In tabletop gaming, most systems rely on rolling dice to get results for actions. If you want to swing a sword at something, you roll dice to see if you succeeded according to that game system’s rules, and if that roll succeeds, usually you make another roll to determine how much damage you did. There’s usually some target number you have to meet or exceed to succeed at your swing; if you don’t hit that number, you’ve failed to hit what you were swinging at. Most of the important stuff in most types of tabletop gaming is determined by dice-rolling. If you hadn’t noticed, the whole name of this blog–Roll to Disbelieve–comes from one quaint older game system’s rules where players are allowed to make a roll to see if their characters can break through an illusion to see what’s really happening.
But there’s failure, and then there’s critical failure, called a “botch” in many systems. A botched roll refers to a roll of the dice that ends so disastrously that you not only failed, but you failed hugely. Not only do you miss your sword-swing, but you accidentally drop your sword into the mud–or lodge the blade in a tree, or accidentally hurt yourself or a teammate somehow with it. The harder the task at hand and the less skilled your character is at performing that task, the easier it is to botch the roll, obviously; someone super-skilled may not botch often at all, but there’s just about always that minor little chance, as small as it can be sometimes, that a botch could conceivably happen. The very real possibility of botching puts teeth into the game and makes taking risks feel momentous indeed. As a game mechanic, the risk of failure and loss works marvelously to make situations ingame feel way more immediate. I’ve seen players take hours to figure out a course of action (and I’ve been in more than one of those hours-long clutches) before any dice even get picked up to roll because the group is sweating the risks so much.
Coming up with entertaining botch descriptions can be hugely fun for the person running the game, though many systems also include reference tables that the game-master (GM) can use to quickly describe those events. All that said, rolling a botch can be just horrifying for certain types of gamers. A botch isn’t just a failure; it’s a critical failure, one that could spell the end of the entire mission or destroy the entire plan. Some gamers are just scared to death of botches. And we’re going to talk about why today.
I remember the first time I ran into this terror. I was in a living room with a bunch of friends in Kansas and there was a guy there who we slowly realized, with dawning comprehension, was a total cheater. The first few dozen times, we could kinda excuse that Dirk always seemed to roll his dice on the end table next to himself instead of on the coffee table where the rest of us gathered. He always sat on that one particular couch–so he could roll on that one particular end table, where nobody but him could see what he rolled. He’d roll the dice and immediately declare the result and whisk them off the table back into his hand before anybody could see them. In fact, nobody got to see his dice results at all unless it was over something totally inconsequential that nobody’d even asked him to roll dice to determine–because he also had the nasty habit of rolling to see what his character (a total Mary Sue, incidentally, but you already guessed that, I’m sure) thought about some given situation–like if she liked mashed potatoes or was unhappy about the tavern bard’s singing. He got downright indignant at the idea that it was okay to just wing some things.
Slowly we began to notice that he sure did get a lot of critical successes (which are like critical failures except in the other direction: you not only hit what you were swinging at, but you hit the dragon’s one super-vulnerable spot and the beastie explodes) when nobody could see his dice, but when he let people see his dice, he seemed to get a perfectly normal range of results, with both low and high rolls like anybody’d get. The GM, who was admittedly very new to running games, challenged him sometimes to roll on the coffee table, but he’d always whine that it was just soooooo farrrrrr from the couch he liked best. I mean, it was a whole foot and a half away from the couch!
One day during a game I went to the bathroom just as a combat situation was cropping up. He wasn’t paying attention to me, so when I got out, I positioned myself near the end table behind him as he rolled. And as I had suspected, those dice were not displaying the numbers he claimed they were. I watched him make several of these false declarations before I sat back down in my normal place; he darted a glance at me in some concern but didn’t say a word or do anything differently afterward.
Now I had a problem. This guy was getting quite a few benefits for his cheating that the rest of us were not getting because we did not cheat. The cheating was definitely impacting the rest of the game and everybody else’s enjoyment of it–he was being downright insufferable about how awesomely perfect his character was and acting like it was such a huge imposition for him to “carry” the rest of our flawed carcasses around on his back because we sucked so bad at combat compared to his awesome perfect ninja Mary Sue (in a D&D setting, btw, that didn’t actually include ninjas at all; eventually we figured out he was trying to play Psylocke).
We knew that Dirk had a lot of personal issues. Even then I wasn’t mad at him. I’m still not. I recognized on some level that he was compensating for a lot of terrible things going on in his life with this sublimely-perfect character. So approaching the cheating would be tricky. I confronted the GM about it, in the end; I told her exactly what I’d seen, and asked her to find some way to rein him in. As a fellow GM, I considered that this situation was her responsibility; it was her house, her game, and her guest. When she chose not to address the problem at all, hoping it’d go away on its own, I began to be “too busy” to play on game night, and ultimately ended up dropping out of the group. It’s too bad it worked out that way; I’d quite been enjoying the game, but it was starting to be more hassle and irritation than it was fun thanks to the cheater.
