Picture a dimly lit basement in which a game master is reading a description.
“The hallway ends in a rotting door. Gaps in the wood allow you to catch a glimpse of a hyena shaped head. You can clearly hear the voice of the gnoll leader that you have been tracking addressing some of his minions.”
One of the players at the table jumps at the opportunity: “Sarnash isn’t even going to bother breaking the door down. I’m going to charge and swing my sword right through the door and into the gnoll!”
Although there may be no rule that addresses making such an attack specifically, the GM decides to let it happen anyway. He decides to add a few points onto the armor class of the gnoll to represent the resistance of the door and tells the player to go ahead and roll.
The player rolls a one.
And so ends a moment that could have been Awesome. Under a strict interpretation of the game rules, Sarnash may have failed to even break down the door. Or perhaps he tripped and is now laying sprawled out in the hallway. The gnolls have been alerted and combat follows. The PCs will probably win the fight, but the player playing Sarnash won’t come away from the victory feeling good about it. Not only will he likely be left thinking that his character is a clumsy oaf, but an opportunity for Awesome will have been missed.
Is this really the way things had to turn out? Sarnash isn’t a clumsy oaf. He’s Sarnash the Barbarian from the savage West Lands! He’s strong enough to bend iron bars! He’s been in combat countless times. He swings a mighty magic claymore that has cleaved the heads off a hundred orcs! This guy… tripped?
How about instead of having Sarnash trip, he instead cleaves the door in two? He still misses the gnoll, but he scares the hell out of everyone in the room and forces a surprise check.
I’m not saying that players should never fail. I’m suggesting that failure does not have to be humiliating. If the price of failure is too great, then players play conservatively and every game seems the same. Instead, let your players be as Awesome as the ideas they come up with. If a player comes up with an exciting move, find a way to make it work. If it doesn’t succeed, don’t punish the player for coming up with a good idea followed by a bad die roll. Make something awesome happen. If the roll succeeds, make something really Awesome happen.
The role of the GM should not be an adversarial one. He or she offers challenges to players, not to torment them, but to give them a chance to do incredible things. A GM can create the best adventure ever written, but if the players are unenthusiastic, the game will still be dull. A role playing game can be thought of as collaborative movie script writing. The game master brings the plot and the settings, and the players bring the action heroes. The goal of everyone, both players and the GM, is to create something Awesome.
The chance of failure still has to be part of any game, but failure need not be boring or demoralizing. Player characters should not die by some insignificant act of fate. If a player character must die, let it be a glorious act of self sacrifice. Let it be the kind of death that inspires monuments to be built. A role playing session’s highest success is when the players, even ones whose characters died, remember the game with a smile.
When folks make the time to game, they are there to get away from the mundane, so leave the mundane world behind. If a player comes up with a crazy idea, reward them. The fantasy world is where we can take risks without fear of consequences. Let all the outcomes be incredible.
Allow your players to be Awesome.