Sometimes I want my players to fail. Does that make me a bad game master?
In books, comics, and movies, protagonists sometimes fail and when they do it tends to make the story much more interesting. Not only does the occasional failure maintain suspense, but those failures open up story possibilities that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.
In video games on the other hand, players are almost always expected to succeed. If they fail during the game, they are almost always forced to re-try until they succeed rather than having the story adapt to their failure. And in the cases where failure is required, many games resort to a cut scene rather than putting the player into an interactive situation where they are supposed to lose.
Thankfully, pen-and-paper games are much more adaptable. A game master can adapt stories to unexpected failures and throw overwhelming odds against players in order to shape the story.
In any game with random elements, the players are bound to do poorly sometimes even in situations where the game master was expecting them to succeed. Sometimes a monster or obstacle is a bit unbalanced and more dangerous than the game designers thought when they set its challenge rating. Sometimes players make bad decisions. And sometimes the dice just roll the wrong way. Fudging dice rolls behind the screen or pulling punches is one way that a game master can deal with a challenge going badly for the players, but another option is to let the players fail.
Once its become apparent that they are losing a challenge, players might try to retreat. In that case, I encourage allowing them to escape. Once my players have announced that they plan to flee, I generally have the enemies put up a small effort at pursuit before letting the players escape. In most cases this makes sense because the players are the aggressors and, in all but the most unbalanced encounters, the villains are generally pretty beat up too.
If players choose surrender over retreat, then consider how their enemies would react. Most intelligent adversaries would likely imprison enemies that surrender, but what fate would await the prisoners? This result can open up a wide range of adventure possibilities: escape from prison, slave gladiators, courtroom drama, etc.
To The Death
Sometimes players will either not realize that retreat is an option or think that a fight is too important to allow failure, and they will be committed to fighting in the face of overwhelming odds. Depending on the monsters in the encounter, it might make sense to have the players’ opponents offer them a chance to surrender if it is clear that the players are losing. If players refuse the offer or if it doesn’t make sense that the villains would make the offer, it is possible that the player characters will perish, but its also possible that they manage to win a pyrrhic victory.
If the characters die in the fight, then a game master has a few options. The campaign could end there with the characters going out in a blaze of glory, but there are also ways to keep the campaign going in most cases. If the fight was against intelligent adversaries, perhaps the player characters wake up in a prison cell at the beginning of the next adventure and instead of fighting their way into the dungeon they now need to fight their way out. For fights against bestial opponents, a game master could decide that the monster only eats a single character before wandering off with a full belly and the rest of the characters wake up later one man short1.
Sometimes, I want my players to fail in order to advance the story. This might be to set up a story arc such as escaping from a prison, ensure a villain escapes, or to stress the idea that not every problem can be overcome with combat.
If the goal is just to minimize the players’ chance of victory, a simple approach is to just use overwhelming odds against them. Double or triple the number of monsters, use much higher level obstacles, or otherwise ramp up the difficulty.
Another option is to bend the rules in the villain’s favor. If a villain needs to escape, then have it vanish once it rounds a corner out of sight or automatically succeed at a skill check that makes it impossible for the heroes to pursue. If a villain needs to stay alive, then make it harder to hit or give it more hit points than it should have.
As an example, my players were sent on a mission to sabotage a supply ship in an enemy city. I wanted to stress that they were in enemy territory, so I planned to have the last encounter of that story arc be a raid on their safe house that forced them to quickly retreat through a linked portal to return to their home base. I was aiming for a retreat outcome, so I wanted to make sure that the enemies weren’t powerful enough to take down the player characters too quickly, but at the same time I didn’t want there to be any real chance of the players winning the fight – their win condition was escaping, not single handedly conquering the enemy. Towards that end, I had the leader of the raid, a Talaran Dragonknight, have infinite hp for the fight. That approach allowed me to have an opponent with balanced attacks and damage who at the same time would be able to stay in the fight and force the players to retreat.
Shifts in Tactics and Cool Ideas
In any situation where players are failing, whether it is something you planned or not, it is a good idea to keep an open mind when players come up with a shift in tactics or another cool idea. In that case, it’s a good idea to go with the flow and let the idea give them an advantage to turn the fight around.
Now Go Make Some Characters Struggle
While I admit that allowing, or even forcing, players to fail isn’t something for everyone’s game, I think it can add a lot to the experience and break up the monotony of one balanced fight after another. I also think that it helps the players to cherish their victories and be a little more careful with the lives of their characters.
I hope that the next time my players face a Dragonknight in combat, they look back on when they had to retreat from one and then celebrate their victory even more. Assuming they win that fight of course…
1 – If you take the route of killing only one player character after a TPK, I’d strongly suggest asking for a volunteer or openly rolling to determine which character suffers a true death.