fall) are and they can try to come to his rescue.
As you see, in this scenario, if the players succeed, the story continues as usual, but if the players fail, it's not over...it's just the beginning of a new, unexpected challenge.
Failure should complicate the PCs lives, not bring an abrupt, random, pointless end to them. Every failure should leave your players thinking, "Uh oh! How are we going to get out of this one?" That's when failure is cool, because that's when the PCs can really test their mettle.
At the same time, be sure to keep failure alive in the minds of your players and keep them feeling as if they are in danger. If there is no sense of danger and no risk of losing things to failure, then there is no value to success.
Last edited by Webhead; 08-14-2008 at 04:48 PM.
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