In almost all roleplaying games, we use dice to make the gamy part of our roleplaying game fun. Nobody knows if your barbarian will hit the giant snake with his broadsword, if your occultist can banish the eldritch entity, or if your pilot can outpace the exploding supernova until the dice are rolled. This creates tension at the table, as players cheer critical hits and groan at critical misses.
It’s all fun until somebody gets pushed out the action by the dice. Recently, I watched an rpg game and saw a single bad roll sideline a player. She had taken a prisoner, no one else seemed interested in anything but combat. As the battle wrapped up it was obvious the PCs were in no danger, so she took her prisoner aside and began to question him.
When it was her turn she would ask a question. On her first round she got to roll the die, and she rolled poorly. That was it. From then on, each turn the GM had her get stonewalled while the other players finished up a combat, took treasure, and had a good time. She got to sit out for 20 minutes while everyone else had fun. All because she tried to think out of the box, and try something new.
This broke a great rule I try to remember to use in my games: Never roll the die unless failure is interesting.
“Na, na, I won’t talk” is not interesting. In fact, I felt like the player was being punished for being creative. I don’t mean to pick on the GM, who was doing an overall great job. I’m sure I’ve done this a million times, it’s just easier to see when I’m observing a game from the outside.
So what would be interesting?
No roll Have the prisoner spill some beans. It was a low level prisoner, so he probably didn’t know much, but he could provide a small clue or two, something to let the captor shine in the spotlight.
Perhaps he could tell the PC where the bad guy is who hired him. Maybe you were going to give the players this clue anyway, but by giving it to the captor you make her look good.
Fail Forward When you Fail Forward you let the player roll, but if the roll is bad, you still give them something, but with a twist. When this player rolled badly, the GM could of said something like “You try to look tough but trip over your own shoelaces, but the cowering prisoner doesn’t seem to notice. He says, ‘OK, OK, I don’t know much, we were hired by this weird guy…'”
And then drop a good clue (where the weird guys camp was), and a not so good clue (how to get there avoiding mentioning the hidden guards in the pass).
Make the Failure Interesting While a little bit of frustrating the players can be fun and motivating, a long sequence of stonewalling the PC got old fast.
What if the prisoner started shaking and then heating up? He had some suicide device that was going off. Maybe the PC could disable it fast before he burst into flames? Maybe the PC could find the map hidden in his cloak before it went up in smoke?