Level One Wonk: In-Game Failure

Are you a Butt-Kicker, a Specialist, or a Story-Teller? There is a huge world of games out there to satisfy every player’s and group’s style. And while there are academic discussions in every corner of the internet, sometimes it’s best to start at level one. Join the Level One Wonk in exploring the possibilities that RPGs have to offer, from Aberrant to Zorcerer of Zo. Today, we look into what happens when things go wrong, and how to balance failure and risk in your games.

Sid Meier said that “games are a series of interesting decisions.” What makes decisions interesting, whether in the context of Meier’s ‘Civilization’ series of video games or in the context of role-playing games, is the nature of risk and reward. Every decision you make has to balance potential risks with potential rewards. If there were no risks the decision would be easy, and if there were no rewards then there would be no reason to make the decision. In role-playing games, risks are what make the game exciting. In some cases, the game itself has rewards solely for more daring behavior, in the form of additional experience or stunt mechanics. The risks, though, and how games present those risks, can vary pretty widely.

There are two types of risks in role-playing games: failure, and death. While death may seem to be a type of failure, they really only intersect in one situation: the dreaded “Total Party Kill”, or TPK. A TPK means that the characters have lost, defeated so utterly that they cannot possibly complete their mission. As far as risks go, TPKs are to be avoided: a TPK is a literal ‘game over’, which is rarely fun for anyone involved, player or GM. Beyond that, the risk of having characters die or failing quests or missions must be balanced so that the game has stakes while still being fun.

Death

What about death? Failure is a given: the game has no stakes if there is no risk of failure, so therefore there must be some risk of failure. Death, though, is treated differently in different games. Fate Core doesn’t give the GM permission to kill characters; they are “taken out” if they’re defeated in an encounter, and only the player can decide if death is the appropriate outcome. While Fate makes sure to provide consequences for being “taken out”, dying is not one of them. In the game Toon, death isn’t on the table at all. In the game Paranoia, death is so frequent that it is barely consequential, and so irreverent that it doesn’t add to the stakes. In the vast majority of games, though, it is assumed that death is both an option and will be significant if it happens.

If your group doesn’t want characters to die, that is a valid choice. There must be other stakes at hand, though…while putting character death off the table for an intrigue game or supernatural romance may be appropriate, removing it from a dungeon crawl will make the game fall flat. If your characters have nothing to lose, the game is simply not interesting.

Even if death is a possibility, the level of possibility matters. A pulpy action game or a game of superheroes is going to have death be a rare occurrence, not only because of the genre but also because of the mechanics. Pulp heroes are supposed to be larger than life, which means that mechanically they should be doing larger than life things, like running across collapsing bridges and getting into car chases where they shoot out the bad guy’s tires while driving. If the system makes these things too difficult or too dangerous, then the game will fail to have the appropriate feel. It would be fair to say that games like this should have more risk of failure than risk of death…this also incentivizes the characters to try more dangerous things to prevent those failures.

If the game is taking place in a dangerous setting, part of making that setting real will be to emphasize the danger. While a game of “epic” fantasy (like later versions of Dungeons and Dragons) may give guidance to help balance the encounters so that the GM knows that most often the characters will come out victorious, a game of “dark” fantasy may forgo this sort of balance altogether. On one hand, running into very dangerous creatures will help key the players into how dangerous the world is. On the other, if they make a mistake they could very well die.

As a GM, there is a fine line between running a dangerous world and actively trying to kill your players. In the vast majority of cases, it’s not a line you want to cross. The GM has way more resources at hand than the players do, and can call in all sorts of things to ensure that the characters fail. Therefore, if you want to run a good game, you can’t be adversarial to your players (at least, not without other rules in play). You’re all working together to have a good time, even though that includes setting the stakes and making the world dangerous for their characters.

