D&D 5E What happens when you fail?

Asisreo

Patron Badass
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.
I tell my players what the stakes might be before they roll if they ask. If they really want to know, they can make a wisdom check. I always tell the players the success DC. There is usually a consequence when they roll, the only times when there isn't a consequence is if they're doing something comedic, such that the consequence isn't impactful but it's hopefully entertaining.

Sometimes, the consequence is explicit but they might not fully understand the scope of the consequences. The impact might not be immediate or apparent, but it does have an impact.

An example of how I DM:

"I want to pick this lock."

"Okay, that's a DC 15 dexterity check. You can add your proficiency with either sleight of hands or theives' tools and you have advantage if you have both. If you succeed, you unlock it in 6 seconds. If you fail, you take 10 minutes to unlock it."

"Oh...I got a 9..."

"Okay, the lock was particularly tricky for your otherwise skillful talents. But finally, after ten minutes, you get the door unlocked."

I tick down another mark on my dungeon time tally, with every 6 ticks equating to a roll on the random encounter table. I remind players that any spells or effects with durations less than 10 minutes have ended.

Also, If they would have succeeded, I wouldn't have tallied the time at all since increments of seconds is way too tedious. Increments of singular minutes aren't recorded either, but I do keep track of their travel pace in dungeon and mark a tally for every 3000ft they walk. It's very rare they walk that long, though, unless the dungeon is scaled massively (like being made for giants/dragons).
 

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Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
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.
Bwahaha. You know, I missed that. Just saw the bullet points. That should be included in them. You are completely right. Though the Multiple Checks thing later does ignore that.

EDIT: I'm not saying that second part to dispute, more like pointing out how they don't follow their own rule. Your point is clearly spelled out in the rules and I agree.
 
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iserith

Magic Wordsmith
Bwahaha. You know, I missed that. Just saw the bullet points. That should be included in them. You are completely right. Though the Multiple Checks thing later does ignore that.

EDIT: I'm not saying that second part to dispute, more like pointing out how they don't follow their own rule. Your point is clearly spelled out in the rules and I agree.
I think the multiple checks section is a bit messy, but it does say that the cost is time. Essentially you're trading the resource of time to remove uncertainty and thus the need for an ability check since uncertainty as to the outcome is a prerequisite for calling for an ability check. Effectively we're now talking about two different activities: do the task quickly one time, which means there's uncertainty, or do the task repeatedly in 10x the normal time in which case there isn't uncertainty. Presumably the time spent is important in whatever context the writer was imagining otherwise the DM may as well handwave it.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
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.
I would say the two sections fit hand in glove. The outcome must be uncertain and there must be a meaningful consequence for failure in order for there to be an ability check. If either condition is not present, then the DM rules success or failure, no roll. As a player in that context, what you want to do then is frame actions in a way to try to avoid uncertainty as to the outcome or take steps to remove the meaningful consequence for failure. If you do, then you can potentially get auto-success which is better than relying on a d20 which will kill you and everyone you've ever loved given half a chance.
 

Well, at least in my own game (which is not 5e, to be clear), the story always advances.

That doesn't mean good things happen, nor that the players get what they want, nor even that the players necessarily know what happened. But if they rolled, something happens. There have been a handful of times where I asked for a roll, and then realized I couldn't come up with anything that could happen as a result. So I've scrapped the roll (sometimes just letting their choice succeed, sometimes saying it doesn't work.) Such events are very rare though, I can only think of one specific instance and even then only because I remember it being a moment of "uh...actually...I literally can't think of what would happen here. Nevermind!"
 

Stormdale

Explorer
Consequences and (hopefully) a funny story. Some of our fondest gaming memories as a group start with remember when x failed to... and y happened.
There is an old saying $hit happens.
 

Li Shenron

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?

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.
If you fail, you have to find another way.

This is already a penalty, even when failure doesn't harm you directly or put a dent on your resources. It might anyway lead to wasting time, having to take a longer or more dangerous route, or even leading to an extra combat that could have been avoided.

