Learn to Explain Failure

If you want to be a good GM, one of the most important things you can do is learn to explain failure.

Player characters fail all the time. They try to leap onto moving horses (whoops, trampled), talk obstinate shopkeeps into extending small loans (taciturn glare, veiled threats to call the city watch), or bulls-eye small targets from improbable distances (miss miss miss reload miss miss).

Sometimes (rarely) players try things that just seem crazy, but usually they try to do things that they think their character can do. They are just trying to play out their character concept. Of course my pirate can grab a rope and swing over to the other ship — that’s what pirates do.

Then the dice get involved. Most games include a chance of failure because otherwise success isn’t very interesting. Where’s the challenge if there is no risk?

When a player tries to do something they think their character should be able to do but fails, it breaks their belief in their character concept just a little bit. Players love their characters (not your game) so if that fragile love between player and character is broken, that player will pretty much check out. Danger Will Robinson!

This happens in just about every game session in greater or lesser degrees. So how do you handle this perpetual problem? You guessed it, learn to explain failure.

Wait, what about explaining success? Don’t worry about it, it’s easy. If the players couldn’t imagine how they could succeed at something, they probably wouldn’t have tried it in the first place.

Emphasize Failure: play it up, don’t play it down

Failure should be big. As a GM the urge is to overlook failure, just nod at the bad roll and move along to spare the player the shame. Big mistake. The worst insult to a character in the game world is to have no impact. It’s better to screw up in a way that sinks the Titanic than to have no effect on anything (note we’re talking about the character screwing up, not the player).

When a character fails, emphasize it. Magnify it in the game world. Demonstrate that the character is having an impact, even if it’s not the impact they wanted. A missed energy blast doesn’t just vanish, it stitches a line across the building down the street, shattering windows and sending clouds of pulverized masonry into the air. The pirate doesn’t just jump and miss the rope, the entire boom snaps, sending rigging and sails cascading down on the deck of the ship and sending people running.

Big failure can leave a character more disadvantaged than a “let’s just pretend that didn’t happen” failure, but it puts the focus of the game on that character, which is what most players really want. Yes it’s a setback, yes the character is in a really bad jam, but the character gets the spotlight. Forget about hit points or mana or equipment: the only resource that matters in a game is play time.

The same applies to bad events the players have no control over like taking damage. When a character takes a critical hit don’t say “ooh, crit, 26 more damage, sorry dude” say “the wolf savagely rips into your arm, tearing at you with big sharp pointy teeth — take 26 damage” Part of that is just interesting description vs no-description, but part of it is emphasizing the bad instead of trying to gloss over it. Don’t apologize. The bad is the challenge. The heroes have to step up and deal with the bad. That wolf is going to freaking eat you man! You better do something!

It could have happened to anybody…

When a character fails at something that (by their concept) they should have succeeded at, blame the situation, not the character.

Bad luck is your friend. Even the most capable characters can reasonably fall prey to the slings and arrows of fortune, so emphasize the circumstances, not the failure of skill. Make stuff up. When the pirate jumps for the rope, the pirate doesn’t just slip and miss, the rope or the entire boom arm snaps unexpectedly. When a macho hero is having trouble climbing a low wall, it must mean the bricks are crumbling in his hands, pebbles raining down in his face, whatever. It’s not that the character is incompetent, it’s just bad luck or unforeseen circumstances.

Or does the character have other traits that can explain the failure after the fact? If another important trait caused the failure, the concept isn’t damaged. The ace pilot rolls badly and wrecks his plane on a supposedly easy landing, but you remind everyone that the character is already known to be a reckless daredevil and probably tried something zany. He didn’t fail an easy task, he turned an easy task into a hard task (none of which is played out in the rules, this is just an explanation for the bad roll). Usually once you introduce a possibility like that the player will come on board and help flesh it out since you’re now re-describing what their character was doing.

Footnote: Failure Insurance

Wait, you say, I’ve got a better idea! I’ll just always let the players succeed at things that are important to their concept. Genius! (No, I know you really didn’t say that, but as long as I’m writing this post I can set up all the straw man arguments I want.)

Some systems have this kind of “failure insurance” built into the rules. Spend a hero point to re-roll. Buy a feat that permit automatic re-rolls for things that are central to the character concept (Diplomats automatically get to re-roll low Diplomacy checks, just because they are good at it). Take 10. In other words, choose to neutralize bad rolls if they go against your character concept. I would say the trend has increased as some RPGs become more about character concept instead of tactical victory.

Succeeding when you expect to fail (or vice-versa) is part of the fun of gaming. It’s not planned creativity, it’s mob creativity reacting to random stimuli (the dice). Eliminate too much randomness, and you lose some of that magic ingredient.

    Ben Robbins | May 11th, 2007 | , | hide comments
  1. #13 dragonme says:

    I was just introduced to D&D a few months ago by a friend, and these tricks are something I learned from playing the first game. The DM wasn’t great but he knew what was good from some of his earlier playing experience. He didn’t know how to be a DM completely but he did incorporate some of these tricks to a lesser degree, and I picked up on them, but your article made me rethink a lot of the stuff that happened in my recent campaign that I am running. They claim that they had a great time playing, and we/they played for 7 hours, but your article could of made my campaign so much better… Well looks like I will have to up the coolness factor in 2 days when we play again. =). Thanks for the article.

