I Love It When A Plan Falls Apart: Critical Failure in Savage Worlds

Let’s just get this out of the way: everyone likes to win.  Whether you’re on the soccer pitch, knee-deep in a Halo multiplayer match, or rolling the dice in a tabletop session, we all play to win, and we all want to come out on top.

But that doesn’t always happen, does it?  We don’t win every soccer game.  There’s always someone in Halo with a better K/D.  And sometimes — perhaps more often than you’d anticipate — the dice don’t work in your favour.  That’s life, and that’s also Savage Worlds.  Savage Worlds Adventure Edition (SWADE) has two failure conditions: what I’ll call “soft” failure (missing the Target Number), and critical failure: rolling a 1 on both your trait die and Wild Die at the same time.  The use of critical failure is often a huge and thorny point of contention in tabletop communities, but it’s something that’s baked into SWADE…and as a player, I’ve learned to stop fearing it.  It can even be, dare I say it, fun.

First, let’s take a look at failure in Savage Worlds in general.  Due to edges that provide free rerolls on specific traits, and the existence of bennies (which I explain the function and economy of in more detail here), soft failure is not something you have to live with unless you either a) are out of bennies or b) choose to let the failure stand.  The standard Target Number for trait checks is a 4, and while rolling a 3 and keeping it due to choice or circumstance won’t get you quite the result you were hoping for, it won’t cause you any serious trouble either.  However, if you come up snake eyes —  with a 1 on both your trait die and Wild Die — that is called a critical failure, and according to the rules of Savage Worlds, you are stuck with it.  Critical failures cannot be rerolled, which also adds an extra layer of risk and reward to taking advantage of rerolls or fishing for a raise.  A critical failure incurred while chasing a raise has happened at our table on more than one occasion.  So with soft failure being largely avoidable, it makes perfect sense to me that there should be one failure condition you can’t roll your way out of.  

But even in that case, failure isn’t the end.  Or at least, it shouldn’t be.  At our table, Phillip treats critical failures as just another storytelling device.  They never bring the story screeching to a halt; rather, they are used to move it forward in ways none of us including him expect. In a recent episode of Mourners of Lhazaar, a critical failure — on a roll Kevin had a Joker for, no less — changed a Dramatic Task that was going very well and basically resolved to one in which 3/4 of the party wound up in the sea during a nasty winter squall as Michael and I made decisions on how our characters would respond to the outcome of that failure. There were also more than a few memorable critical failures in our last campaign, Seekers of the Ashen Crown.  There was the time that two PCs simultaneously critically failed their stealth rolls to sneak out of a city in which they were wanted for a crime they didn’t commit, resulting in an encounter with the guards that tested the players ingenuity as one of them used a bennie to help him create an environmental hazard that ultimately won the day in a non-lethal fashion.  A few sessions before that, an enemy critically failed a roll that resulted in them failing to steal a piece of the Ashen Crown from us, which wound up shaping the endgame significantly as we played cat and mouse keeping that final artifact out of the archvillain’s hands and found ourselves in a very different position than we would have been had we lost that item.

One of the main arguments I have seen against using critical failure rules in tabletop gaming is the loss of player agency, and that the players wind up feeling like incompetent fools.  My response to that is, it is largely the GMs responsibility to prevent that from happening.  As I wrote above, Phillip uses our bad dice rolls to present us with new problems to solve, and solving those problems is an incredible use of agency as well a great feeling.  Looking back again at Seekers of the Ashen Crown, there was a turning point in which the party was ambushed and betrayed in the middle of a crowded marketplace.  As we tried to make heads or tails of the aftermath, with the guards beginning to close in and seeing that it was time to run, Aruget (played by Ernesto) badly wanted to put out a fire that we’d accidentally started in one of the tents during the fray.  Phillip called for an Athletics roll, and the result was double 1s.  He then narrated that in the process of attempting to put the fire out, Aruget accidentally fanned sparks and hot ash to the tent beside it, spreading the flames and making things worse.  But, like I said, critical failures should be as much about moving the story forward as successes are, and another player seized this as an opportunity to spend a bennie to alter the scene.  With Phillip’s blessing, he declared that the second tent held a crate of fireworks…and the ensuing chaos made for an interesting getaway.

Continuing on the subject of critical failure and player agency, Phillip also regularly encourages and invites us to narrate our own critical failures.  He will often ask us what we think those failures look like, and as long as it doesn’t completely fly in the face of the rules, established in-game canon, or general reason, the outcome we provide is the outcome that stands.  It’s a fantastic way of helping us own and embrace failure just as much as success, and understanding it as an important storytelling device rather than viewing it as an annoyance or a punishment.

That is another thing I often see pop up in discussions of using critical failure in tabletop games: far too many GMs seem to use it as something very punishing.  If you’ve spent much time in online TTRPG spaces, you’ve probably heard and possibly even personally experienced stories of critical failure resulting in scenarios such as a fighter randomly throwing his sword across the room, stabbing himself in the foot, or even worse, seriously injuring or killing an ally.  I’m going to be very blunt here: that is lazy GMing.  A dice roll being extreme doesn’t mean that the outcome of that roll has to be extreme, and there is no good reason for failure to not be just as creative, interesting, and engaging as success.  One of the best things for me as a player is having a new problem for the party to solve together.  In my above example of Aruget and the fire, had Phillip narrated his critical failure as “you trip and fall into the fire, roll too see how much damage you take” that would have brought things to a screeching halt.  It would have in no way advanced the story or contributed to the scene, and it would also have been a real slap in the face to Ernesto to declare that his character who was built both mechanically and flavour-wise around being incredibly athletic, sure-footed, and graceful suddenly — and for no good reason — tripped and fell into a fire.

The other elephant in the room when talking about critical failure in TTRPGs is probability.  This is something that comes up a lot with regards to D&D, being a d20 system, and the standard example tossed around of why not to use critical failures at the D&D table is that of the high-level fighter who gets multiple attacks per turn and whose chances of critical failure drastically increase while the character is supposed to be growing more powerful.  And that’s a valid concern, and I agree that no particular character should be unfairly subjected to critical failures, but I will also say this: critical failures in Savage Worlds are more common than you might think, because every character can (and at our table, regularly does) make multiple rolls on a single action due to situational edges and the use of bennies.  In 45 sessions of Seekers of the Ashen Crown, we had exactly three weeks in which no one rolled snake eyes.  That’s right: 98% of all sessions played of Seekers of the Ashen Crown contained at least one critical failure.  My point is this: I have about as much use for the odds as Han Solo does.  What matters to me isn’t statistics, but outcomes.  Give your players interesting outcomes for critical failures, and I’ll wager that your table will start viewing them in a better light.

Failure as a storytelling device that provokes characters into meaningful action is a concept much older than Savage Worlds, and regularly used in popular media to great effect.  Indiana Jones failing to properly guess the weight of the golden idol at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark gave us one of the most memorable film sequences of all time,  Ghostbusters just wouldn’t be the same had Ray been able to resist thinking about the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, and to paraphrase Michael Caine’s famous line from Batman Begins, the reason we fall is so that we can learn to pick ourselves up.  So players, take that failure, own it, and solve it.  GMs, give your players problems that they can solve, and let them flex their creative muscles to figure out how to make the best of a bad situation and maybe even come out better for it on the other side.  Failure, even critical failure, isn’t the end.  It’s just another step of the journey, and one I’ve learned to embrace.

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