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The Importance of Failure

Posted By Kurt "Telas" Schneider On September 15, 2011 @ 2:08 am In GMing Advice | 5 Comments

Two students train at a martial arts school. One fights only students at or below his level, and has an excellent win-loss record. The other fights only students above his level, and has a terrible win-loss record.

Which one is learning faster?

- Overheard at a martial arts seminar

When was the last time you got out of your safe zone and tried something new? Were you any good at it? Did you learn from your mistakes pretty quickly, and get better? Or did you give up because you weren’t automatically excellent at it? (Or, as a geek, did you find a perfectly reasonable rationalization to never try that thing again?)

And why do we fall, Bruce? So we might learn to pick ourselves up.

- Thomas Wayne

If we are going to try new things, we need to recognize that failures are inevitable. Failure is not the end of the world; it’s an opportunity to analyze what worked, what didn’t, and why. Failure is a chance to learn, but we have to accept and analyze our failures, something many of us are not comfortable doing.

Stuck in a Rut?

Human beings are creatures of habit. We tend to play similar archetypes, or personality types. We tend to select the same genres or opponents or environments in our games. Walking the same path over and over can dig a rut. It’s a familiar rut of course, full of comfortable tropes and themes, but it’s still a rut.

Some ruts are deeper than others

Some ruts are bigger than others, of course…

Look over your last few sessions or campaigns. Do you notice any recurring themes or elements? In an interview, Monte Cook once confessed to overusing Ogres as opponents. Do you default to a certain kind of critter or opponent? Do they use the same tactics over and over?

Stepping Outside the Comfort Zone

Something as simple as an over-reliance on Ogres is easy to break, but some of us need a bit more. I’ll be running my first non-fantasy campaign shortly (1980s monster hunters), and can testify that it’s not easy to try something new.

Some advice:

  • Don’t jump right into something you’ve never done before; crawl before you walk before you run. Start small, with a one-shot in a different genre, or an adventure in a very different environment than you’re used to.
  • Ask for help. Find a mentor with some experience, and ask what works, and what doesn’t work. Learning from others’ mistakes is easier on the ego.
  • Ask for feedback from your players. Don’t just ask if everything was good, find out what they liked the most and what they liked the least. Use hypotheticals: “Would it be better if I xxxxx?” Don’t take “It was fine” as an answer.

But push yourself out of the ruts. It’s a big world out there, even bigger when you start looking at it with a gamer’s imagination.

Have you stepped out of your comfort zone recently? Was it as bad as you feared? Did you learn anything you’d care to share with the rest of us? Sound off in the comments and let us know!

About  Kurt "Telas" Schneider

Kurt Schneider played D&D in 1979 at summer camp, and was hooked. He lives with his wife, daughters, and dog in Austin TX, where he writes stuff, and tries to stay get fit. Look for his rants under the nom de web Telas or TelasTX. Quote: “A game is only as balanced – or as good – as the GM."




5 Comments (Open | Close)

5 Comments To "The Importance of Failure"

#1 Comment By Riklurt On September 15, 2011 @ 5:02 am

I have several players who are huge anime fans. I’m not; I’ve seen the odd anime, but I’m definitely no expert. Despite this, I have been persuaded to run an anime-styled game, and I learned something that really helped:

If your players are more experienced than you with a given genre, it can often be a good idea to check with them in advance, even if that spoils things. This helped greatly in my game – I would have an idea for a session, but I wasn’t always sure if it would work, and when I felt really uncertain, I simply asked.

For example:
“In next session, I was thinking of having your characters’ girlfriend discover that she has a strange new power. I was thinking of power X, but maybe power Y would be more suitable and interesting?”

My asking that question spoils some of the story (in the sense that the player now knows what will happen ahead of time), but the benefit often outweighs the loss: The player got a story that he felt was in line with the genre, and there was the added benefit that I didn’t have to stress over whether it would work or not because I already knew at least one player thought it would be fun. In addition, since i asked via e-mail, the other players could still enjoy the surprise.

So, in sum: Don’t be afraid of spoilers. Your players are looking for a certain kind of experience: It’s better not to surprise them, than to give them a surprise they won’t enjoy.

#2 Comment By Rafe On September 15, 2011 @ 9:58 am

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” – Samuel Beckett

This article is excellent timing for me, personally. I just left a fairly stable, go-in-work-then-leave gov’t job that required some expertise but no finesse. I left it to jump into a management role in a small design firm. Frightening but awesome. I’m sure to fail a lot and, in so doing, succeed and excel more here (and personally) than I ever could otherwise in my old staid job.

