Dec 31, 2013

Weren’t you a pro? Or, can characters really screw this up?

Babbling at the Counter #22 – Pen and Paper

Weren’t you a pro? Or, can characters really screw this up?

I was reading an article up at Goblin Labs and it got me thinking. When a character fails a roll, are they really messing everything up? I mean, they should be good at what they do, right? Can a thief forget how to pick a lock? Can a scientist add sugar instead of cyanide to the poison?

Let’s take combat, for example. If you roll and fail, it’s not that the character forgot how to stab; it’s that the enemy deflected or avoided his attack. The character did everything he could. He had the fighting stance right and he attacked as soon as he saw an opening. But the enemy got away faster than expected and that’s why he missed.

By the same token, if a rousing speech fails to mobilize the masses, it might be because it was bland and boring, sure. Now, that’s not likely to happen to a career politician. So why did he fail? Maybe a nearby ruckus caused by a fleeing dog frightens the people (thinking it was the royal guards coming to get the traitors). Maybe someone in the crowd spokes up against the characters and he is just more respected than them (or the townspeople are more scared of him that of the party). It could even be that it starts raining and the people just decide to leave (a great speech does nothing if no one hears it).

It may fell wrong to take the failure out of the character’s hands, but that’s what happens in combat and no one bats an eye. Just think, what’s more probable: that a seasoned veteran chef forgets how long to leave the food on the oven, or that the door gets stuck and that’s why he burned the chicken?

- The Storeman


  1. That was always my line of thinking. I've always felt that a dice roll is the inclusion of external forces capable of affecting an attempts outcome.

    Sometimes, these forces can be manipulated by characters using bonuses and the like, but there still exists an element of externus.

    Maybe, no matter how skilled a lock pick, the aged tumblers snap as she tries to pick the lock.

    Dice are the most interesting part of an RPG, in my mind. Every roll is like waiting for the impact of a car crash.

    1. Haha, I don't know if I'd say a "car crash", but yes, having things outside of your control (even as DM) adds suspense and creates surprise. Both really enjoyable if you ask me.

    2. Good point. Maybe not every roll, but certainly the most important rolls - saves against dangerous effects, last-ditch escape attempts, all-important bluffs - all threaten to unravel the best laid plans should they fail.