Monte's rational is totally ridiculous. Honestly, it's embarrassing reading this kind of stuff coming from a designer of his stature. It's like he's writing unintentional parody. Consider my intentional parody instead:
"Everyone’s sitting around the table, immersed in the Ninth World. The whole party is in desperate trouble and likely to die in the following round, and unable to think of any other possible solution Bruce’s character is trying to get a strange numenera device with a legendary reputation to work. The DM asks Bruce to roll versus his character's Insight skill.
Bruce rolls a 20. Everyone at the table woots! The DM says, “The device suddenly begins to hum and the runes incised deep in its surface begin to glow. A nimbus of azure light surrounds the whole party!"
It's an exciting moment and we've all been there, but it also has some negative connotations. Bruce - the player, not the character remember - didn't actually do anything right. Rolling a 20 isn't actually his fault, per se. And if GM incorporates some sort of success into the narrative - that Bruce's character did something incredibly lucky or revelatory, Bruce feels a hollow sense of success that isn't really associated with anything he did.
Which wouldn't be the end of the world if it only happened once..."
Seriously? Why are we relying on random fortune to determine the outcome of actions in a story it all if we are really worried about whether Bruce's feelings might be hurt when he fails a dice roll, or that Bruce might feel a thrill of vicarious exhilaration when a mere dice roll determines he succeeds.
And how are the two really any different? Aren't they figuratively and perhaps even literally depending on our fortune mechanic, two sides of the same coin? You lost the coin toss. You won the coin toss. If it is irrational to feel bad when you lose to random chance, surely it's equally irrational to feel good when you succeed. And surely you cannot expect to have one without the other?
"This is important because we don’t want to run games that “punish” players for rolling bad."
Wait... what? Do we also not want to run games that reward players for rolling well? How is that supposed to work anyway? Why bother rolling the dice if we don't want to generate a spectrum that ranges from success to failure? Surely sometimes if it is appropriate to determine whether someone succeeded or failed, it is also appropriate to determine whether someone dismally failed or spectacularly succeeded? I mean if we are not stuck on a D20 mechanic and we've actually had vast experience with different sorts of game systems, then we have to know that many games aren't geared to creating binary pass/fail results, but rather do the idea of a degree of success as a matter of course.
I kind of understand where Monte thinks he's going with this because its really not discussing fumbles at all but his specific system and he's encouraging GMs to be more creative in determining what abject failure looks like in a way that is maybe less consistently denigrating toward the character/player, but I think fundamentally you can't avoid the idea of failure by calling it a 'complication'. It's merely renaming something to make it sound less harsh without actually making any real difference in what it is. Words like moron and imbecile were invented to be technical medical terms for stupidity in the hopes making them less stigmatizing, but then of course those words themselves became insults of great efficiency. And likewise, mentally retarded was intended to replace those older clinical terms with a newer more clinical term, but now if someone wants to be insulting they are more likely to get verbal punch from their insults by naming someone mentally retarded than simply stupid.
Calling it a 'complication' rather than a fumble doesn't make GM insertion into the scene to create a special class of extreme failure anything other than what it actually is, nor is it any less ridiculous to think that it will be received as anything other than an especially dismal failure that makes everything worse. Nor indeed is it any less ridiculous to think that we need to protect player's feelings from the dice delivering undesired failures to them, whether we call these failures fumbles or not. Of course failure stings. And of course, since it comes from a die roll, it's often not your fault and you can't do anything about it.
But are we a bunch of babies that can't deal with that fact? I mean seriously, don't we all about age 5 outgrow the feeling that a game is unfair when it deals to us setbacks? How do you manage to play Monopoly or Settlers of Cataan, much less an RPG if you aren't capable of dealing with the inherent unfairness of a random dice roll?
"So in our interaction between Bruce’s character and the NPC, the 1 might indicate that some other NPC has suddenly shown up and called away the fellow with the device Bruce wanted to take a look at. Or maybe the NPC just wants Bruce to do a favor before he gives him what he wants. Or maybe the NPC shows Bruce’s character the device, but it’s not at all what Bruce was expecting. These aren’t fumbles, they’re complications, and they can open the door to even more interesting situations in the game."
No whatever spin you want to put on it, these are fumbles and they can open the door to even more interesting situations in the game.
Now, I grant that sometimes in gaming history there have been fumble tables or rules which are more ridiculous than helpful, and individual GMs that without guidelines still insert ridiculous complications on every fumble or failure even when they aren't running a game of Paranoia. But that doesn't abuse the general concept, only specific applications thereof.
And as for protecting a players feelings, in my experience players get themselves into ridiculous escapades and do things that make everyone else at the table laugh at their expense quite without the help of the dice. If you haven't been that player that narrates a set of actions that ultimately result in more farce than the desired heroic moment of awesomeness yet, just give it a while - your turn will come. Be the guy that laughs about it afterwards secure in at least you were entertaining and knowing you won't be the only one.