Inspired by The Price of Failure
My friend (and GM) Matt posted an article on Failure in Gaming and it made me think despite my burning fever (I’m sick!)
The examples given were in games which I typically associate with being “forgiving” to failure. In the LARP we both play a typical hero will be raised from the dead a half a dozen times an adventure. In most DnD settings you can get raised with the proper rituals.
My point here is that you can lose, even die, and yet life goes on.
Now I am not saying that to discredit his thoughts. I agree with him wholeheartedly on how the failure has to come about. The players need to have some warning that they can fail, and it should be tied to their actions…
The real reason this made me think was on the context of failure in my own campaign. If you are reading this, you probably know I run Shadowrun. Shadowrun is a game which is NOT forgiving of failure. If you die, unless you permanently burn edge, you stay dead. Even when you do spend edge to survive you will still be scarred by it…
I tend to be a nice GM, unless players do something blatantly stupid, I will pull punches (unless they are min-maxed, but that is another topic). If I expect a mission to be high risk, I make it very clear in advance.
After reading Matt’s article I started thinking about the various failures I “led” my players to.
The first example is a party wipe. Every so often I will throw a special mission which isn’t part of the campaign plot. Its set in the same setting, but the events stand on their own. The particular mission I am thinking about was defending an underground settlement from a horde of ghouls (fast, strong, and DEADLY) in addition to other scary stuff. The mission was advertised as going against an endless horde and the whole goal was to survive as long as possible. The players fought tooth and nail to survive and barely delayed the onslaught long enough for the NPC reinforcements to save them. Most of the players were using throw away characters, and those who weren’t knew they would be well rewarded if they survived. (not succeeded, survived). Characters died (permanent death) and both players and characters moved on.
The second example which comes to mind is a prime instance of player choices. The team of runners did not have any infiltration ability so they made the logical decision to “blow a hole in the wall”. As much as I hate to say this, that was actually an acceptable plan. If the runners aren’t worried about their rep, going in loud can pay off. If it wasn’t for one slight miscalculation this might have. The team was robbing a technology corporation. They got a basic layout of the facility and decided the security office would be a good place to breach the building. A large explosion in the security office would do wonders for distracting human security. That’s all good, but they forgot this was a technology corporation. The security office had a handful of people (who were distracted), but it also housed all the security drones. So rather than face a distracted response they faced twice as much as normal security procedures said they would. They retreated after half the party was unconscious. Again, there was no grumbling here. They knew what they did wrong.
I could list a bunch of examples where they failed to meet their objectives or even failed the mission. This usually resulted in them not getting paid and getting a black mark against their rep. This is the price of business though and as such expected on occasion. The example which comes to mind instead is when the players almost ACCIDENTALLY failed.
I presented the players with a scenario that I knew would be difficult. It was a hostage situation in the basement of a building. The rigger knew they were coming and had pre-programmed his drones on how to act. In other words, even after the players took him out, they still had to deal with the drones. Normally this would be fine, and the players did come up with a solution, but there was one slightly miscalculation on my part – Chunky Salsa.
“Chunky Salsa” is the game terminology for an explosion in an enclosed space, basically the magnitude increases. Normally I try and avoid those situations because they can be excessively deadly. I carefully planned out the layout for the room the hostages were in so that it wouldn’t be a concern but I forgot one key point.
The players were smart enough not to walk into the basement which meant the enemy used his backup plan. He sent the first few of his drones out to attack them. As expected they were no match for the players but there was one slight problem. They were set to self destruct when they reached 25% health. I had forgotten to consider that the stairway to the basement was essentially a 3 sided box… Meaning chunky salsa was in effect. What was supposed to be a nasty surprise was instead a lethal one. I had expected to do a decent chunk of damage, but instead did an obscene amount – Three times the characters life to be precise.
No one was happy with this, myself included. After rerunning the numbers I told the players that it in fact blew out the door at the bottom and this prevented the damage from increasing. I am still not sure if that’s what should have happened by the book. Additionally it probably should have triggered the other drone there to explode as well (increasing the damage even more). The players were upset by this “failure” to the extent that I hand-waved it being less bad. It was an oversight on my part after all. (To my players who are reading this, don’t get any ideas! Unless it really was accidental on my part, complaining won’t get the effect mitigated! This was a special case. Next time its deliberate.)
I’ve led players to many types of failure, be it railroaded, or accidental, or player choice. I am in complete agreement that players are more accepting of it when they know its their own fault ;)