The Price of Failure

I’m currently involved in a truly excellent RPG campaign that fully engrosses my attention when I’m playing. This is what they call “immersive storytelling.” I’m invested.

In last weekend’s game, the GM presented an opportunity for the characters to reach out from our struggling nation and make peaceful contact with neighboring realms. It was an excellent chance both to get some much-needed aid and to build a foundation for a lasting alliance—and these things were very, very important to my character. I happened to be the most diplomatic character, and I had built my skillset so that speaking to other rulers was something I did well. I spent some time the night before the game preparing what I felt was a good speech and had two printed pages of dialogue ready to go during the session.

Given the title of this blog post, I’m guessing you already know how things went. Let me be perfectly clear: I screwed the pooch.
I see what you did there.
Not only did I fail to establish better relations with one of our (up until this point) peaceful neighbors, I managed to kick off an entirely separate front of hostilities. My entire diplomatic team was exiled from the realm on pain of death, and large portions of the nation I was part of were seized. Citizens weren’t killed—they were given plenty of warning to evacuate—but towns and villages alike were burned to the ground. Thousands of people with no homes, no farms, no food, no hope.
It was all my fault.
Again, to be entirely clear, this was a pure roleplaying situation—no dice were rolled. It was simply my choice of what I had to say and how I said it. The GM was generous in that he gave me plenty of coaching ahead of time from a reliable NPC as to how to go about things, and in some regards, I went against that advice.
And so, the land was ravaged.
Oops.

How Does It Feel?

As I had said earlier, this is a game I am highly invested in. I look forward to it every week and exult in the moment when we’re playing. I’m very much “in character” when I’m playing in this campaign. In addition, we’d been very successful up to this point. Sometimes, wildly successful by bucking the odds and acting like Big Damn Heroes when the situation called for it. So, in many ways, I was feeling cocky. After all, I reasoned, this is what my character is good at.
When I first realized just how badly I had screwed the pooch, I froze up. I was paralyzed. I had no idea how to respond. My stomach was churning with embarrassment… this was certainly not how I had expected things to go!
And then things escalated. The realm went from being mildly pissed off to becoming belligerent. Suddenly, my character—a champion of good, nobility, and heroic ideals—was directly responsible for starting up hostilities and the burning of several villages and towns. It was like a punch in the gut.
I had that sick feeling that this was a mistake I couldn’t just fix. There were consequences to my actions… fairly dire ones, in fact. And I was responsible.
Fortunately, some of the other characters in the party were able to manage the situation before it went any further out of control. Nevertheless, I knew that this was a big moment in my character’s life.

Handling Failure

There’s a number of ways to deal with a failure of this magnitude. I’ve known some players to simply pack up and leave. In fact, the last time I was this invested in a campaign and my character died, I nearly did that very same thing myself! Other players can get angry, or very, very quiet (which in many ways is just as bad).
Luckily for me, I trusted my GM. I knew that he had not chosen that I would fail because he was punishing me… rather, it was simply the outcome that the story called for at that moment.
My good friend Dave Mattingly, head of Blackwyrm Publishing, once helped discuss failure in RPGs at HeroCon in Glen Burnie, MD back in 2006. Dave said something that stuck with me:  
“Failure gives the heroes twice as much screen time. First they fall down; then they get back up.”
Dave is a wise, wise man.
The idea that failure is—and should be—another opportunity is a powerful one, and I try to look at in-character setbacks in the same way Dave does. In the situation I mentioned above, I took my character’s setback and used it to try and build some growth of his beliefs and relationships with others.
When it comes to handling failure during the game, the most crucial element (and one that I cite often when discussing roleplaying) is trust. If the players trust the GM, if that bond exists, then it is okay to fail. Failure is another opportunity, it is a way to examine (as I have done) how the character deals with setbacks. Comparatively, it is easy to roleplay a character who is successful… often, it can be more rewarding to handle a character through his darkest hour and come out the other side.
Another very wise man.

Accidental Failure and Deliberate Failure

Failure can come in many guises during an RPG. I like to separate failure into two categories; accidental and deliberate failure.
Accidental failure is unintentional on both the part of the players and the GM—typically it revolves around die rolls. It can be a single crucial roll or a series of important ones. It can even take the form of a certain card (such as in the infamous Deck of Many Things) or just having your miniature in the wrong place at the wrong time on the battlemat.
Deliberate failure happens when someone chooses to fail. Often, this comes in the form of the GM deciding that “this didn’t work.” However, players can also deliberately fail—although rarely in the interests of the game. Most often that I’ve seen, deliberate failure on the part of the players is a way of showing disdain for the game itself, a “I’m taking my toys and going home” sort of decision.