I don't roll checks only when there's a cost for failure. The reason I ask for a check is that I as a DM am undecided on what the outcome should be. There's a little fork in the story and I don't want to be the one to decide which way the story goes. Other times instead I do: especially in social encounters there is often a hidden 'code' or two that will let you get what you want without a chance for failure, if your intuition serves you well: maybe the queen has a personal story of family loss and will sympathise if one of the PC had the same, or maybe she has a secret lover and will concede if she feels her secret is in danger. When the players hit the right 'code' (pr have a brilliant idea of their own that catches me off guard and I find amusing) I go with an automatic success.

This is typically beyond rules, no rules system ever works well in all circumstances because challenges are very varied and almost all systems make the mistake of wanting uniform solutions. Some systems however can really get in the way and worsen things. For example I am especially against systems that regulate 'retries'.
 

Quickleaf

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?
Examples from actual play at my table or in online games...

For example: the rogue fails to pick the lock.
Rogue failed by 5 or more, and I said "one of your lockpicks breaks off in the lock, jamming it and preventing further lockpicking attempts."

They had to find another way to open the door, and they went down from 10 lockpicks (house rule that thieves' tools have 10 lockpicks) to 9 lockpicks. In this case, it was also relevant because they were trying to "leave no trace."

The bard fails to seduce the queen (or the barkeep, or whomever).
Bard attempted to seduce a fey lord, a character who appeared lightly in their PC's backstory, knowing that this fey lord was incredibly fickle and had a mean streak. Failed Deception check to lie that they had lingering affections for the fey lord, and offended fey lord refused to let them access the healing pools of their domain.

The party fails to find a path through the mountains.
Can't recall an example of mountain travel from recent years, but I do have many examples of failing jungle navigation checks during Tomb of Annihilation.

Failed navigation check... got a little lost and entered unintended hex, encountering dangerous monsters they otherwise wouldn't have encountered, and costing resources & days off the ticking clock of the Death Curse.

Failed navigation check... and presented with a difficult choice between two routes: the steep physically demanding ascent (check vs. exhaustion & risk of fall damage) vs. the misty lowland valley descent with strange lights (save vs enchantment effect).

Failed navigation check... and NPC secretly tracking them was able to catch up and cut them off in the next settlement.

Failed navigation check... and they weren't able to reach a suitable campsite before the storm caught up with them.

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.
The two cultists were recently raised from the dead – so each day removed one -1 from the raise dead penalty that started at -4, and gave them time to restore their spells & reactivate magic defenses of their secret lair. PCs were aware that the cultists were recently resurrected.

In this case, party long-rested in a tomb they'd just cleared out before delving into the secret lair. This allowed cultists time to reactivate both of the flesh golem guardians, which otherwise wouldn't be activated.
 

Oofta

Legend
There are many different ways of DMing but one of the things that I try to do is never give information to the player that the PC does not have. So if they want to pick a lock, they may take a quick glance or do a closer investigation to see what quality it is. Is this a lock on a poor farmer's shed meant to keep out neighborhood kids or the lock on a thieve's guild meant to look like a poor lock but actually quite advanced.

What the consequence of failure will be may or may not be easy to discern and may be misleading. Fall off that narrow ledge and it looks like you'll plunge to your doom, but maybe there's an illusion involved and so on. In some cases I may call for a roll because if I do not then the players know there is no chance of success or failure, which again tells the players something the PCs could not know.

For some reason some people will insist up and down (and block me on this specific topic) because I'm playing the game "wrong" as they prove by quoting text but selectively cutting out a sentence or two. Personally? When I play I want to inhabit my PC as much as possible and act only on what they perceive. If I indicate that I want to make an insight check on an NPC that's telling the truth if the DM states "they're telling the truth, no roll" then I know beyond a shadow of a doubt the NPC is telling the truth. To me, that takes something away from the story's narrative and a sense of mystery.