Should I have said something myself? Maybe. But at the time I didn’t feel like it was my place. Would I have said something now? Yes, absolutely I would. I was a lot younger then and a lot more nervous about confrontation. Gaming nerds also had a real problem then–and it seems like little’s changed–with calling out destructive or maladaptive behavior in their midst. That tribal mentality made it hard to criticize someone who desperately needed it. It’s like we’d all spent our whole lives being ostracized and criticized, and now by golly we were going to band together no matter what. You could screw someone’s significant other, but you most certainly could not reject a fellow gaming nerd or come down on one. The tribe mattered more than anything else. Solidarity mattered more than anything else.
Does what I’m describing sound familiar at all? It should. It really should.
One good thing to come out of that whole fiasco though was that I began looking at why Dirk maybe was so terrified of failing a roll. I mean, it was just a roll–did his gorgeous perfect ninja scale the wall or not? Did she successfully swing her magic katana at the bad guy or miss? These were fairly small tests. But his ego couldn’t handle the idea of failing anything, anytime, in any way at all. Even small failures were too much to bear. And botches? Those were just unthinkable.
When I organized my next game, a nice informal Changeling 2nd Edition thing, I explicitly told my gamers that they were going to fail sometimes. I chose that system because botches are quite literally part of the fun of playing the game. It’s a cute concept–players take on the role of characters who have double lives, one as a normal “mundane” person in the real (modern) world, and the other as a fantastical creature out of legend–a Fae. These fantastical creatures could do magic and fairly harmless tricks, and their goal was to make the world a more interesting and fun place as well as to stop the dark forces trying to make the world less fun and interesting. To normal eyes, these Fae looked perfectly normal, but to Fae-touched eyes, their more fantastical “seeming” would become visible. I guess you could consider the game like a tabletop version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. (To those familiar with this game system, please be advised I’ll be vastly simplifying and rewording a few things for those who aren’t.)
The group had a couple of old-timers to tabletop, and a couple of folks who’d never gamed at all–a mix I like. I always like smaller games; 3-5 players is about as far as I’ve ever liked to GM. I brought them over for a weekend of character building and went over the setting with them, and I was very pleased with what they came up with. One character was a kickboxing instructor in her mundane life and a satyr in her Fae seeming. Another was a cranky gnome who ran an electronics repair shop; another still was a blue-skinned troll who worked as a bouncer at a very tough bar. One guy had a highborn elven knight who–huh, I’m suddenly not sure what he did by day. And then there was this guy named Brian’s character, a ten-year-old kid who could shapeshift into a tuxedo cat and categorically couldn’t tell the truth even when (not if) his life depended on it, which turned out to be distressingly often.
I warned every one of them that failure was part of this game, and they needed to be okay with that. Botches were crazy easy in this game system for new characters, and I rolled a few dozen times for them to see just how easy that could be. With wide eyes they all solemnly agreed to be up to no good, and we set off. It was an awesome six months or so, and if I hadn’t moved away we’d probably still be at it. I still laugh to imagine the stuff they did, especially Brian; those memories alone would be their own post. By the way, here is probably the only one I can tell without getting arrested: upon telling Brian privately via the time-honored “GM conference in the hall” method that his sniffing-around had turned up a couple of elven lovers in tabards and light rapiers wandering hand-in-hand in a park the group needed to visit, he ran back into my living room screaming “OH MY GOD, THERE’S 30 OF THEM! ARMORED KNIGHTS! THEY’RE ALL ARMED TO THE TEETH! RUN! THEY’RE COMING! THEY’RE PISSED! OH MY GOD!” while I tried not to die laughing and wondered whose bright idea it’d been to send a Pooka out to do their scouting in the first place. And they totally believed him even though this was like four months into the campaign. One day I’ll tell you about the “special box” he planted in the troll’s car, but that’s probably more than enough game chatter anyway for now.
But that’s the game that broke me of caring about botches. Now it’s almost funny to botch. Yes, it messes up the plan, but what plan ever survives an encounter with the enemy? There’s always some other way around the problem–or through it, or over it. It’s not like I want to botch or fail at all, but we’re all going to fail sometimes and learning to deal with that possibility–and eventuality–is part of our road to walk as human beings.
One thing I definitely see in religion is this same tendency to fear failure. Especially when you’ve got a culture that hinges on the idea that a living god is telling people what to do and how to do just about everything, failure can be simply devastating. Imagine it: you thought a god told you to open a pastry shop, or run for President, or to sue somebody, and you failed miserably. At this point you’ve got two options, don’t you? Either you heard that god wrong, or else that god meant for you to fail.
What on earth are we outsiders to make of it when there like three Presidential candidates all claiming that the one god they all say they worship told them each to run in 2012? Did he not tell the other Christians anything and they just totally mis-heard his voice? Or did he really tell more than one of them to run (much less all of them to do so)? When Biff said he heard our god telling us that we should move to Japan, or I heard the various things I thought our god was telling me that turned out to be similarly disastrous, what am I to think of this situation? Did we mis-hear? Or do something wrong in execution? Or–and this is the thing that cooked my noodle–were we actually deliberately set up to fail by this god?
