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Failure is the Spice of Life

by Skimble

I was listening to an old episode of the podcast “Fear the Boot” recently (http://www.feartheboot.com) in which the hosts were discussing the concept of character failure and wondering why it is that players don’t allow their characters to fail more often.


Failure is something we all face on a regular basis. Part of the fun of roleplaying is in getting way from that fact for a little while and telling a story in which things go right for a change, dice rolls allowing.

This is, in my view, the crux of the matter. Failure engendered by a random roll of the dice can be crushingly disappointing. This is the type of failure that causes a certain type of player to fudge dice in order to maintain a basic level of competence. Failure at something a character is supposed to be good at doesn’t fit into the narrative envisioned for the character.

When failure arises as a result of a character’s personality flaws or due to the consequences of that character’s actions, the situation changes completely. Rather than being a source of immense frustration for the player, failure means that an opportunity is now afforded to roleplay the character coping with a difficult situation.

In some games and with some players it may be suitable to leave the failure as a festering sore that has changed a character forever. For example a character whose sister commits suicide after he had failed to take her threat to do so seriously will forever have to face the guilt of his inaction.

In other circumstances failure on the part of a character can provide the mid point of a story arc that continues with the character overcoming the difficulties caused by his or her failures, leading to an even greater sense of triumph.

Embracing character failure does require a certain degree of trust between the players and their GM. The player needs to feel that such failures can be woven into the narrative without making his or her character unplayable or having the issues arising glossed over.

Even where failure is the result of a dice action I argue that there is room for negotiation. If the end result is completely contrary to the story a player had in mind for his character (e.g. an unlucky death) then why enforce that result for the sake of ‘realism’ when it spoils the player’s enjoyment of the game? Reach a compromise position that allows some other consequence to be inflicted that is more likely to encourage interesting roleplaying.

The key thing to remember is that the game is supposed to be about everybody having fun in telling a collaborative story. If failure can be embraced and made into a dramatic element that adds to the enjoyment of the story even while making characters miserable, then it’s an avenue worth exploring with a degree of flexibility.

One Comment

  1. avatar

    Ian Warner says:

    Failure is the name of the game in comedy roleplaying. Falling on your arse is so much more funny than “Ownage”

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