Thursday, May 19, 2011

Embracing Failure

Earlier this week, Rob Donoghue had a blog post entitled "the meek shall inherit the tabletop" where, amongst other things, he basically pointed out how being ok with not being a bad ass can be the way to essentially owning the spotlight in your tabletop game. It is a good point, and one I've mentioned here before - at least tangentially - but with Donoghue's recent touching on the subject, I thought it'd be a good idea to revisit it myself.

Winning Gains You Nothing
Take a second and think about this really quickly. What do you gain out of winning? What does succeeding actually get you? Well, sure, for one you succeeded which can be good, but, in general, we don't learn much about a character when they succeed. Sure, there are exceptions. Winning a fight handily early on in the story can set the stage that the character is an accomplished fighter, someone to be reckoned with at the very least, but that is about it. When you succeed at a task, ultimately we only learn that you were capable of succeeding at the task.

Now, take that thought and stretch it over a campaign. If you're always succeeding, then all we are learning about your character is that they succeed. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, and done right can make for some truly heroic characters. However, it doesn't allow for much depth, because we never really see the character at a loss. After all, this is someone who always succeeds. In much the same way that it is hard to learn from a win, it is hard to convey character through only victory.

Failure Brings Out What's Inside
So, if winning gains you nothing, than failure must be where it is at, right? Well, not entirely. Like I said above, winning does give us some stuff, it is just smaller details. Failure is where the heart and soul of your character will really come out. Does your character react badly to failure? Does she just laugh it off and take it in stride? Does he let the jocular image recede to show the truly nasty being underneath?

See, the thing is, no one really wants to lose. Which is why, when we lose, people get to see who we really are inside. Everyone is familiar with the phrase "it's only a game", you ever notice how it is usually the winners saying that when someone who is losing gets upset? Ever see how they stop thinking of it as "only a game" when they're the ones who are behind? That is part of who that person really is creeping out. Maybe it is just them being a competitive person, or maybe it is a sign of them being a fairweather person (someone who is kind when things are going good). Either way, when you want to find that aspect, you need to push them into loss to see it.

Stealing the Spotlight
Donoghue's point in his blog post, is that being willing to fail, and being ok with that failure, is the key to stealing the show. Why? Because that is when you get into interesting situations. Like I said before, when you succeed at a task, you have simply succeeded at a task. When you fail though, there are lots of consequences, and those consequences can be a lot of fun.

For example, I've made no secret that I'm in a Dark Heresy game. It is a fairly big game too, at one point we had 8 or 9 players in it. Of those 8 or 9 players we had two assassins, two sisters of battle (one a Celestian), two tech priests, a noble priest, an arbiter, and an imperial guardsman. In that mix, you have a lot of bad ass characters. You have combat powerhouses, interrogator supremes, and the always popular mister money bags. However, you know who everyone's favorite character is? The Imperial Guardsman. Why? Because he couldn't make a successful check if his life depended on it, and it has on several occasions. The player doesn't balk from this failure, but rather embraces it. He has fun with it, goes with the flow, and plays it up. We want his character to succeed, and we genuinely have an idea of who he is because we've seen him fail time after time. He's also gotten the most spot light and self-development time of all of us, because the situations he blunders into with his failed checks are just so damn entertaining.

It is something you want to be aware of whenever you sit down at the table and start to roll those dice. Maybe failure is the better option?

Really Stealing the Show
There is something Donoghue misses in his post though. Or rather, doesn't fully look into it. The real trick to fully stealing the show, and making a truly memorable character, is being willing to live by the following words, "Go big, or go home." This means you always go for as big a thing as you can. Make your character larger than life with the goals they go for, the things they want to accomplish, and how they want to accomplish them. In doing so, you increase your chance of failure sure, but that's not a bad thing remember. What you get, is someone trying to be larger than life, and either an interesting story as they stumble and fall, or a really neat one as they actually keep succeeding and defying the odds. I recommend you try it next time you can, it can be a lot of fun.


  1. This made me think of an idea I've been having about mystery games I've run that the players don't figure out, ever. One example, I've explained most of it to one player because I decided I wasn't going to revisit it except for one element that I've just left open. His character disappeared. He was on his own and had failed a number of rolls and instead of dying I said "Okay we're going to go back to the other players for now." And we never went back. I told him his character was "gone". I told him he might come back one day but even I didn't know if he would.

    Oddly that campaign has held the player's imagination the longest. It's also the weirdest game we've played but I think the failure to solve the mystery is what has made it stick in their minds. So it works for plotlines too, failure can be the most interesting.

  2. True, a lot of times it's the one that got away that sticks out in your head and pulls up a lot of the good things we look for in a long lasting campaign. At least in memory.