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RPT Newsletter #1,196 | How to Prevent Dead End Dice Rolls

How do you deal with failed dice rolls?

  • I ignore the dead end, regardless of the players' looks.

    Votes: 0 0.0%

  • Total voters
    28

Stephan Hornick

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How to Prevent Dead End Dice Rolls

By Jonathan Hardin, www.sojournersawake.com | Published March 21, 2022

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1,196


A Brief Word of Johnn
What do you do when the dice betray your players? When the party seems to meet a dead-end? When your adventure stalls due to bad luck or bad choices?
That’s the topic of today’s tips.

But before you dig into them, please take the associated poll here.
It’s interesting to see how GMs handle failed dice checks and botched character actions.

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Even if you aren’t GMing a Western RPG, you can use this template to inspire Western-infused encounters and adventures in your modern, sci-fi, historical, or fantasy games.

If you are curious about what’s in the GM Cheat Sheet, I’ve done a short 5 minute video walkthrough of it here on YouTube.

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You’ll be helping me help GMs around the world have more fun at every game.
Thanks for reading and I hope you have a great week!

Cheers,
Johnn

Section Divider


Does Failure Mean Stop?​

I placed my players in precarious situations. And when they attempted dangerous feats, my voice trembled, but I did the right thing — I called for an ability check. The dice rolled upon the table and a single digit number showed face up.

Now what?
Failure?
Death?
What does a low number mean?


It seems too simplistic to say, “no, you fail” when the description of the attempt drew me into a good story.
My goal is to always continue the story.
Although that might include death (that’s another talk) failure never means the adventure must stop.

Instead, we want to create variations of success we can apply after reading the dice.
In today's tips, I'll show you five ways to do that, plus a resolution table to help you get an answer fast.

(And if you need a mnemonic, just remember QUACK.)


Variation Type I: Quality​

PCs attempted the task, you did it, but it’s a terrible job.
The quality of the completed task may present a problem later in the encounter.

“Hold pressure while I prepare a medkit,” the PC says to another. The soldier bleeds out while the medic saves him from death.
The game master calls for a medicine check. PC rolls a 6.
The game master determines the PC is successful, but the quality of the bandaging is poor.
Later on, the GM introduces a new challenge the PCs must consider — the character’s wound has become infected.


Variation Type II: Upshot​

PCs attempted the task, succeeded, but generated an unwanted outcome.
This complication may prove to continue the encounter.

“We could easily get thrown off course using that map,” says the PC to the captain. “Why don’t we use my map?”
The game master determines that a deception check is required and the PC rolls a 9.
The game master determines that the captain takes the PC up on the offer, but kills the first mate and then makes the PC her new first mate!


Variation Type III: Assets​

PCs accomplish the task, but lose a tool or resource in the meantime.
For this to pressure the game the same resources must be called upon later in the encounter.

The musician PC plays loudly in the bar. The cop arrives to make a deal with the criminal.
The PC attempts to create a distraction while the cop interacts with the criminal.
The game master calls for a DC 15 performance check and the musician rolls an 11. The game master decides the outcome is successful, but at the cost of the musician's favorite guitar.


Variation Type IV: Clock​

PCs accomplish the task, but at the price of time.
Time in RPGs can be abstract, so with the loss of time, you must introduce a complication that finishing early would have prevented.

The sneaky mage PC creeps below the desk and begins planting a glyph that will activate once the noble lord begins speaking in his study. Soon, the mission will be a success.
The game master calls for a simple spell check DC 10 and the mage scores a 6.
Everyone knows it should fail, but the game master determines it is successful, but it takes much longer than anticipated.
The player agrees their character would pursue the task regardless of the time.
The game master then announces a sentry walks in and begins searching the room.


Variation Type V: Knowledge​

PCs accomplish the task, but at the price of knowledge.
Though the PCs succeed, they lose out on learning a piece of information they would have gained if they had done better.
Mechanically, you can have the PCs fail the very next wisdom or smarts based check.

Alone on the alien planet, the two astronauts search for signs of life.
The game master calls for a survival check and the two players roll a 5 and a 9.
The game master determines they do survive the harshness of the planet, but fail to learn that the craters they notice are actually footprints.


d20 Dice Interpretation Chart​

Should a roll result in failure, you might use this chart to help inspire what happens next so the adventure doesn't end.

d20Complication
1-4Quality Complication. Success but terrible job that potentially sabotages a future encounter.
5-8Upshot Complication. Success but with an unwanted outcome or side effect.
9-12Assets Complication. Success but the PCs lose a valuable tool or other resource.
13-16Clock Complication. Success but it took longer than expected causing a new problem.
17-20Knowledge Complication. Success but the PCs get bad information or miss out on getting key information.


