I’m currently trying Play-by-Post (on the site RPG Crossing), a system in which you play D&D and other RPGs by posting on a message board. I’m running a solo adventure to introduce me to the system and, well, I’m about to die. The likelihood of me failing this made me think about how rare this sort of experience is in modern RPGs. Maybe it’s something we should bring back?
What do I mean? Well, I have a few examples.
In a homebrew D&D 5e adventure I ran a year or so ago, “A Shadow in the Woods,” the group ended up in a castle sunk halfway into a swamp. After they defeated the boss, the castle started sinking all the way in, twisting as it went. The group had to navigate the swirling passageways, and–when they reached the entry–jump through a rotating window to get to the surface. One of the characters nobly waited till last, and failed his acrobatics check. I felt bad letting him die, however, so I had him jump into mud, and be pulled out by the rest of the party.
Similarly, in a homebrew Star Wars: EOTE adventure, the party needed to gain information from an old lady about a lost Jedi temple. They had not been nice to her in a previous encounter, and didn’t try that hard this time, so she wasn’t cooperative. I realized that the adventure would end right there, so I had her give them directions, just bad ones.
And way back when, my old D&D group was playing Horde of the Dragon Queen (the first campaign for 5e) at our FLGS, Labyrinth Games. At the end of chapter 1, a half-dragon challenges the group to single combat. We were all level 1 at that point, and we knew there was no way we would succeed. But one player, running a halfling ranger, rushed forward (he later said he wanted to re-roll his character). The half-dragon only knocked him unconscious, however, and we later revived him.
What do these have in common? There was (or appeared to be) a clear failure point, beyond which either the adventure wouldn’t progress or the characters would die. And I worried about enforcing that failure point. It’s not just me; after the Star Wars adventure, the other players counseled me to avoid putting such failure points into my adventures (we did a constructive post-mortem after each session, no matter who GM’d).
This makes sense. It’s no fun if an adventure ends early, or if players have no chance of escaping a horrible fate. And since death is handled gently in the latest edition of D&D, players come to expect their characters will survive no matter what. Moreover, some failure points can feel arbitrary, like old choose-your-own-adventure books in which half of the options led to a horrible ending even though it wasn’t clear why that choice was bad.
But are failure points necessarily bad?
Failure points can make you try harder. Knowing my character may die in my play-by-post adventure makes me think over what I could have done differently to survive. Similarly, if my Star Wars party knew there was a chance they’d really need the old lady on their side, they would have put extra effort into developing a rapport with her.
Failure points can also make games more fun. I like to tell my players that RPGs aren’t about “winning,” they’re about fun, and sometime failing is fun. Now, by “failing,” I mean having an encounter not go the exact way it was planned. But more dramatic failure can be fun too. As my readers know, I play Crusader Kings 2 on my PC; some of the better games on this involve my characters losing their throne. Always winning gets boring.
This is apparent even in my almost-failure points above. In my homebrew adventure, the player later said he would have been fine with that character dying, and it would have made for a good ending. Likewise, seeing one of our party die bravely (but foolishly) in Horde of the Dragon Queen could have solidified camaraderie in my newly-formed group.
And D&D used to be like this (while some games still are). Veteran players tell stories about how horrendously hard certain dungeons were. My very first D&D adventure–the dungeon in the Basic Set’s rulebook–ended in a total party kill, after my dad and two little brothers rushed into combat with some giant rats (I was DM). And the point of RPGs like Call of Cthulhu is to see how long you survive, not to “win.”
But I think modern GMs are afraid to put failure points into their dungeons for a few reasons. One is that players may get mad. Another is that they’re kind of tricky to pull off. This isn’t just a tough boss battle leading to the death of the party. It’s an encounter or puzzle that will result in the adventure ending if players can’t solve or get past it.
There are a few ways to add them in without upsetting players, however:
- One would be to just chat it over with the players. Asking people if they’re OK with their characters dying might seem strange, but it can get everyone on the same page about the stakes of the adventure.
- Another is to avoid failure points that rely on dice rolls rather than player creativity or ingenuity. It can be frustrating if your best laid plans lead to the party being stuck in a locked room because someone rolled a 1. But if players failed to work together to find their way through a maze, well…
- Finally, “post-victory failure points” can be effective. If, after the players defeat the evil forces and save the village there is still a chance they can die heroically, it makes their adventure seem more important.
They may not be for everyone, but failure points can really increase the stakes of our adventures. And they can generate great “remember that time…” stories. That’s what RPGs are all about, right?