Benoist posted a wonderful link this weekend to a Monte Cook post about the potential for failing in a RPG, and how it important it is. Here's a wonderful excerpt from Mr. Cook's thoughts on the subject:
It's funny to me that sometimes I have to defend the importance of dice in the game. You see, sometimes people believe that dice actually detract from the fun. They claim that it's no fun to have an action that should work foiled simply by a poor die roll, or even that it's no fun to roll poorly in combat. They try to change the rules so that there's less "disappointment" built into the game.
I think that's a crock.
When working on 3E, we determined that one of the key play experiences was when someone rolled a die and the entire table stared at the die to see the result... the crucial save, the attack that just might take down the dragon, etc.
While people complain about the disappointment when the crucial action is foiled by a mediocre roll, such experiences enter into the collective group experience, which then allows for the moment of excitement when the roll is great (and even sometimes when it is a 1). In other words, eliminate the disappointment, and you won't have the heightened excitement.
A-freakin'-men, Monte. Spoken as a true Rolemaster alumnus.
To me, the Hero's Journey (especially the Road of Trials) is important. It ties in to the presence of failure in a campaign. If you don't ever fail, how can your victories be as sweet? If the journey is predetermined, where's the reward or suspense?
Without failure, you just have untempered wish fulfillment. And that's not fun to me. If your hero's never going to fail, stay home, lock yourself in your room, and write fan fiction about your character. It seems to have worked for Ed Greenwood.
I'm not saying that failure every time makes a better game--having characters in a game that can't change a lightbulb without blinding themselves is no fun, either. But for the non-trivial, the potential for failure in a traditional* game remains of paramount importance.
For those who see the GM as tyrant, who have designed systems and subsystems to empower players at the cost of the GM's control, mitigation of failure is seen as a player right. Hey, I use do-overs in my game (aka Mulligan Stones), but when they're gone, they're gone. Failure is just another way for the game to progress. It isn't oppressive, unless you're trying to artificially build a group story. And that's where we get back to fan-fic territory.
GMs, don't have people roll for every damned little thing. But if there's going to be a dice roll, make it count. There are stakes, or there should be. And let the dice stand. I have found out that at times the dice are a better GM than I could ever hope to be.
*--Yes, traditional. I know Story Gamers would likely have a much different view on the important randomness and failure. We'll pass on that for now.