Last week, I wrote about how to shower praise upon your players and make them feel like heroes at the end of a successful campaign. This week, we flip to the other side of the spectrum: utter defeat. As a DM, how do you recover from it? As a player, how can you use it to make your character more interesting and three-dimensional, or to propel your character’s personal story forward?
Let’s take a close look at three ways you can keep your campaign going despite the characters’ suffering a defeat. First is Failing Forward, in which the story still advances even though the characters lost—but perhaps not in the way they intended. Another method is Character-Affecting Failure, in which nothing directly happens to the overall plot as a result of failure, but it affects the mindset and actions of one or more characters. Lastly, some situations benefit from Failing Laterally, in which characters may lose opportunities as a result of failure, but equally enticing adventure options open up as a result of their failure.
But before we unpack any of these terms, we need to understand how the party can fail without dying. Since D&D has ample ways to bring dead characters back from the dead, death is often merely a speed bump once characters reach a certain level, not a real state of failure. A total party kill (TPK) is the quintessential Game Over scenario—a situation which I’ll be calling a “failure state” from here on out. But a TPK isn’t the only failure state in D&D, it’s just the most obvious because it’s directly supported by the game’s rules. All other failure states require the Dungeon Master to get more creative by integrating them into the story.
Creative Failure States
What other failure states are there beyond death? Well, what makes a good failure state? In my opinion, failure must occur because of the player characters’ actions or inaction. A failure that the characters had no chance of subverting is frustrating. Failure must have consequences for either the characters or something they care about; the characters and their players can’t simply shrug their shoulders at failure. In my experience, the best failure states must be surmountable; that’s the point of this article, after all. Allowing for failure and consequences without ending the campaign.
Some failure states beyond a TPK include:
- Time’s Up! The characters fail to defeat the villain before a time limit runs out. This could mean the villain completes a ritual, thus gaining immense power, causing a cataclysmic event, or summoning their demonic master. The villain then swats the characters away and retreats to wreak even greater havoc elsewhere.
- Escaped with the Goober. The villain got their hands on an artifact, an incriminating letter, or some other object of importance. Sometimes the characters needed the item for their own plan and the villain is denying them its use, or the villain needed it for their plan and the characters couldn’t stop them from getting it. The villain must ultimately elude capture for this failure state to be effective.
- Lost the Person of Interest. The crown prince was assassinated, the opera star with vital information was kidnapped, or the archmage was polymorphed into a toad before the characters could save them! While this failure state doesn’t involve death, it doesn’t involve the player characters themselves dying. Be careful using this one, as it can be frustrating to the players if they thought the vital NPC behaved in a stupid or unrealistic manner just so you could kill them off.
- Transported Away. The characters are whisked away from the scenario by powerful magic. This can overlap with Time’s Up, if the villain is trying to open a portal that teleports the characters away. But it can also be the case that the entire party is blasted by prismatic spray and the purple beam shifts several of them to random planes of existence. Then, simply reuniting can be an adventure in and of itself!
None of these failure states preclude the death of a player character. If the dice fall that way, then a character death can heighten the emotional intensity of these outcomes. If you have alternative failure states you’ve used in your own game, go ahead and share them with other DMs in the comments!
Now, how do you use these alternative methods of defeat to lead the party to new adventures?
“Failing forward” has been a business and self-help buzzword since the early 2000s, but it’s a great tool for your campaign, too. In this context, I define failing forward as giving the characters a way to advance the campaign’s story despite a defeat. This can happen in a number of ways, but it’s important that the characters survive their failure.
To fail forward from a party defeat, consider how the story could continue forward and also introduce a further complication for the player characters. For instance, if the party isn’t able to stop a cat burglar from fleeing the museum with an ancient idol, you now get to think of what that idol’s powers are, or what magic it could be used to empower. Perhaps the party learns the next day that the city guard found the thief’s trail… but when the party arrives, the thief is dead with a knife in his back and an evil sorcerer has taken the idol and set an ambush for the player characters. This way, the story continues, but the characters are at a disadvantage because someone else has superior tactics and information.
This concept can also be shrunk down to individual actions within the game to keep the session from grinding to a halt. For instance, if a burly half-orc paladin is trying to linebacker-tackle through a crumbling wall, but rolls a 3 on her Strength (Athletics) check. The DM could just force her to roll again, but the DM could instead opt to fail forward and turn it into a success with a consequence. She knocks down the wall, but the wall then falls on top of her and she takes 2d6 bludgeoning damage and is restrained until she can crawl out.
In episodic campaigns, the events of one session may not have much bearing on the next. Even in story-driven campaigns, individual sessions don’t always tie into the overarching story. West Marches-style campaigns with a constantly mutating cast are a prime example of this sort of game. It can be hard to “fail forward” in this sort of campaign, since each session is its own self-contained scenario. In this case, the constant variables are the characters.
In episodic TV shows like Star Trek, the glue that holds each disparate episode together are the characters. Modern showrunners have learned that it’s fun to see these characters learn and grow from episode to episode, just like characters in non-episodic narratives. If the party in an episodic D&D campaign fails in a way that doesn’t just TPK the party, the players and the DM can talk about what the consequences of that failure are for the characters. One character might remember the bitter taste of failure forever, and start developing perfectionist tendencies. One character might have lost a limb in the fight, and seeks out a magical prosthetic. A character that was nearly killed by a devil might decide to join a holy order and gain a level of paladin by the next game.
This sort of failing forward requires good communication between a campaign’s players and its DM, so be sure to touch base frequently to make sure everyone’s character is developing in a way that’s fun and interesting for them.
Well suited to an episodic game. The failure breaks the plot chain, but presents a chance to pursue a new plot chain. This sort of failure state requires a lot of flexibility on the part of the Dungeon Master, because it means being okay with letting your carefully planned plots disintegrate if the players get unlucky in an encounter. Not only that, it means having a few other nascent plot threads kicking around in your brain just in case you need to pull them out at a moment’s notice. Because of this, “failing laterally” is a good option for improvisational DMs, since this style of DMing requires one to always be able to conjure a new idea out of thin air.
Consider this example of failing laterally. The party is defeated, perhaps in a major boss encounter, or ingloriously while traveling through the wilderness. Maybe everyone is killed, or maybe some are killed and others are merely knocked out. Either way, when the party awakens, they discover that they have been taken captive by a group of occultists. These people recognized the heroes and went to great lengths to capture them alive, or pay up for the dead ones’ resurrection. They did so because they need great warriors to perform a task for them, like killing an angel, binding a demon, or slaying the leader of a rival cabal.
The players will discover that their failure had real consequences: the villain from the last plot thread has been successful. With the heroes defeated, their evil plan went off without a hitch. If they want to return to that plot thread and strike back against the victorious villain, they can certainly try—but they have another task at hand. A new plotline has temporarily superseded the previous one, and they have to either complete it or find a clever way of abandoning it if they want to return to their previous quest.
Adapting Failure for your Home Game
The topic of failure in RPGs is a complicated one, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for everyone. Some groups really enjoy just starting a new campaign if their characters die. It’s not my style, but it’s completely valid! If you want to learn more, start with Matt Colville’s video on Losing. I last watched this video after a campaign crisis I had about a year ago, and upon returned to this video after writing this article, I found that his thoughts had subconsciously influenced my own. Listen to his opening spiel… almost all of the examples he gave snuck into this article!
How do you handle failure in your game? Let me know in the comments!
James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and the Critical Role Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting, the DM of Worlds Apart, and a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and their feline adventurers Mei and Marzipan. You can usually find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.