This… Shouldn’t… Work….

So one of your players, as players are wont to do, gets an Idea. It makes sense both for the character and for the player, it’s mechanically justified (at least by what the group knows), it seems to solve or at least to help solve the current problem, and there is apparently no good reason not to do it.

There’s just one little problem: it’s not going to work. Not because it’s at a difficulty that should render it impossible, mind. No, the problem is that for various reasons, a success isn’t going to do what they want it to, and in some cases, isn’t going to do anything at all. The person they’re trying to get information from doesn’t actually know anything, the magic they’re using doesn’t actually affect whatever it is they’re trying to use it on. Sometimes it’s pretty benign and you don’t mind them finding out too much–we’ll come back to that–but sometimes you don’t want them to know about the factor that’s going to keep their efforts from being successful. At least… not yet.

But either way, just to complicate matters (meaning that you can’t just shrug the whole thing off as it having been too high a difficulty), they roll like a demon. Nat 20. Zeroes on half the die pool. You know, the kind of thing that begs for an awesome, utterly spectacular resolution. On this thing that just plain cannot work.

Great. Now what?

My favorite strategy is giving them some sort of alternate success, particularly if you can afford to let them know that it was actually impossible and they didn’t just not make it. If they’re trying to befriend (or seduce, or whatever) a certain piece of information out of someone who doesn’t actually know, maybe they don’t get the information, but they do get an ally out of the person. If they’re trying to invent something with the wrong components, they get something else, equally impressive but not what they were going for (and hey, isn’t that where most of our own best inventions came from?)

Sometimes, though, they really shouldn’t have an effect at all: most often, this is because of magic that shouldn’t actually work that way or similarly binary limiters. The thing either works, or it doesn’t, and in this case it shouldn’t. It’s a lot harder to make it do something anyway.

In situations like that, I favor trying to come up with some internal justification for why it might do something anyway, in violation of most common knowledge. Granted, either it’s not the something they want, or it tries to do the something they want and doesn’t quite succeed (and provides them with something that could be reason why it didn’t), but it does at least do something, and even its failure is flashy and dramatic. That way, the failure is in and of itself a result, and it feels like the roll wasn’t wasted. The last thing any of us wants to do is waste a perfectly good impressive roll.

What would you do?


  1. Mike Page says:

    Interesting situation. I’ve read a couple of blogs recently that have talked about similar situations: A GM tosses the PCs a bunch of clues and instead of having a pre-arranged solution, the GM constructs the solution to fit the clues, letting the players come to their own conclusions and running with that. As long as this doesn’t make things too easy for the players, it should be fun as it gives them a feeling of success, increasing gaming fun.

    You come to this conclusion anyway in your last paragraph when you say that you would favour allowing their success anyway. Sometimes more fun can be had at the table by going with the flow than sticking religiously to what you laboriously prepared, provided the ripples aren’t too big to cope with.

    I had something similar happen recently with my players – I threw a random adventure at them after they defeated three hags (actually one of them got away). They assumed that the present situation was a direct result of their previous actions, whereas it was anything but – pure chance, but I thought it would be more fun to leave them in their egotistical conclusions.

  2. burnedfx says:

    The easiest way for me to determine the results of something that “will not work” is asking myself if the failure will hold up the game.

    If it brings the flow of the session to a crawl, because the players are stumped and this was their idea to overcome whatever was in their path, it works. If it does not affect progress at all, then they fail, because, as you stated in your premise, it should not work.

    I realize this is my first time posting here, so I hope I do not come off as “spammy,” but this post, under the subtitle “Problem Solving” is a good example of actual play where the girls tried something, that just should not have worked:

    I was not going easy on them, I was just as stumped as they were on how to move forward.

    As a DM, it is important to keep the game flowing and if the players come up with a brilliant strategy that flies in the face of your notes that you prepared prior to the game, I find it is best to try and work with the players.

    You do not even have to let them in on it. Until the girls read that post, for a year they thought they had cleverly worked out the secret to opening the locked door in the ruined tower.

    Yeah, right. To come full circle with your post topic, using that dagger should not have worked.

  3. Sean Holland says:

    Agreed, planning and effort should be rewarded even if it is by something at a right angle than the players were expecting. As I like my characters to think and plan and I would hate for them to be discourage from doing so by lack of positive results.

  4. Ravyn says:

    My group kicked this topic off; I’ll be talking about our little incident in more detail in this week’s Imprac.

    Mike: I don’t laboriously prepare much; most of my categorization ends up being “this is intelligent and can have social mojo used on it, this isn’t, this is undead, this isn’t, this burns if you hit it with holy effects”, that sort of thing.

    Burnedfx: I get key situations pretty much all the time–what I was thinking about when I wrote this actually wasn’t one of them. What I get a lot is more rapid improvised tactics that get the group around things. The session that set this post off was actually full of the things: one of the PCs got the group away from a fight that nobody actually wanted by disarming the opponent and chucking the sword off of the giant animated corpse thing they were standing on, another invented giant maggot strength bug-spray–that’s fine. The sheer number of bizarre tricks they’ve gotten out of hiding in the Hat–not a problem. The event that got me going, though, is more literally impossible rather than just something that doesn’t work mechanically but should be feasible if you apply common sense to it (with extra credit for the effect it would’ve had on the group if it had succeeded): “All right, improvising, improvising, oh crud did he really just use an ability that puts animated corpses to rest against a bunch of maggots that while necromantically created are not actually undead while inside something that to all appearances is a miles-long animated corpse?”

    Sean: You bet!

  5. burnedfx says:

    Ravyn: Yes, well, my key example was pretty mundane compared to yours. I’m pretty sure I would have had it affect the giant animated corpse and the maggots go untouched. Of course, I’m saying this from outside the session, so I’m only making that quick conclusion based on tidbits of information.

    On that note, I look forward to reading more about the situation this week.

  6. Ravyn says:

    I wouldn’t call the difference the difference between mundane and flashy, myself, just that magic tends to be a lot more either/or than most nonmagical things–alignment-based spells in D&D and their workings, Exalted’s Zenith-flare only working on Creatures of Darkness, that sort of thing. I think it’s easier to justify workarounds in the mundane than it is in the magical; you can insert common sense a lot more, whereas as long as magic is consistent it’s allowed to have its own logic.

  7. Shinali says:

    I am not usually a GM, but from the player side, I think it makes sense for oversuccess on something impossible to do something (especially in the framework of our usual system). IIRC Exalted suggests that a botch on a really epic stunt should never end in death, which seems to mesh logically with oversuccess always doing *something* good in a sense.

Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Impractical Applications (This Shouldn’t Work….) | Exchange of Realities

Leave a Reply