When players fail in D&D it can be a minor failure, fail a quest, or completely destroy a campaign.
When players fail in D&D you need to not give them plot armor and let the game continue. This doesn’t matter if it is a failed quest, plot, or campaign.
Each failure is different and should be treated differently, but there are ways to avoid failure. We will first go over the ways to avoid failure and what to do in minor, quest level, and even campaign level failures.
While this is a damage control article, we can still plan on avoiding failure for the future.
When players fail in D&D, there are some tell tale signs.
- The players are confident or come up with a ridiculous plan.
- The players are doubling down.
- The players are not thinking about failure.
If your players are extremely confident about something, they are either going to destroy the game and make you fail at making a challenging encounter, or they are going to die.
This is the same for if they come up with a ridiculous plan. Sometimes, they will come up with a plan that is ‘just crazy enough to work!’ These plans most of the time do not work. When they do, they break the game and make your work go out the window. These are the stories that make D&D great at times, but it is rare to have them succeed.
If the players know this is a stupid idea or just don’t want to consider anything else, they are doubling down on their doomed idea. It doesn’t even need to be a plan! The players can just think that it is a good idea to kill a green dragon at level 3. It is dumb, but they are determined to do so or die trying.
In all of these instances, the players are not thinking about the possibility of failure. This leads to not fully considering the situation that they are in, becoming more cocky, and the cycle repeats.
If this cycle happens once, it already might kill your party. If this cycle repeats 2, 3, or even 4 more times your party is almost assured to die.
If you see this cycle start, then you need to do something about it as a DM or as a player!
Make it very clear that this is a bad idea. You don’t need to just tell them directly out of game that this is a bad idea, but you can have the party roll a knowledge or wisdom check and then tell them some new information.
Say that the new knowledge tells the player more about this creature and that they basically cannot defeat it. A wisdom roll will have a wise player like a cleric or druid realize that something is wrong. You don’t even need to say what, just tell them that they feel a sinking feeling in their stomach about this whole situation.
You have to do something to try and prevent the complete collapse of your party’s judgement.
For players, you should talk to everyone and tell them what you know. If you need to use metagame knowledge, then tell them a dragon is not something to be taken lightly. If you have a problem with metagaming, then I highly suggest reading our article on metagaming.
You have to do something and try to prevent the collapse of the game. If you try your best and the party does not listen, then it is likely the party will fail.
When players fail in D&D it can be intentional failure to spite the DM or just foolishness. Foolishness is prefferable to intentional failing since you can most likely prevent the failure.
For intentional failing, this is much more difficult to deal with. It is likely that problem players are in your group if they are intentionally causing failure. If so, check out our article on problem players. For other intentional failures, it might be to spite you as a DM.
If your players are intentionally failing or intentionally avoiding quest areas, then you need to take action.
For players who are intentionally failing while on a quest, they need to be talked to out of game. If it is a solo player who is causing the group grief, they are a problem player and should be treated as such. If the whole group is doing this, you should just leave and find another group. They do not respect you, and if they are laughing at you when everything falls apart you deserve to be in better company.
For players avoiding a quest, this is different.
If players intentionally are avoiding quests and using metagame knowledge. “That looks interesting. But we are going to avoid it because we know you want us to go there!” Your first need to ask yourself if you are railroading players. They might react this way out of rebellion if you railroad, so check our article to make sure it isn’t you.
If you are not the problem, then you need to figure out why they are avoiding quests. Players who avoid quests are not terrible players. It might make more sense from them on their end to avoid quests in-game. If this is the case, then you need to make quests more appealing and unavoidable.
Think about where the players are coming from and design quests and encounters based on the players. It is unreasonable to make a disaster happen in the distance and expect them to drop everything and go for that area.
There might be consequences for not helping. For example, if the players didn’t go out of their way to stop a terrible event from happening a villain might win and cause issues. Later, you can reveal that it was the players’ choice to let this villain lose and kill hundreds or thousands.
But what if your players are just dumb?
Players are not always trying to derail the campaign. Sometimes when players fail in D&D, it is because they just do not know better.
These players might not think that a dragon is powerful and just want to go after the dragon. In these cases, look to the avoiding failure section to try and help your players.
If you cannot avoid failure, then try to give your naive players a way out. They are new and don’t know many things. These players should deal with some consequences, but be prepared to help out your new players when they make a bad decision that might destroy the campaign.
Generally, the more information you give the better. Naive players do not have enough information to make a correct decision, and this might even apply to more experienced players. If experienced players don’t know the full situation, they might make a wrong call and end up screwing things up.