Degrees of Failure

“So just how bad is it?” This is a common question asked whenever a player rolls a critical failure during an RPG. Some games (such as, famously, Rolemaster) have quite a list of possibilities. Many of my own games in the 40K Roleplay line have quite a few horrible fates for a psyker who rolls particularly badly, as another example.
I didn’t make this graph, but I generally agree with it.
For me, I like to divide failure up into two categories. Either the failure is manageable, or it is one of those moments when you say “Oh s#!t.” These categories are what I like to call
Minor Failures and Spectacular Failures.
As mentioned above, Minor Failures are manageable. They’re usually temporary and have few if any consequences.
Spectacular Failures are, well, spectacular—they have long-lasting effects and often come with a boatload of consequences after the fact.

Change of Perception

Failure of either kind can change your perception of the character. A series of minor failures or even a single spectacular failure can have an effect on the tone for a story arc or even an entire campaign.
Generally, the effects of failure are magnified if they occur earlier in a character’s adventuring career—and by “career,” I don’t mean backstory. I’m talking about actual, in-game performance.
A classic issue of different expectations, and a reaction thereof.

Allow me to illustrate what I mean with an anecdote from my own gaming history. I had one of those character concepts that I was really, really excited about but never got a chance to play long-term. I got to play the character one time in one game, and that was it. So when a friend offered to GM a campaign that was perfect for this character, I was thinking oh yeah, this-is-gonna-be-awesome. The character’s name was Nimrodel, she was a dryad who survived her tree getting cut down, and she had become a warblade (a fun fighter-type class from the Tome of Battle for D&D 3.5). I was, to say the least, jazzed to play this character.
So, in the first session, we’re fighting our way through some guards when my character gets her chance. “I got this,” I announced confidently, triggering one of the cool warblade powers for kicking ass and advancing on the enemy. 
What happened next? I rolled a critical failure. Yep, the very first swing with my awesome sword-mistress was a fumble.
It was fortunate for me that I didn’t end up rolling a lot of fumbles for Nimrodel, but it certainly affected both how I and the other players saw the character in-game. This was definitely an accidental failure, not a deliberate one, but it was still a real bummer and the fact that I’m writing about it here shows how memorable it truly was. I am sure that I’m not alone… no doubt many players can think of moments like these for their characters.
Another example I can point to regarding how failure can change the tone of a campaign comes from Shadowrun 4th edition. Our characters discovered that regardless of having high skills in Infiltration (the catch-all “Being Sneaky” skill) and ruthenium (think the Predator’s camouflage) suits, we were getting spotted by your typical beat cop on patrol at one in the morning. This is an example of deliberate failure—the GM had chosen that sneaking around like ninjas just didn’t work in his campaign.

Failure, Frustration and Punishment

I started out talking about how failure should be looked at as an opportunity, and I believe that is a good ideal to strive for because the alternative is detrimental to the game—frustration and a feeling of punishment. Failing every so often can be a doorway to some really great roleplaying. Constant deliberate failure can feel more like you’re being punished for trying to go against the GM’s style, story, or preferences.
Let’s do a quick breakdown of the types and degrees of failure—when do they stop being opportunities and become frustrating?
Deliberate Failure: When deliberate failure happens occasionally, it can cause frustration (especially if it results from a misunderstanding of expectations from either the player or the GM), but it is generally going to be manageable. Deliberate spectacular failure is, surprisingly not as frustrating, probably because failing big can be quite entertaining with many groups. In fact, many roleplayers that I personally know ascribe to a “go big or go home” school of thought.
However… constant deliberate failure, as mentioned above, is generally about as fun as getting smacked with a lead pipe.
Accidental Failure: Occasional accidental failure is simply part of the RPG experience. Any game with dice is going to have times when they completely abandon you. The vast majority of gamers are pretty philosophic about occasional accidental failure. Constant accidental failure, however, can be extremely frustrating. As humans, our brains tend to seize more on the outliers when looking at a random system, meaning that you remember the really amazing rolls and the really crappy ones and generally forget the far more numerous average results. 
I’ve known some gamers, including a good friend, former roommate, and game author Grady Elliot, who can get really frustrated with a bad run of dice. Grady’s bad luck with d20’s is fairly legendary, in fact. I can sympathize… it’s no fun to fail over and over again. 
Again, this category usually causes more feelings of frustration when the failures are manageable than when they are spectacular—but I should definitely mention that it depends on the game and the situation. Losing the fight against the big bad because of one critical fumble is certainly memorable, but it can also cause some serious stress in many players.

Final Thoughts on Failure

If there’s one thing I’d like people to take away from this post, it’s this: don’t be afraid to let your characters fail from time to time. It can change your perception of the character’s place in the world, give you fodder for more stories, and act as a catalyst for change. Just don’t make it a punishment… especially if you’re the GM!

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