About the Interviewed: Max is a twenty year old college student at Pasadena City College studying Architecture and Fashion Design. His ethnic background is remotely Swedish, though his family has been in America for a couple generations.
My subject, Max, plays tabletop Role-Playing Games (RPGs) . He discussed a joke tradition with me among RPG gamers that I found quite humorous.
Max: “When you play D&D [Dungeons and Dragons, popular tabletop RPG] you get into a lot of situations where you get stuck and have to make a “Skill Check”. In a “Skill Check” you roll a die and check your result to see if you overcome the challenge. It’s a twenty sided die, a d20 for short. You roll your die, and the number you get determines the outcome. 20 is the best. If you roll a twenty, that’s called a critical success, a critical hit. That’s really good. But if you get a 1, if you get the lowest number, that’s bad. Really, bad. That’s called a Critical Failure. When you land one of those, something really bad has to happen.”
I ask what that is.
Max: “Critical Failure means that not only does the opposite of your goal happen, it happens so badly it screws you over. Players like to think of creative ways for the screwing to happen, but most times people just get silly.”
“For example”, he goes on:
“Let’s say your character is fighting a wizard. Like, an evil wizard. And he summons a rain of knives to fall upon you. You’d have to make a Dexterity Check [type of skill check] to see if you dodge. You roll the dice and OOP. You got a 1. So what happens?”
“You swallow a knife and it explodes. You die forever. Game over. (laughs) Your character may not actually die, he’d probably just get stabbed a little. But the joke is the same. You miss. Bad thing happens.”
“There’s a ton of examples of these. They just sort of come-up during games.”
A short time after this meeting, I met with my D&D group and asked them to come up with/ remember their best crit. fail stories. Here’s what I got:
1. You try to unlock a door
– You miss and the door unlocks you instead.
2. You try to slay a vicious goblin.
– You miss and stab yourself. Multiple times.
3. You scan the darkness to search for traps.
– The darkness sees you and gets very angry.
4. You try to climb a rope.
-The rope is now 500 snakes.
Players of the game “Dungeons and Dragons”, as well as similar RPGs have a tradition of jokes surrounding the concept of the “Critical Fail”, the worst outcome of a single dice-roll.
I find that a lot of these jokes take a form of dark comedy, which can reflect the overall mood of failing a crucial roll. Taking something serious and making it silly may seem trivial, but they’re a way that players enrich in the fun of the game. This is a trend that has been observable since the dawn of pen and paper RPG’s in the mid 1970’s.
You can find more of them here and here: