There are a lot of articles out there about how Referees (DMs, GMs etc…) handle failure in roleplaying games. I’d like to think that mine is a bit different and provides something new.
This is not some “white room” theory: this is from my 15 years of accumulated experience as a Referee. It has served me well.
I’ll dive right in and tell you what my ideology is. While it is applicable to any game, it is mostly useful for games with more “swingy” mechanics, such as a D20.
Note: if you are the type of player who feels that immersion is very, very important, then this article is not for you. Also, this isn’t a rigorous methodology or checklist that I use every time I assess a dice roll. It’s a bunch of general guidelines, most of which a lot of people do anyway.
In my opinion you should only call for a dice roll:
- …if there’s a chance of failure
- …if failure will be interesting
- …if you understand the intent
- …if you know the consequences
- …if you can contextualize
Read up on these items below:
1. …if there’s a chance of failure
Some would say that there’s always a chance of failure. But if a very competent character is attempting a rather mundane task and there are no obvious complications then why bother? Just say that they can do it.
This can keep things moving and improve pacing. It also makes PCs appear more competent.
Unless the scene is a battle or other intense conflict, I usually hand wave a lot of mundane tasks, especially if the difficulty rating is “easy”.
2. …if failure will be interesting
What makes failure interesting? If it adds further complications or increases the tension in some way. This isn’t always easy to explain. Let’s try this: if the consequences of failure are “nothing happens”, then screw it.
It’s like the old beginner mistake: making the players keep rolling until they actually succeed. Why slow things down or stagnate the flow?
Unless there’s the PC is chasing someone, fleeing from someone, trying to escape a hazard (eg., rising lake of lava), being shot at or is in a big hurry, I won’t bother have them roll.
Alternatively, make them roll to see how well they did the task. No matter what they roll, they’ll succeed; the result will dictate how well (a “failure” means that it just took them longer, there’s a flaw, they missed something, something external goes wrong etc…).
3. …if you understand the intent
This may be super obvious, but the idea is that if the player wants to perform a task, and you, the Referee, are not entirely sure what their intentions are… ask them. Find out why they’re attempting this task. Sometimes this little bit of clarification can go a long way and avoid misunderstanding or worse: frustration.
Making intent clear will also aid you in coming up with the consequences of failure.
The PCs were having a tense debate with an underworld contact in a cramped secret room surrounded by goons. One player suddenly said that he wanted his character to pull out his weapon and smack it down on the table. Everyone was confused and started making assumptions about his intent. Did he want to start a fight? Was he trying to intimidate the NPCs?
The Referee called for an Intimidation check because she assumed that he was trying to bully the NPCs into doing what he wanted. He failed his roll and the NPCs all drew their weapons, ready for a fight. The player then explained that while this was going on, the party thief could resume her task of pick-pocketing the guards because he was providing a distraction. But that wasn’t what the Referee thought was going on (she would have called for a different skill check and might have described a different outcome on a pass or fail). Had intent been made obvious, the scene would have ended very differently.
4. …if you know the consequences
This is also possibly immersion breaking to some play styles.
When a player wants their PC to perform a task, and intent is obvious, try to figure out the consequences of failure before they roll.
You could even explain it to the player out loud. I try to give them a couple (2-3) of possible outcomes. This might be difficult to do in the heat of the moment, but I think that it is worth it. That way there are fewer nasty surprises and the player can change their mind and try something else if it sounds like the risk isn’t worth it.
This is easier to do if you know what their intentions are.
A player wanted to gaze into a crystal ball in the dungeon of a mummy lord. I asked her why she was looking into it and what she was hoping to find. She told me that her PC was looking for clues about where the mummy hid his treasure horde, to see what his evil plans were or otherwise a clue on how to defeat him.
I explained that they needed to make a save to resist the evil soul-sucking powers. If they failed, they would be mesmerized and see something that would really shake them up. On a really bad roll they might get noticed by a lost soul who will try to possess or devour them (this wasn’t a huge surprise at this point because the party could see ghostly faces in the crystal).
5. …if you can contextualize
Okay so the PC failed their dice roll. What happens? How bad are the consequences?
To me, this depends on the skills/abilities of the character. If they’re really competent at this sort of task, then I’m more forgiving of a failed roll. Conversely, if another character who is less skilled fails at the same task, it is far worse for them if they fail.
This is the meat of this article and it’s especially useful for D20 games: make failure different for different characters depending on their skills.
This tends to make players happy because it acknowledges their character’s talents and abilities. A competent character will fail more gracefully than one who isn’t.
Two characters are driving cars in a high speed chase scene. One of them is a professional race car driver (very skilled). The other is a rural person who is barely competent (poorly skilled). They both fail their drive checks by the same degree (on a D20 roll, they both rolled a 1).
Failure for the more skilled character: they lose control over their vehicle and it spins around and comes to a stop (perhaps knocking over a few garbage cans). They’ve lost some time and are inconvenienced.
Failure for the less skilled character: they mis-judge their control over the vehicle and crash, their vehicle rolls over and catches fire.
Bonus: think about who f***ed up!
This varies from system to system, but the basic assumption is that a character’s skill is tested against an opposing force or passive difficulty. The player must must randomly determine if their character’s skills are good enough to overcome external challenges.
Ever since I started playing most Referees have interpreted a failure or a miss (in combat) as the PC making a mistake, messing up or missing their target (example: they miscalculated, they fumbled and dropped their tool, or their sword swing went wild and whooshed in the air). It’s never because of external forces: it’s always been the character’s fault (example: the information in the book was actually false, the lock had extra security measures in place, the opponent parried the blow).
The thing about combat is especially frustrating to me in games like D&D where a being’s defensive ability is abstracted a little into a passive defence value (not an opposed combat roll). Armor Class (AC) means that you’re harder to hit because of your Dexterity and your actual armor. When an opponent misses their attack roll (can’t beat your AC) it doesn’t necessarily mean that their attack went wild like an inept buffoon: it meant that the attack was dodged or it glanced off of some chain mail.
I play these games for fun escapism: to pretend to be someone who is, if not remarkable, more competent than the real me. I feel disappointed when the luck of the dice makes my character seem inept, unskilled, clumsy or even stupid.
High skill and ability doesn’t mean that you’re only good when you succeed: it means that you can recover well from a failure.
A skilled person, when they’ve made a mistake or if their solution didn’t work, will adjust their strategy or approach and try again. An unskilled person will just give up (or fail so disastrously bad that they just can’t try again).
To be clear, the other option is still valid (sometimes people just mess up: OOPS). My issue is when it happens all of the time. Every time. In a fantasy game about escapism and heroics.
A matter of tone
Many Gamers, especially Referees, enjoy a good critical fumble chart. I’d argue that they’re great in very grim-dark and/or comical campaigns. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, for example, is perfect for this sort of thing. Also 0-level Funnel games like Dungeon Crawl Classics.
But I don’t think that it matches the tone of every game or campaign out there. Would you see James Bond, Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Wolverine slip on a banana peel and chop their own leg off in a serious rendition of their genres?
The same applies to misses. In a super hero game in a very clean, PG campaign world where the PCs are better than the rest of humanity, failure shouldn’t be horribly gory or over-the-top slapstick. I mean, not really, unless everyone wants that.
Keep the tone in mind when you narrate a failure.
So that’s basically it. I think that point #5 is the most widely useful to all Referees out there, especially in games like D&D. Try it out and I’m sure that your players will be happier, even when they fail.