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D&D 5E What happens when you fail?

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

Seb-wejem
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

Reeks of Jedi
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 (Your Grace/Your Eminence)
You Lose Get Out GIF
 

Shiroiken

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?
"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

Hero
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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