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Spinning Failure

Started by jdagna, May 12, 2003, 10:14:18 PM

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All the talk of character failure in">A Tale of Three Trollbabes has brought up an issue I've been mulling over for quite some time.  The issue is essentially: how can the GM spin failure so that everyone still has a good time?

I feel pretty strongly that PCs should not succeed at everything they do (at least in the short term).  They should experience some setbacks and some approaches that require them to rethink things and try again.  If I don't feel that kind of risk as a player, I'll get bored pretty quickly.

Of course, I'm almost always a GM, and whenever I run a game session that ends badly, I always feel game's mood drop like I've somehow let everyone down by not fudging dice or whatever to help them "win" by the end of each scenario.  Some players handle this better than others.  One guy lost his character, shrugged and started rolling up a new character before we'd even finished the rest of the combat.  More often than not, however, players wind up sulking and becoming paranoid.  One GM in this forum describe his players like abused animals, which I can fully sympathize with.

Now, perhaps the answer is simply "The GM can't spin it. Players have to be mature enough to enjoy the game even if the characters don't succeed."  I feel like that's part of the answer, but if it's the whole answer then there are fewer mature gamers than I would hope (and I haven't played with more than a handful of them).

However, I can't help but feel like there should be a technique to end a game with "Well, that didn't go so well, but..." to keep it from ending on a sour note.  I've certainly seen plenty of TV shows or movies pull it off, but I don't seem to be able to replicate that in the game.

Anyone else have this problem?  Any solutions you can suggest?  If you'd like specific examples of this, I can definitely provide some.
Justin Dagna
President, Technicraft Design.  Creator, Pax Draconis

Matt Wilson


By "session not going well," can you give some examples?

I get hit by incidents of what I'd call "Accidental deprotagonization" from time to time, like consistently bad die rolls, and those can bum me out. Is that what you're thinking?

If I've played the game enough to know that that sort of thing is a fluke, then it's no big deal. On the other hand, if it's a new game, I'm prone to getting grumpy about "this sucky system."

Other than that, I would guess it'd be something to do with expectations, preferred modes of play and social contract stuff. But I definitely want more info.


The most recent example where things had not gone the players way happened a few months ago in a science fiction campaign.  The characters had gone bug-huntin' and discovered caves leading to an underground city.  The next session, they spent two hours arguing about how to go down there safely (despite the lack of obvious threats)... the conclusion was to hire excavators to dig out most of the caves (removing a metric f---load of dirt at enormous cost).  The fact that they spent so much time worrying and arguing about such a simple thing shows that the group already had problems.

Anyway, they went down into the city, poked around for treasure, ran into a ghost-like creature and fled.  On their way back out to their ship (which was parked in the excavated area, a hole about 60 meters deep and 300 meters wide, they got ambushed by bandits.  After all, I figured, the characters had invested a lot of time and energy digging, likely attracting the attention of bandits.  I also thought it would be a fun plot twist to introduce a nemesis of sorts by way of the bandits.

Well, the group decided to fight it out, by basically just standing there and shooting even though they were outgunned and in a poor tactical position, and despite the bandits offering to let them go if they'd give up their treasure.  They put up a good fight, but wound up losing (over a pittance in treasure too), although only two characters died.  One of the dead was the guy who just started making a new character right away.  The other threw a temper tantrum and stormed out.

Now, obviously there were problems in this group to begin with, but I don't think the general concept of dying or being robbed should be so foreign to players.  There are other (less dramatic) examples I could cite from my years of running games, but the common thread is that groups tend to only see the immediate failure in front of them.  

As a GM, I'm definitely not out to get the players, but I think setbacks and failures are a part of life and good gaming.  So I guess part of what I'm asking is whether there's a good way to say "Will Batman recover?  Find out, next week at the same bat time, same bat channel!"
Justin Dagna
President, Technicraft Design.  Creator, Pax Draconis

Matt Wilson


I can see two possibilities. One is that they're interested in gamist play, what with the whole "they spent two hours arguing about how to go down there safely" thing.

The other is that I think a lot of gamers who are used to G/S types of play are hesitant to have a character "lose face." In a lot of dysfunctional play I've been part of (in hindsight), saying no is the player's rare opportunity not to be screwed over by Ultimate GM Control(tm). Such players will opt for a stand up fight over a cool chase/escape scene any day of the week. They might also have assumed that you were railroading them into giving up their dough, too. Not that I'm saying you're railroading them, but that they might think it.

