Roleplaying Failure

“I missed again? Uh! Sonnofa . . . !”

Failure in the form of rolling poorly is unpleasant. It can lead to irrational behavior, such as conducting research to determine if a specific d20 is faulty. It can drain the fun out of an otherwise pleasant gaming experience. Rolling poorly in skill challenges is annoying, but rolling poorly on attacks – especially Encounter and Daily powers – is mind-rattlingly frustrating. The reactions to poor rolls run the gamut of emotions, which are often expressed through wild gestures, foul language and thrown polyhedrals.  However, perhaps the most dangerous outcome of failure is disengagement from the game itself. I’ve seen this happen to players, and I’ve experienced it personally as a DM.

The dreaded Critical Failure. (Art from Penny Arcade)

The amount of rolls a DM executes during any given gaming session is significantly more than all of the players combined. The DM is running a variety of monsters. The DM may have spent hours creating a perfectly balanced encounter with monsters who compliment each other only to have the encounter shattered by consecutive rolls of 2, 5, 1, 6, 3 and 4. The DM could certainly fudge die rolls but the game is structured so level-appropriate monsters fail to hit with attacks approximately 30-40% of the time.  

Although a wise sage once offered that two out of three is more than satisfactory, monsters only survive for a few rounds so a barrage of poor attack rolls can result in an unbalanced encounter and a frustrating time for the DM. But fear not, there are ways to take those poor rolls and channel the resulting negative energy into a positive for your game – roleplay the failure.

Demonstrate The Monster’s Frustration – Not Your Frustration

I personally fall into a trap of neglecting roleplaying elements during combat encounters. I can usually include some back-and-forth dialogue if the monsters are humanoids or other creatures who can communicate with the players, but it is a challenge to sincerely roleplay a mass of zombies attacking the party. The game requires the DM to focus on the tactics of numerous monsters who often have a variety of roles in combat and tactical options. Combat turns into a chess match as I attempt to put the monsters, according to their intellect, in the best set of circumstances to succeed against the players. Mentally managing tactics takes away attention from promoting roleplaying at the table.

Missing on an attack can be the perfect time to add roleplaying to the encounter, but it can be difficult to stay in a roleplaying mindset. Take the following example, which is unfortunately a close approximation of how I have executed a monster’s turn in a combat encounter in the past:

DM: The hired thug moves here (slides mini on map) and he attempts to slash you with his axe and . . . (rolling results in 4) he misses. Ugh, this guy is rolling terribly! So annoying!

There are numerous issues with running combat in this fashion. First, the descriptions I offered to the party are merely tactical. I often state the bare minimum of details to keep the encounter moving forward to ensure the entire session does not become anchored in combat. The players can imagine the reality of the encounter on the battlefield, but my speech is not doing anything to engage the roleplaying side of their character.

Second, I shifted perspective midway through the monster’s turn. I started by referring to the monster, “The hired thug,” and detailing his actions. However, after the attack roll resulted in a 4, which is a clear miss, I abandoned the perspective and replied with metagame information, “Ugh, this guy is rolling terribly!” No, the hired thug missed with his axe; he didn’t roll anything! Jumping between describing actions from the monster’s point of view to metagame mechanics can only take the players out of their character’s experience and reduce roleplaying.

Third, I end the description of the monster’s turn with a personal emotion, “So annoying!” My comment informs the group that I am irritated that my rolls are less than stellar and it’s bothering me. Granted, my players enjoy not getting hit and certainly indulge in my lamentations of failure, but it once again shifts perspective and takes the focus away from the monster and characters. My personal emotions as the DM are a metagame issue that decreases the probability of roleplaying.

Recently, I have attempted to practice new behaviors at the table while running combat. My primary goal is to remember that it’s not important if I’m frustrated by failure; it’s the monster who is frustrated by failure. The vibe I’m striving for can be seen in the example dialogue below. The monster still misses, but notice the changes:

DM: Goretol lumbers his massive frame to the closest enemy (slides mini on map). His muscles bulge with power as he wields a large axe over his head, “You will die by my hands!” He makes a powerful swing against you and . . . (rolling results in 4) the blow misses wildly as you duck out of the way. Goretol erupts in fury, “Baaaah! Weakling, you cannot escape from Goretol forever!” 

Describe failure in great detail. (Art by:

Same scenario, but the shift in dialogue presents multiple openings for roleplaying during combat at the table. First, the monster now has a name, Goretol. The players now have a name to latch onto if they want to talk back to the monster. The players also have a quick description of him – he’s muscular and moves slowly – which gives him additional personality. The brief words from Goretol imply he’s a rather straightforward guy with one clear mission – kill anything that gets in his way. The additional features I provided for Goretol conjure up images and roleplaying possibilities for the player while “The hired thug” is lifeless and dull.