I guess it's heresy to say that the rules don't state that there is one true way. Do what makes sense for you and your group. 🤷‍♂️
 

gorice

Adventurer
I would say the two sections fit hand in glove. The outcome must be uncertain and there must be a meaningful consequence for failure in order for there to be an ability check. If either condition is not present, then the DM rules success or failure, no roll. As a player in that context, what you want to do then is frame actions in a way to try to avoid uncertainty as to the outcome or take steps to remove the meaningful consequence for failure. If you do, then you can potentially get auto-success which is better than relying on a d20 which will kill you and everyone you've ever loved given half a chance.
This is a persuasive interpretation, but I'm not sure why that the second bit is buried in the DMG. Trying to divine what the designers were thinking from the layout of those books is a path that leads to madness, though...

I don't roll checks only when there's a cost for failure. The reason I ask for a check is that I as a DM am undecided on what the outcome should be.
I'm actually a big fan of the 'oracular' function of dice for revealing information about the world. This is why I don't use the official social rules in the DMG as written: they require a lot of prep and cross-referencing. Calling for a check is an easy way of answering e.g. whether the queen might be open to the bard's advances or not. That doesn't mean that a single roll is all it takes to succeed, though.

There are many different ways of DMing but one of the things that I try to do is never give information to the player that the PC does not have.
I think this is a legitimate preference if it works for your group. Personally, I prefer to err on the side of being generous when it comes to revealing information the PCs might have, including stuff like enemy AC and whether an enemy is 'bloodied' (not officially a thing, I know).
 

FrogReaver

As long as i get to be the frog
Consequences for a failed check depend on fictional context.

Typically the worst consequences are 'nothing changes' - though in the context of you have 3 rounds to get out before gas fills the chamber then spending 6 seconds having no effect is a really significant consequence. So even this advice isn't foolproof.
 

Oofta

Legend
This is a persuasive interpretation, but I'm not sure why that the second bit is buried in the DMG. Trying to divine what the designers were thinking from the layout of those books is a path that leads to madness, though...


I'm actually a big fan of the 'oracular' function of dice for revealing information about the world. This is why I don't use the official social rules in the DMG as written: they require a lot of prep and cross-referencing. Calling for a check is an easy way of answering e.g. whether the queen might be open to the bard's advances or not. That doesn't mean that a single roll is all it takes to succeed, though.


I think this is a legitimate preference if it works for your group. Personally, I prefer to err on the side of being generous when it comes to revealing information the PCs might have, including stuff like enemy AC and whether an enemy is 'bloodied' (not officially a thing, I know).

Let's say you're running a typical who-done-it. You suspect Chuck the butcher so you question him. One of the PC asks for an insight check and as a DM you tell them that Chuck is telling the truth. We've now eliminated Chuck as a suspect and (barring alter memory or similar magic) the investigation becomes asking everyone "Did you do it?" If the DM asks for a roll you know to put that person at the top of the list, case solved. That would be boring to me.

I don't believe the outcome must be uncertain to the DM, the outcome must be uncertain to the PC. If someone asks to jump over a 100 foot gorge with no magic, it's obvious they can't do it and there's no reason to even try. If they attempt to break down a door that's actually an illusion or a steel door disguised to look like a normal door, they don't know until they try. If there's enough time pressure that a couple of rounds makes a difference I may ask for a check or three before they know for certain they can't break it down. If there's no time pressure I'll let them know they try a few times and it's not going to work. Sometimes you can't know something until you try, the check reflects that.

Sometimes the outcome of failure is simply that you don't succeed. If you don't know whether Chuck is lying or telling the truth that can have a huge impact for the players even if the DM knows the there was no chance and insight check would indicate a lie.
 

plisnithus8

Adventurer
“The DM calls for an ability check when a character or monster attempts an action (other than an attack) that has a chance of failure. When the outcome is uncertain, the dice determine the results.”

As a DM, I try to avoid the gaminess of meta-gaming that stating a DC would have. I might say, “That’s s really tough looking lock.” But if it doesn’t look tough but is rusty on the inside, then the player’s wouldn’t know and the DC might still be high.

Failing a lock pick check just means they don’t open the lock. Nothing else has to happen unless it might follow logically. If they roll a nat 1, I might say one of their picks break. On a nat 20, the DC may still be out of reach.

