Fun with Failure

Do you allow your players to declare that their characters automatically fail?

Let me tell you about my character. Trooper Shiv came from rural Georgia. He joined up with the 3:16 because in the unbearable lightness of the far future there were only so many jobs. So Shiv signed on the dotted line, went through basic on the moon, and promptly got shipped off to a war nobody could possibly be prepared for.

Shiv had a lot of bad luck. He was blinded on an early drop, and the replacement eyes the 3:16 gave him never actually worked. The best thing that ever happened to him was when he got stuck with an alien brain parasite. At last he had a friend.

He wasn’t a bad soldier. He just wasn’t the kind of guy things worked out for. A lot of the time, I’d roll the dice for him, and I’d be hoping for a failure. Not really to torment him, just because I didn’t really think that his story was a happy one.

In 3:16, there’s no upside to failing conflicts or even individual tasks.1 It’s not Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where you get points for taking one for the team or the story. I just hoped my character would fail.

One of the themes of Cavaliers of Mars¬†is that characters’ fortunes swing wildly. While they’re generally competent, sometimes they’re just going to be down on their luck… and sometimes the dice are going to bring them low. But players can also¬†choose to blow a task check. Specifically, they can choose to critically fail. In exchange, they get a point of Luck, so that things will swing back their way at some point in the future.

The Luck point is there to encourage certain kinds of drama, but the main reason characters are allowed to just fail is that I think that players should be able to shape the hardships their characters face. It’s really just an extension of allowing players to choose impossible odds.

Does a player deliberately screwing their character up break your immersion? Do you feel that your favorite rules cause failure often enough that letting a GM or player inflict more of it damages the tone of the game? I only addressed games with a roughly traditional player/GM divide here… are your preferences different when it comes to games like Fiasco?


  1. Although taking a Weakness can spare your character from getting killed.

3 thoughts on “Fun with Failure”

  1. My favorite systems take this out of my hands. FATE, for example, lets the GM give the players fate points (game currency, useful for being more effective when necessary, if you aren’t familiar with the game) in return for their lives becoming more difficult. Although it’s ultimately the GM’s call, players can “prompt” the GM: “you know, it would be totally awesome if my character ended up with one of those brain parasites, and all it’ll cost you is a fate point…”

    Other games – like Houses of the Blooded (which uses a variant of FATE) – allow the winner of a roll to narrate, which can include narrating their character’s failure and how it advances the story in the player’s direction.

    But when I play games that don’t do that? I totally allow players to fail forward when they feel like it.

  2. I like letting players hose themselves in return for a future bonus. I’m a big fan of giving players authorial power over their characters and character fortunes. Good players will take a dive at really cool times and really mine the moment with a fervor a GM might not feel comfortable doing.

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