Second, I maintained the same perspective throughout the monster’s turn. I did not shift into metagame discussions or personal emotions. I am certainly disappointed that Goretol missed with his deadly Encounter power that does 3W + 12 damage and knocks the player prone (save ends), but I channeled this frustration into Goretol’s behaviors. He is even more infuriated with the player since he rarely misses with his axe. The player can respond by taunting Goretol or engage in other roleplaying opportunities.  

Last, consider how sweet it will be if Goretol lands a massive hit on the player during the next round, “Yes, weakling. I told you! I will bathe in a pool of your blood! Hah, you are no match for the powers of Goretol!” Roleplay success as well as failure; the ebbs and flows of combat will be more interesting than just repeating roll results and damage totals.

Non-speaking Villains

Roleplaying the failure of a monster who can easily communicate with the party is not too challenging. However, roleplaying failure for an animal or inanimate objects is more difficult. The DM can still use brief dialogue to communicate the monster’s reactions instead of clouding the encounter with personal emotions. Imagine the party is fighting an iron golem that is employed to protect the entrance to a great treasure. The golem is likely not able to communicate (unless the controller can see through the golem’s eyes and communicate telepathically with the party . . . get creative!); roleplaying failure is a greater challenge, but can still be accomplished.

DM: The massive iron golem reacts to your presence and prepares to slam you in the middle of its massive iron hands and . . . (rolling results in 2) a booming gong fills the chamber as its hands clap together. The golem has misjudged your location, and slowly peers at its empty iron hands. The golem’s head tilts slightly, as if trying to figure out a puzzle, unsure how you have escaped its grasp.

The description above sets the stage for the players to react to the iron golem as a character rather than simply an enemy that must be destroyed. It creates more opportunities for the players to roleplay since the iron golem shows some personality. Maybe the players pick up on a lack of intellect and try to distract the golem to reduce the effectiveness of its attacks; if so, then improvise a brief skill challenge to determine if the players’ efforts are succesful. Fleshing out your monsters in greater detail will at least offer the players more information to latch onto and possibly take in new and unexpected directions.

Sowing the Seeds of Failure

Numerous seeds can be planted for your monsters in terms of how they react to failure. A few are below to get you started:

Curse the Gods - the monster is a devote follower of an evil god. Success is credited to the god, but failure is seen as a rejection by the god, “Lolth, why do you forsake me so? I’ve done everything you’ve asked.”

A Special Item - the monster holds an item (possibly magical) that has a specific name. The item has been in the monster’s possession for a long time, which has created an intense affinity with the item, “Banechiller never misses. It has cut down so many before. Why does it fail me now?”

Sh*t Rolls Downhill - the monster is a leader or boss-like figure for other monsters in the current or previous encounter. The monster does not accept responsibility for personal failures, and blames all failure on his followers, “Stop distracting me, idiots. Can’t you see I’m busy here? These people would already be dead if you fools could do your job for a change!”


  • Rollplay failure. Channel your personal frustrations with poor die results into the monster who is making the attack. Don’t get mad; have the monster get mad for you!
  • Rollpay success. In the same way, next time you crit on an attack, instead of raising your arms in the air and shouting, “Oh, nat’ 20!” (guilty as charged), have the monster gloat about the massive attack. The player will enjoy defeating the monster even more if they have to suffer some taunting and gloating first.
  • Prepare a few possible statements for monsters before a gaming session. The tactical components of combat can absorb much of your attention, which means it’s quite easy to forget to roleplay success and failure. Write a reminder to cue you to continue to roleplay your monsters during combat.
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About The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.
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17 Responses to Roleplaying Failure

  1. Kilsek says:

    Although it can be frustrating on the “expected challenge level” front to have monsters roll so badly for attacks on end, you’re 100% right that it’s a lot more fun for both the PCs and DM when you RP *how* exactly that attack missed or how awful the creature’s turn was.

    A good way to practice? Dumb or savage humanoid and giant types, like orcs, ogres or ettins. It’s easy to imagine a lot of grunting, jaw dropping, head-scratching and even a frustrated conversation with itself – especially fun with ettins! I’ve done something like this before, and we all get a chuckle or two. Hey, we’re entertaining when we DM, aren’t we?

    Ettin, head 1: “Hey, you stop moving!”
    Ettin, head 2: “He not moving, you still drunk!”
    Ettin, head 1: “Oh, yeah, you right. Sorry!”

    Thanks for the reminder that it’s just as easy for DMs to metagame speak and sound all gamey with crappy rolls, too, Id. Both DMs and PCs RP’ing misses adds a lot of rich flavor and atmosphere to combat just as much as RP’ing killing blows and crits do. It’s a way to enrich the game and adventure when even the “bad” things that happen. Excellent article!

  2. quirkydm says:

    Great article. I saw this same effect in my DM in the last session I played in. It didn’t ruin his night, and it didn’t bring any of us down. But it didn’t improve the game either.

    And once the DM starts doing this, the players pick up on it, too. Players get much snarkier than DMs when rolls go bad, so having a way to release that tension will be better for everyone.