Final Thought​

Low dice rolls and failed attempts do not have to stop the story.

If you choose to interpret them as ways for the PCs to succeed on the task — to fail forward — you can justify low rolls by adding a new factor for players to consider while they navigate the encounter.

May your Story Continue!
 
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Stephan Hornick

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I added a poll. Have fun!
 

JonGraHar

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Fate and PBTA taught me how to fail forward, I never looked back on bad rolls ever since. If you never chained failed moves in PBTA, you are missing a lot of fun.
Though I've never played the game, I seem to relate to the system of success, advantage, failure and threat...something like that
 

ExileInParadise

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Since working through Adventure Master Game Plan, I've tried looking at each encounter from the 5 actions ... and for each action, what does success, partial failure (complication) and full failure (setback) mean?

A complication is a "can try again, but against steeper odds or at greater cost"

A setback is "cannot try same plan again, regroup with a new plan"

This is not just individual die rolls, but encounters as well.

Giving this a moments thought in prep rather than in the session can make life flow a lot smoother - you don't have to make up the fail forward on the fly.

And, well, if the players initially *think* that wiping out all of the goblins is success ... but then find an untranslatable note in a scroll case... well is that a really a complication or a setback?

It's definitely a sign that the wrong action might have been chosen... even if they were victorious in the fight.

Now do they choose to move on with a mystery unsolved or did side quest just kick in?
 

JohnnFour

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sheaeugene

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I do some solo adventure writing over at Heroes Gate (nowhere near ready for prime time... but fun for me)
This would be difficult, I think... in real-time at a table but for textplay I often write out more complex "Result Tables" when a simple pass/fail seems dull and boring. Here is an example:

1647981064671.png
 

Stephan Hornick

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So you tell your players beforehand what roll would result in which effect?
Isn‘t that making it very gamey? And a lot of hassle for you to come up with not only one description but several from mwhich only one is relevant?
 
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JohnnFour

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I don't think it's gamey at all. I think the table is great @sheaeugene. It helps you explore the possibilities in advance, keeps results from getting in a rut, and could facilitate great descriptions.
 

Stephan Hornick

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I didn't mean it derogative. Sorry if this came across wrong.
I see the benefits, but I also have the impression that it is much preparation from which not all is used in the end.
 

JohnnFour

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That's a good point @Stephan Hornick.

Solo play is a bit different. the goals can differ vs. group play.

In addition, I've used this approach in the past to Prepare to Improv, meaning I'd create result tables for stuff I suck at improvising outcomes for.

So not a table for everything. Just a few things I struggle to come up with during sessions. Twists is an example of that for me.
 

Stephan Hornick

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Also, I think that "gamey" is not negative. But I see that it can be interpreted like this.
I think that Johnn is very gamey in the sense that he seems to focus very much on the game play experience, while I focus very much on the background and world. Either is fine. Sorry if I accidentally gave you the impression that "gamey" is not ok.
I actually wanted to ask WHY you did so much preparation beforehand, i.e. what do YOU see as benefits from this approach. Alas, I rolled a 1 on this question. Sorry.
 
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Stephan Hornick

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I completely understand having tables like this. Sometimes, I use them too. And I played a lot of chat roleplaying (and still are).
This said, I usually think of several results, but I do not send the table to the player. And here I wanted to know IF @sheaeugene did this, and why. Not to criticize to say it once more, but to understand and learn.
 

sheaeugene

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My example, if I did this at a table, would not have been presented to players beforehand. However when I do DM, I try to not always use a simple pass/fail but instead make up gradient results on the fly. Nat 1's and Nat 20's are hardly ever critical for skill checks or saving throws... but sometimes I just decide they are because circumstances are open to it.

I write the solo adventures this way as method of improving my skills while also just having fun (I had to do something after Covid wiped out my table play options...)

I experiment a lot too. You might notice I snuck in an Attack roll inside the Acrobatics Check... I can see this working at a table but I've not done it yet. As a dex fighter, it is fun to proclaim actions like "I attempt a triple-spin somersaut off the rocky outcropping and bring my blade down from above to attack the goblin." You can call for both an Acrobatics Check and an Attack roll... but why not make the two, one?
 
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