In gaming terms, in order to avoid stagnation and the “comfortable rut,” my friend and I started a pick-up-and-play tabletop roleplaying game club. You know all those games you have sitting on your shelves — games bought at cons or on sale — that you’ve never played? This is an excuse for a bunch of gamers (about 11 of us, I think) who don’t know one another to sit down and play different and unfamiliar games and experience various GM and play styles. Once a month, one of us hosts and GMs his choice of game to whoever in the larger group can make it. I can’t wait for the first game next week: Fiasco (if less than 5 people) or Paranoia (if 5+).

All this to say: Change may be good, but active pursuit of the New and Different is even better, especially in the face of the spectre of failure.

#3 Comment By Roxysteve On September 15, 2011 @ 10:19 am

About 18 months ago, after reading an article here about Savage Worlds, I decided to challenge my 35-year-long GMing preferences and began running a D20 Delta Green game (every facet of this decision had caused me long and painful introspection over the years as I was long of the opinion that much of what lies between the covers of both the D20 CofC rulebook and the DG sourcebook is the very opposite of what I hold to be canonical, desirable or useful.

I also began a love affair with Savage Worlds which is still working its way through the gears of my mind, but that is a story for a different thread.

The point being that I have to pretty much come up with everything for the DG game myself, and I’ve been using your “change-up and challenge” thesis (to steal and rebrand it) to determine the nature of the game episodes.

I try and change up the nature of the challenge each time so that the players can stretch their wings. A grid-heavy action adventure segment might be followed by a cerebral, virtually diceless one, which might precede a SAN-blasting cinematic horrorfest or a run-in with a particularly inventive enemy who must be finessed into retreat rather than confronted.

The reaction I get to this froofaraw makes the work needed to make it happen worthwhile, and I highly recommend it to others.

But more importantly, challenging my own preconceptions of what a given game milieu “should” be has shown me that perhaps half the problem for me with the material was my not allowing anyone else a foot in the door or a voice at the table when it came to “the” way to run a game and “the” canon.

I still hold my views, by the way. I just allow that other guys’ ideas are not automatically out-of-bounds to me if they contradict those views.

But I was a long time coming to that conclusion, and were the production values of the games of the last few years not now so much higher than the one I was clinging to tightly I would not have had the urge to look over the fence.

Perhaps, if certain rumors are true with respect to Call of Cthulhu’s next rules release, others might get shocked out of the rut sooner than I was. I hope so, because BRP Call of Cthulhu is still tentacles-down my absolute favorite game system, but now I’ve ever so many good ideas from other systems that I can incorporate into it to improve the in-game experience of the players, ideas that I feel guilty about having sole title to.

#4 Comment By Zig On September 15, 2011 @ 10:33 am

@Riklurt – Very good idea. Something I need to do better at. I tend to ask questions of, and bounce ideas off of, my players to discuss what I am thinking about for the new campaign. I want to make sure they like what kind of feel and flavor I am planning. Also it lets them tell me if they aren’t keen on an idea of mine and they can offer suggestions or even nix the entire thing — I’d rather do that and lose some prep work than run a game my players aren’t intrigued by and enjoying.

Though the one problem with this I’ve run into is that I have had a few players who are kind of shy in giving even constructive criticism. It takes a lot of work to get them to speak their minds. I believe a lot of that is they fear hurting my feelings or making me angry. Also they aren’t comfortable necessarily jumping in during a group discussion. Best I’ve come up with is talking with them privately and reassuring them I very much *wish* for them to give me honest feedback and that I’m a grown up who can handle it :)

I’m definitely going to try to involve my players more in things like you illustrated with your example of talking to a player about his character’s girlfriend’s new power.

Thank you!

#5 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On September 15, 2011 @ 10:16 pm

Thanks for the comments; as usual, y’all rock.

@Riklurt – My God, man! Asking your players what they want? Heresy!!!

Seriously, congrats for breaking that barrier. I have no idea why we GMs don’t just talk (and listen) to our players more often.

@Rafe – Congrats on the job jump. My time at a startup was hard, but some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever done.

Pick up and play… Damn, but that sounds like a challenge! Time to get off my lazy butt and play some of these shelf queens.

@Roxysteve – Comments like this drag me back out of the gutter to keep writing. Thanks! We’ll have to compare notes on Savage Worlds some day.

@Zig – Thanks to BishopOfBattle’s suggestion, I have an article in the works about getting feedback from your players.


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