Making Failure an Option

One idea that was floated at the Metatopia convention a week ago was the idea of failure. It came up in the context of a seminar on indie RPGs and their influence on mainstream RPGs. Normally I eschew the “indie RPG scene” because it tends to look down on the OSR (of which I count myself as a proud member), seems  overly involved in self-referential navel-gazing, and is consumed with being new and edgy for the sake of being new and edgy. But I’m certainly not above acknowledging a potentially neat idea when I hear it.

The idea in question was in regards to failing rolls. When a thief has a 20% chance of picking a lock and blows it, or someone has to roll a 14 in order to use their Intimidate skill, or has to make an Intelligence check to do something. Someone on the panel mentioned that some “indie” games don’t allow for failure in such instances. The character always performs the task at hand. But if the player fails the roll, Something Bad happens story-wise. It’s almost like the player is paying karma back in order to succeed in the mechanical task.

This sort of concept has direct applicability in a game where The Story is paramount. When a character blowing a chance to find a secret door could potentially threaten the ability of the characters to continue with the plot, having such a mechanic in place makes a lot of sense.

Now, picture such a mechanic in an Old School context.

I can see reasons to include such a thing in an Old School type game, where there isn’t necessarily a plot that must be followed, so much as there are cool things that the players might otherwise not have the opportunity to discover. Think of it as “the game would be more interesting if he makes the roll.” While that runs counter to the ethic of “the dice rule”, I think it’s a perfectly legitimate attitude to take in some circumstances, inasmuch as it short-circuits the impulse to fudge a dice roll, because failure actually makes the game more interesting all around. I don’t see that as necessarily a bad thing (bearing in mind that “the dice rule” can also make the game more interesting, depending on the circumstance).

If the thief misses his pick locks roll, he still manages to open the door, but there’s an automatic wandering monster the next round.

If the bard misses his Charisma check, he still talks his way into the Duke’s daughter’s birthday ball, but one of the courtiers develops a crush on him, and clings to him for the entire evening, making whatever his actual mission is very difficult.

If the savant misses his Scholarship roll, he still knows where to find the book that has the nugget of information he’s seeking, but it’s in a private library under the care of someone he studied with as an apprentice, who hates his guts and will doubtless throw up all kinds of road blocks to accessing the book.

Etc. etc. etc.

I don’t think such a mechanic would work universally in an Old School game, because one of the tropes of our style of play is that you’re not a superman and often when you fail that means you need to use your imagination to think of an alternative. But, given the ethos of “fun is better than tedium”, I can see a GM employing such a mechanic in specific situations or at his whim, if it’s obvious that doing so will open up new opportunities for interesting interactions.

Given that criterion, I’d probably not want to open it up to the players’ choice (by earning “story points” or whatever the kids at are pushing nowadays), precisely for the reason that they can’t know where the best opportunities for such exist in the game. But I do think it’s worth considering, and offers a neat mechanical alternative to simply fudging a roll; if you do fudge a roll, it becomes an opportunity to bring in more consternation for the PCs to have to manage.

And, as long as it increases the fun, I’m inclined to like it. 

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

11 thoughts on “Making Failure an Option

  1. What is the point of having to make a roll if failure is not an option. It smacks of this nonsense where primary school kids take part in sports where 'everyone is a winner'.

    Players should have risk and reward – and suffer the consequences of failure. On one adventure, our thief failed to pick a lock on a door. The party tried to bash it down – and the noise attracted half the denizens of the level they were on.

    With you all the way on this one.

  2. I wouldn't say that failure is taken out of the equation. It's merely transformed into another kind of failure. Instead of not getting into the Duke's daughter's ball the bard just gets a pair of metaphorical manacles to hamper his progress in whatever venture he's undertaking.

    Case in point; I play 3rd. ed. and if the party's thief keeps botching his pick lock rolls, nothing happens other than he might trip the trap, if there's one to trip. It'll just be a billion rolls that does nothing but take up game time, till he succeeds.
    With this variant I would let him roll a couple of times and declare that with each roll he comes closer to beating the lock and I would the have something karmic happen to him. It would speed up the game and hopefully ensure that more fun will be had because the story moves along, instead of grinding to a halt.

