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Thread: Ask a GM [08/12/08]: Making Failure Cool

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    Ask a GM [08/12/08]: Making Failure Cool

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    BruceSheffer asks,

    On the sons of kryos podcast a guest said, 'When you succeed on a roll, something cool should happen. When you fail a roll, something cool should happen!"

    How do you make failure a cool thing to happen for the players?
    Robert A. Howard
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    This is a great question.

    First of all it addresses one of the great problems with many roleplaying campaigns -- the idea that the PCs never really lose. D&D (both 3.x and 4th edition) has lead the way in this design decision to embrace the slow, inevitable advancement as our heroes win time and time again never suffering significant setback, slowly accumulating more wealth, more experience, more magic items. If they do suffer a setback (like one of them dies), don't worry -- spend a little money -- poof! All is well.

    Imagine if you read a novel or watched a movie where this was true. Imagine if James Bond never got captured by madmen or betrayed by hotties. What if Frodo never had to flee from the Ringwraiths and always managed to resist the influence of the One Ring? Stormbringer finally defeats and consumes Elric. Conan is crucified and rips the head off a vulture picking at his wounds. Heroes need defeat, they need tragedy to really be heroes.

    Failure is the hero's chance to shine. Everyone can be great in triumph. It is the mark of heroes to be great in defeat. Without failure, victory becomes assumed, predictable. Soon enough it just becomes a slow, grind of gaining levels and one meaningless victory after another.

    Don't get me wrong -- heroes need victory too. James Bond eventually blows up the enemy base. The One Ring gets cast into the Fire. Elric defeats Yrkoon with the black blade's help. Conan claims the throne of Aquilonia, greatest of the kingdoms of the dreaming west.

    But their triumphs are only meaningful because they suffered hardships along the way. So, when they fail that roll -- its time to shoulder a little hardship. Betrayal, death of loved ones, captured by your direst enemy, fleeing with barely your life, perhaps merely gaining a scar -- they all have their place. True heroes endure for true heroes never give up.

    "I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what."
    -- Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

    Gary

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    Making failure "cool" is a great way to introduce a lot of fun, excitement, and wonder into your game. If you think about your favorite action movies
    some of the best moments are scenes when things don't go entirely right, but the heroes make do and thrive despite the challenge.


    I'm just as guilty as the next GM in that I've had more than my share of failures met with responses like "You drop your sword at your feet." "Your weapon jams." or "You trip and fall flat on your face!"

    Those are easy answers that make sense and allow you to quickly adjudicate a situation and move on to the next active player; but they are not overly heroic or exciting for anyone involved. We all give those responses because they are easy, and fit the situation. How do you make it cool instead?

    "Rothlgar swings his sword in a wide arc over his head, bringing it down hard toward the drow's shoulder plating; just before the satisfying crunch of metal, bone, and ripping flesh can be heard, the drow snaps his sword up in his defense and locks hilts. He then twists his wrists and shifts his feet to pull Rothlgar close and spits a curse into his face."

    "You spray half a clip of rounds from your AK-47 at the guards in the barracks with a howl of glee. Luckily for the guards none of your bullets find their mark; their faces slowly begin to shift from a look of shock to... laughter at something above you? Looking up you see the bottom of a shelf of supplies, riddled with bullets that must have ricocheted from your shots at the guards. The skid is starting to spill fuel down around you. One of the guards pulls a lighter out and says "Flick my bic?" with sardonic glee..."

    "Gwindle gets a running start and then begins to bound back and forth between the trunks of the two trees climbing fast with her acrobatic skills. About seven feet up her foot lodges itself nicely into a squirrel hole and sticks. The elf now has an upside down view of the forest, and a throbbing ankle!"

    While those aren't great "off the cuff" answers, they do have a bit more pizazz in them than the default answers for failure, and will spark the imaginations of your players. How does Gwindle get out of that tree? Does one of the players shoot the lighter out of the guards hands to prevent him from burning them? Will Rothlgar attempt to bite the nose off of his enemy now that they are face to face? That's up to the player to decide.

    I think the easy key to making failure cool is to focus on changing the environment with it, and not to the instant advantage of the player. That keeps it firmly in the realms of "failure" but does not overly punish the person for one bad roll; and does not give them success.

    By making changes to the environment, you keep the combat arena dynamic, and give people new opportunities to manipulate the battle field. Perhaps in the second setup, the next player responds by grabbing the guard with the lighter and pulling him under the spilling fuel?

    The real challenge is that you can't plan for failure ahead of time. Well, I suppose you can, but if you plot every setup for every contingency, you are going to spend a lot of time in the process that could be spent on long term story, player goal fulfillment, being with your spouse, etc.

    Instead, use failure as an opportunity to wing it and you will find yourself getting better and better at it over time. You'll know this because your most devious friends at the gaming table will start rooting for failure just to see what happens. Remember that the "bad guys" can fail too, and you can be just as dynamic with them if possible.