What size find is difficult is rationalizing not letting each player take a turn at attempting something. It can really big down a situation, but logically each should get a chance, even though in a large party that often means the %is in their favor.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
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's super hard to answer the question as presented since so much is dependent on the other circumstances happening in the game. Let's look at failing to pick the lock.

1. Nothing happens if it's a lock in the rogue's home. No consequences, so failure really doesn't mean anything.
2. Failure to get into the treasure room could just be a failure.
3. Failure to get into the treasure room could set off a trap on the door.
4. Failure to get into the treasure room could mean that the ogre guard you heard walking to check the area walks in on you before you can get inside and out of sight.
5. Failure to get into the treasure room could mean that the party wizard they hear screaming, who used his one dimension door to get into the room first and check it out will die to the guardian before you guys can get inside.
6-27646365 Failure means other stuff.

As DM when a situation comes up, the consequences for failure will usually be pretty apparent. You've been very involved in the setup and game play that led to this point, so you know what will probably happen with both a success and failure before the roll.

As for the stakes/consequences, they will often already be apparent to the players as well. With the above lock examples, numbers 1, 4, and 5 are pretty apparent to the players. Number 3 will not be, and I'm not going to tell the players in advance about the trap. Other times it might not be apparent to the players, but would be apparent to the PC and I will let the player know. Like the consequence itself, the DM should have a good idea whether it's apparent, secret or not apparent and should be told.
 



Perhaps it might be more useful for me to answer the specifics...though this might require a lot of context. Again, I don't run 5e, but in theory the same ideas can be loosely applied to 5e.

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.
Picking locks is an application of the Thief move, Tricks of the Trade. Full success means it succeeds no problem. Partial success means the player must choose between two of the following three options (the two being picked by the DM): "danger, suspicion, or cost."

I don't have a Thief in my game, but our Bard has taken this move as one of his multiclass moves, so it counts. (Character had a long-established connection with a Robin Hood-esque thieves' guild, so this move choice made perfect sense. Ironically, the character has ended up being very similar to a classic 1e Bard, minor Druid abilities and all, purely by the player following their interests.)

Each situation will make different options more plausible or interesting. So, for example, he recently picked the lock of a door on the "guest house" of a woman's private estate (far from the city) while trying to find out what happened to her and why her estate was so trashed. There was no social cost to picking that lock, so "suspicion" didn't make much sense to me. That meant "danger" or "cost" were the two main options. Danger is nice and simple, getting ambushed while picking or alerting unseen enemies to your presence are great forms of danger. Cost is trickier--the character has a lot of money and hasn't picked a lot of locks, so many standard costs would be a pittance to him. Instead, I'd probably go for something magical. Maybe at one point he has to use one of the magic daggers from his shadow-magic sword as a tension source, and it turns out the lock itself is magic and the two things react badly to one another. The player loves that sword, so negatively affecting it is a good motivating cost, opening up new story paths, and repairing it would be tricky as many of the people he could turn to to repair it are antagonists, or otherwise morally suspect.

Of course, the player actually DID succeed, so nothing of this came up at the time. But this is the kind of thinking I would have used if they did miss the roll.

The bard fails to seduce the queen (or the barkeep, or whomever).
This one is less clear-cut, as there is no dedicated "seduce" move. If seduction comes up often enough, I'm sure I could write one, find one online, or mix those two approaches to generate something. But as it stands, it's the generic DW resolution. Full success (10+ on 2d6+mod) gives you most or all of what you wanted. Partial success (7-9) gives you either success-with-cost, usually for indivisible effects like "I attack the orc"; or it forces an uncomfortable choice, e.g. between taking a risk or playing it safe; or you only get small progress or fewer benefits, some of which you hate to give up. Straight up miss/failure (6-) means I as DM can make a "hard move" (actually doing something hurtful to the characters or which directly impedes them, rather than simply being the threat of impeding them.)

So, if the Bard tried to seduce the Sultana and failed? Well, in this case, the biggest costs would be social, political, and resource-based. The party has enjoyed a good rep with the Sultana thus far. She generally likes them, and they have done good things for her personally and for the city-state she rules. It would be stupid of her to simply write the whole group off after a single botched seduction. However, if he did this in a public place or in a conspicuous way, she would have to respond publicly to avoid seeming weak or cowed. This would likely result in a loss of face for the Bard, probably being stripped of his diplomatic envoy status and being publicly admonished for his uncouth behavior; the party would find it much harder to make use of official resources, and the Sultana herself would cease to have the warm affection she has for the party, becoming more cool and businesslike with them.

