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D&D 5E When Failure Isn't an Option in 5e


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Stalker0

Legend
Your opening notes about "Failing to Fail" are spot on, and I think its a common mistake for new and veteran DMs alike. Its easy to want to throw a check in there, but sometimes you just start the scene with "and you all see X, person Y tells you Z, and you keep going".

The other option is the "failure advances an alternate plot". If the party doesn't get the clue, the adventure isn't over, but it might change radically. Its a cool way to go but generally a lot more work on the DMs part.
 

OptionalRule

Explorer
Your opening notes about "Failing to Fail" are spot on, and I think its a common mistake for new and veteran DMs alike. Its easy to want to throw a check in there, but sometimes you just start the scene with "and you all see X, person Y tells you Z, and you keep going".

The other option is the "failure advances an alternate plot". If the party doesn't get the clue, the adventure isn't over, but it might change radically. Its a cool way to go but generally a lot more work on the DMs part.
Very true about the work on the part of the DM. I personally do the best I can but realize that many times I don't have a great idea and I try to move on until I do. It's always a balance between tools and opportunities.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
An approach I've had some success with is giving the PCs multiple opportunities to, e.g., acquire necessary information. You can complicate this some by having the PCs under some sort of time pressure, so the longer it takes them to find the information, the less good it does them (but it still helps).
 



OptionalRule

Explorer
Good stuff, though I will always keep "failure is an end" in my repertoire. Sometimes, it makes no sense for any story to go on based on the nature of the failure.
I'm not really sure what that means. I doubt you mean the campaign ends but maybe? Failure can be an end to that strategy, but there has to be come place to go with the game.
 

I tend to find the problem isn't "The players fail, and now they have nowhere to go."

It's "The players fail, and there are potential other ways to go, but they assume failure means it's pointless to continue and go do something else entirely."

Example: The Rogue fails to pick the lock, but there are high windows that the party could - at greater risk! - climb to.

But the players assume "Huh. I guess we aren't supposed to get into the tower. We bail on rescuing the princess, lets go kill some kobolds."
 

jgsugden

Legend
But if the story DOESN'T go on, do you end that nights session and send the players home?
This is a problem in pure railroad games. If the PCs get off the tracks, the DM has to get them back on or there is no place to go.

Having enough of a sandbox around the railroad allows the DM to keep the PCs moving towards something and then figure out how to get them back on track to their railroad before next session.

My games usually start with a railroad storyline that sets the stage to get the PCs to a sandbox experience for them to explore between levels 5 and 16. Then, it closes out with a big storyline that has been building behind the scenes since the beginning that is usually more of a railroad (or, actually, a funnel, with many ways to get moving towards the end but the options narrowing until the major campaign concluding event). In those railroad sections, I have a few 'independent' storylines worked out that I can use to bring the PCs back to either the main storyline, or a parallel version of it that gets them where they need to go. In terms of prep for those, I have the idea worked out, and a few encounters / events roughly ready to go, but I rely more upon improvisation to keep us moving when there is an unexpected change. That is tougher in an online game as you need to have maps ready to go usually, so I usually end up having a few multipurpose maps reads and then rely more upon theater of the mind.
 


prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
I tend to find the problem isn't "The players fail, and now they have nowhere to go."

It's "The players fail, and there are potential other ways to go, but they assume failure means it's pointless to continue and go do something else entirely."

Example: The Rogue fails to pick the lock, but there are high windows that the party could - at greater risk! - climb to.

But the players assume "Huh. I guess we aren't supposed to get into the tower. We bail on rescuing the princess, lets go kill some kobolds."
This seems as though it might be learned behavior, perhaps from campaigns where there was one and only one path the PCs were expected and allowed to take past obstacles. I guess maybe you could get them to believe you weren't running such a campaign if, early on, you flat-out told them so. Suggested they look around for other approaches, and had those other approaches work.

My own approach to obstacles is to make sure I see a way past them, but not to lock myself into that being the only way past them. I strongly prefer the experience of the players' doing something I didn't anticipate, to the players' behaving exactly as I expected. But that's probably a little astray of the topic.
 



Rhenny

Adventurer
Great points about failure. When players understand failure adds drama, tension and sometimes leads to other paths that are very interesting, roleplaying becomes so much richer. This is a great discussion for a “session 0.”

