One of the hardest things for both Players and GMs in any campaign is loss. Not just the actual loss or death of a character, but the players actively failing a scenario. This could manifest as something as massive as a total party kill or as simple as failing to save an NPC or solve a mystery. However big or small, failure can do massive damage to the motivation of the Players, both in regards to their movement in the game and even actually wanting to play again in real life.
A quick example from my recent experience (and this is not made to call that particular person out, but rather to provide a specific example to work from): In the campaign I am currently running, the Players are trying to prove the innocence of a large monster in a scenario that borrows largely from Frankenstein. In the process, they are investigating a handful of reported attacks from the creature and gathering evidence to support his innocence. As the campaign progressed, they eventually were called to stand trial and take the stand as private investigators, reporting their findings. Me being me, I decided to actually play the trial out in real time, calling them to the stand and going through direct and cross examination. The first day, one of the party members takes the stand and the cross examination calls attention to her, well….. rather immoral lifestyle choices. She otherwise holds herself well and delivers the facts at hand, providing a decent bit of information in support of the beast’s innocence for that particular reported “attack.” On day two of the trial, it was decided that a different member of the group should take the stand, as the town has begun swirling rumors of the first players heritage (she has large black, feathery wings….. it’s a fantasy game, lay off). The group selected a different player, and he reviewed their findings for the particular event that was the focus of the day. Once he took the stand, however, his wires got extremely crossed. He began in direct discussing thee wrong event (instead laying out findings from the investigation that was discussed the prior day). Once his lawyer got him back on rack, he omitted important details and overall lost track of where his testimony was supposed to go, ultimately hitting so many wrong points and missing so many right ones that the prosecution waived their right to cross examination.
It was, for lack of a better word, a total shit show.
They lost that day and the beast steps one bit closer to execution. Safe to say, the rest of the session was tense. You could feel everyone being generally discouraged and damaged by the loss. The player who experienced it first hand spent most of the rest of the evening quietly dissolved into his notes. As far as Pen and Paper games go, It was honestly one of the roughest moments in which I’ve been involved and I was once part of a game where a player freed himself from imprisonment by smuggling a screwdriver up his Mines of Moria, ifyaknowwhatImean.
So, where do we go from here? Honestly, it’s still to be seen. We haven’t played since that session, and I’m rolling around ideas on how to approach it. However, I can already tell that definite demoralization has occurred among the players inn regards to sitting down a playing again. That’s the power of a loss: Even one that doesn’t end in death can just make players want to leave the campaign altogether.
Thinking about it the past few weeks as I have, I feel there are three main ways as a GM to recover from loss.
1. Find an Alternative
2. Make the Failure Part of the Progress
3. Accept it and Drive on
For the first option, you literally just work out a different way the players could go about achieving their goal. Maybe they were sent to steal something from a noble, a painting or a small lockbox, that was being transported with the noble on their carriage. However, as they launched their plan, the nobleman fled to the city, where the guards promptly stopped the players from pursuing the target. Once the players regroup, maybe their benefactor for the quest can inform them that being startled, the Noble has chosen not to return to his home, but instead to hide at an anonymous safehouse. He can instruct the players to dig for information on where this safehouse is and the heist can begin anew. Essentially, you want to either make the quest happen again with some changes in response to the initial loss or allow the players a new goal or target in order to progress in the way they need.
The second option is to make the failure a part of the progress. This one takes some creative storytelling, but essentially amounts to having the Plan B exist in the world effected by the failure. So in the same Noble theft example from above, let’s say the group received this quest from a local thieves guild. Upon returning to the guild with news of the loss, the head of the guild kicks you out, refusing to provide you with the information you needed, perhaps of the location of a major magical site or dirt on a corrupt politician. As you’re leaving, someone lower on the totem pole stops you and lets you know that they’ve been thinking of leading a coup against their leader. Apparently, he’s been sending them on very odd missions always involving nobles and their cut of the take has been dwindling. He believes the guildmaster is working for someone else and keeping that information from them. Since your party is no longer in the guildmaster’s good graces, he wants to see if you’d like to aid in the overthrow and promises to provide you with whatever information or means he can. Herein, the players feel as though a new story element is presented BECAUSE of their failure and it softens the overall blow a bit.
The final option is to just keep on truckin’ and let the failure lie. Sometimes, there isn’t always another route to go. For my personal example of the court case, this is probably going to have to be the way I go. There isn’t really an option for an alternative or restructure of the events. And while this may leave the players still reeling from the initial hit of the failure, it’s okay. These games are not designed to be games where you fail and just scratch it out and try again. Videogames are that way, and it works for that medium, but that just isn’t what makes these tabletop RPG’s exciting. They promote creative thought and expansive thinking in order to solve problems. They are about adapting and growing to overcome challenges, and failure is one of those things to overcome. So we won’t get that court day back, fine, and yes that particular day was probably some of the best evidence the group acquired. But they’ll just have to do what they can to rise above and find a new avenue to free the Beast.
The one thing to remember is to be patient with your players. Depending on how harsh the loss was, it may take them a while to really feel motivated to play again. However, don’t let them become completely turned off from the campaign. Push to play again and talk to them about what went wrong and hint at ways to fix it. Be as positive as you can be. I absolutely despise negative or antagonistic GMs. Yes, your players failed, but don’t ridicule them and taunt them. This game is about playing together, not any sort of competition. So talk to them and pat them on the back. Get their spirits back up. The wonderful thing about these games is that there is always more to do.