I’m convinced that players are by in large masochists. At least the ones that I play with tend lean in that direction. Maybe that’s a result of how I run games. Maybe it’s just the type of people I attract in my life – oh god. Not a time for self reflection.
Failing is, as the big words above state, effin’ fun. With this caveat – failure is most fun when it hurts like a mutha and it does not rob players of the agency. Solution: give the players the tools necessary to hurt themselves. They’ll rarely shy away from it and they’ll be surprisingly ruthless.
Over the past year I’ve been running a weekly game of 5e on Tuesday nights. It’s got all the traditional trappings that you’d expect out of a D&D game. And it’s been a ding-dang blast. But I have a secret and I think my players are starting to suspect something – I’ve got PbtA chocolate in their D&D peanut butter. Not exactly earth-shattering stuff, I get it. But hey – permit me this flare for the dramatics.
For those unfamiliar with PbtA – a quick rundown. Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) is a designation for a family of games, inspired by Apocalypse World by Vincent & Meg Baker. The various systems loosely share design aspects with AW – what is/isn’t PbtA can be a discussion for another time. For the basis of this discussion, PbtA games generally have players rolling 2d6 + a modifier between -2 and +2 with a 10+ result being a successful result where the players ‘get what they want’. A 7-9 result is a partial success or a success with complications; the players get what they want but at some additional cost or complication – cue the tense music because things are ramping up. Finally, a 6 or less is a failure. The player may still very well get what they want, or maybe they don’t, regardless – this is where the wheels fall off. The crap hits the fan and thing go sideways. But never does the forward momentum stop.
TL; DR – There are dozens of stellar PbtA games. Go play them. At the very least, go read them – the GM principles alone are worth the price of admission. Check out some of the titles below.
By leaning on some of the key concepts lifted from the Powered by the Apocalypse family of games, I’ve been able to run a style of 5e that has proven to be a win for both players and GM. Concepts such as: ongoing collaborative world building (leading questions, another future topic), the idea of say ‘yes’ or roll, a non-binary success / failure approach on non-combat rolls and the idea of failing-forward.
Since by now we’re all big fans of sucking – here’s what I did. I set out to make failure choices in my 5e D&D game similar to the messy choices seen in many PbtA moves: On a failure, pick ‘x’ from the list below. That’s when the players realize their staring at a shit sandwich on a plate no matter what they choose – and everyone is into it.
Now, I’m not a crazy person. I’m not monkeying around with 5e combat mechanics (yet?), the d20 vs AC is still sacred in some circles. So what’s left? Skill checks. Okay, but what’s better than a skill check? A skill challenge! Go on you say? Don’t mind if I do.
Skill challenges have their origins in D&D 4e. Extrapolate a complex series of actions down to a series of skill checks vs a DC. Allow the players some flexibility in what skills they use to overcome the obstacle. Track the successes vs. failures and the overall result is determined by which boxes get filled up first. Easy enough and familiar even if you never touched a 4e game – we see a very similar concept in 5e Death Saves.
So we have these two concepts, failure choices from PbtA and skill challenges from 4e and now, we make em kiss. Boom – the Fail-Pick Challenge is born. A typical skill challenge in original design but with an added wrinkle – on a failure, in addition to marking a failure, the player chooses one of x number of choices that each weigh some sort of interesting risk vs. reward. One choice might be safe(r) but provide no benefit. Another choice might be comically bad for the character’s heath but weighted with a big fat juicy carrot danging off the end of the stick. The more tempting the choice, the more it’s going to ‘cost’.
The particulars of each Fail-Pick should be devised in advance and with some degree of care. As the GM you know what candies your player’s bacon best. What’s the thing that they just will squirm in their seats to say ‘no’ to? That’s what we’re after, players lamenting their predicament while everyone else leans in awaiting their choice.
How’s about an example from a recent game:
Dismantling the Earth Eater
The source of the furious grinding sound comes into view as you round the final bend. At the end of the tunnel, a wall of gnashing and biting metal teeth and gears lock and spin with a unceasing need to consume. The machine, twice as tall as a house, bristles with snapping belts, hissing pistons and flashing diodes. Thick tubes feed hydraulic pumps and gouts of steam roil out in anger. The massive contraption works to strip away the earth before it with astonishing ease. The mountain above you and the earth below you quake in protest. Putting a stop to this madness will require quick thinking and precise action.
Skill Check DC15 to exploit a weakness in the brutal apparatus – each player acts in initiative order, using each skill only once.
Successes: [ ] [ ] [ ] Failures: [ ] [ ] [ ] Time Track: [ ] [ ] [ ] [ ]
On Initiative count 20, mark one segment of the Time Track.
On a success, mark one box on the Success Track.
On a failure, mark one box on the Failure Track and choose one Fail-Pick below:
- Bail Out – get out quick. DC12 Dexterity save vs. a glancing blow (5d6 damage), save for half damage.
- Hang Tight – take the shot. Take a glancing blow (5d6 damage) with no save, but set up your next ally with Advantage.
- Take the Blow – face the danger head-on. Take the full blow (10d6 damage) but mark a success on the Success Track, in addition to your failure.
If the Success Track fills first – the challenge is a success. The Earth Eater screams in protest as the pistons and gears powering the industrial megalith come to a halt. The vicious machine now lay dormant as the echoes of its grinding fade into the stone. Pebbles and debris trickle down from above.
If the Failure Track fills first – the challenge is failed. The boring device whirls out of control and continue to drills into the mountainside. Ravenous in its consumption of the earth! Cracks and fissures split along the ceiling and floor – the whole place is coming down.
If the Time Track fills first – the chance to stop the machine has passed! The Earth Eater chugs away, ripping through the innards of the mountain – ejecting tons of tilled earth and debris in its wake, nearly burying you! The device is out of your reach now and continuing on – down a path that will surely take it directly into the nearby abbey.
That should give you a bit of the flavor of a Fail-Pick Challenge. There’s an endless number of ways you could go with it using a similar design and that big sexy imagination of yours.
If the idea of tinkering with skill challenges in this way is interesting and you’re keen on some more examples and thoughts on the elements that make the design – I made a thing. It’s a short little ditty about Fail-Picks and you can find it on DriveThruRPG for a single smacker. Link below for those pickin’ up what I’m puttin’ down. And hey, thanks.
What are you doing in your game to make failure dynamic, exciting and efing fun?