Monday, March 1, 2010

On Failure

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.


mortellan said...

Interesting topic. This is something I believe strongly in as well. I want to know who the people were that were happy 'insta-kill' was removed in 4e or thought every PC should be effective in non-combat encounters or even cheered the removal of the Vancian magic system? It's along the same lines as your article, the game is getting to be more and more about coddling players till the dice dont really matter anymore. And I have a player or two who are like this. They expect to succeed everytime all the time. I suggest a game system where instead of dice the player lifts a green card to denote he wants to succeed at an action or a red card to denote he wants to fail. Throw in your own variations thereafter.

Swordgleam said...

As someone whose player just rolled three crit fumbles in a row while dealing with an ancient black dragon... I quite agree. It made the crit he rolled (immediately after that bad series) to get away from the thing all that much more exciting.

I think it depends, though. I've done plenty of free form roleplaying where my character still failed, even though no dice were telling me to. And in Wushu, it's more difficult to meaningly fail even though dice are involved. Dice and chance of failure are related, but not synonymous.

Fuchs said...

One of the problems is that too many think "Failure=Character Death", and fail to see how many other consequences failure can have. That makes people unwilling to compromise - one side considers any "PCs don't die" rule as "Do what you want, you'll never fail, go ahead, insult the king" coddling, the other sees every "Let the dice fall where they may" rule as "revolving door PCs ahead, don't bother investing much in the clones" killer games.

Zachary The First said...

Well, that’s certainly a valid point. Failure shouldn’t always mean death. But if there’s not at least the spectre of death hanging over a game, all you have are temporary setbacks.

@Swordgleam: Wushu starts with the presupposition that your characters are awesome, and will most likely do anything they want. Anything beyond that is style points.

Dr-Rotwang said...

Once, I read somewhere (online) that a failure doesn't have to mean that you tried, sucked and failed -- it can mean that you tried and couldn't.

Failed your to-hit roll? Maybe you just couldn't find an opening in the target's defenses.

Rolled badly trying to charm the princess? Doesn't mean you stuck your foot in your mouth; maybe she's just not interested, and you can tell, so you keep your trap shut for now.

Boinked your Research check? Well, it's not because you're stupid -- it's that the book you're reading has a passage that's written somewhat obtusely, and you can't get past it.

The idea is that a dice roll can represent more than just your attempt to do something. It can abstract outside conditions that can intrude upon your ability to kick the ass and take the names. You are the best pilot in the sector, but damned if that proximity alert didn't go off at JUST the wrong time, causing a distraction which you just could not ignore.

Fumbles will still be fumbles, of course, and even very experienced people will have them. Whoops, dropped the sword mid-swing! Dang, I got too cocky and looked at her boobs! Man, I've been reading books so long I'm not even sure what the hell books I'm readin'...what the -- Elmo In Grouchland?! There're no Mythos spells in Elmo In Grouchland!

Okay, that last one maybe not so much.

Ryven Cedrylle said...

Alright Mortellan, so I'm one of these "new-school" young'ens who like to succeed every time. (Admittedly, I started gaming life with AD&D so I've seen a few things, but that's beside the point.) The problem with failure from my perspective is that it dead ends, kinda like where Dr. Rot-Wang is going. If I fail my to-hit roll and just miss, miss, miss, I'm going to lose interest very fast. If I fail to the to-hit roll and my weapon flies out of my hand and I have to dodge another attack to go get it, I'm totally in. Failure is bad because it just stops. Imagine if your character died and you couldn't play the game anymore. What kind of fun is that? Death is a meaningful and necessary threat for any individual character, but I as a player can make a new character and try another story, another way of doing things. In short, failure that forces decision-making or at least teaches you something (don't open a chest without checking for traps! Don't look at the medusa's eyes!) is dramatic and cool. Failure that doesn't lead to something else? Not so cool. If I'm going to fail climbing the cliff, I at least want to fall into a pit with a purple worm in it, not just stare at the cliff face for four hours.

HinterWelt said...

I very much base my designs on the idea that failure is integral. There can be no true sense of accomplishment if there is no (or even little) chance of failure. However, I always find this kind of thing to be the statement of the bleeding obvious. I mean, before the internet this kind of discussion would go on at game stores and in game groups. I know I had several billion discussion on "Why does my character fail?!?"

That said the good Doctor has the gist of it. It is not so much about failure as it is about explaining the roll. In research I have used his example but also just a case of "That book is not in this library" or "you must hunt down the information int he city..." and we are off to another adventure.

This said, if what you want is win, that is o.k. too. Not for me and I have not seen such games work out. In the olden days we called that Monty Haul. ;)

da Trux said...

