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Failing Forward

How do you feel about Fail Forward mechanics?

  • I like Fail Forward

    Votes: 74 47.4%
  • I dislike Fail Forward

    Votes: 25 16.0%
  • I do not care one way or the other

    Votes: 9 5.8%
  • I like it but only in certain situations

    Votes: 48 30.8%

  • Total voters
    156

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
I was curious how folks felt about this concept? I'm a fan.

Essentially, it's a mechanic, fairly common these days, which ensures that the game doesn't grind to a halt on a failed skill check. Instead of the task at hand failing and stopping the game, the task is successful but with an attached disadvantage.

So, if the way into a dungeon is to pick the lock, and failing to do so would mean the party could not continue, the lock gets picked but a trap is set off. Or something. That was a terrible example; don't use it as a basis for judging the concept!

Some people love this; some games adopt it whole-heartedly. Other people dislike it, saying that the players should just think their way around to another solution and that the GM should be able to handle that. I'm in the former group; I think it's very useful, and use it for travel in my own RPG design.

So what do you think?
 

Nagol

Unimportant
It is an essential technique for more narrative games, but some situations make more sense (either narratively or contextually) for a failure to force a regroup/reevaluation.
 

darjr

I crit!
When the game comes down to these stallable moments it can be a powerful tool and I've used it.

Though I would prefer the players try to figure something else out, and if I've been good I've provided for other ways or can think of them on the fly. Even within an unchanged fiction.

Like anything I think it can be overused and I think it works best if those failing consequences were already present in the game.
 

Mercule

Adventurer
I'm generally in favor of it, in theory, even if I don't always remember to practice it as a GM.

My only issue with it is that, sometimes, failure really is part of the deal. While I've never had a TPK and only a few actual PC fatalities, I absolutely despise playing where death or some equivalent (forced retirement, gone crazy, whatever) is impossible. I just find success to be unfulfilling when it's guaranteed.

Worth calling out: That's a far, far cry from saying that I like meat grinders or that death and despair should be boon companions.
 

Saelorn

Explorer
Essentially, it's a mechanic, fairly common these days, which ensures that the game doesn't grind to a halt on a failed skill check. Instead of the task at hand failing and stopping the game, the task is successful but with an attached disadvantage.
I think that it makes for a silly world, if outright failure is never a possibility. If you're testing whether someone can pick a lock, and there is no chance of failing to pick that lock, then the game mechanic is not providing a reasonable model of the activity.

A further consideration is that defining one direction as "forward" would imply that the GM is trying to direct the course of action of the player characters, which violates the GM's role as neutral arbiter. As the GM, I should not become attached to the outcome of any action. Whether they succeed or fail in opening that lock, either path is equally valid.

If you insist on meddling with the PCs and enforcing certain outcomes, there are subtler ways to do it. You could have the NPCs decide to use a cheaper lock, or a type of lock which one of the PCs is so familiar that no roll is necessary.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I generally like fail forward, though I'm not sure if you're describing what I'm used to considering "fail forward".

Specifically, "fail forward" is not, as I understand it, "Succeed, but at cost," as FATE games often put it. It is "Fail, but there is a pretty clear path to try something else." And, as such it isn't so much a mechanic, as a bit of advice for the GM to not have all progress in an adventure blocked by a failure.

For example - Say the PCs are exploring a tomb, hunting the BBEG, who is in his secret lair, behind a super-secret door. The players go through the dungeon, search for for secret doors, but they botch the roll, and fail to find it.

In "standard" play, this is basically a blocking issue. The PCs cannot continue forward unless they find that door. There's no clear path to moving forward. The PCs don't even really know where they failed, as they don't know for sure there was a door to begin with. All they know is they were told the BBEG was here, and they didn't find him. Oh, well...

In "fail forward" the PCs fail to find the secret door. Oops! So, shortly, a minion comes up from the area of the dungeon they have cleared, that should be empty. If they are smart enough to not kill the minion outright, the minion may be a source of information on where the BBEG is. The PCs still have a chance to find the enemy, even though they failed the basic way. Perhaps this will be a bit harder, or more complicated, as their guide is untrustworthy, or perhaps not.

