D&D 5E What happens when you fail?

gorice

Adventurer
A question for 5e DMs out there (and, I suppose, players of 5e DMs). When a PC fails at something, what happens in your game?

For example: the rogue fails to pick the lock. The bard fails to seduce the queen (or the barkeep, or whomever). The party fails to find a path through the mountains. The party uses up a lot of resources fighting cultists, and decides to take a long rest instead of rushing to stop the evil summoning.

What happens next? Are there stakes? Do you tell the party the stakes? What happens when a player wants to try again?

If possible, I'd especially like examples based on actual play. I'm not looking for general advice, so much as examples of how people have actually dealt with this in play.
 

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Tutara

Adventurer
If there is a dice roll, there are stakes. If there are no stakes, there is no dice roll. As such, a failure always has consequences, because otherwise there would be no roll in the first place.

For example, I wouldn’t make a player roll to pick a lock if they were capable and there is no risk of failure or danger. If they are frantically trying to get through a padlocked cellar door as it fills with seawater, then they roll. A single failure doesn’t mean they drown - it means they might jam the lock meaning it now has to be forced. Another failure and maybe the water is above their head. And so on. Whatever makes sense narratively.

Oftentimes, players suggest their own consequences for failure!
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
A question for 5e DMs out there (and, I suppose, players of 5e DMs). When a PC fails at something, what happens in your game?
Whatever consequences would or could logically follow from that failed attempt...that don't grind the game to a halt...unless the only logical consequences would grind the game to a halt. Priority one: logical consequences. Priority two: not grinding the game to a halt. If following priority one violates priority two, so be it.

There's also fail forward and success at cost. Failure doesn't have to stop things dead. You can, and should, use that as an opportunity to add consequences and complications to the fiction. One of the worst things you can do is have nothing happen after a roll. If you're rolling dice, something should happen either way.

Think of ability and skill checks as saves. You're saving vs consequences. You succeed on the roll, you avoid negative consequences, i.e. the lock is picked and doesn't make noise and you don't get spotted and you don't break a lock pick. You fail on the roll, you suffer one of those consequences, i.e. the lock is maybe picked (not picking the lock could be a consequence), and/or you make noise or you get spotted or you break a lock pick. Generally only one consequence on a failed roll, two on a fumble. But it all depends on the fiction and what would logically follow. If the thief doesn't use lock picks to pick the lock, then there's no chance that they'll break a pick in the lock.
For example: the rogue fails to pick the lock.
Anything that would or could logically occur. Fail and the lock is still locked, make too much noise, break a pick, spotted by guards, alert whoever's on the other side of the door, etc.
The bard fails to seduce the queen (or the barkeep, or whomever).
The full range of human (and humanoid) responses to someone trying to seduce you. Social skills aren't mind control. Some NPCs are married, some asexual, some bi, some straight, some gay, some lesbian, some only into certain body types, some into certain species, etc. Your PC's natural 20 doesn't matter if the person they're seducing is simply not attracted the PC's type. In those cases, there shouldn't even be a roll. If there's no chance, don't roll. If there's a possibility, roll.

This is why it's a good idea to roll for the NPC, too. As a gauge for how they're doing and where they're at in the moment. You can't know that info for every random NPC the PCs interact with, so leave it up to the dice. Make it an opposed roll and compare the numbers. The lower the PC's roll in comparison, the worse the response. The queen might think the bard is joking and laugh or she might throw him in prison for impertinence. The barmaid might slap them across the face because that's the 50th pass she's had to deal with in the last hour.
The party fails to find a path through the mountains.
They have to find another way around, the trip takes twice as long, etc.
The party uses up a lot of resources fighting cultists, and decides to take a long rest instead of rushing to stop the evil summoning.
Then the evil is summoned and whatever should happen as a logical consequence of that happens. Will the evil destroy your home village unless you rush to stop it? Then you just sacrificed your home village by taking a long rest instead of rushing to stop the summoning ritual. It's not the referee's job to protect the PCs from the players' choices. If the player chooses to stand in the lava, then they take the damage. If the player chooses to jump off a 100ft tower, then they take the damage. Etc.
What happens next?
Whatever logically follows from the fiction.
Are there stakes?
If there are no stakes, why have them roll? If nothing is at stake, there shouldn't be any rolling. Simple failure ("no you don't do that, now what?") is pointless and boring. If that's all that happens on a failed roll, don't have them roll. Something should always happen if the dice are involved. As above, they're saving vs consequences.
Do you tell the party the stakes?
The fiction should be clear enough that the stakes are obvious in context. If they're sneaking around someone's castle, they should know that guards are present and might find them, servants are roaming the halls and might see them, the lord and lady of the castle might hear of the sneaks and be angry, etc.