    • The Id DM says:

      Thank you for the feedback. It channels that energy into something meaningful “in” the game rather that talking “about” the game. It’s something that I continue to practice because it’s easy to get caught up in the tactical side of the game. It can turn into a chess match, but nobody worries about describing “how” the Knight took out the Bishop when playing chess. A DM does not have that luxury. How the combat moves along should be described vividly to increase the likelihood that players will get invested into their characters.

  3. Steve says:

    This is great advice. I especially like the image of the two ettin heads fighting.

    I suppose the dice aren’t any worse to me than anyone else, but it sure feels that way. I learned a long time ago to embrace failure. This has been an excellent motivator. Taking your advice to roleplay failure, I have turned 1s and 2s into some very funny moments. Critical failure has also led to some of the most rich and lasting character building moments I have ever had at the table.

    I still don’t like to fail, but I would encourage everyone to try and look at it in a new way. Failure is not losing a resource, or the chance to be cool, rather it is gaining a precious opportunity to explore your character and how they respond to adversity, that is to roleplay.

    In short, success is boring because it simply meets your expectations. Failure is where it’s at because it offers you the chance to grow your character(or you know, make a jome and then pass the turn ;p

    Great article. I look forward to more.

    • The Id DM says:

      Thanks for stopping by and checking out the article. Did you read the other post I linked to above regarding my research on die rolls? I was convinced one of the d20s I own was “broken,” so I tested it against my “good” d20 by rolling them both 200 times and analyzing the results. As I said above, failure can lead to irrational behavior!

      • Steve says:

        I did read that. My first thougbt was “Why didn’t I think of that?!” Very funny. I don’t blame the dice myself, I am instead convinced that I am the problem. But as I said, I learned to roll with the punches and make things interesting no matter what the dice say.

  4. Draco says:

    I still contend that this is excellent advice for players, too. :)

    The feedback works both ways, I think. Certainly the DM is responsible as s/he’s in a leadership position at the table, but players who don’t put forth any effort when the DM is being descriptive and immersive can discourage that behavior in the DM, too.

    • The Id DM says:

      I agree with you that playes should also be roleplaying their success and failure in the same manner. I think the best a DM can do is model behavior for the group to follow. I often ask players to describe their “killing blow” in the hopes that the behavior will become commonplace instead of requiring a prompt from my end. It’s no doubt a two-way street.

  5. BasementDweller says:

    Great suggestions. These things often make sense to me, but it’s hard to remember to do awesome things like this in the heat of battle as I’m struggling desperately to keep combat going at a brisk pace (lest the youtube videos come out)

    • The Id DM says:

      Yes, combat can bog down in 4th Edition, but I think moments like this can add more flavor to the encounter so it doesn’t *seem* as long. I often get lost in trying to hurry the encounter along instead of focusing on how to make it memorable. It’s a tough balancing act; one that I’m still figuring out.

  6. Roger says:

    I have tried to +1 this for quite a few minutes now, but it just won’t work. Maybe someone can check that. Admittedly I am using my cell, but I don’t think it is a user error.

  7. Paul Cloud says:

    Great article. Now that I think about it, I’m certainly guilty of breaking immersion like this.. especially on crit failures and crit hits. Although I do try to explain why the attack missed when I roll a 1, “Oooh. A natural 1. The dragon totally whiffs, distracted by your fighting prowess,” the players don’t really need to even know that I rolled that 1, because it does force a flip-flop between mechanics and in-game thinking. The in-game description is enough. I’ll definitely remember this article next time I roll a crit, and try to refrain from cheering my die. Thanks.

    • The Id DM says:

      “Cheering my die.”

      Heh, that made me laugh. I was guilty of this last Friday when a monster landed a crit on a player. The vibe for the night was a bit goofy so it somewhat fit with the theme, but I need to practice what I preach in the future!

  8. Pingback: Role for Initiative | The Id DM

  9. Wayne says:

    Great article!

    One thing to keep in mind is some minor degrees of math fixing, based on your encounter composition…

    For example – an enemy soldier at party level +2 will have party level +9 to hit. Compared with the average striker’s AC of level +14 this means that with flanking, the soldier hits on an 4.
    In other words – your level 12 ranger should have about 26AC, and the (level 14) soldier should have +21 to hit (+23 with flanking).
    You are hitting your strikers on a roll of a 3.

    If your defender is up to par, his Ac is level +18/19, so 30 at level 12.
    With flanking, the enemy soldier is hitting your tank on a 7.

    For a party of 5, a level 12 encounter budget is 3500XP.
    A level 14 soldier is 1000XP, so you still have 2500 XP to toss around..
    Try 2x level 12 skirmishers (2×700=1400), and 6x minions (8×175=1050), for a total of 3450XP – *perfectly* balanced, and you have lots of opportunity to get people into flanks.

    It’s hard to blame your dice when you are hitting on rolls of 3 and 4. :D

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