I have a problem with success.
Chiefly, I have a problem with keeping a game entertaining when the PCs meet every challenge I toss their way and shrug them aside without ever once really feeling in danger. At first it’s wonderful – it means I’m designing challenges and opponents that the PCs can handle reliably. But when it turns the corner into routine because I’ve become so gunshy about handing them something too big to topple (because it’s my least favorite experience in a game), it means I’ve also failed at handing them challenges that actually feel fun. Because some challenge is fun, and fear of overdoing it can lead to underdoing it, which just becomes bland after a time.
Obviously the ideal solution is “design challenges that are just challenging enough,” but the whole point of random dice rolling is that you can’t predict when a given player or NPC will have a good or bad night. The best you can do is plan for the average, and even that isn’t ideal. If your players have trouble with a challenge or encounter when they’re rolling well, they’ll often feel like the challenge was unfair (and, numerically, it probably was). If they had trouble and were rolling poorly, they’ll feel jilted by the dice regardless of what you designed. It’s a lose-lose situation for everyone.
So if the only path to happiness is PC success, but success that feels too easy or automatic isn’t fun, how do you create the illusion of PCs being just inches above failure without risking their dice edging them over into frustration?
Simple: you separate failure from the dice.
I don’t mean fudging the numbers – useful as that can be as a last resort, I recommend never, ever relying on it as a strategy. I’m talking about instead creating an outer layer of success and failure that serves as backdrop for the PCs’ individual efforts, which are still governed by the dice.
The outer layer, the narrative, isn’t governed by dice or numbers but by the larger decisions the PCs make in the game. If they choose to let the bandits live, if they kill the evil scientist rather than let him continue his questionable experiments, if they wipe out the triad and move in to set up shop – all those decisions are narrative, and while the exact execution required to make them a reality is based on the dice and the numbers, the decision itself is purely player choice, unobstructed.
That same layer can be used to create a backdrop of adversity that the numbers can’t and aren’t expected to contend with or attempt to overcome. You start your players in the hole, narratively speaking, before anyone has to roll anything at all.
If the overall goal of the PCs in a given instance is to protect a town, let’s say, you have the town already be on fire when they arrive to protect it. If their goal is to get answers from someone important, they arrive to find the person dead and an assassin looming momentarily in the window before leading them on a frantic chase for the answers. By the time the PCs enter the situation, they’ve already failed in some sense, even if it wasn’t their fault (and it’s often very important that it not be their fault).
Now the dice-rolling begins. They have to evacuate the town or chase the assassin or stop the ship from self-destructing. Even if those challenges have been designed so that the PCs can reliably succeed, what they’re succeeding at is first digging themselves out of the hole the narrative put them in. Even if they catch the assassin, the person who they wanted answers from is still dead – they may end up with the journal the assassin was paid to steal and a less complete understanding of the situation. If they get everyone safely out of town, several buildings have still burned down and the townsfolk now need help with shelter or aren’t able to provide goods and services to the adventurers. The narrative was still reshaped by a ‘failure’ – something that can serve as spectacular fuel to motivate players forward – without anyone feeling frustrated or blaming it on the dice rather than the story itself.
Narrative failure is also a great way to grant a sense of danger to what the PCs are doing that no amount of twinking to the character sheet can help with. A ship about to self-destruct is going to take you with it, it isn’t going to roll damage dice that you might be able to sump (neither is the cold vacuum of space afterwards). Even if the immediate dangers (venting plasma, the pirates who started the self-destruct sequence, etc.) don’t manage to damage the PCs or make them feel endangered, the backdrop situation is there as a sort of narrative safety net to give the scenario the emotional boost it needs while still letting the GM feel confident that it won’t cross the line into frustrating failures on the numbers side of things, because you’ve separated the larger failure from the dice.