What Do You Do When Characters Fail? — 5 Solutions For You

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1196

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:

How to Prevent Dead End Dice Rolls

It’s interesting to see how GMs handle failed dice checks and botched character actions.

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Thanks for reading and I hope you have a great week!


How to Prevent Dead End Dice Rolls

By Jonathan Hardin, sojournersawake.com

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?



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:

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!