Describe Your Death For Us

When a character fails miserably at something during a game, who describes the failure? Is it the GM’s duty – NAYpleasure to chronicle the crunch of bones, the explosion of electronics, or the graceless fall from a great height? Are we figuratively rubbing our player’s faces in their own flubs? It’s fun for a storyteller to portray pratfalls, but shouldn’t we share that fun with the player who must suffer the slings and arrows of unkind dice?



If you want to see a Master of Gamemasters in action, you need to watch Obsidian Portal user tbug (also known as Dale) run his Paranoia game on the LoadingReadyRun Twitch channel (look for “Dice Friends” in their videos section). Even though we are focusing on one method of his, you can truly learn some excellent GMing techniques by watching him manage a game – he’s a pro.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Paranoia setting , it involves a hilariously dystopian society lorded over by an almost-all-knowing computer (treasonous!) who will kill anyone who isn’t following the mandatory-happiness guidelines it has chosen for the smiling, caste-divided citizens. Tbug’s players fail a lot. That’s part of the humor of the game because their jobs are randomly assigned to them by Friend Computer despite their actual skill set. It’s also why they have a six-pack of clones in case they die. How does he handle it? He let’s the players have some guided control over the descriptions of their failure.

If you watch the end of tbug’s first game (starting around 2:38:00), you will see the total party kill that is the climax of most games of Paranoia. Don’t fret – they have lots of spare clones left and the game does continue. What tbug does here is allow his players to be creative in describing their own deaths. He sets up the scene. They build on the mess and mistakes of the players before them, culminating in a circle of laughing gamers who are not at all upset that they have temporarily expired in front of a highly entertained audience. Why does this work so well?


Like all aspects of a roleplaying game, this is an example of shared storytelling. Both GM and players are participating in the work and the fun of coming up with “what happens next.” But it is up to the GM to set the expectations and the limits of the players’ contributions to the story and to build the confidence of those players so they are comfortable in their role as describers, when that time comes. A Master Gamemaster is teaching and training his players during the game so that everyone is on the same page by the end of the first session. Even experienced players like Dale’s need that direction.

Tbug teaches throughout his games in three ways – by giving examples of what he expects, by prompting responses, and by guiding. First, the examples. Our Master GM conducts the game until a point when it is time to roll dice. Then, he patiently and expertly explains to the players (and the audience) how to use the rules to do what they want to do. When they roll more failures than successes (which happens quite a lot in Paranoia), he illustrates how he wants them to describe those successes and failures – offering a model description of his own as an example.

Once he has established what he expects, he then starts prompting his players to come up with their own failure descriptions. In this part of the training, he is establishing the rhythm of the game. When you want to act, I call for a skill check, you roll the dice, I give a prompt, you give a description. This is a critical and often overlooked part of the first game. If your games feel slow or shaky during these action phases, it may be because you haven’t trained enough and players aren’t quite sure what is expected of them. The smooth rhythm of back-and-forth between player and GM isn’t there yet and may need reinforcement.

At first, tbug presents situations that lead to small failures with relatively small consequences. He is building up their confidence level, here (they are in front of a camera, both in-game and out, don’t forget). When they start to get the hang of describing their own successes and failures, he turns them loose and the fun/danger begins. But his job isn’t over yet – it now turns to guidance. Our Master GM still has to set the scene and describe things with plenty of detail to give the players the stage, props, and NPC’s they need to play. And whenever they seem to be having trouble with descriptions, he offers some little seeds of an idea or two to grease the gears of imagination. His motto is “of course you can do that” and he adapts easily to the dynamic narrative – a true artist of the game.


The best thing about players describing their own failures is that it takes the edge off. People get less upset at a string of bad rolls or poor choices if they’re at least in charge of how those screw-ups are portrayed. It re-empowers someone who is feeling powerless and it removes some of the ire that might be directed toward the GM. Even if your character has just perma-died, you at least get to go out in a blaze of creative glory. And the clever player might even be able to use that little bit of descriptive freedom to set up an advantage for her surviving companions – perhaps her embarrassing tumble into the fruit stand sets loose an avalanche of apples that now count as rough terrain for her foes. As long as this isn’t abused too much, it’s probably a fair karmic reward for failing.

Handing the illustrative reigns over also frees a few moments of time for the GM to flip through notes, Control-F the next monster, or grab that much-needed drink of water after doing the ancient wizard voice for the last forty-five minutes. Controlling the pace of the game means finding ways to sneak in these little breaks without breaking the flow of the session, and letting the players burn up a minute or two with their dying monologue is an excellent way to accomplish that.

So, don’t forget to write some teachable moments into your first games and look for opportunities to let those who botch have a moment of compensatory fun. If you’ve done it right, your players will actually look forward to failures and you will end up with a table like tbug’s – laughter and (mandatory) smiles all around.



Tbug runs The Only Actual Alpha Complex, a Dice Friends – Trouble in P4RA-DI5E Paranoia game on the LoadingReadyRun Twitch channel. They stream on Mondays from 8pm to 11pm EDT. They are two sessions into an eight session campaign and you should check them out live or watch their videos on demand!

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