Narrating Better Failures

Failure Tells a Story

One of the most important skills a game master can learn is how to narrate the results of success rolls. Most GMs do okay when their players pass the success roll because they can build on what their players want to do. But, failed success rolls are more challenging.

When failed rolls are handled poorly, the players can feel like the GM is playing against them by stopping them from doing what they want. That’s no fun for anyone. And, if the GM just says, “No,” the whole game can get stuck as the players flail for options and the GM feels obligated to shoot them down because of how the dice fell.

Fortunately, there’s a better way. By learning how to narrate failed rolls, you can make the game come alive by advancing the story no matter how the dice fall. It’s a lot more fun to play a game when the dice contribute to a story rather than being a mechanical crutch. It’s the difference between roleplaying and “roll play”-ing.

But there’s another, less obvious, benefit to narrating better failures. When the players know that the dice are no longer a yes-or-no barrier that can paralyze the game with an unlucky bounce, they are less worried about squeezing every possible advantage out of every roll. The incentive to rules-lawyer the mechanical minutiae evaporates when the players don’t need to succeed in order to have fun.

Let me put the point more explicitly: when you narrate your failures in an interesting and engaging way, then you eliminate a reason for your players to min-max every roll.

Don’t Roll When Failure Isn’t an Option

In most situations, the adventure can survive a failed roll. A critical miss against the Big Bad Evil Guy doesn’t have to kill the party. A failed attempt to deduce the killer might send the group in the wrong direction, but subsequent clues can bring them back on track.

But, there are some moments in which the adventure just can’t proceed until something happens. The party may need the bartender to tell them the rumors of ill tidings to the north in order to give the party their adventure hook. Or, the mad scientist may have locked herself in her lab and the party needs to defeat the locking mechanism in order to have the final confrontation. Maybe there’s a single book in the library that will tell the adventurers how to disrupt the evil ritual they need to stop, and the party needs to find that book in order to save the world.

Whenever there is a genuine choke point, don’t roll for success. Let the bartender share the rumors with the party, describe how the electronics expert bypassed the door’s wiring, and remind the group how little time they have left once they retrieve the ritual book. If failure would stop the adventure, then the success roll mechanic is the wrong tool for the gamemaster. This solution is a little crude; it works well at the beginning of adventures but feels unsatisfying as the players advance further through the campaign because it seems to render the player’s choices meaningless. That isn’t quite true—the gamemaster is simply deciding that the player made the correct choice to advance the story, rather than leaving the next steps to chance—but the apparent loss of player agency is a real concern. As gamemasters improve their skill in adapting an adventure, they naturally eliminate choke points from their games. Which brings us to…

One Door Closes, Another Door Opens

When the players fail a roll, the GM can prime the group with a suggestion for a new attempt. The electronics expert couldn’t jury rig the door? That’s ok—the GM can describe how, when the wires spark and give off an acrid smoke, the smoke drifts up to an air vent and the party hears the mad scientist cursing about the smoke entering her lab. Now the party has new options—can they squeeze through the air vent? Can they throw a grenade through the vent into the lab? Can they take a hostage and negotiate with the scientist through the vent?

Most situations that seem like choke points can be converted into closing and opening doors. If the party can’t find the book to disrupt the ritual, they may find a different grimore that they can use during the climactic encounter. Or, their efforts may attract the notice of other sorcerers in town, who decide to assist the party in other ways.

As GMs practice opening doors for their players, they should take care not to railroad the players. When the GM’s interpretation of a failed roll opens options for the players, it makes the game more exciting. But, if the failure becomes an excuse for the GM to direct the players into his or her chosen solution, then the players will feel that their contributions don’t matter. The distinction is subtle but important.

To help avoid railroading, the GM should think of opening doors in terms of the world, not the plot. In other words, don’t start with a script for what will happen and then tell the players what they see in order to push them towards that choice. Instead, start with the world—what else is happening? Let the players use that as creative fuel to generate their own path through the adventure.

Yes, But…

A third way to narrate failures is to use failure to add complications. When the player fails a roll, the GM explains that the character succeeded…at a cost. The gizmo guy opened the locked door but broke his lockpicking tools in the process; the party located the tome despite the interference of the librarians, but now the librarians are calling security to report a theft.

There are lots of ways to add complications:

  • Broken or lost equipment can limit characters in the future, require them to spend resources to fix the equipment, or even suggest a future quest to regain the equipment.
  • Hit point or fatigue point penalties can represent the extra strain required to overcome the skill failure, making the characters more vulnerable later on.
  • Monetary costs can be imposed when the characters need to hire assistance (or pay a bribe) in order to complete the task.
  • New obstacles might result from a failed skill challenge. For instance, if the players couldn’t bypass the door’s lock quietly, they might need to disable an intruder trap or defeat a group of guards.
  • Ongoing skill penalties might be applied to future tasks to represent the lost element of surprise, unknown complications, or general ineptitude.
  • Time limits can be used when there is a critical showdown or climax. The failed skill roll indicates that the characters wasted time trying to complete the task, leaving them less time to prepare for the rest of the encounter.
  • New reaction penalties can result from angering a group of NPCs. Savvy GMs can offer the players a future adventure to make up to that group—or to deal with the fallout from the betrayal.
  • In extreme cases, attribute penalties, taking away character points, or imposing disadvantages can be used to show how costly the failure was. These options should be used sparingly and should make sense in the context of the game and genre (e.g., horror victims might lose IQ to a brain-sucking parasite, but action heroes tend to survive torture sessions with only minor wounds). If this option is on the table, the players should know beforehand so they can decide whether their character is worth the risks.