I'd just ask the players why they made the choices they did, and especially why the one player was upset. I'd be interested in hearing what they tell you.


Matt, that particular group would have been a study in dysfunction.  Maybe I shouldn't have used that scene as an example.  That group consisted of two stirctly-Gamist players who believed their goal was to survive (not win or participate, just survive), my wife who doesn't know which style she likes and happily goes along with whatever the group consensus is, and the guy who stormed out (who was on disability pay for some sort of psych problem, described himself in Gam/Sim terms, played in Nar terms and dragged his wife along, who didn't want to have anything to do with gaming at all).  Two others were friends of the Gamist types, but left (both claiming work schedule conflicts) after a few sessions.  I can't blame them.

Here's a better example.

Back in high school, I played a lot of session with me as GM and my best friend as sole player (thanks to a father convinced that RPGs were more Satanic than Darth Vader and the Democrats put together).

In one campaign, my friend's character had a wife who he had saved from a weird magic ritual early on in the campaign.  The magic ritual had imbued her with some sort of energy so that every magically-attuned creature on the planet found her fascinating.  Thinking back on it, I feel sorry for her, even though she was just an NPC.  

Anyway, at one point, the PC meets Glim, a nice old man living in a tree full of fairies.  Only problem is, he's not nice and they're really demons.   Being magically attuned, Glim takes an interest in the wife.  The PC figures this out and tries to sneak out of Glim's tree at night.  Glim pursues and kidnaps her for his own experiments after a fairly cool chase/fight scene in the woods.

Now, looking back on that campaign, it was one of those rare moments when a player gets really into the plot and engages emotionally at a level all GMs want to see.  My friend would agree - it ranks among our best campaigns of all time.  I don't think there was any lack of GM/player trust or other social/GNS problems.   However, at the time, it seemed like a real downer on the mood of the game.  My friend seemed to be thinking more "I screwed up" than "Boy, is Glim gonna pay tomorrow."

Does that make sense?
Justin Dagna
President, Technicraft Design.  Creator, Pax Draconis


The Glim example makes a lot of sense to me.  I'm not exactly sure what specifically you do about it, but it's really a question of "spinning" the presuppositions of the players.

In that case, the player made an important assumption: if I do well, I will succeed.  This is an obvious, natural, and entirely reasonable assumption, so it's very hard to break.

Thing is, sometimes you're just overwhelmed.  Let's suppose that the kidnaping was done by 5000 super-trolls.  The player, thinking via the character, would essentially say, "Okay, I could not possibly have succeeded, the deck was totally stacked against me."  He will also think the GM is an asshole, chances are.

What needs to happen, I think, is that you need somehow to give the sense that (1) the bad thing that happened was not the player's fault, and no shame is attached; and (2) the cool thing is what's going to happen, not what just happened.  This gets down to pure narrative devices (please, not GNS, just narrative).  You want to make it clear that the damsel is now in distress, and needs a spiffing rescue.

Are there specific techniques for indicating this?  Probably -- and I'm hoping to hear about them from better GMs than I.  But if all else fails, you can always transfer blame:

"Look, I really wanted this great rescue thing to happen, but for that to happen I've got to capture the girl, right?  And, okay, so I couldn't think of any good way to do that.  So I suck, sorry.  It's not you, it's me.  Let's push on, and you can make it cool again by rescuing the girl, okay?  I just ran out of ideas and screwed up.  I'm sorry, and I'll try not to let it happen again."

So long as you don't use this device often, it's amazingly powerful.  Players just don't expect GMs to apologize, beg, or humiliate themselves.  When they do, the players tend to feel that they themselves have succeeded.   Which is what you wanted, right?

But admittedly it's a last-ditch solution.  Anyone got a better one?
Chris Lehrich

Ian Charvill

Run the overwhelming odd past the player(s) before you spring them in game.  Otherwise you're pretty much laying down a short length of railroad to get to your 'cool bit'.
Ian Charvill

John Kim

Quote from: clehrichWhat needs to happen, I think, is that you need somehow to give the sense that (1) the bad thing that happened was not the player's fault, and no shame is attached; and (2) the cool thing is what's going to happen, not what just happened.  This gets down to pure narrative devices (please, not GNS, just narrative).  You want to make it clear that the damsel is now in distress, and needs a spiffing rescue.

