As with everything else in existence, there is the right time and the wrong time for a critical failure.
The right time is when it makes something mundane interesting. If a critical failure sends your charging warrior careening straight into the dragon’s open mouth, that’s interesting. You’re not just swinging at it with an axe anymore – now you’re fighting for your life as it tries to swallow you down, wondering all the while when it’s going to remember to use its devastating fire breath. The wrong time, then, is when it makes something interesting mundane. That’s the most common result – you just didn’t hit, you’re still paralyzed, the spell didn’t work, the cool thing didn’t happen.
Except sometimes, sometimes, a truly wonderful failure occurs. A universal, game-changing mistake. A screw-up for the ages. An epic failure, in the most literal use of the word. This is a story of one of such failure, a failure involving mad science, a magical holy giant robot, and the potential death of billions (?) of sentient (?!) creatures (?!?), we don’t know, we didn’t check.
The game is Shadowrun.
If you don’t know Shadowrun, think: the cyberpunk future, except also with magic, and you’re all criminals. Monolithic megacorporations facing off against backyard wizards who learned their spells off of late-night infomercials. Down-and-out hackers siphoning information from corporate data-stores the size of literal countries. Back-alley cybernetic ninja warfare where one guy’s sword is alive and telling him to kill. The world is enormous, everything is dangerous, so learn how to protect yourself and find a way to get paid, except if it’s a dragon cutting the cheque.
Our story takes place at the end of a long string of jobs. Our group of shadowrunners, having undertaken an adventure that started with a simple bombing and ended with a long trek across redistributed borders and a tense deal with the worst kind of corporate asshole, was finally coming to a close. There was one last job: infiltrate a nuclear reactor that had been left on and abandoned and take out the awful monstrosity that had made its home inside. Said monstrosity was a Bug Spirit Queen, a malevolent admixture of human spellcaster and evil extradimensional insect spirit who had taken to investigating the runner group for potential successors and living in another runner’s backyard.
If left unchecked, she’d open a portal to the bug dimension, flood the world with ghost ants that liked to burrow into peoples’ souls and make themselves at home in there, and generally make the entire planet really itchy all the time. She had to go down. Also, the corporate asshole was paying us a lot.
The group was an eclectic one, a mix of technical expertise and magical power. Our hacker, Reg.Edit, was a quadriplegic decker with a bad attitude and the most absurdly well-armored scooter in the world. Our other tech-expert was Augmented Max, a barely post-teen rigger still living with Mom and Dad, with a habit of hiding complex spybots in adorable everyday items. Our artillery was Sam, a Native survivalist, gleeful purveyor of explosions, and secret dragon. Our utility mage was Hemlocke, a wage-mage in the process of breaking her chains with a taste for unethical magical research and mind control. Rounding out the party was Bloodhound, a gunbunny adept and drunken, dirty cop who took bribes and did runs to support his palliative octogenarian father. Together, we
fought were crime!
Given that this was the endgame of a prolonged campaign, we were calling in every favor from every single person who had even the most tangential relation to us. Also, given that we were infiltrating the hive of a species of extradimensional insects that ate your soul and, oh, also, was in the bowels of a still-active nuclear reactor, we were also taking our damn time to buy weapons, mount those weapons on vehicles, research spells, scout the area, find God, and establish a half-dozen contingency plans if we should happen to walk in there and immediately die. Specifically:
Reg.Edit and Max had stolen a mining drone. Specifically, they had hacked into and walked off with an enormous load-hauler drone meant for excavating tunnels, and were pouring every iota of their enthusiasm and intellect into making that thing indestructible. They deconstructed it, reconstructed it with more armor plates and a control throne, gave it crab claws, deconstructed it again to add more struts to support more armor and, eventually, drew on Max’s lapsed Jewish heritage to call in the local Kabbalah Rabbi/wizard and make the thing a legitimate Golem. When go-time came around, it was heavy, ready, and willing to do its duty for God and the heavily-protected atheist hacker safely entombed in its core.
