Whoops! Hey, that wasn’t that bad!
Wednesday Night, March 23 (Episode 3)
Dr. Pavel, Ireena and their companions have started their adventure. The fog has closed in around them and it will be some time to see where they turn up. Meanwhile, new heroes have stumbled into Barovia. Welcomed by the howl of wolves, our heroes Val, Tyrash, Zenith, Strass and Shump are crouched beside a fire on the road.
Welcome back to the table. While my focus was going to be managing overwhelmed players and tailoring levels of difficulties, the session revealed to me something more important. More than twelve natural “1’s” were rolled and the night went poorly for my players. Today, let’s talk about turning player failures into minor successes.
What is a player failure and when or how can a DM use these to promote “fun” moments? Is there a limit to how often this should happen?
Slowly the glittering mass of hungry eyes circled our heroes. Soon snarling howls filled the air and the adventurers knew that they had only seconds before they were attacked. Val lit his torch on the flames. Zenith summoned his pseudodragon. Tyrash prayed for a blessing. And Strass roared in defiance — a barbarian until the end – and rushed off into the darkness. Startled, the others jumped up to join him.
Player failures come in many shapes and sizes. From attacking one another, failing to jump over a crevasse or simply charging off to certain doom in the dark, DMs field these experiences constantly with varying degrees of success. In this scene, I wanted to ruthlessly attack my players, wielding the might of wolves and a single werewolf to give a taste of the dangers ahead.
When Strass ran off into the darkness, I was fully prepared, and I wasn’t going to let Strass gain the support of his allies that easily. Everyone else had already performed an action ( torch lighting, summoning and praying), so when Strass charged forward, the whole table was a little surprised. I called for everyone else to roll. If anyone rolled above a ten on their Dexterity, they could chase after Strass this turn. If everyone failed, then Strass was going to be alone for a moment.
Val rolled a 1.
Actions are really important when categorizing player failures and so too are dice rolls. A natural “1” means that a player fails their action but doesn’t mean that the character does nothing. In Val’s case, he tripped kicking over parts of the fire and burning his foot for a couple points of damage. Player failures lead to bad results and players are often punished for them. In this scene, Strass is surrounded by wolves because he made a brash action. Val has already lost health because of a bad role.
But this needn’t happen every time.
The werewolf fought viciously, flaying with its claws and plunging its teeth deep into Strass’ arm. Screaming in a wild rage, Strass fought, oblivious to the arcane magic flying from Zenith or Tyrash’s shouts of pain. Strass swung his weapon high, trying to cleave through the werewolf’s neck.
Strass rolled a 1.
A “1” gives the DM a chance to alter the entire battle, increasing the tension and redesigning the objectives of the scene. Best of all, a natural “1” makes altering the battle appear seamless as every player at the table expects bad results. Saying, “you miss” doesn’t express the gravity of failing. In this scene, a “1” could mean that the hilly ground gives way, or that the fire spreads to nearby trees — or perhaps a horse and rider surge past distracting Strass. Here is what I chose…
Strass’ axe swung with blurring speed, whirring out of the barbarian’s hands and into the side of a nearby wolf. Yelping in pain, the beast limps away, its side horribly wounded.
If I had said, “you miss” nothing in the game would have changed, the scene would’ve stayed the same and possibly grown monotonous. Player failures offer chances for role-playing or objective changes. For me, Strass did hit an enemy but now suddenly he is facing the werewolf with just his fists because his axe is slowly limping off into the darkness. Strass now faces some difficult choices, as does the rest of his party.
Later, the werewolf tried to throw Tyrash into the fire, but when both Tyrash and the werewolf rolled to see who was stronger; the werewolf rolled a “1.” I gave Tyrash the chance to hurl the werewolf into the fire instead. Tyrash felt powerful and it also revealed that even monsters have bad luck.
The fight was gruesome and long. The black head of the werewolf lay nearby the fire. Tyrash lays his hands on the torn figure of Val and the deep wounds begin to slowly close. Strass stands nearby, spitting blood on the ground and Zenith calculates the toll: 3 bitten by the werewolf.
Player failures come at a cost but not always as a mundane statement or outcome. Some of the best stories can be told through mishaps and screw ups, especially if they also happen to the monsters.
Let’s sum up:
- Player failures are an invitation for DM’s to create dynamic changes in the scene. Most of the time these will be negative but feel free to throw a bit of good luck into the stew of bad results.
- Get creative with player failures but don’t overdo it. Saying “you miss,” is appropriate sometimes.
- Players and monsters can both fail. Sometimes a tripping giant can be just as appealing as a sword-dropping player.
See you at the table.