That doesn't mean the relationship can't be repaired. It certainly could be. But it would be a challenge, especially due to losing the diplomatic envoy status.

Bartender is easier. He or she kicks the party out and says nasty things about them to other barkeeps/cooks/etc. in the area. Unlikely to affect their reputation or more "high class" joints, but the party would find the seedy underbelly much less friendly than it had been before. Again, this effect is not irrevocable, but it won't change unless the party actively works to fix it (which is far from guaranteed.)

The party fails to find a path through the mountains.
This would be an Undertake a Perilous Journey roll. A miss on this one delays the party significantly, exposing them to environmental dangers (in my game, this would usually be thirst more than hunger because it's a desert), costing precious time, and generally putting the party's objectives at risk (e.g. they would be passing the mountains to get to the other side, presumably to enlist the aid of the peoples there...a delay might let their enemies get in first and poison the well.)

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 is what Dungeon World calls a golden opportunity, and is an invitation to use a hard move against the players. I tend to be a softball GM but if my players did this I would exploit it. Perhaps the summoning is nearly complete when they arrive--they now have mere moments to stop it rather than hours. Perhaps the summoning is already "started" but not finished: their dalliance has allowed the Dark One to get a foothold in their world, but they can still prevent Her from fully entering and unleashing her dark powers unrestricted, and then after that they'll need to find out how to banish Her completely from their world. Perhaps there is a sacrificial victim, and by the time they arrive, the victim is already dead--but freshly dead, so they can try to revive them or keep them in a gentle repose type state until they can revive them properly. Etc.

What happens next? Are there stakes? Do you tell the party the stakes? What happens when a player wants to try again?
Some actions permit trying again, but most do not, because the world (or at least the party's knowledge thereof) should change as a result of their actions. I don't usually think in terms of "stakes," but rather in terms of goals and significance. If there are stakes, generally I will tell them everything their characters could reasonably know (and I err on the side of telling too much, rather than too little.)

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.
Well, most of the above examples are "what if" scenarios rather than actual events from my game. But hopefully they are nonetheless illustrative.
 

This is a persuasive interpretation, but I'm not sure why that the second bit is buried in the DMG. Trying to divine what the designers were thinking from the layout of those books is a path that leads to madness, though...
Indirectly, it is because the DM is the one calling for Ability Checks in 5e. I suppose the PHB could have stated that more clearly to the players (i.e. "if the DM calls for a roll, it means the outcome of your stated approach is uncertain and there is a meaningful consequence for failure...").
 

Oofta

Legend
Indirectly, it is because the DM is the one calling for Ability Checks in 5e. I suppose the PHB could have stated that more clearly to the players (i.e. "if the DM calls for a roll, it means the outcome of your stated approach is uncertain and there is a meaningful consequence for failure...").
So if you follow that strictly, why do the players not automatically know if someone is telling the truth? I'm not going to get into how they indicate they want an insight check - asking "Insight check?" or "Can I tell if they're lying or hiding something?" is the same thing to me. There are other examples of course, but this is a simple and common one.

But in my example of Chuck the butcher, who despite his name is not the murderer and has nothing to hide, if the DM does not call for an insight check the players know Chuckie is innocent, right?
 

Laurefindel

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?
It depends on the stakes and the level of control of the PC in the first place.

I try to let players know what the stakes are as much as possible without slowing the game unnecessarily but basically it depends on whether the PCs are in control, under pressure, or at risks, and what failure means in the context. An Athletics check made to jump from a roof to another during a chase doesn't necessarily means a fall; it likely means that they fail to evade their pursuers or catch-up to their target.

Usually the consequences of failure are something along the line of...
  • takes more time than it should
  • situation degrades
  • damage
  • dead end (it just doesn't work- find another way)
  • waste of precious resources
 

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