When players fail plot related checks in DnD it can completely destroy your campaign. That is why you need to have a plan for when/if that happens.
When players fail plot related checks in DnD you have a few options. You can use the ‘yes but’ technique, have another chance, or do something else.
There are a few scenarios where it is a big deal for players to fail checks. That is why we will first go over what checks can ruin your game if players fail them, and what to do.
There are only a few scenarios when players fail plot related checks in DnD that will destroy your game. Here is a short list of the times when a failed check can destroy your game.
- In a mystery.
- In a chase.
These are the 3 times when checks can destroy your game. They are broad, but the consequences can be dire.
For TPKs, it is very apparent where the failed check happens. Or so it seems. There are ways to minimize the damage of a failed check like with TPKs, but what about mysteries?
If a player fails the check to find that last piece of evidence, what are they going to do? Go full murder hobo and destroy the game? This might be the only real idea that comes to them. This is disastrous for a murder mystery and it was all because of a roll!
Lastly, chases or important plot quick time events can be dire when a player fails them. For example, a player has a bad night and fails the stealth roll. Then they fail the athletics to climb away, and finally they fail the last ditch effort roll that you gave them to get away.
These disaster scenarios are almost all caused by rolls, and there are still more unforeseen scenarios that can come about from just 1 bad night rolling, or even just 1 bad roll!
You do not want to minimize the effects of failing these rolls. If you do, that means that the players’ rolls don’t really matter and their choices might not even matter, so we don’t want to go down that path. All fails should fail, but what can you do about it?
The ‘yes but’ rule
when players fail plot related checks in DnD it might seem like the game is over, but this one rule can save you.
The ‘yes but’ rule is where something bad or good happens, but another event happens because of this.
This event could be something simple. The players fail to search the barn for clues, but see a farmer trying to stealthily look at the players. Now the players efforts aren’t in vain, and they have another lead that wasn’t there before due to their actions.
For a chase scene, the players may fail to catch the bad guy but instead find a piece of their clothing in the mad dash to escape. The players have scry, so you have given them another way to find the villain despite player failure.
The most classic use of the ‘yes but’ rule for TPKs is where they all technically died, but the villain saved them from death instead. Why? Well for a job of course! If these crazy people come at you and are extremely powerful, why not force them to complete a job for you under curse of death?
We will talk about each scenario a little bit more in-depth, but the rule has an important clause to it. If you use the ‘yes but’ rule, you are trying to not give another option while not invalidating the player’s previous efforts.
For example, if instead of giving the players a peeping farmer that is obviously suspicious, you just make them roll again that is not a good use of the ‘yes but’ rule. At this point, the players just need to keep rolling until the succeed which begs the question, what is the point of rolling or the players failing?
We never want to make the players believe they have lost their agency, so you need to use the ‘yes but’ rule correctly! There are other options that you can use to keep your game going.
3 clue rule
We talk about the 3 clue rule a lot more in our article on mysteries, but in short you want to have 3 separate options for each stage of the mystery. The order of arrival is irrelevant, and you give the players 3 separate options to fail on. Just in case they are incompetent, which is a likely scenario with players. That or you just didn’t plan well, which happens to everyone.
This makes it when players fail plot related checks in DnD to not stall out the game. Players are able to recover from that failure since they have other options, but the 3 clue rule doesn’t just have to be applied to mysteries.
The 3 clue rule can be applied to important plot points as well. Let’s take that chase scene for example. The player fails to catch the villain, but sees that there are passerbys and that the ground is muddy. A chasing player now has a choice to ask people or use their survival skill to track.
The 3 clue rule is something that you can use if the players are likely to fail, and will let players try out different skills if you planned it well enough. The 3 clue rule also is meant to be pre-planned, while the ‘yes but’ rule is an immediate impromptu option. Both can be used in the moment or preped, but it is generally much easier to on the fly lean on the ‘yes but’ rule while in prepping favor the 3 clue rule.
But is there a limit to how often you can use these rules?
If you use the 3 clue rule and the the ‘yes but’ rule, you should be fine in most scenarios. You are planning to use the 3 clue rule and give your players a lot of options, or use the ‘yes but’ rule when things go south. The problem is when players fail plot related checks in DnD too many times in a campaign.
This varies from player to player, but if players start to notice that everything they do has another option after it, then you have used these rules too much. This is even worse with rolls like a TPK.
If you have had a TPK, we have an article about TPKS here. Trying to stop a TPK is extremely tricky. If you use the ‘yes but’ method to have the villains save the players, that will only work once a campaign or even once a group. So that really limits your options on what to do when players fail plot related checks in DnD.
The same problem can occur when players anger a political group and need to find another faction, or any other weird scenario that comes up. This is why even though you have the tools to have a little bit of damage control in your games, you can’t just rely upon them.