This is why when in doubt always give more information.
More information will let the players know what they are doing and might even stop them from being failing. If the players are informed about what is happening and why what they are doing might make their mission fail but decide to do it anyway, that is completely on them.
But do you stop them?
If you read the Naive section, you know that more information is better. When the players know what is happening, the risks, and likely hood of failure but decide to go ahead and do so anyways, you cannot stop them.
It may seem like a trainwreck to the DM. Everything is going bad and every player might die, but here is something that you have to understand.
Players are extremely creative and nothing is impossible.
You might think that 4 level 3 characters cannot kill a green dragon. Normally, you would be right. These, however, are players. Players can with creativity make an impossible situation possible.
This doesn’t mean that the players are guaranteed success in a crazy situation. Some might die, but they can win even when they shouldn’t. It is crazy, but players are amazing agents of chaos at times.
You do not want to give your players plot armor!
If your players have plot armor they will know. They cannot die, and everything will fall apart. Players will no longer take the game seriously and everything you have worked for will at best be a joke.
You might have to let them fail, and that is one of the hardest things to do. So what do you do when players fail in D&D?
Giving the players an out
If things get bad, there should be some way for players to escape. Set up before hand that another group was going after the same villain, and have them show up. Have the villain’s attention be drawn to something more pressing. Let a player make a pact with an entity who will spare them if they will just make a deal.
Giving the players an out should be something that is established in your story and believable. Deus ex machina is not good if it doesn’t make sense.
A god can literally come to save the party, and that can make sense in D&D. Not many clerics are high level, so why wouldn’t a god want to save his level 17 little goody two shoes? If god’s can intervene and it makes sense, you can do almost anything that makes sense in your game.
There are an incalculable amount of ways that you can give your players an out. You just have to find it. If this is troublesome to do in the moment, try to think of a way that the villain could be thwarted without the players’ actions, or of another group that hates the villain. Use past party connections, or something. Just give your players an out!
Continuing the story
The only time a game will actually end when players fail in D&D is from a TPK or when it is at the end of the campaign. Articles were linked for those scenarios, but most of the time this will not happen.
The world has not ended, and the players have failed. This just means that the villain actually won. Now, what happens when the villain wins? Does the land that the players were supposed to protect become a desolate waste? Will the villain leave the players alone?
Most likely, the villain will either hunt the players to death or be too powerful for the players to contend with.
If the villain is too powerful, you can always send your players on a redemption quest to find a way to enhance their powers. This is a great opportunity to progress the story and create character development.
In addition to this, the roles can be reversed. Instead of the players hunting the villain while he/she is trying to accomplish something grand, the villain is hunting the players while they are trying to gain something to overthrow the villain.
It is likely that if the players escaped, they will be the only possible threat to the villain. Living like wanted and hunted criminals could be a great story by itself, but now these ‘heroes’ are trying to find a way to stop what they failed to stop. Possibly to atone for their mistakes.
Failure is not the end, it just leads to new opportunities.
Only in fairy tales do the heroes always win. Most of the time D&D plays out like a warped fairy tale with brain dead monkeys somehow managing to save the day, but sometimes they fail.
We just talked about how the players can go through being hunted or try to find something to make this power gap not be too big to overcome.
By now you might have realized something. The story is still continuing.
Instead of making a standard story about how the heroes came and saved the day, your players will recall the time where they failed. What they did afterward will define their characters and if they manage to succeed in the end, the story will be even more powerful than it would have been otherwise.
D&D is a narrative woven by the DM and the players. It is not a book where the players can ‘fail’ at delivering the narrative. When players fail in D&D, they are not destroying the game (most of the time). Instead, they are presenting the opportunity to make something that very few groups actually make. A redemption story.
When players fail in D&D it can be a very bad thing. You see the signs, try to stop it, but the train wreck happens and everything goes south.
At times, players can surprise you. Other times, you can talk to your players and stop this insanity from continuing. Very rarely, your players will make such a big mistake that they will all die or end the campaign in failure.
This is their choice, and it is your groups story.
Consequences are necessary and needed to make the game meaningful, and plot armor is overrated.
You should give your players a way out that makes sense in the context of the world you have created, and you always need to remember.
Failure is not the end (most of the time). It is only the beginning to new opportunities.
These opportunities are likely to enhance your game in ways that you didn’t even consider, so let it play out and explore the new opportunities that player failure presents.
I hope that I helped you understand how to identify when, how, and what to do after players fail.
This has been Wizo and keep rolling!