From reading the comments, and based on my own experience, failing dice rolls and the push of designers to try to limit dice rolling is not a problem with system - it is a problem with the game master and the player group.

System doesn't really matter, but I prefer to use dice to sort out random events. as a GM, i don't tell the player, "you whiffed that roll, you suck." No, i come up with a quick, short, and plausible explanation for why the roll failed. I also don't think a roll is necessary for everything.

I played a Savage Worlds game run by a certain big wig with GAMA and Origins. the dude is as famous as someone in RPG's can be. and he was one of the worst GM's i've ever played under. no explanations for why i was rolling dice (first time playing Savage Worlds), no explanation of why bad stuff was happening when i failed a roll, and the story of the game was boring and cliche. the experience completely turned me off to Savage Worlds for about 3 years.

anonynos said...

So, personally, I am one of those people who is happy at those things. That does /not/ mean that I want to never fail. Or more accurately stated, it doesn't mean I want the chance of failure removed (because honestly, how often do you look forward to failure?)
Whether or not you can fail has very little (if anything) to do with why people were happy insta-kill was removed, effectiveness was evened out, or that vancian magic was removed. Those items are pretty much unrelated to how the randomness of dice makes a game more exciting.

JRT said...

I agree about dice.

I DISAGREE with your attack on Ed Greenwood though, stating that Elminster is "Fan Fiction". You obviously haven't read his many statements on the subject, and even other old-school fans have gone on about the subject like on Grognardia and elsewhere. Plus, in many novels I've read Elmister seems to have a lot of failures as well as successes. (Plus if you've read Greenwood articles, Ed is old school when it comes to rolling dice and saving throws).

Zachary The First said...

@JRT: Indeed. It was, in fact, a cheap shot on my part, likely because that's the perception of Elminster. Elminster just seems to be the very model of Mary Sue-dom, even if that's not how he came about. Again, all about perception, I suppose.

And you're right. In the few Realms novels I've read, he does mess up now and again--he isn't infallible.

Fuchs said...


If you can revive, raise dead, or make a new character, death is a temporary setback, just with a "write a new background" tax on it. Some people like that, I don't - no point, in my opinion, to add work to a game. If I like making new characters I can do so anytime I please. If I do not like making new characters, why should I do it?

For those who say death should have a sting - why not pay a fine to the GM each time you lose a character? Or let him hit you in the face?

Same concept.

Zachary The First said...


I'm thinking if you'd rather be punched in the face rather than make a new character, there are probably a line of frustrated GMs ready to take someone up on that sort of offer.

Fuchs said...

As long as you can create new characters (or revive/raise them) how is death more than a temporary setback for the player?

I always read about how character death should be a danger and all - but why should that be so?

What does a time penalty (during which you wait for the revive, or make a new character) add to a game? And why wouldn't a fine work as well?

Christopher F. said...

@ Mortellan: Dude, not necessary. If you don't dig the system that's your business, but all you seem to have there is the usual boring rant about 4E. And the "insta-kill" thing being removed? Folks have been doing that for years from 3E too.

@ folks in general: An important point should be made regarding failure and the dice, and that's the bit about "crucial action" or "non-trivial roll". There's an awful lot of GMs that call for a roll of dice for an awful lot of stuff. Stuff where failure _isn't_ interesting.

In my opinion that's crap/lazy GMing.

Failure _can_ be interesting, but the GM has to know how it's going to be interesting if failure occurs. "Ooooo, too bad Bob. Your Research roll failed. Yeah, you spend hours going through the books in the library but don't find anything. What do you do now?"

That's not interesting. That's rpg pixel-bitching.

And don't pop up saying, "Well of course the GM shouldn't be making people roll for non-trivial things!" It's equally "obvious" that failure _can_ be interesting and equally obvious that many GMs fail to make failure interesting. Afterall, if the GM was doing _their_ job properly, players wouldn't be looking to circumvent failing all the time now would they?

The fact that people are frequently looking to skip/mitigate failure is a strong indication that GMs need to do some stepping up to the plate as well, not just that players are a bunch of whiners looking to be coddled.

@ Zach: You mention the Heroic Journey... I'll send you something I wrote regarding my thoughts about the "Heroic Journey" as it relates to RPGs.

Robert Fisher said...

I don’t have a problem with failure. I would rather, however, that my failure be because I made a bad decision rather than because I was unlucky. That’s not to say that I don’t ever want to be unlucky. It’s just that—on balance—I’d rather failure to more often be due to a bad decision than simple misfortune.