You will need to work on making these problems not come up so often that your players will expect the ‘yes but’ scenario. If they do, you have not grown as a DM and even if you have 10 different rules, your players will eventually learn that their agency means nothing. Now, you need to learn how to prevent these setups from even happening!
Dm growth and critical role prevention
When players fail plot related checks in DnD it should not end the game, but it can. We have gone over quite a few examples, and what to do when you encounter these situations. Instead of just panicking 6x in a campaign, why not figure out how to prevent these issues from ever happening in the first place?
Instead of getting to these situations, there are some warning signs:
- Previous rolls are going badly.
- Precarious plans.
- Tunnel vision.
If the rolls are going badly for the night, you can plan upon them continuing to do so. In these situations, try to tweak your pre-planned or developing scenarios. Try to give the player a way to not roll when able, or give some sort of advantage.
If a player is trying to run after the villain, you can make it so that the rain is too heavy and the villain is slipping too much. Now the villain might face a player 1v1, but it is better than making them roll a skill check and failing. If the villain isn’t going to just face the villain, make them wear terrible shoes and give the player advantage to a chase.
For these scenarios, set them up before hand. Talk about how the villain is in fashionable, but not really useful shoes. Make sure the players understand that it is raining for a while, and don’t let any of these pre-planned bonuses be a surprise.
If players are making intelligent plans like ‘we go in, and HIT IT TILL IT DIES!!!’ You might be in for some trouble. The players will all die when players fail plot related checks in DnD like a saving throw, or even an attack.
The problem with these scenarios is that it feels like the players just failed in the moment, but to you the failure was obvious. It was right in the planning stages. The players failed right away when they wanted to run in and fight a medusa till it dies.
Simple plans like ‘hit it till it dies’ are not always wrong. It can work well for mindless beasts, but when you hear about planning with this much intelligence you NEED to be ready. The check was already made before hand, and it wasn’t a dice roll. So should you make it easier for these types of plans?
Do not make the scenarios easier. The players will not grow and they will be rewarded for terrible plans. This can only be bad for planning, roleplay, and for future plots. The players need to suffer the consequences of their actions, but that doesn’t mean they have to die for it.
The world is pretty vast after all, so why not make precautions? One of my favorite precautions is that the players might be ‘saved’ or stabilized by another adventuring group who gets all of the player’s loot. It is a harsh lesson, but lets them potentially gain allies and learn more about the world. The other adventuring party could even chastise the party and say that they went in because the party seemed so reckless. The NPCs didn’t want the players to die needlessly.
This story was completely believable and within the realm of possibility for the world. Make sure that your safety net is thought out, not a deus ex machina, and possibly foreshadowed. Let your players fail. Let them deal with the consequences of their actions, but don’t kill them or end the game if possible.
The players will roll to investigate and that is all. If they fail, the game ends. If they succeed, they win! This is the most difficult way of dealing with when players fail plot related checks in DnD. The players minds are set on 1 task, and they will not think outside of the box, or even consider going off the road!
For these issues, the easiest way to fix tunnel vision is to help your players think of something else. Ask them what they are going to do about the people watching them. Clarify that they are rolling for athletics instead of acrobatics. If they are asking why you wanted to clarify, make up some weird idea of you thinking they wanted to jump over boxes.
All you need to do is get your players to think outside of the box when they are tunnel visioning on 1 course of action. Make them think of anything else so that they can come up with their own plan. Even though you asked if they want to jump over boxes, be ready for them to try to throw the boxes full of flour. They then might want to track the villain afterward, but any new idea is on them.
This is a pandora’s box since you are trying to get the player’s to think, but that is the joy of DnD. Making a story with your friends and having them interact with the environment that you set up. Just try to grow that spark of creativity and you will not have to worry about when players fail plot related checks in DnD. They will make up a new idea to not let that be the only roll that matters.
It is tough to deal with when players fail plot related checks in DnD. You might feel that the game is at an end, but we have a few different rules to help you continue the game.
We have given you the ‘yes but’ rule along with the 3 clue rule to help you deal with damage control. These are great tools, and can help in almost any scenario but alas they are not enough. You need to work on making sure these situations don’t keep happening, and for that we have the 3 ways to help you grow as a DM and prevent players failing plot related checks in DnD from ever happening!
These preventions boil down to tunnel vision, precarious plans, and bad rolls. All of these are foreseeable giant red flags. When you see them, you are able to adjust your game and pre-plan for things to go wrong. All of them involve making your players think bigger, but it is hard to do. That is why we have given different methods for each prevention that should help you out.
I hope that we have helped you deal with when players fail plot related checks in DnD. It is a terrible thing when the game comes to a halt over 1 check, and this shouldn’t be that big of a deal with these tips.
This has been wizo and until next time keep rolling!