    Also remember that it's still OK to just say "You drop your weapon!" from time to time. Especially when you don't feel the mojo and have no idea how to twist it. If you don't, then every failure will force you to create a new distraction -- which isn't always a good thing; and your players won't be as surprised by it.
    Last edited by Grimwell; 08-04-2008 at 09:26 AM.
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    When I first started playing AD&D 2E, whenever somebody rolled a 1 on their attack roll, it was always explained that they dropped the weapon that they were using. Now to a bunch of new players, that might be a good enough explanation, but as the group progresses, it gets a little hard to believe that a higher level character is going to drop their weapon, especially if they have a rather high strength ability.

    As for how to make failure "cool", the posibilities are really endless. Let's say that the fighter is in a heated sword battle. On his turn the misfortune of rolling a 1 (or whatever the worst possible outcome is for the system that you are using) on his attack roll. You tell the player that in the heated battle that has been going on, the ground has been getting scuffed from the feet of the combatants and now there is loose items likes stones, sticks, clods of dirt and such laying around. Unfortunately for your fighter, he/she has stepped on a rather large loose stone that has caused you to slip and fall on your butt (or other descriptive word that would be appropriate with the group that is playing).

    Now, you have just put the ball in the player's court, to see what their response is as to what they do when the opponent tries to take advantage of the situation. If you are lucky, the player will do more than just try to roll out of the way of the oncoming sword. I had one player say that they swing a leg around to try and trip the opponent. Another one took a hand full of dirt and threw it at the opponents face.

    Now just take what the current situation is and be creative as opposed to just saying, you missed, you dropped your weapon, or your weapon broke, all of the time. If someone is picking up an item off of a table, they could misjudge the distance and accidently knock it off of the table and it breaks (so much for that crystal ball). There are just a few examples, but to give every example possible would take up way to much space. We don't want to make Farcaster have to launch P&PG II.
    Last edited by cplmac; 08-13-2008 at 04:41 PM.

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    when things are difficult i often try to elaborate some sort of impact if the failure was below five. when a critical slip comes about i ask for a second roll of a d20. with it 1-5 nothing but failure happens 6-10 is a mediocre failure 11-15 is a rather bad failure, and last but most interesting is 16-20 which is a critical slip as much as it can go.

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    As a player I like failure...

    To expand slightly on this topic, failure doesn't have to be in combat. Often times, parties will plan something out to a "T". It makes the game very interesting when planning that took an entire session is null at the offset.
    We had a plan to pull off an assassination for the thieves guild. The distance was far, so we decided to shift to the astral and then shift to where we needed to go on our prime. We had a rock-solid plan, or so we thought. Upon shifting to the astral we were enveloped by a color pool. It happened to be a one way ticket to the Abyss! Not only did we have to find a way out, we had to figure out how to smooth things over with the thieves.
    We learned quickly with this GM that a good plan was usually better than a "perfect" one. Simply put, we would have been satisfied pulling it off. However, the failure was more fun.

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    How do you desribe a failure as being cool?

    I think the DM/GM should be as descriptive as possible even when failing checks or saves. For example, in my campaign recently, a group was trying to pilot a ship when the main pilot was shot in the back. The pilot had to make a fortitude check to remain concious because of the massive damage that he sustained. Well needless to say, he failed the check. So I described the pilot to the other players as being drapped over the flight controls after being shot in the back. The other players assumed that he was dead! One of the players who also had ranks in pilot threw the "limp" body out of the drivers seat. (not bothering to check whether or not the guy was actually dead) cool? Wait it gets better!...lol

    Well the guy had ranks in pilot, but kept rolling 1's on the pilot check. Sounds like failure to me.....and after rolling three consecutive 1's, he lost total control of the ship and to make a long story short, the ship crashed into a docking bay killin 100's of people.

    I think that's a cool way to describe failure in the dice rolls. By the way, the players were sorry the people died, but thought the action and drama was amazing.

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    i'm very fond of the idea of descriptive failures. i've had players take it and run, turning it into an advantage somehow in the next few rounds. not only does it make for awesome plot and story, the players really get the feeling of having wrestled with fate... and won! whenever i get stuck for ideas, i just pull out the old rolemaster crit charts. not only are they great for some laughs, but they have lots of ideas for how people succeed and fail. (they had crit charts for blowing an enemy away with an awesome move, and for failing abysmally.

    personal favorite: "you trip over the body of a deceased invisible non-existant turtle and fall prone. you are stunned 'x+2' rounds, you're opponents and allies are helpless laughing for 'x' rounds. reroll initiative."
    (or something pretty close to that. ^^) in the above situation, the laughter makes for a perfect opportunity for change-up from combat to diplomacy. makes it a little harder to just "kill-the-bad-guys" if they honorably wait until you are recovered before resuming hostilities. if combat is unavoidable, perhaps this could turn into a negotiated one-vs-one with conditions for the winner and loser spelled out.

