Monday, August 2, 2010

Bad Luck vs. Fear

In the trend of a few of my recent posts, I wanted to go back to talking on a topic I started before. Heck, in this one I even said I was going to talk more about it later and so I figured I'd bring it up here. Only this time, more focused on the gaming aspect of bad luck instead of the story and gaming aspect of it. So pull up a chair, and lets get back to talking about Bad Luck and your campaign.

Now, I'm sure I'm not the only one who does this, but despite my previous post on bad luck I tend to hold off on hitting my players with it. If they do prep, I like to make the answers true (they rolled for them after all). I feel like with the dice coming down, and success being rolled for that I have entered into a contract with the players. I am not supposed to lie, I am supposed to tell the truth. The mechanics came into play after all. In general, this isn't a view I have problems with, but I also hold off on bad luck elsewhere in the game too.

The reasoning behind this is simple, I'm afraid. I'm afraid that by handing out some bad luck I'm going to go too far and ruin the enjoyment of the game. I'm afraid that it will come across as just doing too much. I'm afraid it will come across as railroading, and even if it doesn't that I'm being malicious and just want the players to fail. Most of all, I'm afraid that it will be that extra bit needed that gets a player killed. Why? For no reason other than I thought it'd be amusing to have a bit of bad luck hit the player at a bad moment. Even with my view on why you should pull the trigger on a PC, doing it via some arbitrary non-mechanics based event that just happened seems low.

So, the question is then what does avoiding doing this cost your game? Generally speaking nothing. The game goes as it should and would normally. The players find an objective, hit an obstacle, try to over come it and either succeed or fail as they are want to do.

How about if you don't avoid it? Well, if you do it wrong you will kill the fun of the players, or just flat out kill the players. If you do it right though, you add a bit of spice, you add additional challenges and really add some flavor to the game. I've seen it done, I've even pulled it off once or twice (despite the fear) and it has always added a lot to the experience I feel.

So, as much as this is me trying to urge you to give it a shot, this is also me saying I'm going to do all I can to overcome that fear. I will balance and I will measure, but there will be bad luck for people in my games. Little things, a broken step, a crumbling plank of wood. The exploding vehicle coming towards them from the blast. Little things, common things, but they will be there.

So what about you? What advice would you give on over coming the fear of handing out bad luck? Any great stories for it? Reasons you avoid it? Reasons you do it? I want to know!


  1. To me, Bad Luck is what adventuring is all about. It usually happens that the players are in the wrong place at the wrong time. That's what makes life interesting for them. As far as the dice go, I don't 'fudge' to make a player's day worse. In that regard, I let the chips fall where they may. Likewise, if a group has a bad plan and goes with it, well, I let them dig their own holes. But as far as putting them in 'unlucky situations', well, I think my people are used to it. After all, when a GM 'designs' an adventure, they are (as you said, deliberately putting obstacles in the players' way. Bad luck is just another obstacle.

    My only pet peeve in the bad luck situation, however, is specific to a Star Wars/Sci Fi campaign. So many of the pre-made adventures for such settings begin with the player's ship crashing. An 'unavoidable crash' that is part of the plot of the adventure. Once with this is okay. Maybe twice. But in my long-running campaign, I had to quickly come up with alternatives, because I swear, every other adventure had the party's ship crashing! So, usage of THAT kind of bad luck, over and over, is really annoying.

    The other really touchy situation that I think fits with your post is the 'bad luck' of players getting captured by bad guys. I did a whole post on this over at my blog a while back, but suffice it to say that again, once or twice with this is fine. Any more than that and you get really irate players (and rightly so).

  2. Good response (as usual).

    Just for clarification, I'm not talking about fudging dice rolls to make it harder on the players. That is more 'shady GMing' than bad luck. I'm talking about things like...

    So, for some reason there is a double shift of guards on tonight. Or, "the bridge starts to break away from the mountain just as you reach the middle".

    The little touches of bad luck that are in a lot of stories, but don't have mechanical implications usually. Or aren't triggered by mechanic as much as the GM just spicing things up.

    Capturing KO'd people is a fun way to not do a TPK though, but I do agree. Around the third time, it gets old pretty fast.

  3. Hi,

    I think, I'd go about this 'bad luck'-thing from a different angle. I would separate the different kinds of bad luck:
    Unfortunate die rolls
    Poor planning

    We are dealing with bad luck from three different sources - the randomness of dice, the choices of the players and the decisions of the GM.
    Dice can really add chaos to roleplaying and some times send the character's wholly new directions. It really depends on how drastic events the dice can control. One way to limit the chaos is by fudging the rolls, however there is an alternative. More about that in a moment.

    Some times the players just do poor planning, and their choices sends the characters into even more trouble. As a GM you can adapt to the situation and either scale the problems up or down as you choose.

    Then there is the type of 'bad luck', you as the GM controls. Since you provide the information for the players to react on, you can decide in any case, when you want to change your information - and thus introduce complications to the game.

    Now instead of changing the situation - the bad luck - you go by regular skill checks (or the equivalent), but once a skill check is failed, don't consider it a regular failure. Introduce a complication instead - if they failed hacking the computer, it is because the system have been upgraded and they need a different approach. If the fail the lockpicking-check, they still succeed in picking the luck, but now a new problem appears - perhaps the guard appears and he needs to be persuaded or silenced, or perhaps they discover a trap, that now needs to disarmed etc.

    What I am suggesting is that you don't introduce bad luck, but instead interpret each failed roll as bad luck. When a check is failed, you can A) consider it failed, B) consider it failed and introduce a new problem or C) consider it succesful and confront them with a new problem. I usually go by C and sometimes B.

    Here is a series of examples:
    If the planning check-fails, then they just happens to infiltrate the place the evening, where the guards are doubled, if they fail their stealth-checks, they still move silently by the guard, but they dropped a piece of equipment - do they go on or do they go back and retrieve it? If the hiding-check is failed, then they are still hidden, but now the guard is approaching their hiding place for some other reason - can they distract him, so that he won't discover them?