Failure is a key part of life. It is also a key part of any story. Failure prompts growth. Without failure a person can not grow - or the ways they grow are different and awkward for others. Without failure a character can't grow either. I've said it numerous times but you need bad dice rolls for good RP, and bad dice rolls often lead to faliure. However, that doesn't necessarily help when your players are staring at you, failure imminent before them, and feeling like there is no way out. Today I'd like to talk about failure.
In The Moment...
In the moment is one of the worst times to judge the fairness of a pending failure situation. When involved in the scene your players are likely more in their character's head space than their own. They're seeing the situation IC and feeling the frustration of the looming failure. This is compounded by the part of them that can see the real world and they know it's a game, which means the failure is arbitrary. Arbitrary frustration is bad...
Things get even worse once you factor in communication. People need different amounts of information to act properly, and because of that you can get issues just because information isn't conveyed properly. As the GM, when someone is snooping around an office, I feel totally justified in saying "You hear someone at the door, what do you do?" and expectin an answer. In fact, questions like "is there a bureau?" or "is there a good hiding place?" I can take as the person looking around and thus wasting time. "I hide" may be a perfectly reasonable response in my book, but the player may think that's a cop out.
But why is this a problem? Well, probably because when the player entered the room I gave it a very brief description. Heck, I may have only called it "NPC's Office" or given something like "Cramped with bookshelves" or"spartanly furnished." The other things weren't relevant and so I didn't convey them. However, now those things are important. They're also things a skilled intruder would have noted coming in. What is left is a difference in opinion of what an office holds between me an the player, plus the fact that I want dramatic tension (you need a quick decision to be made) and the player not wanting to mess up.
That example is just a small and quick thing. Now expand this to an entire adventure...and things can get really dicey.
Biting The Bullet
Despite this, sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and go forward with it. It may not be the best thing in the world. But it does have ot happen sometimes. If your idea is you want a quick decision then tell the player, but don't expect an elaborate response. Just be aware that some people don't perform well under pressure even if their character can/should be able to do so. Also be aware that unlike in a book, a movie, or real life, the only thing grounding the PC in the world is the player's imagination based off things you said before they knew the choice was coming up.
Beyond this, try to be fair. Don't put scenarios in front of the PCs where they have no choice but to lose. That doesn't mean it has to be likely for them to win, but there should be a way to win (several ways, in fact.) Also, don't be closed off to new approaches the PCs may try. Reward ingenuity. Let them try things and if it would mess things up, then go with that. If those things wouldn't work though...well, failure may be something they have to deal with.
They May Thank You
I started this post off mentioning how in the moment is the wrong time to judge a situation like this. If possible, let the situation hang a few days before approaching it again. You never know, after the dust has settled the players may be really happy that their character lost that encounter. It can also really shake things up for them going forward.