Are there specific techniques for indicating this?  
The Buffy RPG has a solution for this -- which is that the GM gives out Drama Points to compensate for the intrusion.  We haven't used it yet, but I have heard good reports about it's use.  From page 130 of BtVS:
QuoteSometimes, the plot may require that something bad happen to the Cast Members.  Someone sneaks up behind the character and  clobbers her; the escape car refuses to start; a freak accident allows a villian to escape; the spanking new and very sweet boyfriend turns out to be a blood-sucking demon (no way!).  This shouldn't happen often, or the players are going to feel railroaded.  When it does, you should "pay" for the priviledge by giving the affected characters one to three Drama Points.  When this rule is invoked, the players cannot use Drama Points to undo the results -- if the villian is meant to get away this time, she has to get away.  Ditto if this is their turn to end up as hostages.  The more unfair the situation is, the more Drama Points they get, up to three Drama Points for situations where the characters are getting totally hosed by life.

From reports, the formalism of this and the compensation goes a long way to assuring the players of the effect.
- John


Looking at the Buffy RPG option, my first reaction is to reject it.  After all, I rarely sit down and simply decide what will happen, though I do skew the results by setting the difficulty for the scenario.  Still, I want to preserve the sense that players can always succeed or fail, depending on their decisions and the whim of the dice.  The world isn't challenge-balanced for the sake of drama and neither should the game world - some things are easier, some are harder.

But... looking at the Buffy mechanic, it seems like I could use it (or something like it) anyway.  Even if the failure resulted from the dice or player decisions, I could still give players a little something to "compensate" them for having failed.  Something like "That was a tough fight... next time you meet him, give yourself a +1 to everything you do."  That would give the players something to offset any losses, and would force them to look forward to what will happen in the future...

I may have to give that a try next time it comes around.
Justin Dagna
President, Technicraft Design.  Creator, Pax Draconis

Mike Holmes

Justin, if that doesn't appeal to you, Adventure! has something even better. The players can gain points by hosing themselves. That is, they come up with the bad thing that happens, and the GM compensates for it. That way, the bad things happen, but the players want them to happen, and are happy to do it.

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Eric J.

Ah, so often as a GM and a player.  

In an earlier Star Wars Campaign (I think that it's covered at the forge) my players were playing Jedi (Two apprentices, two masters and a tech).  Eventually they left the Jedi Academy.  Eventually their ship was tracked by pirates.  I give them access to two Z-95 headhunters.  They're basically an X-wing's engines combined with an A-wing's firepower and a tie fighters integrity.  What do they do?  They send the two apprentices BOTH with the lowest piloting ability (2D) and NO piloting skill to combat them.  I tried to salvage the situation by having them become captured, but it just didn't work out.  I found out that one of the characters wanted to become a dark Jedi.  Since the party was split and the premise of the campaign was dealing with apprentice/master relationships and the fact that one of my players couldn't play a jedi worth shit, the campaign collapsed.

In my friend's Planescape campaign I wrote a detailed background about a failed knight who became a mage, Elroth.  He summoned a familiar in the beggining called Felroth (A kickass Raven).  My GM even doubled his intelligance for extra fun.  He was, to this day, one of the two best NPCs that GM has ever used. (I based the names after Erasmus and Feras from the Quest for Glory series)  Anyway, I was on a quest to save a castle in waterdeep, but I was transported to the planes because of some portal key shit yadda yadda yadda...  When I got there I figured things out (in a really bad party.  One of the characters was racist against elves, which the rest of the party was made out of) I received a note.  My GM actually wrote up a note on Word and printed it off.  Thing was, it was in a font of a forgotten language.  What do I do?  I decode the bitch.  This was in probably 12 point font and I decode about 120 words in the message.  I find out that it was a note from my master which helped my character make the transition between stable-boy and second-level mage (the only character to go up a level in any campaign this GM has ever ran TO DATE).  Well, I was very excited (not my character).  My GM had incorperated my background into the campaign.  It seemed to have a plot and I was going to meet a prominent NPC.  In the note it said where I would have to go to meet him.  Thing was I needed a dagger to do it (portal key for those versed in planescape).  I get the dagger and go to the appropriate place but nothing happens.  Well this is where it starts to go downhill.  A level 18 (equivelant) steals the dagger.  At the same time the player who couldn't play a Jedi at all in my previous example enters the campaign.  He's an assasin out to get me.  Thing is, my GM can't handle player vs. player at all (well, at the time).  My bird is stolen and given to him right as he enters.  Well, we had a session where the two of us fought while the GM tried to save both of us.  Anyway- somehow the dagger triggered a faction war, which I was responsible for in total.  By now I had worked my ass off.  I'd investigated hundreds of documents, checked the assasin's guild (which was on my ass) targeted by Sigil's powrful police faction (Which was a bitch to evade.)  Eventually, though, I tracked down my bird, fought off hundreds of people.  All I wanted was my bird back and to meet my master, but my list of quests had become this:

