Sunday, March 22, 2020

If Failure isn't Interesting, Skip It!

We’ve all seen 5e DMs do it; a player asks a question and the DM reflexively asks for a skill roll. Prof DM over at the Dungeon Craft vlog says, “Don’t do it!” and wisely brings up the Garden of Eden problem. This happens when a plot or adventure can’t progress unless the PCs successfully take a particular action. (It’s called the Garden of Eden Problem because until Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, nothing can progress. There’s no tension, no drama, no conflict; the happy couple remains in paradise and nothing dramatically significant happens, which is awesome for them, but sucks if you’re trying to tell an entertaining story or run a fun game.) I believe it’s Dyson Logos I’ve seen repeatedly on Facebook saying something along the lines of, “If you don’t want to accept what the dice tell you, why are you rolling the dice?” This is the flip side of what Prof. DM is saying; if you’re not willing to accept failure, why invite it by invoking random chance?

I’m going to take this a step further: if failure isn’t potentially fun, don’t bother rolling. If the players are attempting to pick a lock in a dungeon, and there’s no reason for them to rush, no chance for a wandering monster to interrupt their efforts or the dungeon’s inhabitants aren’t taking the time to lay ambushes or sneak up on them, I just say they succeed. This goes doubly so if the PCs are back in their safe base, and have uninterrupted hours to inspect and work on the lock without fear of ninja ambush or the like.

Conversely, if I can make failure interesting and the roll is otherwise unmomentous, I’ll ask the players to roll. No, I’m not rolling to see if the bard can successfully sing Scarborough Faire, but I might roll to see if someone in the audience knows it’s used by a secret rebel group that they believe is responsible for the kidnapping of their sister and so decides the PCs need to be ambushed, or possibly pointed out to the Iron Baron’s secret police. Or maybe extreme success is interesting; you might shave a few gold pieces off the price, but if you demonstrate superior haggling skills, the merchant will decide you’re the perfect spouse for her ne’er-do-well son.

And yes, this goes doubly so in combat. Most rolls are interesting in combat, succeed or fail. But there are fights that are just foregone conclusions, and there’s no chance of anyone else intervening no matter how long the matter drags out. There’s no point in suffering through the string of misses that’s just going to eat up valuable gaming time. If there’s no chance of failure being interesting, I just let the PCs succeed.

In the best fights, and the best dungeon delves, every second (or, at least, every six-second round) counts. But not every encounter or adventure pushes such exacting standards. If the most interesting thing that happens from failure is that someone else tries instead, or the PCs rest and try again, just let them succeed. If the fight’s gone on long enough, and the outcome is absolutely going to be PC success, just let them win and move on. Your game will be better for it.

Monday, March 16, 2020


I'm still alive, just dealing with some stuff that's eating up all my spare time. Hopefully I'll be through it soon; there's so much fun bloggy stuff to talk about.

In the meantime, enjoy this public service announcement.