What I learned from Dungeons and Dragons: a critical failure is success
So technically, I learned this while playing a game called “Champions.” Champions is a generic superhero game that allows players to make superheroes. You choose your characters power, spend a certain amount of points to get those powers and upgrade the powers as the game progresses.
One of the things that makes role-playing games like life is the idea of random chance. Because every good role-playing game has rules and dice so that the GM can’t just make the story up (even though GMs often do this regardless of the roll), there is an amount of random chance to every risky interaction. Players can’t just charm non-player characters as played by the GM and expect it to work every time. No matter how good an archer is he or she would not hit the target every time. Dice help to make the randomness neutral and unexpected.
What every player hopes to roll is a critical success. In D&D, that means rolling a 20 on a 20 sided die. It means that the action succeeded more than anyone could have thought. Not only did the archer hit the target, but he split his opponent’s arrow while it was still in the air and still hit the spot dead on. Everything just goes better with a critical success – potions become more effective, enemies give up or lose limbs, and thieves are extra sneaky.
What no player wants, unless an awesome GM is involved, is a critical failure. This is akin to falling on your sword on accident, having your bow break as you draw it back or tripping and spraining an ankle (lots of characters in horror films must make a critical failure roll as the monsters are chasing them through the woods).
In Champions, I had character named Dioxin. She got her calcium based powers because she drank so much milk directly from the carton. (This was back during the huge milk carton/dioxin scare.) She could suck the calcium from people’s bones; she could also heal the people by replacing the calcium. I don’t remember what she was doing, but I rolled a critical failure.
The GM of the game immediately said that instead of accomplishing whatever it was, Dioxin emitted and explosion of calcium chunks all around her. This gave me, the player, an opportunity to further develop her skills as she tried to control the explosion and make it something useful the next time. It also gave my character more depth. (Plus, the GM described it so awesomely and fluidly that he seemed to have planned for it.)
In Dioxin’s case, it wasn’t her successes that made her more interesting but her failures. I suspect that the most interesting people in the world are the ones who have overcome failures to meet success.
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What I learned from D&D: academically speaking