Game Master's Roundtable of Doom #6 - A Real Chance of Failure

Image Copyright Blizzard Entertainment

Image Copyright Blizzard Entertainment

This month's topic comes to us courtesy of yours truly, Lex Starwalker:

Many of us probably remember the AD&D days when the DM could roll a black dragon on the random encounter table and end a low-level party’s career. The 3rd and 4th editions of the game led some newer players to believe that every encounter should be defeatable and appropriate to their level and capabilities. However, 5th edition has moved away from this structure. 

We see this mirrored in other games as well. At one end of the spectrum is the style and belief that the PCs should be able to overcome any challenge that comes their way, that challenges should be “appropriate”. On the other end of the spectrum is the syle and belief that the world should be realistic, that every fight shouldn’t be able to be won, and that one of the requisite skills of the game is knowing when to fight and when to run.

Where do you, as a GM, fall on this spectrum, and why? Should the PCs always be able to win?

Alright, here’s my answer to the question, “Should the PCs always be able to win?”  No.  There you go. Have a great weekend!

Of course I have a bit more to say on this topic.

The reason behind my answer is that I view RPGs as roleplaying games. A game that cannot be lost is not a game at all. Also, when I run an RPG, I am after a specific kind of experience, not only for my players, but also for myself. 

First, there should be a real risk of failure in order to make the game fun and to make success truly rewarding. Nothing is worse for me as a player than to realize the GM has the kid gloves on, and no decision I make really matters because the GM won’t let anyone die. Playing in a game like that is like playing a video game with god mode on. Sure, it can be fun at first, but it quickly becomes tiresome. I have found that the thrill of success is directly proportionate to the perceived risk of failure. The more difficult the victory is to achieve, the rewarding it is when accomplished. 

I also think it’s important to have a real chance of failure in order to realistically portray the setting environment with integrity. Even in our world today, which has been largely paved over and made as idiot-proof as possible, you take a real risk every time you walk out your front door. In an RPG world where the players are portraying heroes living dangerous lives, the risk should be even more present. 

Nothing is more repugnant to me than an RPG setting that resembles an MMO with “level appropriate zones”. If my character goes into that dark cave, there may very well be something that can eat me alive without blinking. I don’t expect everything I encounter to be level appropriate, and it had better now be. One of the first things PCs should learn is when to fight and when to run a way, to size up an enemy before engaging. If every encounter is level appropriate, then there’s no real need for intelligence and reconnaissance—just kick the door down and get to business.

I remember when I was a child I would often root for the villain in television shows and movies. Why? I rooted for the villain because I hated how the heroes always won, they never suffered any real setbacks, and there was never any danger of a main character dying. Even as a child I knew this was unrealistic. I wanted to see Skeletor kill He-Man; I wanted to see Lex Luthor defeat Superman once and for all. 

I don’t think I was alone in these feelings. Today we see the rise of very popular shows like Game of Thrones where no character is safe, where victory is far from assured. I love shows like that. I love it when a main character dies and I really care about it. That’s powerful storytelling.

Another reason I think that the players shouldn’t always win is because not all player ideas are good ideas. I see a trend among GMs to run with the players’ ideas and have them work, even if that’s not what the GM originally planned. This is a great strategy as long as the ideas are good. However, I have seen some really hare-brained ideas in my days as GM, and I’m really glad I knew when to say no. 

The only thing worse than a player coming up with a hare-brained idea is that same player becoming upset with the GM when the hare-brained idea doesn’t pan out. It’s hard to respect a GM who will let anything fly. It’s hard to respect a GM who doesn’t think critically about the choices the PCs are making. Just as in real life, in an RPG choices should have consequences, and the best games are the ones in which those consequences correctly align with the wisdom of the choices. 

I don’t think all challenges should be appropriate to the PCs. I don’t think all challenges should be “fair”. Some of the best roleplaying moments I’ve had in games have been when I’ve presented a challenge to the PCs that was completely unfair and practically impossible. I like to make my players think, and charging into every encounter with swords drawn is a great way to get to roll a new character in my games. 


The Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom is a gathering of RPG bloggers. Each month we discuss a topic relevant to running tabletop RPGs. If you’d like to submit a topic for the bloggers to discuss, or you’d like to submit your blog for admittance to our ranks, send an email to Lex Starwalker.

Other articles exploring this topic:

Easy, Average, Expert, Master, Nightmare, Hellfire, OMGWTF by Marc Plourde
Realism and Challenge by Scott Robinson
Game Masters' Roundtable of Doom #6 by Burn Everything Gaming
The Sliding Scale of Difficulty by Peter Smits
See chameleon, lying there in the sun by John Clayton
Run Away! or Always Win by John Marvin
Epic...Fail? by Tom Harrison