In "succeed, but at cost," you find the door alright - just as the hairy troll steps out through it! In order to use that door, roll for initiative!

We might say that, "Succeed, but at cost" is one way to get a fail forward, but it is not the only way.
 

Balesir

Villager
I think part of good "failing forward" is picking out what mustn't be failed at. To take the original example, must the lock picking succeed, or must the party just get past that door? If it's the former then maybe some deus ex machina might be required, but if it's the latter then maybe the door has a mishap ("you were only supposed to blow the bloody door off!"...)

Given suitable "goal selection", though, I'm a fan.
 

Bedrockgames

Villager
I was curious how folks felt about this concept? I'm a fan.

Essentially, it's a mechanic, fairly common these days, which ensures that the game doesn't grind to a halt on a failed skill check. Instead of the task at hand failing and stopping the game, the task is successful but with an attached disadvantage.

So, if the way into a dungeon is to pick the lock, and failing to do so would mean the party could not continue, the lock gets picked but a trap is set off. Or something. That was a terrible example; don't use it as a basis for judging the concept!

Some people love this; some games adopt it whole-heartedly. Other people dislike it, saying that the players should just think their way around to another solution and that the GM should be able to handle that. I'm in the former group; I think it's very useful, and use it for travel in my own RPG design.

So what do you think?
I'm not a fan of it. But I also think games don't have to grind to a halt simply because of a failed skill roll. Life moves on, so the game can move on too. I get why some people like it, and if fail forward works for you, I say go for it. It is just something that always rubbed me the wrong way as a player.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I absolutely despise playing where death or some equivalent (forced retirement, gone crazy, whatever) is impossible. I just find success to be unfulfilling when it's guaranteed.
Well, "fail forward" is not usually applied to combat and character death. It is more usually applied to tasks or events the PCs have to get through to move onward in the adventure.
 
S

Sunseeker

Guest
I like failing forward, because I've played in a game or two where continuation, especially in a story-based game, hinges on a single roll of a single stat, if that roll fails the entire game stops. To me, that just seems inconceivably silly.
 

Bluenose

Adventurer
I like systems where there's a bit more nuance than Succeed with No Problems or Fail with No Recourse, and I also like it when there's a mechanic that lets me turn a failure into a success by accepting some sort of consequence. For rather obvious reasons I think it's a bad fit for D&D, which already has spells which ensure Success with No Problems in virtually all non-combat situations, to make skills less reliable and with more down-sides.
 

Jan van Leyden

Villager
Great in theory, but hard to implement in a covincing manner.

The hard task is to define a fail which triggers the situation.

In your example, Morrus, the party might have other ways to get through the door: the fighter may bash it down, the mage might have lots of different options. If any of these methods are still available and possible, the thief's failure to pick the lock doesn't mean a failure for the party's attempt to get past the door. The GM might wait for other approaches and not implement the fail forward.

But what if the players are unsuccessful in different ways or don't consider all the way the GM can think of? Say, the fighter unsuccessfully tries to bash the door down and the mage doesn't have the inspiration to use Gaseous Form to get to the other side and simply turn the key.

The GM still sees approaches to the problem, but the players don't. And now? Having the lock Deus-ex-machina-like open while the thief feels a prick in his finger?

Ideally one would use the fail forward mechanism on the party's last attempt at the task, but how would one notice this?
 
So what do you think?
It's a good tool for a DM to have in his toolbox. But it isn't, and shouldn't be, the only tool you have. Sometimes, a failure can just be a failure.

Essentially, it's a mechanic, fairly common these days, which ensures that the game doesn't grind to a halt on a failed skill check.
IME, most such instances are a failure of game design - the designer forgot to consider "but what if they fail?" It's no different from an adventure designed assuming the PCs will just fight their way through everything, without considering the possibility that they might at least try to talk.

So, if the way into a dungeon is to pick the lock, and failing to do so would mean the party could not continue, the lock gets picked but a trap is set off. Or something. That was a terrible example; don't use it as a basis for judging the concept!
Accepting your disclaimer about the quality of the example, it does show exactly the problem: basically, a barrier which must be passed and which can only be passed in one particular way is a bad idea.

