Ravyn Freewrites: Is There Room to Fail?

There’s a lot I like in a character. Justified confidence. The ability to snark anything. Who doesn’t? But my favorites are the ones who fail. The ones who completely screw things up, sometimes repeatedly, and who in the wake of their sequential screw-ups look around, shake their heads, mutter something about how they got to this point, and then get up and start fixing things. The ones whose first plan isn’t quite what’s needed, so they back off, regroup, and come up with another plan. And then another. Who will turn any situation into a plan, and when it fails, just move on to the next letter. Into the next alphabet. Start pulling plan designations from the syllabaries. There are a lot of writing systems out there to name plans after, and these people, as long as they keep surviving their failures, keep learning who they can and can’t trust, who they can stay with and who they need to flee from as fast as is humanly necessary, which solutions work and which don’t and which will probably get everyone they love killed in the process (hopefully they didn’t get that one by experience; that’s depressing)….

Then I find that the tough part is playing them. I’m not completely afraid to have my characters ever fail—depending, mind, on what they are doing. This isn’t a case of “must preserve the poor, tender ego”–okay, I know I’m not fooling anyone, the ego does come into play, but it’s not the full reason.

No, what gets me is an aesthetic I ran into enough that I expect it everywhere: the idea that one can be doomed by a couple of screw-ups. It’s a source of tension, after all. Of risk. Screw this up, it promises you, and nothing will ever be the same. The failure will be total, and it will be unrecoverable. So you need! To get this done! Right now! Or else! (This is not a particularly reassuring thought when you are the low-strength character facing off against the grapple-monkey, let’s put it that way.)

I won’t say I’ve actually had this in every game. I’m pretty sure I haven’t; my last GM’s response to a failure to climb down an elevator shaft was dropping us off on the most inconvenient possible floor rather than one of the PCs taking a fatal fall down the shaft and splatting on the elevator car below. But there was the one with the PC who could never seem so much as to strike a blow against the people who had most hurt her. There was the one where we fought for the fate of the world on regular occasions, and one of the PCs was enough of a symbol that it seemed as if any mistake she made was magnified tenfold. (Which was a pity; she spent most of the first story arc messing up and then fixing things, or occasionally threatening people with the possibility of her making another such mistake if she didn’t have all the information, and it was beautiful.) And there is the current D&D game, where level-appropriate is a foreign word and it seems like every time we kick a rock we hit a Clear and Present Threat to Society As We Know It. Combat, whee—a near-guaranteed Fail and It’s Over.

And I wonder. How in blazes is anyone supposed to screw up and then find an oblique way around it when all these failures seem so unrecoverable? When screwing up means going back to the blasted chargen, do not pass go, do not collect any of the local currency—things disappearing forever, things being broken past repair, and nine times out of ten they’re the things that really matter because the GM is fond of gut-punching? So will I fall and not get up?

I rather like the idea of being able to fail in a controlled environment and remember how to Plans B through Z back to something slightly better than the status quo. Second chances. They’re pretty awesome.


  1. UZ says:

    Ah! We strike at the very heart of the RPG. Were we here to tell a story? Or were we here to play a game?

  2. Shinali says:

    UZ, I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. Most characters that fail, even botch, in stories don’t die. They don’t usually find themselves with no way to recover, reanalyze, re-plan. Sure sometimes failure equals death, but countless times it doesn’t. Many times failure lands someone maimed, in a dungeon, on the run from someone’s father, what have you. These may not be able to be recovered from, but when they are the story continues just as much as if they were the definitive result. Death usually ends a story, or at least that arc.

  3. UZ says:

    I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive either but there are some inherent contradictions that different people choose to deal with differently.

    Tactical games like D&D4E are usually based on a “challenge” model, for example, where the GM’s job is to present the players with a difficult tactical arrangement and the story helps to exposit how this happened – the “game” part is, most often, surviving. If we survive then the story continues, if not it comes to an end.

    Other games have other models, ranging from old-style ones where you could easily die from overwork or starvation in the middle of a critical plot point, to those where you play a demigod with the ability to warp reality and are above such petty things as mortality.

    There are plenty of options and the game vs. story balance is different with each, it’s not just an axis of the two values either – Shadow of Memories was a game where you literally advanced the story *by* dying, and then going back and preventing your death on a second try, and that was the story.

    The collision between failure and story usually comes when we try to tell a story from beginning to end with an RPG model, either compensating poorly for failure or hoping that it won’t get in the way. That’s the contradiction I’m talking about here:

    1) Using an RPG to “tell a story” other than the one that comes out of the numbers usually requires that the mechanics come pre-bent to allow this, because bending the mechanics yourself can irritate the players

    2) Using an RPG to “play a game” without more than marginal regard to the story is more of a simulation than an RPG per se, and there are games built for this style of play as well

    But, when a game tries to split the middle, or when the GM uses a game unsuitable to their purpose, we’ll run into contradictions as above – the macguffin explodes, the spaceship crashes, the catty wig type chokes on a chicken bone and dies during an argument. Introduce randomness into your story and there is a risk of this outcome…

    There is an old saying that the difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to be believable. :)

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