Failure is Necessary

By | July 25, 2015

I’ve been thinking about failure in RPGs after stumbling across some online forum posts pushing the notion that only success is fun. I have no intentions of trying to define fun because that’s a bit of a fool’s errand, if you ask me. But the idea that lack of success holds back RPGs in some way just feels wrong to me.

As I was considering this, I thought about a few ways RPGs handle something like the failure of a PC to pick a lock.

  • Failure makes the situation worse, such as breaking the lock and making it impossible to pick.
  • Failure means that character cannot attempt to pick the lock again until circumstances change (such as by gaining a level or using better tools).
  • Failure can be turned into success if the player accepts a penalty.
  • Failure can be removed or avoided if the player spends a resource, leaving less of that resource available for future rolls.
  • Failure results in lost time, and trying again increases the risk of a wandering encounter arriving.

None of those outcomes break a setting or make it impossible to continue playing. It’s not a problem with the rules if the only way the players can proceed is by going through that door; it is a problem with the situation’s design that no resolution mechanic can fix.

Failure is an important part of RPGs because it forces players to make different, and sometimes difficult, choices. Failures force re-evaluation of plans in real life and at the table. A lack of success also can reinforce the rules of a gamescape, either the actual physics or the genre of the game. A film noir detective cannot fly under his own power. A player who arrives at the game with a book on how to make gunpowder doesn’t automatically get a chance to invent firearms.

There is another argument against failure that often comes up — an appeal to niche protection. The strong warrior fails to lift a gate multiple times but the frail wizard succeeds on the first try. This usually happens because the difficulty of the task was low enough that most characters could succeed, but the warrior rolled poorly on his attempts. That’s not a good enough reason to exclude failure from a game. Sometimes it’s the physically weakest person who opens the jar of pickles, after all.

The situation with the gate is really a different problem. If the task is doable but will just take time, then just say that and don’t bother picking up dice. Otherwise, you risk introducing this way of dealing with failure:

  • Failure results in lost time or effort but no other consequences. Players are free to keep rolling for success.

Of all the options for failure I’ve mentioned so far, that one seems the worst to me. Waiting for a magic number to appear on a die while the GM basically says, “Nothing happens, try again” feels like a waste of time. And being allowed to retry failed dice rolls with no risk turns players into gamblers rolling to hit the jackpot. D&D Third Edition tried to fix the issue by allowing characters to “Take 10” or “Take 20” on die rolls in certain circumstances. That sped play up, but it still expected GMs and players to knowingly roll dice (or simulate dice rolls, as it were) to determine the outcome of a situation that didn’t really matter.

Dice should be rolled when there is an interesting question as to what will happen when a character attempts a task. Rolling dice should result in some change to the gamescape, the characters, or their resources. Even if that change just means the passage of time increases the likelihood of future problems. We don’t play with a Magic 8 Ball, and “Reply hazy; try again later” isn’t a good answer to the question.