    since i'm in the habit of spicing up combat with descriptives, and encouraging players to do the same, it makes it easier to stick with non-standard results to critical failures and successes. practice makes perfect!
    Last edited by nijineko; 08-13-2008 at 08:16 PM.
    nijineko the gm: AG16, CoS. nijineko the player: AtG, RttToH; . The Journal of Tala'elowar Kiyiik! .
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    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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    one of my favorite resolutions to the "bottomless pit" (pardon me if i take you somewhat literally) involves figuring out how such an "impossibility" could physically exist. i usually place a teleporter of some type down below the bridge with the exit portal focused well above the bridge. this creates an effectively bottomless pit, and makes for an interesting time trying to catch or other wise stop the person from falling. another fun variation is to play with gravity in a tube or cylinder of some type.

    one variation i introduce is to have the teleportation effect be imperfect, dealing 1d6 pattern distortion damage each time they pass through the effect. this introduces a countdown effect that heightens tension nicely.

    at higher levels i will also introduce gale force+ winds to exceed the normal 20d6 cap on falling velocity. that'll discourage any "i'm tough enough to take 20d6 attempts to splat on the bridge." alternately the bridge can break from the impact, especially if it's a beefy fighter-type. ^^

    the party when first crossing the bridge will wonder at the winds, and probably think that they are to knock people off the bridge. i will obligingly have the winds thrust across the bridge causing a save versus bull rush attack. once someone does fall, if they fall, now they have to try to dodge those gusts bull-rushing them into the side of the bridge!! plant a dimensional anchor under (or inside) the apex of the bridge whose radius just misses the teleporter down below and the exit portal up above to handle any extraneous attempts to teleport... the winds will make flying very difficult... loads of fun. the anchor inside the bridge option makes it so that you have to break the bridge to cancel the dimensional anchor... perfect job for the barbarian or extraneous hireling or halfling or gnome.

    and if the party is really high level, i might toss in a few incorporeal beings or up the pattern disassociation damage to make things more fun. but really, making the players sweat while they take a tiny 1d6 every unit of time until they figure out a way to defeat the challenge is much better than just clobbering them with lots of damage. ^^ more elegant.

    for the cruel and unusual dm's, just slip in a cd of a clock ticking or the theme song to a certain well-known game show. ;D or you can use an egg timer to time when they take damage. watch them jump every time it dings.
    nijineko the gm: AG16, CoS. nijineko the player: AtG, RttToH; . The Journal of Tala'elowar Kiyiik! .
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    Going back to the original quote, I think that the most important thing that you can take from the statement, is that unless something cool is about to happen, you shouldn't be using dice at all. They interrupt the flow of the game, so the result of their use -- either way -- should be something that is worth the effort.

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    Quote Originally Posted by nijineko View Post
    one of my favorite resolutions to the "bottomless pit" (pardon me if i take you somewhat literally) involves figuring out how such an "impossibility" could physically exist...
    I was really just using the "bottomless pit" as an analogy for any "save or die" situation. Basically any scenario in which results are either: 1) succeed on the dice and the game continues or 2) fail on the dice and the game stops.

    But your ideas are very interesting and I will probably have to steal them for use at some point.
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    I have a couple of tools I use for failures that I have drawn from fiction writing.

    The first is the use of the "and/but" extension. If a character fails, you can let it be just that: "You fail." To make things more interesting, you can transform this by adding "and" or "but." As in: "You fail, and..." or "You fail, but..."

    Using "and" piles on more trouble. "You fail to pick the lock, AND you've managed to snap off one of your tools in the keyhole." Using "but" mitigates the failure somewhat. "You fail to pick the lock, BUT you notice the mechanism is loose and could possibly be pried open."

    Using this technique naturally introduces complications and developments to help the story along. This can also be applied to success as well ("You succeed, but..." or "You succeed, and...").

    Another device I use is to give the player/character a choice of negative outcomes when a failure occurs. "The lock you are trying to pick is jamming up. You can try to force it and risk breaking your tools, or you can continue attempting to finesse it, but you'll leave markings that will make it obvious that the lock has been tampered with."

    These tricks go a long way toward making the game more interesting for me and my players.

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    What how does failure become good?
    Chi-Halfling

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    well, in games, people blow rolls sometimes, and the character fails. the discussion is that these are not just average joes, these are heroes! so failure, when it happens, should be just as cool as a success. this mutes the fact that they failed, and gets them thinking cinematically.

    example: what do i do when i blow a dex check and fall down? typically, i get back up. what does a hero do? they spin-kick the feet out from under a villain or minion!

    that kinda thing. we don't mean that you should inflict failures upon the heroes... although there are suitably dramatic points where it fits the plot to do so now and again... more along the line of how to make it really cool when it does happen. ^^
    nijineko the gm: AG16, CoS. nijineko the player: AtG, RttToH; . The Journal of Tala'elowar Kiyiik! .
    CrystalBallLite: the best dice roller on the planet! . nijineko the archivist: the 3.x archive

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