Avoiding boring failures

A year ago, I ran a module in which the adventurers needed to get into a city unseen. They received a message to meet at a particular location outside the city; when they arrived, no contact or obvious hideout awaited them. The adventure text told the DM to have the players make a Perception roll: on a success, they found the hidden entrance to an underground tunnel. Nothing was specified for a failure.

So, based on the text, if the characters failed their rolls for whatever reason… what happens? Pack up and go home? “Sorry folks, I know we only played for five minutes, but you fail. No rewards, see you next week.” Of course not! That would be the worst possible thing in a role-playing game: boring as hell. So let’s talk about what we do instead.

Success at a Cost

Other games have the concept of “success at a cost” or maybe “fail forward” (although this last term has a different meaning). While D&D doesn’t, at least as written, that doesn’t mean we can’t include it anyway.

In Dungeon World, every “move” has three results: success, success at a cost, and failure. On a failure, although the character doesn’t achieve their goals, at the same time the story doesn’t reach a halting state: the GM makes a move. (The character also gets to mark XP, so the player sometimes wants to fail!) What do these include?

  • Use a monster, danger, or location move
  • Reveal an unwelcome truth
  • Show signs of an approaching threat
  • Deal damage
  • Use up their resources
  • Turn their move back on them
  • Separate them
  • Give an opportunity that fits a class’ abilities
  • Show a downside to their class, race, or equipment
  • Offer an opportunity, with or without cost
  • Put someone in a spot
  • Tell them the requirements or consequences and ask

Common examples of the cost of a success or a failure include a thief trying to pick a lock (the pick might break, or an enemy discovers them) or combat (the enemy deals its damage). In fact, in DW, static failure doesn’t even really exist. What about in Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition?

Combat is basically a separate system in D&D, so I wouldn’t use this mechanism for attack rolls. But the other two d20 rolls (ability checks and saving throws) definitely could use it. If they fail to spot the hidden door, don’t throw your hands up: maybe they attract the attention of a passing patrol (or other random encounter).

It’s really important to do this in a way that keeps things interesting. Don’t use the cost to make things boring, but to make things exciting. In the example at the beginning of this post, I told them that they eventually found it, but their contact was upset when they arrived late.

Degrees of Failure

Pay attention to how close they came to succeeding. When I had a group of players trigger a trap in Tomb of Annihilation, the dungeon specified a DC 25 Strength check to push forward against a flood of liquid. Two of them rolled a 24 – not enough to succeed, but a result that I felt deserved recognition. So while they couldn’t push significantly forward, they managed to find a handhold and make incremental progress rather than get swept away.

This doesn’t always work: if they fail a DC 10 check, which isn’t really that hard, then I wouldn’t really give them this. It mostly comes into play in situations like the flood above: characters attempt something really challenging, and the dice result implies that they almost succeeded.

Probably some of you have other examples of ways to make a failed roll interesting. What else do you suggest?

3 thoughts on “Avoiding boring failures

  1. Failed rolls can enhance the situation and plot. Depending on the situation, I try to make it a win-win for the character in the situation but it doesn’t come out the way they planned or hoped. I think of Indiana Jones in this situation. A lot of his misadventures happened when he “failed.” (Think: to steal idol, big rolling rock) Also, sometimes, I allow the player to interpret how the fail works. Sometimes players can be rougher on their own characters than a DM might. Either way, remember that a failed roll sucks but there are ways to make it fun if you try.

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