  2. #12 Pete says:

    in our group one of the more memorable scene’s was when my rogue failed a thievery roll trying to rob a drunken orge because the DM described the low roll as “his hand got stuck in the orge’s belt and he turns to look at you”…now i have to do try to talk my way out of it and try to free his hand at the same time meanwhile everyone else in the party is laughing their heads off.
    this also reminds me of a blog somewhere about using the john woo effect. a miss/failure is too boring, some kind of unintended side effect should happen to add an element of surprise/tension/action. missing a shot at the bad guy hits the kings prize vase behind him; a missed sword attack gets stuck in the stone pillar behind you.
    from a players perspective i think this adds a lot of fun and character background to the game. next time my rogue tries to rob somebody he’s gonna get a lot of heckling…

  3. […] Learn to Explain Failure […]

  4. #10 R00kie says:

    Some of my favourite play session have hung off a single player failure. I’ve always felt that if someone fails at something you move on quickly after a short description, but if they fail at a dramatic moment or at a moment when the odds really should be in their favour you need to make it memorable.

    In a Traveller campaign I had a player announce he was trying to skim fuel from a sun in a particularly foolish fashion in an attempt to impress a nearby ship. The player gave me a description of dropping into the sun decelerating at 5Gs. He had a rediculously high skill, yet still managed to fumble. (Normally I wouldnt request a roll for skimming fuel, its a routine act – the roll was to impress people). I quickly considered the options – announcing he’d failed to impress anyone just didn’t cut it, having him crash into the sun would end the campaign rather suddenly, and having him crash into the other ship just didn’t seem right considering how skilled he was – so I had the other pilot panic as some lunatic zoomed in at breakneck pace. The accident wasn’t the characters fault – the other pilot paniced and got in the way, but it really was memorable and gave the character the spotlight.

    As it turned out it derailed my campaign in the best possible way. I was able to throw moral dilemas at the players invovling two ships venting air falling into the sun, and follow it with a revenge plot involving the other pilots brother and a plot to derail the government investigation into the accident. The original campaign I had planned never really happened – partially because the characters never managed to get their ship repaired – but the players had a great time.

  5. […] Over on the always-excellent ars ludi, Ben Robbins writes about learning to explain PC failure: […]

  6. #8 higgins says:

    Well, Over the Edge RPG had a very interesting solution for it − ask the player. “Hey, your character is an expert on this! Why did he fail such a simple task?”

  7. #7 Drew says:

    My favorite is to use something absurd, whether it be character-based or situational. Your hacker actually got in, but he was shut down because he spent so much time probing the unexpected complexities of the system, forgetting to get that info he was looking for. That backstab crit miss was just an unavoidable hazard of trying to stab someone who was already in battle–the target moved, exposing your ally’s shoulder.
    I think that I love it because I choose to play “flawed” characters. Even if I roll some good stats, I’ll create flaws. A cleric wrestling with his faith…a glib bard that just can’t seem to avoid telling the truth at inopportune times…a Crazy (Rifts) with a couple of personality issues from BEFORE the implants, not to mention the stuff afterward…a Malkavian who thinks he’s a mage, and even trades services for tass, which he only believes he has a use for.
    The absurd is fun, and it creates opportunities for everyone, not just the character directly involved in the absurd situation.

  8. #6 The Stray says:

    We have a character named Jinx in our Mutants & Masterminds game who has Luck Control flawed with Backlash, meaning that every time she uses her Luck Control I get to use a free GM Fiat against her. Usually, this means something quite bad happens to her character. Sometimes I don’t even have to use the Fiat against her…she rolls bad at just the wrong time to take it on the chin.

    After reading this post, I’m beginning to understand why this character is the player’s favorite…it’s because she gets screen time, good or bad.

  9. #5 Chris says:

    This post reminded me of Burning Wheel’s advancement system. You’re required to attempt things that are practically impossible, if you want to advance your skills. And it doesn’t matter whether you succeed or fail, you still get “experience” for the attempt.

    It makes for some really cool plot twists when you attempt something that is practically impossible, and success or failure, you have to deal with the consequences.

  10. #4 Mark says:

    Interesting article! It’s something I had never considered, but it’s never been an issue for the games I’ve played in. We always make a big deal about failures. The more dramatic, the more exciting and memorable it is.

  11. #3 Tanan says:

    Great article – thanks!

  12. #2 JD says:

    Good point. If you fail, it’s at least worth knowing that your action did something. A fire spell that misses its target strikes the wall and sets a tapestry alight. A missed arrow embeds itself harmlessly in the goblin’s shield. It lets people feel that their action has effect even if it’s not the desired effect, and helps to establish a reason for failure so they don’t feel as if their character can fail arbitrarily and without reason.

    On the other hand, a success is its own reward. Unless it’s an unexpectedly good result, the player has already stated what effect he desires, and you’re just slowing the game down by describing it. Of course, describing things like finishing blows or special techniques can add some flavour.

    Take 10 in the d20 system isn’t so much a failure mitigation effect; it’s used to make it so that you can’t embarassingly fail at something easy when it’s not at all dramatic; the D&D equivalent of failing to tie your shoes by rolling too low.

  13. #1 Ian says:

    You know, as far as GMing advice goes, I have to say that this is one of the most non-intuitive things I’ve ever read, and that’s important. I mean, it’s helpful to read things that are more intuitive, but it’s so much more enlightening to get a perspective on something you never would have thought about.

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