I like when failure also leads to a new choice. In one of my last sessions (Tomb of Annihilation), the party I DM for had to move past a magnetic statue shield that pulled any metal (up to 150 lbs) toward it. If the metal touched the shield it instantly rusted to dust. The pcs with no metal had no trouble, but for the ones with metal weapons or gear, they felt it all pull towards the shield (luckily the armored pcs were all over 150 lbs). I told the pcs which of their items were being pulled and if the pcs tried to grab pulled items, and they failed a strength (athletics) check, I let them decide which item they couldn’t hold back. That choice made the encounter much more interesting and the players loved it. It was a failure, but also a success. It was a cinematic moment too and it made the Dwarven Cleric want to avoid passing near that statue again.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
My games aren't exactly true sandboxes, but neither are they plot driven. Things are happening, the PCs decide what to do about it. If they fail to stop the dragon, the dragon does whatever it set out to do. They may or may not have a chance to slay the dragon later on.

It's one reason I don't do "end of the world" scenarios because I don't want the world to end.
 


pming

Hero
Hiya!

From the article...:

"The first order problem many DMs have with failure is introducing it at the wrong time. Mystery scenarios are a great example of this, where players must uncover a clue to move the game forward."

Old Grognard Voice: Whell, thar's yer problem!

;)

(Emphasis mine) That's, to me, a "new-age DM" mentality. Where the thought that the game is going to "stop" or "fail" or otherwise "stall unrecoverably". It doesn't. That's the beauty of RPG's: There IS no 'end'.

In the case of the mystery scenario, if the PC's don't uncover some specific clue that they somehow 'must' discover or the final chapter simply won't occur...we, then that final chapter doesn't occur. The game keeps going. The players keep playing. The DM keeps playing the NPC's/Monsters according to what the PC's do or don't know. The game does, in no way, "fail".

Old time DM's like me are well-versed in the "...well...uh...ok guys. Give me 5 minutes...", and then everyone takes a 5 minute break while I quickly jot down some interesting notes and ideas about how the main plot just changed. Note I said changed, and not "failed", "stopped", "ended". When a plot hook is missed, or, more often, misinterpreted, all that does is change the story. THIS IS A GOOD THING! The game is best played (imnsho) when it is the Players that make the choices that determine the outcome of some particular story element...and not the DM trying to come up with new rules or outright "fudging" them in order to keep the "written-in-stone plot line" from unraveling.

So, again IMHO and IME, the article in question oozes "New-Age DM'ing". This isn't necessarily a bad thing, if everyone enjoys it and the Players are happy knowing that they will never truly 'fail' at anything important. That sort of game just isn't my cup of grog, at least as far as D&D or most RPG's go. Some RPG systems I have no problem with it and even enjoy it (ex, Dungeon World where a roll of 7 - 9 is "Success, but...").

At any rate, just wanted to get my 2 coppers in to point out that I think the idea of the "fail forward" type of DM'ing does a disservice to the Players and DM because it robs everyone at the table of discovering a completely new story or event that otherwise would never have come out of it. That's, as I said, the beauty of RPG's: That the game never truly "ends" or "stops".

^_^

Paul L. Ming
 

Sometimes things don't go the way they should, and while using the occasional DM intervention to keep things going is fine, players need to accept the consequences for their mistakes.
That's the point though. The OP is discussing how failure can impact the game, but making it so certain situations basically slam things to a halt rather than making them harder or forcing alternate approaches

Also, you're seeming to confuse mistakes and rolling low, given you refer to players not PCs (and indeed the sentiment only works with PCs). It's not a "mistake" if you roll to search a room with Investigate, and despite having Advantage from someone helping you or w/e, the dice roll low. Depending on the DM if you carefully describe the search you might auto-succeed anyway, but this is the sort of thing that tended to be an issue.

In my experience it's mostly an issue in pre-written adventures. As @jgsugden says, if there's even a little bit of a sandbox and the players are aware it exists, it's usually possible for them to work around it. In at least 50% of the adventures I've written which were a bit more railroad-y (normally I got for "scenarios" which are what @Oofta is describing I think, i.e. stuff is happening, do you want to get involved? Maybe an NPC asks you to, but you don't have to, and could ignore them and get involved in a different way), the players surprised the hell out of me with an approach I totally hadn't considered and which was really good.

