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.