The Tasty Fruits of Failure

An extract from the forthcoming Botts RPG Miscellany, Adrian Bott’s big book of GM’ing wisdom.

By Adrian Bott


Some Games Masters fear failure – not so much their own, but the players’. For a none too confident GM, the thought that the players might experience failure can be daunting. Failure is generally understood to be a bad thing, so what if the players interpret their ‘bad’ experience as the Games Master’s fault? Will they have an unsatisfying evening, or even want to drop the game altogether? Will they assume the GM is being sadistic, or punishing them for some reason? If games are meant to be fun, then how can failure ever be a good thing?

If you’ve ever had such worries, then please set them aside. Failure is not something to be dreaded. Failure is like a basket of tasty, juicy summer fruits just waiting to be devoured. To understand why, we have to look at what failure in a gaming context means, how it can enrich the game, and how trying to avoid it can make for stagnation and tedium.

Old School Death

Player death is one of those issues that really sets old and new school games apart. There are exceptions, of course, but I’d argue that the general trend has been towards softening the blow of player death and the adoption of a more ‘video gamey’ approach. In the days of early D&D, there were many ghastly ways to lose: you could fail a saving throw and die, you could run out of hit points and die, and you could even have your experience levels drained to the point at which dying probably seemed like a mercy. In other games, such as Pendragon, characters would perish in a blood-drenched variety of mediaeval ways. It’s not really any surprise that the game system Paranoia arose out of old-school gaming, as a satire of deservedly maligned ‘trash the party’ attitudes.

There were a splendid number of different ways for a character to end its life abruptly in the gaming sessions of old. Death was common, though by no means the only option. Permanent insanity was ridiculously easy for a Call of Cthulhu character; and it’s worth noting that CoC occasionally required the sacrifice of permanent Power, a very important stat, to keep the horrors of the Mythos at bay. We got our limbs hacked off in early Runequest, climbed into motionless Spheres of Annihilation and were destroyed forever, fell into boiling mud, broke Staves of the Magi… we played for keeps back then.

In more modern incarnations of D&D, death seems more like a temporary inconvenience. Player loss is more of a setback than a disaster. There has definitely been some borrowing from the way video games tell stories; as we will be finding out later on, a one-track narrative absolutely requires a ‘save point’ defeat mechanic, because no part of the overall story can be allowed to be too challenging to experience. The players simply have to stay on course until they pass through the difficult part, and they can’t do that unless they can bounce back from defeat as many times as necessary.

I believe that the change in how player defeat is typically handled in RPGs is directly related to the shift from open-ended location-based play to linear narrative-based play. Back in the glory days of hex grids and graph paper, players chose their challenges based as much on their own assessment of their readiness for them as on any narrative-derived reason. There was no sense that the environment had to be suited to the players’ strength levels. If you found out that there was a dragon in a cave, you couldn’t rely on it being tailored to give you a balanced fight; in all probability, if you went and attacked it, it would probably devour you in a few rounds. The consequences of defeat were uncompromising, because without the overbearing pressure of an externally composed ‘quest’, ‘plot’ or ‘story’ bearing down on them, the players became uniquely responsible for their decisions and so were not entitled to any sort of insurance in the event of failure. Even if the cause of the defeat was (as it often was) sheer bad luck, that was just the way the dice fell, and there was no point in taking it personally.

In the post-Dragonlance era, things changed. Story being paramount means that player decisions are made in a context of unfolding narrative, in which certain actions are expected of the protagonists. When players take on challenges, it is mutually understood that they are supposed to; this is what the story demands. There is thus an implication that the challenge will be balanced and fair. If they weren’t meant to fight, the thinking runs, then the enemy wouldn’t be in their path. Stories require persistent forward progress, and a player engaged in a story-based game (as the vast majority of games are these days) cannot help but be aware of that.

I won’t pretend there wasn’t a lot to dislike about the old school approach. Emotional investment in a character is more of a risk if that character can be wholly trashed because of a few bad die rolls. Some GMs really were juvenile or sadistic, and took pleasure in ruining select players’ fun by wiping their characters out. The ‘killer dungeon’ is perhaps best left gathering dust in the past. And yet, most players who remember those years can chuckle at the excesses of slaughter and obliteration. By making defeat less bitter and death less severe, do we perhaps run the risk of taking some of the savour out of the game?

Failure is a Great Teacher

If everything that players attempted were to succeed, they would never get to experience the pleasure of adapting and varying their tactics. When confronted by a challenge whose solution isn’t immediately obvious and which could potentially be dangerous, players tend to go into a sort of huddle, discussing what the safest way to proceed might be. At this point, the GM can safely go and put the kettle on, or have a cigarette, or whatever the GM likes to do in those rare moments during which his/her presence isn’t required.

These planning sessions are, however, much less intense than the discussions that inevitably follow a near-total defeat or similar colossal setback. Few things are so motivating as coming within a hair’s breadth of outright disaster. Shocked out of complacency, players will often come up with clever, disciplined battle plans or bizarrely inventive subterfuges.

Although failure can cause ‘blamethrowing’ sessions, in which the players turn on each other and argue about who should have done what, it can also motivate the group to work together more efficiently and achieve better synergy. If the GM is fair and even-handed, then it should be obvious to the players when disaster was caused by the group’s own failure to work as an efficient team.

Failure Can Be Hilarious

There’s a whole media industry based around the comedy of failure. Watch any of the shows where audiences send in clips of things going wrong, or visit sites like Since long before Leeroy Jenkins precipitated the most famous team wipe of our times, humans have found comedy (often black comedy) in disaster.

There are few gaming groups, I imagine, who don’t have favourite stories recounting some disaster or other. (My own D&D group invented a new species, the Flatufrog, to explain an elven ranger’s disastrous failure to move silently through woodland.) If you’d like to read a classic, go and Google for the Head of Vecna; you can thank me later.

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