GM Advice: The Price of Failure is…

Death is the ultimate punishment for failure, but a cunning and subtle (or merciful) GM can “reward” the PCs’ failure without wiping out the party!


I recently blogged about the variant rewards the PCs might receive in lieu of gold or magic. Thus it only seemed right and proper to take a look at the punishments a GM could employ instead of killing a PC or presiding over a TPK. While death is a vital part of the game, it is often rather permanent–which can suck if a player has run a PC for two years. Sometimes, other options exist:

  • Banishment: For truly heinous crimes or failure, the PCs could be banished from a city or kingdom. This is particularly bad if the PCs are banished from their home. However, their quest for forgiveness can be an excellent subplot in a campaign that could take years of game play to resolve.
  • Cursed: A powerful spellcaster may curse the PCs if they fail to complete their quest. Alternatively, a PC’s deity could be displeased with his conduct and require him to make amends. This curse could have actual game mechanic related penalties or could purely be a matter for role-playing and character development. The curse remains until the PC redeems himself.
  • Disfigurement: If a character suffers enough damage to die, kindly GM can instead determine he suffers some kind of permanent disfigurement. This could be a purely cosmetic disfigurement or one that has an impact on his abilities or mobility. Think carefully, before inflicting horrific injuries on a character. Sure, playing a one-legged dwarf can be fun (as I personally can attest) but make certain the player is on-board before proceeding.
  • Failed Quests Have Consequences: If the PCs fail a quest, it often means a villain’s scheme succeeds. Such successful plots could (and should)  affect the game world. Having the PCs experience these consequences is a great way for the GM to build depth to his game world and can even act as a catalyst for future adventures.
  • Fines or Confiscation of Property: PCs love their shiny treasure, so being fined for failure can be a harsh punishment. Leaving an adventure with less treasure than you went in with is not ideal, but it’s better than dying!
  • Imprisonment: The PCs could be imprisoned–perhaps for a certain amount of time or until they are sacrificed to some dark power. Alternatively, the PCs could go free once a hefty ransom has been paid. Rather than the end of the campaign, the party are thrust into a new and exciting position; they must escape! (If you are going to go down this route, it is best to also provide a means for the party to recover at least the lion’s share of their equipment).
  • Loss of Reputation: If the PCs run away, or publicly fail to help someone in need, their reputation can suffer. From being seen as defenders of the people, they can be tarnished with the brush of cowardice. Shopkeepers could refuse to serve them, or charge more for their services, while commoners could stop helping the party in fear of being associated with them.
  • Reoccurring Villain: If they fail to kill him, the PCs’ enemy likely escapes. Reoccurring villains can be a fun part of any campaign, if they not overdone. Such folk, have the advantage over a normal villain in upcoming encounters as they already know much of the PCs’ tactics and capabilities. (Also, PCs love to kill re-occurring villains!)

Help Fellow GMs!

Have your PCs suffered in other ways as a result of a failed adventure? Share their woes in the comments below and help GMs all over the world punish their PCs in new, inventive ways!


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Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

9 thoughts on “GM Advice: The Price of Failure is…”

  1. I had the displeasure of a TPK in a first or second edition AD&D game I was starting. first level characters, come into a room with 4 stirges in it. You know how thirsty they can be! (at least in the older versions.) So, they’d latch on, and suck a poor character dry as they flailed around with high THAC0s trying to hit the damn things. The only survivor was my girlfriend at the time, (now wife), who happened to be going out of the dungeon to get a cart for transport of the loot back to town. She gets back and sees the fat, bloated and sleeping stirges in the room, and the party dead on the floor. So we had to make all new characters for the crew and her character had quite the harrowing tale about her “First Group”.

    In a different campaign, we were all a loose group of town leaders/council, of a small Village after a huge plague had decimated the countryside about 200 years earlier. Civilization was finally coming around again, and we were trying to get trade agreements for local towns and such. A gypsy type group was traveling through with their caravan, and stopped in town. We were a bit suspicious, and when later that night, the old fortune teller looked like she was casting a spell of some sort. One of our characters, (mine?) ended up shooting her with an arrow. The next morning they did not seemed pleased to see us. The running joke in the campaign thereafter was “Sorry we shot your mom, (it was the leader’s mother, Doh!), or “So, um… were still going to have a trade agreement for when you return in spring?”

  2. After reading the Desert of Desolation series awhile back I was struck with how artificial the beginning was. The players are framed and sent to the desert with no chance to defend themselves. I couldn’t help put feel that it should be the result of the players failing. So I created a short “rescue the queen” adventure. The players would have to be super clever to succeed and failure results in being sent off to the desert!

    I have really embraced the idea that the players can fail sometimes. And it should be set up in the story as a plot device.

    1. Desert of Desolation is a poorly thought-out “political” series. It sounds artificial, well, because IT IS! I find it’s better just to assign the narrative, and just treat it as “One of your allies could use some assistance…so, here’s the idea.”

  3. I’ve done a few of these and it’s caused a few players to leave or be very upset with me because I didn’t just let them win.
    The curse I’ve had to use on a PC because he was chaotic dickish, killed a guy for xp (which I gave him 0 for), was very loud about it, then snuck away to let the rest of the party take the fall. Their deity was not pleased, but he was godless and didn’t care. When he got cursed, it was like dealing with a kid ready to throw a tantrum. The group disbanded not long after that.
    Good ideas, and I’ve used a few, but players are fickle.

  4. My PC’s in one campaign kept entering, partly clearing, and then fleeing from a drider besieged dwarven city. They then adventured else ware for a time and came back. The dwarves were all dead or enslaved and Driders were now totally in power in that city. Though the party did come back with a small army (they promised they would) it was hopelessly too late for the original denizens.

  5. All great for players 40+ those that are mature enough to accept “most” options as an alternative.Then again death can be merciful in some cases.I ALWAYS give the option of CHANCE at three times to get em off to the temple or some such.Then after that they deal with fate dealt to them for bad or worse.See this way be it a traveling healer, a God or some magical fountain can breath a sigh of relief back into the session the players are happy with.When you present this as a house rule its a fair one-three strikes and your out.

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