Failure and Consequences

Tinkering with some RPG ideas, I’ve particularly been thinking about how various game designs approach the issue of failure. Quite often, it’s a matter of “succeed… or else” in an RPG: make this saving throw or your character dies, succeed on this skill check or you miss a vital clue completely throw off the adventure, make this shot; it’s your one chance to defeat the bad-guy, and so forth. On the one hand, this creates some dramatic tension, when things really hinge in the next die roll. The problem is, if the dice aren’t with you, you have to suffer the consequences of failing: your character dies, the quest fails, etc. Not a very satisfying ending, all things considered.

I’d like to play around more with the idea that, instead of being an end-point, failure is just the beginning of the story. After all, how many adventure stories involve heroes being dealt setback after setback, only to come back and win in the end? Rather than being driven solely by GM fiat, many of those setbacks can be the result of failure in terms of the game system. What if, rather than bringing things to an abrubt and grinding halt failure instead raised the stakes of the encounter or adventure? Thus, a failed saving throw leaves a hero with a disadvantage to overcome: hanging from a precipice, shaking off pain or injury, needing to recover a dropped weapon, and so forth. We can still get dramatic tension (How will failure complicate this task? How will the hero overcome this?) without necessarily having the same “succeed or die” outcome.

An additional benefit, is this approach plays into the storytelling nature of tabletop RPGs: the “succeed or die” outcome is common in video-games, so common that things like “save points” have become standard so players can try the same tasks over and over again. Changing the approach to this in tabletop RPGs helps to differentiate them from the experience of video games, where the story can change and adapt to failure as well as success in new and interesting ways, creating plot twists and turns. In this way, failure becomes more of a storytelling tool than a punative means of punishing the player(s) for not being good with the dice.