Nothing satisfies like an extreme success, right? Players certainly get a thrill from that extra piercing damage pinning the looming cultist to the wall, but if you ask me, die for die, nothing gets everyone at the table roleplay mileage like a glorious failure.
Let me explain. We tabletop gamers often view our dice as binary win/loss generators. Sometimes they grace us with extra big wins. But when they “fail” us we tend to look at it as an emotional disappointment. We threaten to throw them away, grind them into dust or replace them with a new set. Alternatively, Keepers can encourage our players away from this mindset. A dice “failure” needn’t necessarily be a disappointment that disengages your players from the game. Present them with an opportunity to do something interesting or surmount a new problem instead.
For example, Dr. Dibden eagerly made a beeline to customs after disembarking from his Trans-Atlantic voyage. He was thrilled to be back home in England after 15 years abroad, weathering malaria and humid jungles in his medical mission work. His companions, Americans and an Italian national broke off from Arthur to undergo close inspection by the customs agents, while the good doctor merrily made his Luck check, confident that he would freely pass through as a loyal subject of the Crown. Fail. Suddenly, he finds himself face-to-face with an agent rifling through his suitcase, and he can’t seem to locate his identification.
‘Excuse me, sir, were you aware that you had a pistol in your luggage?”
“Oh yes, silly me, of course. I’m simply traveling from America, but I have spent much time traveling abroad in South America.”
A Persuade/Fast Talk is called. Fail.
Rather than simply taking the gun away and pushing Arthur through the line, this failure opens the door for another interaction. While the potential loss of the trusty gun serves a punitive effect for the failure, the continued interaction allows the opportunity for the player to salvage the situation or permit the Keeper to introduce another confounder. Such as this:
Dr. Dibden is busy explaining his missing paperwork and absent memory while the agent continues to dig through his bag discovering his selection of mythos tomes.
“Pardon me, sir, do you have receipts for these items? You don’t happen to know the value of these books, they look quite expensive.”
“Oh no, I just found them in America. They are quite old. I really have no idea how much they might be worth.”
Now we can feel the stakes at the table really heating up. Dr. Dibden is getting nervous. He fears he may be losing the precious books that the Team worked so hard to obtain. As Keeper, I would never do this on the basis of a failed dice roll, but the player can’t be certain of this. He needs to take precautions, especially after the agent mentions that a customs officer may be dropping by his intended lodgings for further questioning.
Rather than mechanically resolving the failed rolls and confiscating the sidearm, Arthur’s two successive failures have opened up a delightful exchange between the player and the concerned customs agent. Aside from losing his gun, which will be easily replaced in the same session, there are no real threatening repercussions, but the player is suddenly invested in this interaction. The mentioned threat of a customs agent has gotten the player’s gears turning. Meanwhile, since this was all the result of spontaneous Keeper-Player interaction we have yet to determine how this customs visit will resolve, and we let the player serve as our guide.
As soon as he gets to the hotel, he’s plotting how to deal with this customs agent. He’s asked the concierge where he might be able to source rare books in London. He can’t lose these hard-won artifacts, so he’s invested in a thoughtful solution. He runs down to Portabello road the next morning and spends time seeking out a bookseller. He purchases four books for a handsome sum. This opens yet another door in play…during the purchase a Luck roll is called. The player doesn’t know what his failure means, but he’s suspicious and wary. Has he been cheated? Is he cursed? No, his failure means he has unknowingly picked up another mythos text, along with three other occult tracts. Again, not a punitive effect, but something unexpected and potentially laden with danger further down the road.
This player sidetrack, instigated by a series of failed rolls, was a session highlight for both Keeper and player. The player had agency in solving his perceived dilemma. He was rewarded for his thoughtful action, and, when the customs agent shows up, Dr. Dibden will have secured himself a potentially useful NPC that can help with such situations as the Ivory Wind and Puneet Chaudhary’s warehouse. When players see their failures take such turns they begin to view them as a roleplaying tool rather than an onerous inconvenience.
Some additional examples of failing towards fun include:
Lucia fails her Drive Auto roll when trying to escape the pursuing cultists. Instead of immediately driving the cumbersome police van into a wall or nearby car, she is instead forced to slow at a busy intersection allowing the cultists to loom closer. Suspense is increased! Lucia immediately starts considering escape routes. She throws the van into reverse, easily succeeds on her next Drive Auto role, and flies past the cultists who careen toward the intersection. Here failure is multiplying the excitement of a chase.
John, the dilettante, wields his hefty credit rating to be escorted immediately to Dr. Lemming’s apartment for a consultation. Against all odds, he fails. Instead of forcing the player to submit to an unlikely dice roll, John and his companions are asked to wait in the opulent lobby for a few minutes while the staff confers with Dr. Lemming. In the meantime, they may have the opportunity to hear some interesting conversation or interact with one of Dr. Lemming’s neighbors. Here investigators may pick up clues as to what sort of character Dr. Lemming might be. Here failure is adding color to your campaign.
Tip is searching around the conspicuously small Ju-Ju House. He fails his requested Spot Hidden roll. Instead of completely denying him a clue, he is rewarded for his proactive search and notices a well-worn rug sitting behind the counter. His failure denotes that he doesn’t immediately recognize the trap door, but his curiosity is piqued and further investigation may ensue. Here failure is pointing to clues instead of outright revealing them.
Widely renowned as a brutal and unforgiving campaign, MoN will offer up plenty of opportunities for players to feel danger and suffer dire consequences, but not every dice roll needs to be loaded with dread. Consider introducing the “failure as fun” concept to players during session zero, and reinforcing this concept throughout play by reminding them that their dice are “event generators” not malicious “win/loss” randomizers. This serves two goals. One, your players can use their dice rolls as a roleplaying tool rather than a random arbiter of system mechanics. In our experience, this deepens the collaborative story-telling strength of games like CoC. Two, when failure doesn’t seem so awful or off-putting, it allows the Keeper to bring out some really chilling outcomes when things don’t go right that truly surprise the players. When these appear less frequently, but powerfully the impact factor will be very high.
What are some of your favorite personal examples of failure leading to fun?