  3. I love the so-called concept of failing forward in my games.

    Anyway, IMHO it works better if you have a 3-way threshold (like the IDF Model in Chainmail's Spell Complexity): full success, half success and real fail.

  4. One way to approach this would be to assign a cost to a "bad karmic success". Thereby setting it up so a player upon failing a roll can choose to either keep trying or spend points to convert it to a success with karmic consequences. Furthermore, make it such that these points start off at zero, are gained through successful checks, and spent in converting failed checks. This would make low level players fail more thus emphasising the trope of low level characters not being all powerful. However their successes would accumulate points such that in mid to high levels, when many campaigns are no longer focusing on minutia like lock picking or bribing guards, these failures can be converted to story-rich successes that, as the OP describes above, make the story more interesting.

  5. Hi…first off, love the blog. I don't play much anymore (well, generally at all, really) but still love reading about stuff.

    This is a great post because it's really how I used to run things, that failing a roll doesn't necessarily mean that specific task failed but that in failing the roll doing that task you've set off some occurrence later down the road. As noted, it allows the story to continue and doesn't block the party.

    One way to hide that you're doing this as a GM is to have a pre-generated list of dice rolls (there are sites that will generate the list for you) and after every non-combat roll you ask "my roll or yours?" If the player failed his roll (or was close and may fear he's failed due to unknown modifiers) s/he will most certainly pick yours. Just nod, cross a number off your list, and still use their dice roll. They then have no idea they've failed when the storyline continues and have no idea you're about to throw a wrench (or wench 😉 ) at them.

  6. I think it's at least partly to prevent failure from being boring or frustrating. And to keep players from hammering at a thing until they succeed their roll.

    It could also be an attempt to connect RPGs to improv theater, where participants are not supposed to say "no." Their options instead are "Yes, and" or "Yes, but".

  7. As the GM, I try not to make my adventures contingent on the roll of a single skill. There are multiple ways past a locked door, into the duke's ball, or whatever. If the PCs blow one avenue of success, they need to attempt another. Thief can't pick the lock? Bash the door down. Can't charm your way into the ball? Use a spell of charm or alter self, or have the assassin disguise himself as another guest, etc, etc.

    I've tried the method you present in the past, and it tends to foster the idea of "we can handle whatever complication might happen." In that particular group, it made the players less inventive. They also tended to act like spoiled brats whenever I actually had to tell them no.

    TL;DR version: If the thief in the party has Open Locks at 15%, don't make your adventure dependent on opening a lock.

  8. I like this karmic failure. It would be like opening a door, but also tripping a silent alarm. The players might think something's up (prolly thinking it's fudge at first), if yes, they technically did just unlock the door, but that premonition is the thief's eyes narrowing.

    Alternatively, I've been very intrigued by the failure system for Burning Wheel and Mouse Guard, where botches still carry the story forward, but take it in new directions or side adventures. Plus, the players themselves are encouraged to provide input to their failures.

  9. I think your idea works best if you couple it with "Does it make sense" rule.

    For example the lockpicking roll represents how long does the activity take places. If he blow the roles he is there cussing and cursing for 10 minutes to get it open if there are no other factors like traps, in combat, etc. Of course this nesectates a roll on the wandering monster chart.

    Only when a 1 i.e. a critical failure is rolled is the thief is truly unable to pick the lock.

    In contrast with a lockpick roll with a trapped lock, failure means that the trap is activated.

    While I acknowledge people find story building and gamey mechanics fun while roleplaying, it seems to me that roleplaying games work best when you keep emulation of reality, setting, and/or genre at the forefront of your rulings.

    I say that because in every roleplaying campaign the world is filtered through the words of the participants and the more you can validly assume the less words you need to keep the game flowing.

  10. Too often I used to ask for rolls when the chance of failure shouldn’t be significant. I’ve been working hard to reduce how often, as DM, I call for a dice roll.

    Some players, however, have mentioned that they while, overall, they’re happier with how the game is going, they miss rolling as much as they used to.

    So, in these cases, I’ve been trying to call for rolls that determine the quality of the success instead of success v. failure. That way, we have the fun of rolling, the rolls have meaning, but we don’t have characters failing at things that they should seldom fail at.

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