August 16, 2010 by Jeff
by Ryven Cedrylle
A few weekends back I was playing in a certain DM’s (editors note: that’s me) home campaign (::coughbloghost!cough::) where my Invoker – Origen – and another character were trying to invent a ritual that converted Spellplague into Weave magic. We had figured out the ritual in theory and were sitting outside Deep Imaskar trying to work out the bugs in the application. Unfortunately we rolled poorly several times in a row on our daily Arcana checks and spent a fair amount of real time laughing at our terrible die luck. While trying madly to pass the check, though, I noted a small voice kinda in the back of my head (not literally, of course) that was saying “C’mon, just let us fail already and move on!” I found this odd – how many times do you actually WANT to fail in 4E as a player? I mean, we’re playing a game of heroes, right? Heroes don’t fail, do they?
The thing is, heroes DO fail and when they do, they fail spectacularly. Hercules, manipulated by Hera, flew into a rage and killed his own wife and children. Gilgamesh’s quest for immortality is spurred by the loss of his friend, Enkidu. Heck, the founding of the Christian religion is based not so much on the miracles attributed to Jesus of Nazareth but his being betrayed, beaten to a pulp and crucified. We of course would want none of these things to happen to our characters. What’s even stranger is that geek culture celebrates failure like no one else. The Darwin Awards, Failblog, The Angry Video Game Nerd and SomethingAwful just to name a few; all of these institutions thrive on showcasing the bottom of the barrel.
Clearly we as gamers understand the awesomeness that can arise from a truly horrifying failure. Yet 4E Dungeons and Dragons, more so than any previous iteration I would argue, tries to prevent failure. We have expected hit bonuses, expected damage, expected magic items, three death saves, “say ‘yes but..’”, and retraining rules just to name a few. Much is built into the system mechanics of the game that enforces the idea that success equals fun, but where is the room for failure? How do I as a player capture the essence of an epic failure? Here are three quick and simple ideas for players to help make failure a fun and integral part of the D&D experience, not a negative event to be avoided.
1. Start High, Fall Far – I happen to hate roller coasters, but they’re a really good analogy for this concept. The best rides take you hundred of feet into the air, only to drop you at nearly vertical angles with excessive velocity. The higher the setup, the more exhilarating (or terrifying!) the descent. When you ask your DM about making a skill check, think about what the stakes of the check are. “Can I make a Thievery check to open the door?” might be a reasonable request, but what happens if you fail the check? You’ve still got just a locked door. Nothing really happened. If instead you ask, “Can I make a Thievery check to open the door without breaking my tools?” now you have a more interesting situation. When you give the DM permission to take you for a steeper ride, the tension (and the fun) ratchets up for everyone.
2. Have A Plan B – When you fail a skill check, don’t just sit there blankly staring at the DM. Suggest a suitable, but less optimal Plan B. For instance, if you fail the Thievery check to pick that lock, ask your DM if you can roll Athletics to break the door down even though whoever is on the other side will hear you. Your DM may need you to get through that door for the plot and when your Thievery fails, the game comes to a grinding halt until you either roll high enough or the DM just lets you in somehow. Both of these make that door an annoying, troublesome obstacle instead of an opportunity for action. When you present the DM with a complication or price you’re willing to pay for your failure (getting your pick stuck in the door, automatically alerting the guards on the other side), you help him or her move the game along and create more exciting situations.
3. Own Your Mistakes – Most of us of sufficient age in real life have things we regret doing or not doing. Maybe you wish you had asked out that mousy-haired brunette in Anatomy class or hadn’t been so anxious to get to a friend’s house that you sped right through a red light and got in an accident. If we can be defined and changed by our mistakes, why not our characters? What if your inability to negotiate with the enemy generals begins a war that takes thousands of lives and you feel personally responsible? How about if you fail to close a portal to the Abyss and get sucked in? Now I’m not saying that every D&D character needs some horribly tragic past, but a couple big failures now and then add depth and pathos to your PC. It can be hard to figure out what motivates your character to amass vast treasure and murder hundreds of monsters in cold blood sometimes. Seeking personal redemption, trying to right a wrong or willingly suffering the consequences of a past misdeed are a few ways to fill out the humanity (or elvishness, dwarfishness, etc) stated out in flat numbers on your character sheet.
In conclusion, failure can drive a story or a character just as well (even sometimes better!) than success. Just ask Captain Janeway of the USS Voyager or Edward and Alphonse Elric of Fullmetal Alchemist, two stories in which the consequences of failure carry the action for an entire ‘campaign.’ Remember, too, that this is just a game. Try stuff. Experiment. Fail boldly.