If there's no way for the characters to know the potential consequences, then the players don't get to know either. The info the players have should match the info the characters have as much as possible. It avoids metagaming.
What happens when a player wants to try again?
Let them. The circumstances of the fiction should have changed with the first failed attempt, so the character trying again has to deal with the new situation. You failed to pick the lock and made a lot of noise, now you can hear the guards coming down the hall...what do you do? Try to pick the lock again. Okay, you manage to pick the lock just as the guards round the corner and they see you.
If possible, I'd especially like examples based on actual play. I'm not looking for general advice, so much as examples of how people have actually dealt with this in play.
Everything I've said above has come from examples in play.

The PCs are sneaking into a castle and fail a check, they make noise, are spotted, alert the servants, the lord of the castle hears of their treachery, etc. The barmaid slaps the seducer across the face. The queen throws the seducer in prison. Broken picks. Lost time. Destroyed villages. Etc.
 
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iserith

Magic Wordsmith
A question for 5e DMs out there (and, I suppose, players of 5e DMs). When a PC fails at something, what happens in your game?

For example: the rogue fails to pick the lock. The bard fails to seduce the queen (or the barkeep, or whomever). The party fails to find a path through the mountains. The party uses up a lot of resources fighting cultists, and decides to take a long rest instead of rushing to stop the evil summoning.

What happens next? Are there stakes? Do you tell the party the stakes? What happens when a player wants to try again?

If possible, I'd especially like examples based on actual play. I'm not looking for general advice, so much as examples of how people have actually dealt with this in play.
The rules say that the task must have an uncertain outcome and a meaningful consequence for failure for there to be an ability check, so all rolls by definition must have stakes. What those stakes are will be largely determined by the context of the situation.

In my games, I make the stakes for every roll clear if it isn't already including the DC for the roll. This allows us to be on the same page with the difficulty and allows them to think about how they may want to spend resources, if any, to improve their chances of success.

For picking a lock, often that will be in the context of a dungeon in my games and picking a lock takes 10 minutes. Random encounter checks are every 10 minutes, 30 minutes or 1 hour. So failure to open the lock moves the clock forward to potential combat challenges similar to how a missed attack roll in combat allows for the monster to attack back on their turn. The player can certainly try again, but do they have the time and want to take the risk? They decide.

For seduction, it will really depend on who they're trying to seduce. I would imagine there might be higher stakes to failure for the queen than there would be with a barkeep (but, maybe not!).

A party failing to navigate typically means they get lost in my games (and in the rules) and getting lost usually means spending more time than intended which can also result in more random encounter checks or risk of exhaustion due to forced marching.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
A question for 5e DMs out there (and, I suppose, players of 5e DMs). When a PC fails at something, what happens in your game?

For example: the rogue fails to pick the lock. The bard fails to seduce the queen (or the barkeep, or whomever). The party fails to find a path through the mountains. The party uses up a lot of resources fighting cultists, and decides to take a long rest instead of rushing to stop the evil summoning.

What happens next? Are there stakes? Do you tell the party the stakes? What happens when a player wants to try again?

If possible, I'd especially like examples based on actual play. I'm not looking for general advice, so much as examples of how people have actually dealt with this in play.
It depends.

I realize that's not a super-helpful answer, so I will expand some, based on how I run at this point--which is emphatically not exactly what the book ... suggests, I guess. I do not have examples of all the types of situations immediately coming to mind, for which I apologize.

If it's a task one person is doing, and it's a thing they can perceive and it's a thing they're proficient at, they'll know the DC--it's a perk of being Proficient in my games. The rogue in your instance will probably know how hard that lock is before committing to attempting to pick it.