When you’re in combat, there’s nothing wrong with providing smart and dangerous enemies. You should know, either from your planning or from the encounter design rules in your system of choice, how likely you are to kill the characters. And if the characters’ best recourse is to run, often you as a GM may want to mention that if it doesn’t become clear. At the same time, let the players see the consequences of their mistakes. If, for some reason, the characters let one of your boss monsters become possessed by a demon and now it’s off the charts of your combat table…well, then it’s quite likely that people are going to die.

Failure

At a high level, there is assumed to be some chance that characters will not be able to achieve their goals. Maybe things went wrong, or there was a secondary consequence like an important NPC getting killed. Like death, the risk for failures of this sort can’t be eliminated without reducing the stakes for the game. At the same time, failing to do something isn’t fun and ultimately we’re gaming to have fun.

There’s two important ways to balance setbacks in your campaign. To begin, make sure your characters earn their failures. This sounds weird, but it’s important in terms of keeping the game exciting. If your characters should fail, it should be as a result of their own actions. This means that as a GM, you should make sure that decisions you make make sense as consequences in the moment. While it’s a common trope to have the main villain of a campaign teleport away just as the characters are about to do him in, it’s awful for the players who feel like their victory was taken away from them. If you must do this, at least make sure that there is some other definitive success in the outcome. Also, try your best not to let large successes or failures (including death) rest on a single die roll. The need to loosen up single-roll catastrophes is a strong reason why re-roll meta-mechanics became popular in role-playing game design.

The other important way to balance setbacks in your campaign is to make them interesting. This is often called “failing forward”, and is discussed at length in game design circles nowadays. The notion is relatively simple: every roll should help advance the narrative regardless of whether it succeeds or fails. Thinking about this, a GM should make sure that any time they call for a roll, they have an interesting plan for the results. Games using the Powered by the Apocalypse system have this codified in the mechanics: if a player fails their roll, that means the GM makes a Move, which should always make something interesting happen.


Examining risk in your games is all about maximizing fun. On one hand, it’s not fun to have no real opposition, and it doesn’t make for an interesting story. On the other hand, dying or running away every time there’s an encounter isn’t fun either. Each group is going to approach challenge (and how much they want) differently, but there is one universal rule that applies to all games. No matter what you do, you don’t want to create a situation that stops the game in its tracks. This can be as dramatic and earth-shattering as a TPK, or it can be as simple as being unable to pick a lock and open a door. If the GM ever says “nothing happens”, or “it doesn’t work”, the momentum has stopped. You don’t have to (and shouldn’t) steer your characters away from negative consequences, you just have to make them interesting. Being captured can be way more interesting (and sometimes more of a problem) than being killed, floors collapsing are more dramatic than dead-ends, and as any Shadowrun player will know, the dragon is much more terrifying if he wants your help than if he eats you. The closer your players feel their characters are to their doom, the more exciting it will be when they somehow make it out alive.

8 thoughts on “Level One Wonk: In-Game Failure”

  1. I was a terrible ref in that sense. I hated killing characters because it felt like bullying. And I inherited a game group with character so well developed, so honestly XXXX, so elite and well-rounded, that I felt responsible for their well-being as much as whether or not the players were having fun.

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    1. There’s nothing wrong with not killing characters! Personally, I haven’t had a character death in a game I’ve run since a particularly unfortunate TPK from a game I was GMing while in college. When it comes to characters like the ones you describe, though, it’s all about stakes. Characters with long histories and loads of build-up behind them are characters that should have things they care about. I’m not saying go after things they love for the hell of it (though in certain genres, that works brilliantly), but when a lot of the tests of will and fortitude are already behind them, characters generate the most interesting stories when they still have to put everything on the line for what they believe in.

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  2. I generally agree with this article, but also think that simple failure should sometimes happen. The players just have to come up with another approach, or choose another objective

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    1. I’d agree with that. The important thing is to make sure that there is another approach or another objective already on the table, so you don’t get the dreaded “now what” and lose momentum.

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