Meanwhile, the magical side of the group was similarly hard at work. Specifically, Hemlocke had acquired a sample of FAB3. Fluorescing Astral Bacteria is, in its most basic form, a happy little microorganism that glows prettily when something astral passes through it – but the form that Hemlocke got was the bigger, nastier, hungrier version that went after spiritual beings and ate them gruesomely. Being the owner of a mad science laboratory, she set about making the thing worse – hungrier, faster-growing, locomotive, resistant to radiation, heat and as much else as she could think of, and also able to enter a dormant state to survive lack of food and whatever else could get past its formidable defenses. When it was time to get moving, she had a small crate of the worst plague mankind has ever known, which was happily loaded onto the golembot (with a crane, from a far distance). This we labeled the Nuclear Option. Visibly, with warning tape.
The actual infiltration was an aquatic one. The group suited up in rad suits and respirators, secured an entrance into the reactor, had a brief and worrying fight with giant mutant magic fish, and then we were in. We carefully skirted the edge of the reactor, and then ran smack into a cyberzombie that had been tromping around since God Knows How Long, waiting for intruders to macerate. If you don’t know, a cyberzombie is, or was once, a person loaded up with cybernetic augmentations far past the point when their spirit could recognize their body as their own, and kept alive through a regimen of psychotherapy and necromancy because war crimes produce the best gosh-darn soldiers you’ve ever seen. This one was ancient, but still apt to kill our intrepid runners at a moment’s notice, and only vulnerable to one thing – a nice talking-to, as its cybernetic programming had long run afoul of its lingering personality, and it could be and was trapped in a logic loop until it fell into a nice, permanent coma.
That done, onto the chambers of the Queen. There was a brief scuffle with some warrior spirits as we made our way up, but nothing too dangerous – not until we reached her mighty throne room and found her standing astride an enormous, gaping portal to the Bug Dimension with her entire deadly, clicking court present to watch her monologue.
In our defense, we let her get a good couple of sentences in before we decided to chuck the plague at her and run away.
Except… except… this was where the Hand of Fate intervened. This was where the gods were watching, and with inhuman caprice decided to act, because the golem was the one handling the crate and it goddamn botched the throw.
We watched, silent and still, as the crate stuffed full of hellishly virulent, literal-soul-eating plague sailed through the air, arced down, and fell. Right into the portal. Which gulped, once, as if swallowing, and then closed forever.
The Queen asked us what that was. We told her. We asked her where the portal went. She told us. We asked her what would happen. She didn’t know. No one knew.
So, to hell with it: the guns came out and we had ourselves a nice, big dust-up. Fire was sprayed, bullets launched, golems stomped around, and eventually the Queen wound up burnt, shot, stepped on and frowned at until she was no more. Then we turned the reactor off, left, called in the airstrikes, and went to the pub for a beer.
Later that night and several beers later, the group found itself discussing the particulars of what happened back in the reactor. Closest we could figure, there were two options: the first is that the crate failed to rupture upon entering the Bug Dimension, and the second is that it did. Being as the Bug Dimension was an actual spiritual plane of existence, an ineradicable plague that ate spirits would be a bit of a problem there. I mean, we could have opened a portal or astrally projected there to have a look around, but best case scenario was a dimension full of apocalyptic, soul-stealing insects, and the worst case was a dimension full of apocalyptic, infinite plague.
We elected to collect our paychecks, pay our tabs, and leave that problem to the next guy.
Every mechanic in a role-playing game is there, ideally, to allow something awesome to happen. Every spell, item, weapon, monster and fiddly little rule is present to allow the Game Master to come up with excellent problems for the players to solve in awesome ways. Even the objectively negative things – getting hurt, getting killed, failing at something you wanted to do – is present to make the story more interesting.
With the right measure of imagination, and the right timing from the Fates, even the worst failure can literally change the world.