Quest List:
Get back to waterdeep
Complete quest for m'lady (My character used fluent old english)
Find Master
Get dagger
get bird back
become knight
save druid
clear name
solve faction war

Quests completed:

I just gave up.  This had gone on for about 8 sessions.  The rest of the party found Felroth for me.  It was at this time that I quit.  

Anyway?  What's the moral of the story?  It has none.  But if it did, it would be that one shouldn't give your players too many more quests than they ever solve.  

N=number of quests given.
X=number of quest solved.

N =< X^2+2

I'm actually pretty good at this, though.  It just takes experience and a touch of creativity.  I'm known as the most evil and difficult GM around but I've only killed off 2 characters in my career.  (One, if not both can be attributed to PvP problems) But yeah, my greatest moments are when my players look me in the eye with a smile and so sweetly say, "I hate you."

Techniques for screwing them over and not screwing them over at the same time are to have opponents that don't seek their direct death.  And if they fail a die roll (and you're playing a system that doesn't have mechanics that can handle it), just think up something fast or change the circumstances (Fudge).  If it's the players fault, and they're real cry-babies (unless they really put a lot of thought into their character or they're integral to the plot) just kill them.  It's the easiest way.  If they have put a lot of thought into their characters or they're integral I'd say you should still fudge, though you might not be happy with what happened.  It was your fault for putting them into the game or plot in the first place.

To answer your original question:  If it is your fault it ends on a sour note, give them a ray of hope.  The jail cell doors are opened.  You come into contact with a prosthetic doctor (He isn't MADE of them).  If an important character just died...well...ouch.......


Andrew Martin

Quote from: John KimFrom reports, the formalism of this and the compensation goes a long way to assuring the players of the effect.

I get similar effects in the games I run and in games run by friends using a similar sub-system.
Andrew Martin

Tim C Koppang

Quote from: clehrichWhat needs to happen, I think, is that you need somehow to give the sense that (1) the bad thing that happened was not the player's fault, and no shame is attached; and (2) the cool thing is what's going to happen, not what just happened.
I think that #2 above is a choice solution.  Bad things will happen and by the nature of roleplaying players will invest themselves in their characters.  Therefore when the bad things happen to their characters, players will feel defeated.  I say this is ok.

Think about any movie or book you've read.  When the sad parts come along you feel sad if you're identifying with the character.  But you don't complain about this because you know it's part of the experience.  Same goes for rpgs.  You have to learn to take the bad with the good.  And in certain styles of play I also think that a sense of player-failure is appropriate--especially in Gamist play.

What I'm more concerned with is deprotagonism and that sense of never ever "winning."  If it's deprotagonism that's happening, I'd want to first realize that I'm railroading or whatever, and then shift some decision-making power over to the players.  I'd lay off on any planned events that would screw over the players, and let them coast for a bit.  Let them narrate a bit and decide where they want to go or what they want to do next.

Now, if we're in the middle of a long streak of bad rolls, then it's a matter of learning to embrace "the hose."  Try to show the players how failing can be fun.  After all, it's just a set of complications to be overcome later.  Maybe take Mike's suggestion and implement the Adventure rule.  Moreover, this is where forward-looking roleplaying comes into the mess.  Concentrate on what's going to happen after all the failing is done.  What are the players going to do about it all?  As a player I find it helps to have more than one solution for a problem in mind.  When my "only" option for saving the princess fails miserably in a series of unlucky rolls, or because the GM has decided this would be the perfect place to plant 50 armed guards, then I'm much more prone to pout and feel small.  If on the other hand I can say, "Ok, that didn't work; let's try this other plan," then I'm back in the saddle again.  Yeah!

It's all tricky business of course, and it takes both effort from he GM and the players to "spin" a failure into a complication.