Mar 16 2012

Failing up

One of my pet peeves in a lot of games is when you fail. Why is a pet peeve? Because when you fail nothing happens. The game stagnates and change isn’t affected. When you miss in combat your action had no effect on the situation. When you’re trying to pick a lock on a door and you fail the door stays locked. Fail at breaking the door down and it stays up. I always feel a game isn’t doing its job if failure means stagnation. If you have these problems I have a few tricks I use to make failure a little more bearable.

A Word of Caution

As a GM you have the power to define what failure means in any situation. Remember that. It’s your choice to ignore the written rule but do so at your own peril. The rules are in place for a reason so make sure you don’t set a poor precedent for anything you decide to change because you’re players will hold you to it. If you do make a mistake you can just admit you made a bad call last time, and if your players aren’t douche bags they’ll give you some slack.


One of the tricks I use is called twisting the story. I ripped this off from Mouse Guard by Luke Crane. If someone fails you don’t just tell them no. Twist the story, add a complication, make the goal more difficult to accomplish. Heck, you can get a whole session from a series of bad dice rolls if you just keep twisting the story. As a Game Master this makes failure more interesting and allows you some creative freedom.

The Choice

Sometimes I like to give my players a choice when they botch a roll they really want to make. I set an asking price, usually some personal resource or story based action that will come back to bite them later, and then see if they’ll pay it. There might be some bargaining and eventually they make the choice. Here’s an example:

A cleric was casting a ritual to pull terrible energy out of an angelic being. He succeeded on the roll to remove the energy but not enough to disperse it to the ether. The energy was wildly flying about and the cleric realized it was going to randomly enter someone or possibly disperse. I asked him if he wanted to let it go randomly or would he take all of the foul energy into himself. He chose to take it into himself. Now he’s got a sort of doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde thing going on and it’s not good for him or his friends.

The choice doesn’t always have to be that dramatic. Sometimes it can be as simple as you missed the attack roll so you can sacrifice some amount of health to hit or you open yourself up to an attack to land your strike. In a social situation you can debase yourself, lowering your reputation, in some way to gain access to your goal. Maybe your trying to lie and the GM tells you yes you can succeed but someone in the room realizes your lie and you don’t know who it is. The only real rule is trying to find a cost equal to what the character will achieve.

Tip: If you’re running an ongoing campaign this cost can be something you put in your back pocket and pull out sessions later. If you’re paying attention and listening to your players you can pull off some amazing things by just tempting your players with the things they want. The best part is when you pull out the consequence the player who made the decision will be having a blast because they’ve affected the world in a meaningful way, and you got a plot point created organically through play. There’s also the flip side of a player complaining but you can retort by telling them they got what they wanted before and there are consequences to actions.


Here’s the newest trick I’m trying out which is a more codified rule. When someone fails you ask them if they want to try again and set a cost. They pay the price and can try again. If they fail a second time you set a second cost but tell them they will succeed if they pay it. It’s a different take on the choice idea, but I’m excited to try it out in play.

If anyone else has any ideas about how to make failure more interesting drop a comment here and share some ideas. Thanks for reading and I hope all your games are awesome.

¬†Chris “The Light” Sniezak



  1. Jesse

    Not sure I agree with your opening statement. If you miss your attack it might mean the orc survives to kill you when its initiative comes up. If you can’t pick a lock, now you have to decide whether to smash it down (which means alerting the bad guys to your position) or try to sneak around another way (which takes more time and risk). If you can’t smash the door down, you’ve probably already alerted the ogre on the other side and it is hiding behind the door to get the jump on you when you do break the door open.

    Failure doesn’t have to mean stagnation. Much of the time there are very real consequences, which means that the players have to make decisions that have actual significance.

    1. Chris Sniezak

      I don’t disagree with your idea that people on the other side of the door might hear you but that still doesn’t deal with the door problem. It halts the game. It makes the choice the players make invalid. They wish to go through this door and alerting the people on the other side of their presence is a good choice. If you as the GM are going to make something happen as a result of the failure then the game is moving forward. If the door not being broken down halts the party then the game stagnates. It’s more interesting to have the fighter eventually break the door down after several whacks but has alerted the ogre on the other side to the groups presence so when the door is broken the Ogre is ready to bash the players. That’s interesting while keeping the game moving. In the other situation with there being another path to take I’m ok with the situation because there is another path but only if it creates a more interest situation. That’s assuming the alternate path is more dangerous. My point is if anyone takes enough time and has a sword or axe why wouldn’t they be able to break the door down. Give me an ax and I’ll take a door down given enough time assuming it’s made of wood. When it comes to fighting the orc, sure they orc might be around next round but what I’m suggesting is the orc gets to swing right away of the player wants to get their hit in so in the fiction they’re hitting each other at the same time. As I’ve said it’s on the GM to make a ruling that makes sense and stick to the rule in the future. More importantly it will speed along conflicts and make them interesting.

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