Is Failure an Option?

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to set conditions for failure in a tabletop RPG. On the one hand, tabletop RPGs lend themselves well to total and final failure in a quest because, while we strive to achieve our objective, death and failure can still be a satisfying end to a campaign (if done right). On the other hand, unlike video games, a tabletop RPG campaign is often a one-time experience and there is no opportunity to try again after a campaign ends in failure (though a new party could try to pick up the pieces). This perceived drawback is especially present in persistent world campaigns (like my Haven campaign) where failure in any given arc can have undesired repercussions for the world going forward (much less of a problem if you design failure repercussions that you’re happy to see). In any case, Challenge is a major aesthetic of tabletop RPGs, and so the fun of any campaign relying on this aesthetic is greatly served by the real possibility of failure. To that end, let’s talk about how to design failure conditions that strike a satisfying balance between terrifying threat of failure and high chance of success (including minor, unforced errors on the part of the players).

In trying to format the failure conditions of my current Luath Draoidh story arc, I draw inspiration from Star Craft 2 campaign missions. With the ability to replay, it’s a completely different bear, but I think the way they modulate the difficulty of the mission through both enemy power (difference in scale) and conditions for failure (difference in kind) is worth exploring here.

  1. Shoot the Messenger: In this mission, the player is expected to shoot down every single ship approaching the warp gates. The mission steadily increases difficulty by introducing warp gates further afield and by introducing simultaneous ships. With a single missed ship meaning mission restart, the mission provides plenty of telegraphing when a ship is coming and lots of opportunity to build forces and be proactive. The conditions are hard, but the resources are great enough to overcome them.
  2. Waking the Ancient: Here, the mission objective is pretty symmetrical. There are 13 total objectives and the player is trying to obtain 7 of them before the opposition destroys 7 of them. One the one hand, the player has to collect them with defenseless units and it takes some time. On the other hand, the opposition sends martial forces to destroy them, which takes a similar amount of time but the player is informed that the process has begun. This means it is reasonable to make the two forces fairly evenly matched to give the player a challenge, but allows the player to be reactive to the many different objective locations and otherwise stick to their own plan.
  3. The Great Train Robbery: This mission is a hybrid of the two. Like Shoot the Messenger, there are moving objectives with a start and an end that must be stopped, however, this time the player is allowed to miss two before destroying eight of the targets. Again, the player needs to be proactive, but unexpected conditions like increased guards and faster targets challenge the player’s reactive ability. The passes the player gets for the first two failures mean that the difficulty of individual objectives can be increased greatly to challenge the player.

What’s the takeaway from these examples? First, that difficulty can be increased and apply more tension without increasing the chance of total failure by leaving room for some partial failure, like letting a train or two through. Second, that for players to be successful in conditions without any opportunity for partial failure, they need to be able to be proactive, which means that they need to have well telegraphed objectives and a trust that their proactive efforts will be impactful. That’s hard! Have you ever telegraphed an end scenario clearly enough that one or more of your players took proactive action to be ready for it? I can’t think of a time. I can almost imagine it happening with my long time Stromguard and Tyranny of Mundanity group, so maybe I’ll give it a try in Primordial Frontier, it would be an interesting experiment.

I don’t want to give too much away to my players who read the blog about the Luath Draoidh arc, so I’m going to be vague. The tomb of Luath Draoidh is sealed with 5 seals created by Cuirm-Cogaidh (Warlock-Knights) who he trained, but who then were forced to stop him and seal him away. A sixth Cuirm-Cogaidh made a map to the tomb. The Ar-a-mach, who seek to release Luath Draoidh, will need the means to break all 5 seals and will need to find the location of the tomb in order to release him. So, in a sense, the players only need to stop them from getting one objective. They have done that. So far, they have prevented them getting both the map and one of the seal keys.

But these are only soft stops. Given that they only need to stop the opposition in one objective, it would be bad design on my part if it was easy to stop any one objective. So what I have determined is that certain objectives can delay them greatly, but they can overcome defeat eventually. For example, beating the Ar-a-mach to the map means that they will have to use what records they have and a brute force search to find the tomb. They will become more willing to do this as they get closer to having all the seals and proactivity on the part of the players will be necessary to stop them finding it. In the case of Sithich’s seal key, which they obtained first, the Ar-a-mach will eventually learn it was taken and will search for ways to recreate it or steal it back. It won’t stop them forever, but since the recipe is only known to those fey who helped Sithich to make it, having to recreate the salve would be a huge delay.

So, I want the Luath Draoidh story arc to span a long period, years, in fact. And I want the players to have a lot of influence over how it plays out. I want them to be able to be proactive and cut things off without being told to do so. So far, they have soft stopped the Ar-a-mach enough to buy a lot of time to make a difference in other ways, but with the easy objectives out of the way for them and the challenge introduced, going forward reactivity isn’t going to be enough to stop the Ar-a-mach progressing toward opening the tomb.

As a side note on the topic of acceptable failure,  I have trouble allowing the party to fail. I really want to give all the hints I can think of to guide them to the better end. In this case, I have formulated the failure state to be the more epic outcome, with Luath Draoidh rising again and a massive boss battle and havoc wreaked on the world. I hope this will motivate me to execute the events more objectively and allow failure if it is warranted.

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