Making Failures Interesting

Cuz, let’s face it… Failing can be fun.

GM:  Okay, you’ve met your contact in the tavern, what do you do?

Player: I finish my drink, leave a tip on the table, and walk out looking around to see if anyone pays any particular attention to me as I leave.

GM:  Roll an… insight check.  Sure.

Player:  <Rolls a 2 for a total of 5>

GM:  As you get up, you catch your boot on the leg of the table and drag it a few inches before you realize what you have done.  The movement is enough to topple the pewter mug and it rolls onto the floor with a loud clatter.  The eyes of every patron turn to you and watch you as you set things right then exit the taproom.  Tough to see if anyone pays attention to you when EVERYONE is paying attention.

Lately, I’ve been on this “Degree of Fate” kick.  For an overview of what I mean by this, please see my related article

What I mean to explore with this concept is not just whether one passes or fails a skill check, but how one passes or fails.  Does rolling a 1 have to mean they don’t see anyone taking note of their departure?  Does rolling a 20 have to mean that someone notices? 

Answer: Yes and No.

Failure could mean the barmaid comes up to them and kisses them on the cheek as they leave.  Well, someone notices them leaving, but is it what they were actually looking for?  No.  Obviously, the implication in the check is to see if anyone sinister notices them leave.  So, a failure could mean they don’t see if anyone sinister is watching them because they are distracted by the barmaid.  Conversely, a success could also have the same result: the barmaid kissing them on the cheek, but now they are confident that the only person who took note was the barmaid, and no one sinister seems interested.

Too often, as players and GMS, we get locked into the pass/fail concept when it comes to checks.  Point being, passing and failing could have the exact same reaction (barmaid), but with drastically different outcomes (distraction vs. confidence).

Now, had the player said, “I sneak out of the tavern, looking behind me to see if someone notices,” then the GM might call for a stealth check.  A failure might result in the barmaid incident, but a success might in this case they are able to sneak away without a glance from the other patrons. 

GMs, consider what the players specifically say, and players, be careful how you ask.  Sneak out vs. look around.  These appear to be essentially the same thing, but the GM can (and should) ask for different checks than what the player might expect.  In this case, insight vs. stealth.  What this also does is it makes ALL skills important to the character, not just their proficiencies. 

This leads to another area we will explore in an article on a later date:  “Wanted: Proficiencies Only”.  In this article, we will consider why ONLY high charisma PCs are doing the talking, high dexterity PCs are the only ones sneaking around, etc.  In reality… this just isn’t the case.  Give it some thought, and we’ll be back later to discuss.