There are tasks it doesn't seem plausible to me that a PC would know the DC for, and I typically don't give those. The bard, for instance, doesn't know how hard it is to seduce the barman--unless they put some effort into finding that out.

Most of the time, what failure is, is pretty clear. Sometimes it means something other than, i.e., "the lock doesn't open," and if that's the case I prefer for that to be clear to the player/s.

If it's a task the party is doing--such as happened recently, where the entire party was clambering over a wall and down a tied rope to get into a walled compound--I will make the DC player-facing, and try to make the failure-state clear. In this example it was DC 10, success meant you had your action, failure meant you had used it to Dash; both cases the player had choice of tactical positioning.

In the case of your larger decision--resting instead of interrupting the summoning ritual--I would want the players to have enough information to know what they were deciding, and what the outcome differentials were. If I didn't think that was clear, I'd ask.
 

Oofta

Legend
A question for 5e DMs out there (and, I suppose, players of 5e DMs). When a PC fails at something, what happens in your game?
Depends on the scenario. Most of the time, they can still achieve their overall goal but it will come at some cost. Other times they just fail and can't achieve their goal, which is why I have multiple possible goals.
For example: the rogue fails to pick the lock.
Is there a time restraint? In general what I do is have them roll once and if they make it, great. Took no time at all to open the lock. Fail? By how much? If they failed by more than 10 the lock is now jammed, the lockpick broke in the lock. Otherwise how much they missed it by determines how long it's going to take with each increment being 10 minutes. So miss by 10 and it will take 50 minutes, miss by 1 and it's 10 minutes. In real life, it can easily take quite a while to open locks.
The bard fails to seduce the queen (or the barkeep, or whomever).
Whatever makes sense based on the NPC. Maybe the target is flattered, maybe their furious. There's also no way to guarantee success, I don't care if you roll 30+ some people are not going to be seduced. In general if I don't know I use the same idea as the lock, the more they miss by the more negative the reaction.
The party fails to find a path through the mountains.
They have to find another way around or spend an inordinate amount of time getting over. Hope they have cold weather gear and food. The last time this happened the PCs had to go find a guide who was willing to show them the trail, for a price.
The party uses up a lot of resources fighting cultists, and decides to take a long rest instead of rushing to stop the evil summoning.
Time waits on no man. Or woman. Or PC. Figure out what happens, if the cultists have enough time to do the summoning it happens. One of the reasons I don't normally do end of the world campaigns. Don't be afraid to let the bad guys win now and then.

On the other hand the cultists could screw up the summoning. The "god" they were summoning is really a demon and kills the cultists while going on a rampage, now the PCs have to take out the demon. Sometimes the city the PCs are defending falls.
What happens next? Are there stakes? Do you tell the party the stakes? What happens when a player wants to try again?
All player knowledge is gained through the eyes or perhaps knowledge/memory of the PCs.
If possible, I'd especially like examples based on actual play. I'm not looking for general advice, so much as examples of how people have actually dealt with this in play.

In one campaign I had, towards the end of the campaign the PCs simply face planted. Bad planning, bad luck, trusting the wrong people despite being clearly warned, they failed. They did their best to minimize the fallout and had some success, but the result was still huge mess and wiped out much of civilization in the region. The campaign ended and the next campaign dealt with the aftermath.

What I don't do is the "It was all a dream" or take back things unless I really, completely f***ed up as a DM. I can't remember the last time it was that bad, other than one time when a PC died because I made a mistake. We just said that the PC was knocked out and actually survived. Other than that though, let the chips fall where they may.

However, this is also something you may want to discuss with the group. For me death and failure is never totally off the table although the former is rare and the latter is rare for truly important stuff. That may not work for everyone.
 