Or–and this eventually occurred to me and cooked my noodle well past al dente–did this god not exist at all, which meant we were just bashing our brains out trying to figure out what this nonexistent being wanted? What if we were just making it up as we went along?
This was all stuff that bothered me hugely. Biff, not so much. He took it as a given that if he failed at something, it meant he’d done it wrong or mis-heard his god’s voice, but it never even occurred to him–and he certainly never entertained the idea once I began bringing it to his attention–that there wasn’t a voice at all or that if there was one, it didn’t necessarily give him tasks he’d succeed in completing as assigned. And meanwhile, he went through our remaining time together swathed in the gossamer assurance that of course I’d return to Christianity and of course I’d want to become a mother and of course it’d all go back to the way it was. His god had said so, you see.
That’s why prosperity gospel is so alluring, you know–it tells Christians that success, defined as “getting whatever it is you wanted,” equates to divine approval, while failure, defined as “not getting your way,” indicates divine disapproval. So anybody who looks very successful clearly is tight with Jesus, while anybody failing at anything is clearly being spanked by Jesus.
There’s been a lot of talk lately in our culture about something called an “entitlement mentality.” That’s when someone feels like he or she deserves some perk or break that isn’t deserved at all. We’ll talk about this idea more later on, most likely, because it’s a really important idea to unpack and deserves a little time of its own, but for now just know that I truly see a lot of Christians as thinking that they totally deserve good fortune and success in all endeavors because they are fighting the good fight, they’re following all the rules, and now the universe must bow down before them and give them whatever they want.
When there is no way to fail, then failure becomes terrifying. More and more parents are recognizing that children must be given opportunities to fail–that hovering “helicopter” parents may end up doing a lot more harm than good by coddling children and keeping them from learning how to handle losing, how to deal with frustration, and how to work out their own conflicts with other people.
When someone never learns the knack of failing gracefully, though, failure becomes more than just terrifying though; it becomes a huge threat to someone’s ego and self-image. I knew more than a few gamers–not so often on tabletop but rather online–who took it mega-personally when their characters didn’t win at something or suffered some loss. I witnessed more than a few meltdowns from entitled-thinking young gamers (it was always fairly young people, college-age or younger) freaking out over what seemed like relatively minor things. And if you think Christians are immune to this kind of thinking and melting down, think again.
I think that this pretense that Christians have that failure is not only unthinkable but absolutely impossible just does more harm than good in the end. It sets them up for failure, and I don’t think it’s a really healthy relationship with whatever their god is to treat him/her/it/them like a giant ATM that dispenses salvation and miracles if they just pray and do all the right things. Sometimes no matter what a Christian does to supplicate that being, failure still follows; pretending otherwise only fools Christians themselves. And I’ve seen a lot of ways to pretend otherwise, from fudging numbers (trufax: the last two mega-Christian managers I had both got fired doing this, and a third got burned on HELOC speculation in the housing bust) all the way to flat-out revising historical facts, which is what we’re seeing with fundagelicals now claiming they were behind the abolition of slavery in the United States all along. Exactly ZERO non-Christians (and sane Christians) are fooled, of course, but they’ll keep that up as long as it takes for us to quit asking about it.
Eventually I got adept at recognizing when someone held that kind of entitled thinking and learned to just avoid playing around them. You can’t really fix someone with those kind of issues (and it’s not a great idea even to want to try), and those meltdowns get really tedious. The most delightful gamers I ever played alongside were the folks who were completely okay with whatever the dice threw at them, the folks who could nimbly adjust to disappointment and figure out some other way to get their characters to the goal, the folks who knew deep down that nobody owed them anything and that whatever they got, they would have to get for themselves. I had to learn that too–because remember, I was a Christian too for a while so have a tendency to fear taking risks and dislike losing sometimes just like they tend to. It’s not like I’m any better. I had to learn to do all this much later than I suspect most other folks figure it out.
Losing gracefully is a knack just like anything else. We’re seeing some very ungraceful losing right now coming out of Christianity, and I can tell that a lot of it is likely because they were totally convinced that their god had told them they would win. That’s something they’ll have to get on their own, though. The rest of us have figured that stuff out already and we’re moving forward with or without them. They’re just going to have to learn to deal with losing sometimes.
And the only way you can learn to do all that is by rolling a botch from time to time in life’s great game. Don’t fear the botch: embrace it. Sometimes some really funny or neat stuff can happen as a result, and sometimes the new plan you’ll come up with is better than the old one anyway.
Incidentally, right before I moved away from Kansas, Dirk caught up with me and confronted me about that whole gaming thing from months ago, asking me if I’d quit because of “anything he might have done.” He caught me when I was tired and cranky from packing boxes, so I told him exactly why I’d quit that game. I guess he was finally ready to hear the truth, because we ended up crying a lot and hugging and made up with each other and went on our ways feeling like we’d found a resolution to that sore spot in ourselves. I wish it worked out that way every time.
(PS: If you’re a gamer, this is your cue to feel free to share any of your favorite stories on the topic of botches and failed rolls! I love hearing those stories.)