As @prabe says too this can be a learned behaviour. This is one of the reasons I look askance at a lot of Adventure Path-type stuff, and particularly this idea that these sort of heavily-worked pre-gen Adventure Path-type adventures are a "good way for DMs to learn", because I actually feel like they push people into a particular way of approaching adventures which is quite limited. I have met players before who were befuddled by the idea of having to do their own thing. Indeed, full disclosure, I've kind of been one - not in D&D, but in Shadowrun, at one point in a very rail-road-y adventure the writers expect the PCs to go off and do research and talk to contacts and so on, and there's no way forward without them guessing this and having the appropriate skills/contacts to do so. Me and the other players were mystified by this. But it was largely learned because the entire SR campaign up to then had been basically "doing what we were told".

But I think the main thing is that you can make failed rolls and stuff interesting by designing for that, rather than just making them punishing. Personally I think it's generally better, if you want "punishing consequences" or the like to be looking more at that happening because of fundamentally terrible plans, rather than mere bad rolling. Now, there are some plans that pivot on a few rolls, and maybe some of those are fundamentally terrible plans, but most of what the OP is referring to isn't that.
 

Hiya!

From the article...:

"The first order problem many DMs have with failure is introducing it at the wrong time. Mystery scenarios are a great example of this, where players must uncover a clue to move the game forward."

Old Grognard Voice: Whell, thar's yer problem!

;)

(Emphasis mine) That's, to me, a "new-age DM" mentality. Where the thought that the game is going to "stop" or "fail" or otherwise "stall unrecoverably". It doesn't. That's the beauty of RPG's: There IS no 'end'.

In the case of the mystery scenario, if the PC's don't uncover some specific clue that they somehow 'must' discover or the final chapter simply won't occur...we, then that final chapter doesn't occur. The game keeps going. The players keep playing. The DM keeps playing the NPC's/Monsters according to what the PC's do or don't know. The game does, in no way, "fail".

Old time DM's like me are well-versed in the "...well...uh...ok guys. Give me 5 minutes...", and then everyone takes a 5 minute break while I quickly jot down some interesting notes and ideas about how the main plot just changed. Note I said changed, and not "failed", "stopped", "ended". When a plot hook is missed, or, more often, misinterpreted, all that does is change the story. THIS IS A GOOD THING! The game is best played (imnsho) when it is the Players that make the choices that determine the outcome of some particular story element...and not the DM trying to come up with new rules or outright "fudging" them in order to keep the "written-in-stone plot line" from unraveling.

So, again IMHO and IME, the article in question oozes "New-Age DM'ing". This isn't necessarily a bad thing, if everyone enjoys it and the Players are happy knowing that they will never truly 'fail' at anything important. That sort of game just isn't my cup of grog, at least as far as D&D or most RPG's go. Some RPG systems I have no problem with it and even enjoy it (ex, Dungeon World where a roll of 7 - 9 is "Success, but...").

At any rate, just wanted to get my 2 coppers in to point out that I think the idea of the "fail forward" type of DM'ing does a disservice to the Players and DM because it robs everyone at the table of discovering a completely new story or event that otherwise would never have come out of it. That's, as I said, the beauty of RPG's: That the game never truly "ends" or "stops".

^_^

Paul L. Ming
I don't think this is as "new age" as you're saying, and I think stuff like "never truly fail" is, to be charitable, a pretty big misunderstanding on your part. Not gating the critical path on skill checks or the like isn't "not allowing failure", it's basic and sensible design for more linear adventures (which not everyone runs).

It's actually mostly applicable to games which are of a slightly older vintage than the most modern ones - i.e. later 2E and 3.XE stuff involving following complex and heavily-wrought "Adventure Paths", which can feel extremely rich and rewarding in ways sandboxes or quasi-sandboxes sometimes aren't.

The most-modern games (and I'm talking over a decade old stuff now) actually don't really take that approach. Many of them are in fact failure-heavy, and use the failures to advance the plot and develop the characters and so on. Apocalypse World, for example, does a lot more with failures than D&D, and tends to give them more weight too.

Of course there's the underlying issue that D&D, fundamentally, isn't, in any edition, a system that handles mysteries or the like with much elegance (whereas some other RPGs, like Gumshoe, absolutely do, because they were designed to).
 
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