A question for 5e DMs out there (and, I suppose, players of 5e DMs). When a PC fails at something, what happens in your game?
normally we figure out and keep moving...
For example: the rogue fails to pick the lock.
can we brute force it? do we have the auto win spell? if not then we just don't go through we move on.
The bard fails to seduce the queen (or the barkeep, or whomever).
big difference here... queen or barkeep are 2 really different levels... but still mostly they get laughed at and we move on.
The party fails to find a path through the mountains.
hard way it is... up the mountain
The party uses up a lot of resources fighting cultists, and decides to take a long rest instead of rushing to stop the evil summoning.
well then we handle what they summoned tomorrow.
Do you tell the party the stakes?
3/4 of the time I do.
What happens when a player wants to try again?
um... do you mean time travel? I have allowed that before (no more S.T.E.P. in my campaigns) but in general I assume you mean try the lock or to seduce...no
If possible, I'd especially like examples based on actual play. I'm not looking for general advice, so much as examples of how people have actually dealt with this in play.
oh boy do I love examples...

locked doors

So we had a game of wizards and clerics (3 and 3) and we went on a stealth mission... not a good idea to start. We some how got passed 2 sets of guards (by pure luck). We came to 2 locked doors. Some how with 3 wizards, who all knew prepping that morning that this was possible, none of us prepped knock. So we tried to pick the lock, and none of us had picks or prof in it... so one wizard tried (with the best dex being 15) and the cleric used guidance... and did okaish with a roll. With 2+1d4+ roll he ended up in the low teens... but the DC was 15 and they missed it... so they tried the other door. the roll was worse.
So the cleric of war with oger power gauntlets said "screw it I'll kick it in" and rolls a 1...
the entire mission ends with team genius but also moron left to try again.

2nd locked door issue. the party was split, and the 2 (yes 2) expert lock pickers are on the same side (artificer and rogue) and the side with the hexblade and Ranger/wizard got to a locked door... and they finally eldritch blasted it to dust.


summoning... kind of

The party (I was in as a player) had 6 weeks to stop the evil drow from performing a ritual that would elevate one of them to a avatar like level. We got lost, then got distracted freeing some slaves, then escorting those slave out of the underdark. Then finally we got there 2 days after the rituel... and had to fight the now uber powerful drow chick
 

aco175

Legend
On locks or traps, I allow one reroll at a higher DC and then you need to come back tomorrow. I like the idea of failing forward but have not used it that much except when trying to navigate through the woods and the party makes a group check and fails. Then they get a wandering monster for no treasure and no XP, but they get to where they were going a bit down on resources.

Some checks trigger a problem if you fain by 5 or more. Climbing a cliff or deactivating a trap. You might get a chance to just no climb any higher this turn instead of just falling. You may get a save to catch yourself before falling as well. Traps might not go off if you fail a little, but do something if you fail be 5 or more. They also become harder to bypass the next turn. I guess social checks may fall into this category as well. Fail to seduce the barwench by 5 might just get you slapped or charged double, but the Queen might have you killed or at least locked up.
 

Stormonu

Legend
On the lock thing, it's one attempt. Fail, and the fighter needs to step up to bash it in or the spellcasters need to expend their spells to get it open. Just now it isn't going to be as quiet, or someone's going to have to expend resources that might have been better used elsewhere.

In most other cases, it's a fail-forward. Fail the navigation through the mountains? Random encounter and/or the party is lost for a bit until they can find a way to get their bearings via another method. I actually like this better than rolling for random encounters, as it puts the impetus on the player's action instead of arbitrary randomization. In this case, if the party were to run across trolls in the mountains, it's because their guide blew it, not because the DM rolled a 1 on a d6 after a couple hours.
 

CleverNickName

Limit Break Dancing
It depends on the needs of the story. First, I ask myself: Is success absolutely necessary to advance the story to the next scene/chapter/plot point?

If the answer is no, then failure means "your attempt has failed."
  • the rogue fails to pick the lock: the lock jammed and will require repair over a Short Rest
  • the bard fails to seduce the queen (or the barkeep, or whomever): the bard is shamed by all present, then forcefully removed from the room
  • the party fails to find a path through the mountains: they travel for 8 hours in a random direction, maybe have a random encounter, and must try again after a Long Rest
  • the party uses up a lot of resources fighting cultists, and decides to take a long rest instead of rushing to stop the evil summoning: this isn't a skill check, this is a tactics decision. I'd let it play out however the players wish.

