I’ve had a lot of references in these talks about probability and the importance of making sure that success is not a sure thing. Stories are driven by conflict, and to make it an epic story, you need to make it a struggle. If you already know the conclusion of the story before it starts, then what’s the point in telling it? Of course, this means that in order to not know if the heroes are going to succeed, by necessity, that means there’s a chance that they might not. Thus, the question must be asked: what happens then?
As we all know, no one particularly enjoys failing. Aside from potentially spoiling the fun, a failure at a critical moment can also cause a disruption to the story being written. If your players miss a critical clue, or have a bad roll during an important scene, or lose a crucial fight, it can completely derail a scenario. So, how do you allow for the possibility of failure without it ruining a campaign?
A big part of this is why having a party, and a diverse party at that, is so important. Firstly, there is the simple fact that having multiple members in a group means that in several cases, you’ve got multiple chances at succeeding at a test. This mainly relates to tests that don’t require any sort of specialization, such as an investigation. Sure, you’ll tend to do better if you’ve trained up something like Evidence Analysis or Awareness, but anyone can make a Perception test just to have a look around. If your Investigator has a run of bad luck and down ends their roll, you’ve still at least got a chance with the rest of your group poking at things to possibly turn up something.
More than just making similar tests multiple times, however, there is also the fact that a diverse group will have different ways of doing things. We’ll stick with the investigation angle. Anyone can have a look about with their eyes, and certain people will have skills that make them better at that than others. But you’ve also got magic users that can take a look into the Astral and possibly turn up clues that someone limited to physical sight might miss. If your group has a summoner, you can also task a spirit to take a look around for you. Even if you just limit yourself to looking at things in the physical plane, you’ve also got to consider the different points of view that are possible there. An Investigator will be able to analyze a crime scene, but you’ve also got various fighter-types that can identify the aftermath of a combat struggle and put the pieces together that way, or someone who knows finances and will understand how to examine the books and look for irregularities that might have lead up to a scuffle, or a someone with Engine Programming who can check the logs of an Engine and see who were the last ones that came through the secure doors or what their last searches were in the files, or someone with social skills who might be able to coax a confession out of the guard who was found asleep at his post on what exactly he did see and let slip by before he indulged in that drink he was given while on the job.
Following along this line of thinking, it is important as a GM to have multiple methods available for solving a particular scenario. If you’ve read any of our adventure supplements, you’ll have seen that we include a multitude of possibilities that can be explored in a given scene. Partially this is to make sure there are avenues available regardless of what type of characters are playing the scenario, but another part is to give back up paths for players to find out what is going on in that scene. When writing a scene into a campaign, or when coming up with one on-the-fly, it’s important to think just like the defenses on a character; there’s going to be the physical aspect, the mystical aspect, and the social aspect. You should try to come up with at least one or two features for each of these that players might try to interact with. Even if you’re playing with a known group, and you know certain patterns that they avoid consistently, still try to come up with these features. Not only does it help flesh out the scene, but it also keeps you prepared in case the players suddenly change up their patterns (believe me, I’ve run into that myself more than once), and it keeps you prepared in case a round of bad luck causes certain tests to fail.
Even when you have other methods in place to compensate, sometimes failure is still inevitable. Try as they might, the players may just not be able to pull off the necessary die rolls, or they may just completely miss the clues you’ve laid for them even if you practically beat them over the head with it. This is when being a GM is often at its most challenging, but also often also where creative thinking comes into play the most for both a GM and for the players. If your players have gotten themselves into a pickle, whether by a string of bad luck or simply by their own actions, let them try think up their own way out of it first. You’ll have to react to the ideas they come up with, but let them explore their options and reward creative thinking. If they still aren’t able to pull themselves out, and if you really need them to proceed in order to not disrupt the story or to keep everyone having a good time, throw out something unexpected to put a new twist on the situation. Setting off an environmental hazard can often work to the advantage this way when the problem has antagonists involved. Say your players are caught in factory fighting a group of cultists, and a series of bad rolls have put them far behind. You could have a player’s bad roll set them tripping into the controls for the machinery and set it all into motion. Moving equipment can create a cover for the players to get away and regroup while the baddies try to avoid getting hit by something or falling into a machine that’s now on. You’d still have to contend with the implications of losing that particular fight (which may not be all bad if they just need to get to cover and strike from there), but that can be addressed with something like a high stakes chase scene or a bigger investigation later, or maybe they just need to get clear long enough to call for reinforcements. Regardless of how you handle it in your particular situation, when things start to go off the rails, don’t be afraid to let it drift for a bit rather than immediately jumping to try and get it back on course.
Sometimes, failure isn’t as big as a full scene. Maybe it’s just a particular die roll that you have to have go through in order to progress the plot, particularly if it’s a non-time sensitive item. In these type of scenarios, you may choose to resort to the “Yes, but…” line. In other words, the test goes through because it has to (or just sitting there rolling repeadedly until you get a success would be tedious and boring), but there’s a complication. It could be something so simple as just taking extra time, to having a piece of equipment damaged or ruined in the process and in need of replacing later, to some other lingering effect depending on the situation that will have to be dealt with (which may be relate to damaged equipment). Say you’re trying to pick the lock on a particularly stubborn safe that contains the evidence needed to bring down your current big baddie. If it’s a situation where you have your team in providing coverage and there’s no immediate threat, you could play it that a failure on that test means you’re able to get into the safe, but not before the henchmen come around checking things out and cause a combat scenario. Or perhaps you get through, but one of your lock picks is damaged in the process, and you’re at a penalty until you can fix it or get a replacement. Since there’s no real rush, you could just have the player try again until the test succeeds and you just measure the time taken, but continually trying until you get a success may be less fun than playing through the drama that a failure roll could bring.
While we’re on this subject, don’t forget about dramatic failures. The Rule of One exists in the game for a reason. Though its likelihood gets less and less the more you advance, particularly when you’re throwing additional dice on your Step, they can always happen, and the effect shouldn’t be lessened. Sometimes, things just go south, and having to deal with that fallout is part of the game. Whenever you can, play it up for the drama, and as always, give player’s some creative license to work it to their advantage. If you’ve got a group trying to sneak into a bandit camp late at night and someone gets a Rule of One on their stealth, have them crash directly into the cookware that was hanging up to try, causing a terrific racket and alerting the entire camp. Maybe this creates a great distraction for other members of the party to still sneak around while that chaos is going on. Maybe a combat ensues and the players could end up winning, which now gives them some options for questioning. As with the rest, use your imagination to tie it in with the specifics of your situation, and play it up for dramatic effect.
In short, failure isn’t the end of the world, or even the end of the game. It is in the nature of rolling the dice that sometimes things may not work out the way you intend. That is okay. Don’t be afraid of things going astray. Both as a player and as a GM, failure is an opportunity to think on your feet and come up with a way out. If you’ve already failed, see it as a chance to make a new plan that is completely crazy; even if it means there’s only a very slim chance that you’ll survive, if nothing else, it will make a good story.
One last quick one before I wrap up for today: I’ve got news that both Ha’Penny Pie and Champion’s Challenge will be starting up again August 1st, so look for new releases on those coming soon!