Critical failure or how your character was secretly an incompetent moron the whole time!
This has become one of my least favorite things about role playing games. What is worse about it is that I catch myself doing it all the time. I’m running a game that’s going great, I am excited to see what these epic heroes are going to do next, then one of them rolls snake eyes. Something bad should happen to the player, or some new danger or change should be added to the world. But instead the Yuck-Yuck part of my brain takes over and I tell the previously competent hero that they just slipped on a banana peel, their sword goes flying into the air and then buries itself into their leg or shatters in a thousand pieces. Insert cartoon sound effects.
Now there are certainly games with lighter or even cartoonish tones. There are also games were the characters are supposed to start off as incompetents who have to suffer and survive to become adventurers. But outside of those games, when I hear about or see this I always think “That doesn’t sound like they are fans of the character” and I would want to ask the GM to try another way or suggest some less comedic explanation for the mechanical effects of the failure.
Unfortunately, several times after running a game I immediately regret how I treated someone who rolled poorly. It’s never hard to imagine a number of interesting and epic ways that could have been used to reach the same conclusion. But in the heat of the moment, the image of that character stepping up to do something cool and then looking like a goofball (womp womp) is to easy and immediate to pass up. A lot of players accept this as tradition and maybe some look forward to it, but I am always worried afterward that I have discouraged them. Maybe they won’t step up next time, maybe they won’t show up to the next game.
As an example: I recently ran a game of Traveler where the party had tracked an alien menace to a reactor room. Most of the party was behind cover pouring bullets into the seemingly unkillable alien. One character, the noble face of the party realized he wasn’t going to be much use with a gun but he carried a dueling sword and the room was full of pipes. He was also wearing a very expensive vac suit with thrusters. So he describes to me his intention of jetting in close to the beast and cutting a pipe that would spray it with hot steam, or coolant, ect. Very cool I think, but he fails and its the monster’s turn next. In the moment I could not imagine anything other then your sword, which you thought was a well crafted masterwork that you paid a lot for, bounces off the pipe and cracks, the monster stabs you and you die (the monster made his attack roll and it turned out that the character had pretty poor stats and wasn’t able to dodge or survive the hit). I wasn’t really making fun of the character, and the player seemed to accept it at the time.
But A moment later I could easily see that this was a lame outcome, the character looked goofy and was “punished” for trying to be cool. I could easily see a number of ways to give them the spotlite, make them look awesome and still take the mechanical outcome of death in an interesting way. The most obvious would be to let them have the cut pipe. The creature disappears into a cloud of steam with a roar (mechanically no damage though). For a moment the character thinks it worked when a tallon rips from the cloud and impales them.
I could have also told the player they had failed and were going to die, then asked them to describe their final act.
It should also be noted that the player’s plan was exactly the sort of epic desperation effort I want to see in my games. Much of the rest of the game was about the party trying to avoid conflict and danger. And otherwise most of the combat consisted of very routine waiting for turns and shooting from cover. These are smart policies but not the golden nuggets of story we are (I am) looking for.
So not much of a rant this time. I don’t like critical failures that reveal the player to be incompetent (even if their stats are awful), but others might. What about you? Are these the highlight of your games? Or not? Personally I am going to try to do better and encourage my players to always speak up if they have a better idea or want me to try harder.