Setback Penalties

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Penalties that make players have to redo actions or routes in a game.

Players often have to repeat challenges in games until they succeed with them. However, failing some challenges can not only require that these need to be done again but also that other challenges that have already been completed need to be done again. The consequences of such challenges are called Setback Penalties.


Common examples of Setback Penalties are having one's game tokens moved backwards on a game board. Landing on the wrong spaces in Snakes and Ladders activates such penalties, while being "captured" by another player's token does it in Pachisi. In Monopoly it can happen due to the effects of drawn cards. These types of penalties exist also in Computer Games, e.g. failing to make jumps in either the Super Mario series or the Tomb Raider series doesn't necessarily kill players' characters but can instead force them to have to navigate certain parts of the game worlds again.

Dungeons & Dragons and some other Tabletop Roleplaying Games provide another type of Setback Penalties. In these, players often have the goal of raising the levels of their characters and game masters can apply Setback Penalties that undo progress that has been made concerning this.

Using the pattern

Setback Penalties are Penalties that undo progress players have made. This is in contrast with Energy Penalties and Life Penalties which can lead to Game Termination Penalties and Player Elimination, so Setback Penalties can be used when Penalties are wanted but without the risk of removing players from gameplay before game instances are ended.

The design of Setback Penalties typically relates to how the Penalties should relate to Levels and Movement that needs to be redone, as for example Snakes and Ladders and Pachisi shows. However, Setback Penalties can also be applies to Experience Points to remove progress made towards increasing Character levels. In most cases, the movement is simply done through Quick Travel.

Diegetic and Narration Aspects

Setback Penalties can break Diegetic Consistency since players may end up repeating certain actions or routes unreasonable amounts of time. If the setbacks aren't properly explained diegetically and a game's narration ignores the Setback Penalties (typically by assuming all challenges were succeeded on the first try), the pattern also breaks Temporal Consistency.


Since Setback Penalties effectively make goals more difficult (e.g. having to redo actions) it gives the goals if affects Dynamic Goal Characteristics. While Setback Penalties can provide Penalties while still avoiding Player Elimination, they instead can ruin players' Value of Effort. Setback Penalties can provide Tension, and more the greater the setback, but typically less so than other types of penalty categories, e.g. Energy Penalties.


Can Instantiate

Dynamic Goal Characteristics, Penalties, Tension

Can Modulate

Character levels, Experience Points, Levels, Movement

Can Be Instantiated By

Quick Travel

Can Be Modulated By


Possible Closure Effects


Potentially Conflicting With

Diegetic Consistency, Temporal Consistency, Value of Effort


New pattern created in this wiki. However it is based on the concept "Setback punishment" introduced by Juul[1].


  1. Juul, J. (2009). Fear of Failing? The Many Meanings of Difficulty in Video Games. In Perron, B. & Wolf, M.J.P. (eds.): The Video Game Theory Reader 2, 2009.