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Failing Your Way to Fun!

Written by Nicholas - Published on September 10, 2009

Nicholas is the columnist in charge of Nerd Watching and part-time Expy wrangler. He also works as the community manager, so keep an eye out for him on RPG blogs and forums.

Your Favorite Hero Sucks!

It’s true, he or she is a failure. All the best heroes do. Picture Frodo Baggins for a moment. Imagine he was 7 feet tall, showed no fear, punched out the ring wraiths and then crushed the one ring in his hand. You might laugh at that character, cheer at his fight scenes and root for him, but for how long? Would you read 3 books about him? Would he feel authentic to you? Of course not!

The fact is the path of most heroes is defined by their failures than their successes. A good story is a long string of failures and setbacks that makes the hero’s victory at the end that much sweeter. So why isn’t your D&D game like that?

D&D is Not a Video Game

In video games, failure generally means the end. Go back and try again until you succeed. We often make the mistake of thinking in these terms in D&D. If you don’t win this battle or skill challenge, the story is over. It doesn’t have to be this way. D&D has the advantage of adaptability. If you run a game where your lich accidentally TPKs the group, it doesn’t have to be the end. The lich can instead taught them and leave them for dead, gloating in his superiority. Or he can imprison them as later subjects for cruel experiments, perhaps even torturing them. If you want to go even farther, have the party come back as Revenants, Risen Matyrs or use the death feats discussed here previously. Instead of being the end of the story, you have made it much richer for the next time they confront that lich!

Outside of the Ring

This philosophy doesn’t just apply to combat encounters, it actually easier to do with skill checks. A skill check should never stop a game. A failed skill check or challenge should always propel the story in a new direction. I badly botched knowledge check can provide some false information that sends the party on new information.  A failed bluff check might actually work for a while, but the bluffed target realizes the lie at a critical moment. A failed roll to pick a lock doesn’t need to mean the character failed to pick the lock, maybe it means they were too slow and got caught. Now they need to talk their way out of it. Players show some amazing creativity when fumbling to cover for their earlier failures.

Just saying “you failed, nothing happened” is boring! As a general rule, a skill check should always open a door, it just might not be to somewhere the group wants to go.

A Word of Caution

Two warnings come with this strategy.

First, some players don’t want to lose. They play roleplaying games to escape to a place where they are in full control and defeat every problem that comes to them. You should know what your group is interested in.

Second, the character should win eventually. They may fail a lot of the way, but in the end they are heroes and they should triumph against the villains. The victory will be sweeter when it is hard won, but it must come eventually.

Do you have a group full of failures or the ultimate ass-kickers?

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Written by Nicholas

Nick DiPetrillo is the original author behind the games Arete and Zombie Murder Mystery available at http://games.dungeonmastering.com

Nick is no longer active with DungeonMastering.com, however he is an accomplished writer and published his first game in 2009.

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Nicholas is the columnist in charge of Nerd Watching and part-time Expy wrangler. He also works as the community manager, so keep an eye out for him on RPG blogs and forums.

 

 Comments

7 Responses to “Failing Your Way to Fun!”
  1. WhitDnD says:

    Thats some really good advice. I’ve slowly been introducing my players to failures as fun for awhile now. The first thing i’ve noticed from them is they as characters are now more willing to try that outrageous skill check, when they suceed they feel awesome when they fail something interesting happens.

    Secondly i’ve started to run combats of an objective system that most monsters have. When the monsters achieve their objectives the battle is lost for the PC’s and certain events unfold to make their life hard, ie. kidnapped PC, Imprisoned PC’s, Gloating Bad Guys, Portals being opened to hell dimensions and the like. Armed with the task of stopping these objectives combat has become alot more interesting for everyone involved. It definitely beats the common ‘ah monsters, kill them all’ method.

    Thanks Nick
    Whit

  2. Mike Strand says:

    My group is happiest when they almost get their butts kicked. I tend to run encounters that seem to be overwhelming, but ones where they ultimately triumph. Failure doesn’t necessarily mean tpk. It usually means the bad guy gets away, or that the goal is not as easy as it appeared. I vary the difficulty for flavor, I should add.

    Great article! Great food for thought!

  3. Hungry says:

    You stated, “Second, the character should win eventually.”

    I disagree.

    The players should always have as much fun as possible, but fun and winning do not equate. Some of my best stories (as a player and a GM) come from TPKs where the dice just absolutely would not let the party survive. They’re hilarious and fun.

    However, I’ll admit that winning is loads more fun than losing, but losing can be fun and hilarious as well. It’s all in how it’s executed.

  4. Stormgaard says:

    Good suggestion on a failed knowledge check resulting in FALSE information rather than just NOT knowing – I’m most definitely gonna have fun with that one!

  5. Yax says:

    I wish my players would flee more often. It makes for a better story when the hero fails. And it would have kept them alive a few times.

  6. Mike Strand says:

    That reminds me the last epically failed knowledge check my party did led them to believe that Duergar had vulnerable 5 vs. light damage, with hilarious results!

  7. WhitDnD says:

    @Yax, I think players have an inbuilt default that sets of when a fight begins. it triggers the ‘the DM put this fight here for us so we must win’. I’ve all but given up on trying to get my DM’s to flee.

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