Instant Drama – Just Add Failure – Part 2

Posted on July 21, 2017 By

Previously, I discussed how failure makes for good stories, but writing failure into games is challenging. Because while players may appreciate the drama of failure, they hate failing.

Today I’m back with some ideas for how to incorporate failure into your game story without adding failure to your game play.

First, a note on player agency. Two big things you want to avoid with any sort of “failure” are (a) taking away the players’ ability to affect the world, and (b) telling the players that their previous actions didn’t matter.

The classic example of this is when the heroes are scripted to fail at the end of the scene, no matter what they did to prepare for it, and are then captured, stripped of their equipment/powers/whatever, and left without any obvious means of escape. Yes, it’s dramatic. And yes, the heroes will eventually escape and return to their previous levels of pure awesomeness. But in the meantime, the players are resenting you for taking away their fun.

With that out of the way, let’s look at how to fail!

Winning the Battle / Losing the War: The heroes win, but the players still experience the drama of defeat. Whatever stories the heroes are part of (and winning at!) are part of a larger conflict. In that conflict, the heroes’ side is actually losing. For example:

  • The heroes captured the enemy bunker, but the rest of their battalion was ambushed and wiped out.
  • As the heroes were successfully rescued the mayor’s daughter, the terrorists blew up City Hall.
  • While they talked the wizard into giving them the Staff of Prophecy, the High Council dissolved and the world lies on the brink of war.

Paper Losses: The heroes lose, but it doesn’t really affect the players’ gameplay. Perhaps they “lose territory” but since “territory” is just spaces on a map without actual game effect, we get the drama of failure without taking away the players’ agency. Or maybe the failure just part of the script; while they have “failed” in the context of the game’s narrative, it just pushes them forward to more adventures. (“You’re a loose cannon McGunn! You’re suspended from the police force! So if you want to track down your partner’s killer according to your rules, you’ll have all the time in the world to do so! Now get out of my office!”)

Choose Failure: As players, we don’t necessarily mind bad things happening so long as we stay in control. Even failure is fine so long as we get to choose it, and know what that choice entails. The choice can’t be blind. (It’s no fair to say “You chose the door on the right, so you die.”) It’s okay to sometimes have only bad choices (“Do you save the prince? Or save the ambassador?”) so long as the player can make an informed decision and has an idea what the results of that choice may be, no matter how bad.

Incentivize Failure: You can take the idea of “choosing failure” one step further by giving the players incentive to make “bad” choices. Reward foolish risks, sub-optimal plays, and choosing short-term over long-term success. But be careful! Depending on game mechanics, this might be tricky to balance. Players are clever when it comes to eking out any possible advantage, even at the cost of their own fun. If they discover the best way to “win” is to constantly lose, their gameplay will be a series of failures that might lead to a satisfyingly tragic experience (Hamlet) or just a miserable experience (The Room).


What are some of your favorite (or most-hated) failures as a player or a writer? Share with the group, and we’ll all be smarter for it!

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