Musing about Failure Consequences in Role-Playing Games

Let Failure Open More Pathways

Note: This post has content disclaimers.

I grew up playing traditional Role Playing Games (RPGs 📖), and my mental framing around character’s failing their task was “Whelp, you failed, that way is now blocked.”

Tried to persuade someone? Nope, that failed. They remain unmoved.

Tried to pick a lock? Nope, it’s still locked.

Tried to jump a chasm? Nope, you plummet into the ravine.

It wasn’t until Burning Wheel Gold (BWG 📖), Dungeon World (DW 📖), and Apocalypse World (AW 📖) that I began shifting my approach and understanding of failure consequences.

In today’s session of BWG I had one such moment where I looked at the task and intent, and had to pause just a moment to come up with the right consequence for failure.

The character’s had set out with Jack, a 17 year old kid, to go on an adventure. I wrote more about Jack in . The character’s had returned and were talking with Esmar, Jack’s aunt. She was thankful for helping and keeping Jack safe, also for the large sum of cache they gave her.

Esmar mentioned that there were rumors of an elf with the Mark of Shadow poking around New Cyre. She also said that two Sentinel Marshals had come to ask her questions. In a previous session, the character’s slipped through a dragnet set by the Sentinel Marshals.

One character had a belief about keeping Jack safe so he could testify. Another about learning more about what’s going on regarding events in New Cyre.

The characters wanted to impress on Esmar the danger that Jack could be in; he was a witness to war crimes committed by an Valenar war captain. She was to avoid going to the Sentinel Marshals and instead go to an administrator in the New Cyran government (one that they’d previously spoken to).

And in her gratitude, she was pre-disposed to listen to their; but there were nuances to press against.

This sounded like a Persuasion test.

My reflexive consequence was that Esmar would turn around and seek out the Sentinel Marshals. But that felt off. Instead, after a short discussion and brainstorming I settled on the following failure consequence.

If you fail, Esmar’s going to share this with a small circle of close friends, and one of them, after hearing this news will seek the Sentinel Marshals to intervene.

I really liked this; Esmar wasn’t directly going to contravene the reasonable request from the characters (after all they had helped her nephew and given her a few purses of silver). Instead, there’s a yet to be named Non-Player Character (NPC 📖) whom Esmar trusts. That person may be naive or otherwise, and if we press the story, we’ll learn more about that character.

The Great Equation

In a campaign world from years ago, I introduced Mogoth, the deity of order. One of the fundamental tenets of Mogoth was that they were working to solve the Great Equation; the solution to which might have been the cessation of reality. One way to solve equations is to reduce the number of variables. It’s rather easy to see how this deity could be an excellent source for villainy.

I didn’t realize until I started writing this blog post, that for the last year or so, I’ve been operating with the above Mogothian model as an overlay to the Task and Intent rules of BWG.

The math of BWG trends towards more failed tests than successful tests; especially if you’re looking to advance your character’s skills and abilities. With the advice to not shut down the fiction, but instead pile on consequences, it might be easy for the situation to spiral out of control.

I’m now looking for success to both help a character gain control of a situation and to reduce the overall complexity that players might be feeling. And likewise, failures going to introduce or escalate complications.

As I previously wrote Esmar’s response to the failed Persuasion test will be to share information with a confidante, who will in turn share with someone whom the characters are trying to evade.

How will Esmar feel when she finds that her friend has betray her confidences? Is the friend really a friend? Who is this person? Let’s more questions to begin poking at.

And the best part, I told the players out loud that this was the consequence. They know that they have a brief window of time before those who are seeking them will learn about them. And together, we can, if we so choose, poke at this bit of in-game fiction or leave it as not worth the camera time.