If the answer is yes, then failure means "the attempt succeeded, but at a cost." You fail forward.
  • the rogue fails to pick the lock: the player managed to get the lock opened, but their Thieves' Tools gain the Broken condition. (The cost: broken tools)
  • the bard fails to seduce the queen (or the barkeep, or whomever): the bard is shamed by all present, and the target of the seduction feels so embarrassed for them that they agree to help them anyway, or try to play matchmaker for them. (The cost: damaged pride and reputation)
  • the party fails to find a path through the mountains: they travel for 8 hours in a random direction, have a random encounter, eventually managing to find the path after several hours (The cost: lost time and resources)
  • the party uses up a lot of resources fighting cultists, and decides to take a long rest instead of rushing to stop the evil summoning: this isn't a skill check, this is a tactics decision. I'd let it play out however the players wish.
 
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Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
There's a couple of answers for this, depending on the context.

1. They fail. Stories have upbeats and downbeats, and just lead to different forks of the story. Embrace these. Plan for them - don't cause them, but have them in your mind when doing planning.

2. They fail. And it sucks, things go very wrong, and it's the party's fault. Because if there's no chance of failure, there's no earned success. And work out where to go from there - which may barely resemble your original plans.

3. Fail forward. If failure blocks the plot from moving forward, but does not branch into an alternate plot, then fail forward. If the party doesn't find the secret trapdoor to the hideout the plot stalls? Then have that a failure means they take too long and a patrol comes out the other side. Still a failure with repercussions, but those moved from "blocking" to "interesting and moving the plot forward".

There should always be a consequence for meaningful failure, and a GM needs to be cognizant when they are gating moving forward behind a check or combat or somesuch what happens if it is not successful.
 
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Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
If there is a dice roll, there are stakes. If there are no stakes, there is no dice roll.
That's true ina number of game systems. In D&D, the bar is "is there uncertainty?". From pg 237 of the DMG where it lays out the concept for Ability Checks:

--
USING ABILITY SCORES
When a player wants to do something , it 's often appropriate to let the attempt succeed without a roll or a reference to the character 's ability scores. For example, a character doesn't normally need to make a Dexterity check to walk across an empty room or a Charisma check to order a mug of ale. Only call for a roll if there is a meaningful consequence for failure.
When deciding whether to use a roll, ask yourself two questions:
  • Is a task so easy and so free of conflict and stress that there should be no chance of failure?
  • Is a task so inappropriate or impossible- such as hitting the moon with an arrow-that it can't work?
If the answer to both of these questions is no, some kind of roll is appropriate. The following sections provide guidance on determining whether to call for an ability check, attack roll, or saving throw ; how to assign DCs; when to use advantage and disadvantage; and other related topics.
--

Notice that the only requirement is that it's not an auto success or failure.

This is further expanded on a bit later.

--
MULTIPLE ABILITY CHECKS
Sometimes a character fails an ability check and wants to try again. In some cases , a character is free to do so; the only real cost is the time it takes.
--

D&D as a system does not require there to be consequences to a roll, a "null result" is acceptable in the system.

Now, I tend to run it a bit more like what you described personally, but that's because I've been exposed to concepts like that and agree with them.
 

cbwjm

Legend
Normally, the story continues because I don't usually gate progress behind a check. So a lock pick failing might just mean the party misses out on some loot, a failed Persuasion check means no help from someone, etc. While some checks might be important to help move forward the plot, failure just means the players need to look elsewhere to move it forward, and there is always another way.
 

DarkCrisis

Legend
They don’t open the lock, bang the Queen, whatever. Part of being a DM is keeping the world going when things dont work out. Maybe the Queen gets offended and calls the guards.

Players should fail here and there or else why even roll dice?
 

RealAlHazred

Frumious Flumph
You Lose Get Out GIF
 

A question for 5e DMs out there (and, I suppose, players of 5e DMs). When a PC fails at something, what happens in your game?
"If he dies, he dies."
the rogue fails to pick the lock.
The rogue simply cannot figure out how this particular lock works.
The bard fails to seduce the queen (or the barkeep, or whomever).
They rebuff the bards efforts, possibly being offended at their presumption.
The party fails to find a path through the mountains.
They starve to death, I suppose, but this would require a series of failures over time. If the party was that ill equipped to enter the mountains, they deserve what they get.
The party uses up a lot of resources fighting cultists, and decides to take a long rest instead of rushing to stop the evil summoning.
Now they get to fight the summoned creature too!
What happens next? Are there stakes? Do you tell the party the stakes? What happens when a player wants to try again?

