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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.
 

EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
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

Hero
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).
 

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