Failing Up: How to Handle PC Failure

Advice Consequences Failure GM gming
Fat Kids: Fails in Spaaace! by Bryan & Chase

Fat Kids: Fails in Spaaace! by Bryan & Chase

My early gaming experience centered around D&D, Shadowrun, and Rifts. These, and many other RPGs, have a so-called binary model for tests. That is, you roll a die, and either succeed or fail.

The big question, of course, is what happens when a character fails. In those days, the answer was simple: abject failure. The problem is that simple roll of the die can really mess up your game.

Problems of Failure

Sometimes, it’s cool to sit on the edge of your seat, as the dice decide your character’s fate. What happens, though, when a player flubs the roll to find the evidence necessary to solve the mystery, or the magic orb that opens the locked door? What if one of the coolest parts of your game was behind the secret door they didn’t discover? The Chatty DM over at Critical Hits has a great name for this syndrome: the Bottleneck (see the post linked below).

It’s not just about what the characters miss either. Have you ever had a great character fail a climb roll, and fall to their deaths? What about the heroic PC getting critted by a lowly goblin, and dying ignominiously? Maybe, in what was supposed to be an awesome fight scene in a spaceship rapidly losing air, the whole party succumbs to hypoxia, and winds up space-cicles. In my book, a lame death is just as bad as missing part of the game.

Redeeming Failure

I had plenty of moments like those. Back then, of course, I didn’t know there was any other way of running a game. That all changed when I tried systems like Fate and especially Houses of the Blooded (HotB).

The Chatty DM has some great suggestions in his post for skill tests. It all boils down to one maxim. I can’t remember whether it comes from Houses of the Blooded or Fate, but, whatever its origin, I’ve tried to live up to it since I read the words. Whether the player succeeds or fails, the result should be interesting.

HotB is great for this. Just because the player fails a roll in that game, it doesn’t mean the character failed at their action. It just means that the GM gets to describe the consequences, and, in the best Monkey’s Paw fashion, you know that sort of success is not going to end well for the player.

For example, maybe the group of private eyes spots the evidence as the body’s being carried away by the police. Now they have to get into the morgue to get it. Instead of suffocating in the airless spaceship, perhaps the group wakes up aboard the ship of their pirate nemesis. They’re either prisoners now, and have to stage an escape, or, if the PCs are the honorable sort, they owe their enemies a favor.

A Good Death

Now, I’m not completely against death in RPGs. I just don’t think a PC should die in a stupid way, unless either the death is cool, or the action that precipitated it was just as stupid. If the Paladin knowingly sacrifices herself in battle to give the townsfolk time to escape, the death should stand, but the character’s memory should live on in the local tales. Heck, there might even be a statue in that sort of thing. If the character attempts to fight off a tank with a spoon for no apparent reason, well, he’s going to get what’s coming to him, and that memory should also live on… amid much laughter.

If, however, the mighty hero slips on the proverbial banana peal, lands on his head, and perishes, I think there’s plenty of justification to overrule the dice. Truthfully, if the outcome of failure was this stupid, the best answer was probably to not call for a roll in the first place. If that ship has sailed, though, the next best thing is probably to let the character survive, but with some sort of temporary consequence.

The Bottom Line

Bad rolls don’t need to derail your games. The big secret is that failure is what you make it. If the player succeeds, let them bask in their glory. If they fail, well, you now have room for devious complications.

  • If you call for a roll, both success and failure should have interesting consequences
  • In case of failure: Things Get Worse

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