I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the role of failure in RPGs.
Here’s the thing: I’m fine with failure. I think failure can be good for a story and I think that, in certain kinds of games, it’s a necessary component of building tension.
Failure, particularly in more traditional RPGs, is often boring. Rolls act as binary responses: does something interesting happen or not? The player gets to attempt interesting things (which is good) but often botching a roll means a null result (which is boring). If failure in your game often amounts to nothing in particular happening, then you need to reexamine your game.
Failure, when it’s used, should always be interesting. It should be at least as interesting as success. Note that I’m not saying “at least as good”. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t hurt your players’ feelings, or that you should insluate their characters from bad things happening. I’m saying that, if I roll to hit some bad guy and my d20 comes up a 2, something should happen. Often in games this is not the case; your turn is wasted and the game moves on to someone else. That’s boring and frustrating, especially if you’ve been wating for a while for your turn. It’s not fun. Worse, it’s a completely wasted opportunity for something interesting to happen.
Some games go to an extreme and say that players simply can’t fail at things they’re good at. I think this is fine for certain kinds of games; heck, I wrote one not too long ago (go check out Runners for a game where a botched roll never means failure). Something to keep in mind about games like this is that lack of failure does not equate to lack of consequence or lack of cost. Sometimes success at a cost is really interesting; sometimes it’s more interesting than failure. It’s often more fun (and really, it’s a game; we’re all playing it to have fun, right?).
The fact that I like games with no failure (and that I wrote one) shouldn’t be taken to mean that I dislike failure. You’ll note that, at the top of this article, I say think failure is fine and sometimes necessary. In fact, this whole line of thought brought me to design a game that takes the opposite approach: failure is the expected result in most cases. You have to fail–a lot–in order to eventually succeed. The game’s not quite done yet, but it will be soon and it’ll be free on this blog.
Failure, success; both of these things are means to an end. What we want out of a game is action, drama, tension, and fun. Null results produce none of those things. If your players are allowed to fail, make sure that failure means something. Play big or go home.