If possible, I'd especially like examples based on actual play. I'm not looking for general advice, so much as examples of how people have actually dealt with this in play.
I don't call for rolls on something without consequences. Instead a roll represents a characters best effort to do something, with failure preventing any reattempt unless the situation changes. If there's a cost, such as falling during a climb if the roll fails by 5 or requiring an action during combat, then reattempts are permitted.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
That's true ina number of game systems. In D&D, the bar is "is there uncertainty?". From pg 237 of the DMG where it lays out the concept for Ability Checks:

--
USING ABILITY SCORES
When a player wants to do something , it 's often appropriate to let the attempt succeed without a roll or a reference to the character 's ability scores. For example, a character doesn't normally need to make a Dexterity check to walk across an empty room or a Charisma check to order a mug of ale. Only call for a roll if there is a meaningful consequence for failure.
When deciding whether to use a roll, ask yourself two questions:
  • Is a task so easy and so free of conflict and stress that there should be no chance of failure?
  • Is a task so inappropriate or impossible- such as hitting the moon with an arrow-that it can't work?
If the answer to both of these questions is no, some kind of roll is appropriate. The following sections provide guidance on determining whether to call for an ability check, attack roll, or saving throw ; how to assign DCs; when to use advantage and disadvantage; and other related topics.
--

Notice that the only requirement is that it's not an auto success or failure.

This is further expanded on a bit later.

--
MULTIPLE ABILITY CHECKS
Sometimes a character fails an ability check and wants to try again. In some cases , a character is free to do so; the only real cost is the time it takes.
--

D&D as a system does not require there to be consequences to a roll, a "null result" is acceptable in the system.

Now, I tend to run it a bit more like what you described personally, but that's because I've been exposed to concepts like that and agree with them.
Your quote includes the rule for only calling for a roll when there's a meaningful consequence for failure (see bolded), so it would seem to me your assertion (also bolded) does not follow.
 

Tutara

Adventurer
That's true ina number of game systems. In D&D, the bar is "is there uncertainty?". From pg 237 of the DMG where it lays out the concept for Ability Checks:

[SNIPPED]

Now, I tend to run it a bit more like what you described personally, but that's because I've been exposed to concepts like that and agree with them.

As you say, other systems handle it better (in both our opinions, as far as I can tell!). At my table, when I DM, D&D is 'what myself and my players enjoy', not 'what is written in the DMG'. I suspect this is similar for a few other tables as well!

I love the weakening of position that Blades in the Dark has baked into its rules (Standard-Risky-Desperate), and I also love the Minor/Major Fallouts of Heart/Spire. I don't think D&D's bar is particularly compelling - if failure is an option, then failure must carry consequences otherwise failure is pointless. Those consequences might be minor, but in my opinion they must exist. The main thing I have taken from other systems is that failure is not the end - failing forward is an excellent mechanic. The story continues, though not necessarily in the way the characters had hoped...
 

If there is a dice roll, there are stakes. If there are no stakes, there is no dice roll. As such, a failure always has consequences, because otherwise there would be no roll in the first place.

For example, I wouldn’t make a player roll to pick a lock if they were capable and there is no risk of failure or danger. If they are frantically trying to get through a padlocked cellar door as it fills with seawater, then they roll. A single failure doesn’t mean they drown - it means they might jam the lock meaning it now has to be forced. Another failure and maybe the water is above their head. And so on. Whatever makes sense narratively.

Oftentimes, players suggest their own consequences for failure!
Agreed, but with a big old asterisks: "you end your turn /you've spent your action" is a consequence (assuming the time pressure is high enough to be taking turns.)
 

gorice

Adventurer
Thanks for the responses, everyone! It's interesting to see both variety and similarities.

My own opinion is that 'meaningful consequences for failure', per the DMG, is a bit vague, especially when juxtaposed with the PHB's claim that checks are made 'when the outcome is uncertain' (or words to that effect). This is why I was interested in learning what other people actually do about it.

In my own case, I've tried a few different techniques, depending on the circumstances. At the moment, I generally have a few background timers (a bit like 'clocks') attached to different types of time increment. I do still use immediate consequences for failure when there is an obvious one, but often that would feel a bit forced, so I advance one of the timers instead.
 

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