Other people dislike it, saying that the players should just think their way around to another solution and that the GM should be able to handle that.
I'd go further than that - the GM (or adventure designer) should have at least considered alternative solutions when setting up the situation. I generally try to consider at least four broad approaches: brute force, negotiation, deception, or evasion. Obviously, not all apply in all cases - locked doors tend to be immune to deception (but you could still batter it down, pick the lock, or find another way in).
 

Jhaelen

Villager
Specifically, "fail forward" is not, as I understand it, "Succeed, but at cost," as FATE games often put it. It is "Fail, but there is a pretty clear path to try something else." And, as such it isn't so much a mechanic, as a bit of advice for the GM to not have all progress in an adventure blocked by a failure.
All right, that changes just about everything I was going to write.

As outlined by Morrus, 'fail forward' seems to be a concept to solve a problem that a well designed adventure presented by an experienced GM should never have. I simply don't design adventures in a way that they're grinding to a halt if a skill check doesn't succeed. If the players are at a loss how to continue with an adventure, there's always other things to do, other clues to follow. I realize it's a common problem of 'official' adventure modules, though.

Umbran's understanding, however, describes exactly why it's never a problem in my games, i.e. apparently I've already internalized the concept. Imho, it's a lot easier to avoid the problem when playing homebrew adventures in a homebrew setting because then the GM is basically omniscient and has (or should have) a very clear vision about the grand scheme of things. The 'worst' that can happen is if the players are trying a totally unexpected approach, catching the GM completely unprepared. But that's a different topic.
 

Mercule

Adventurer
Well, "fail forward" is not usually applied to combat and character death. It is more usually applied to tasks or events the PCs have to get through to move onward in the adventure.
Sorry for not being clear. I was trying to make a comparison, but it looks like my train of thought got derailed.

My point really is that it's sometimes appropriate to have a "game over" condition, including the ability to totally botch an adventure to the point of being unable to finish it. A TPK is simply the most dramatic and obvious such condition, even if "fail forward" doesn't usually apply to death. Even so, I do feel that it should be fairly obvious that the PCs have "failed" the adventure and it's over -- there's little more frustrating than spinning your wheels for an entire session for no good reason. Also, not every locked or secret door should be a game over situation -- that should be reserved for (relatively) obvious decision points, just like I'd inclined to fudge the dice more during a random encounter with orcs than I am during the climactic showdown with the dragon.

I'm not entirely sure whether the "typical" advocate for "fail forward" leaves room for truly being able to fail at an adventure/reaching your goals or if it's more a matter of just having to take the long way around. I'm fully on board with reducing frustration, meaningless dead-ends, and gear-grinding. I'm not okay with no chance of real failure, whether the failure is hard (TPK) or soft (you brought the king anchovies, that's a crime and you'll never convince him, now).
 
My point really is that it's sometimes appropriate to have a "game over" condition, including the ability to totally botch an adventure to the point of being unable to finish it. ... Even so, I do feel that it should be fairly obvious that the PCs have "failed" the adventure and it's over -- there's little more frustrating than spinning your wheels for an entire session for no good reason.
Yep, I agree. Both success and failure should have fairly obvious signs: the PCs win when they kill the dragon; they lose if the dragon wipes out the village instead. Otherwise, players being players, they're liable to hold on to a lost cause beyond all reason or enjoyment (and then blame the DM/the game for not being enjoyable).
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
I think that it makes for a silly world, if outright failure is never a possibility.
It doesn't create a world where failure is never a possibility. It creates one where a specific group of heroes played by some players continue forward in the narrative rather than stopping dead. Like in a movie. It doesn't apply to every task, or even to anybody but PCs.

I generally like fail forward, though I'm not sure if you're describing what I'm used to considering "fail forward".

Specifically, "fail forward" is not, as I understand it, "Succeed, but at cost," as FATE games often put it. It is "Fail, but there is a pretty clear path to try something else." And, as such it isn't so much a mechanic, as a bit of advice for the GM to not have all progress in an adventure blocked by a failure.
Yeah, that's a much better description than mine

I think part of good "failing forward" is picking out what mustn't be failed at. To take the original example, must the lock picking succeed, or must the party just get past that door? If it's the former then maybe some deus ex machina might be required, but if it's the latter then maybe the door has a mishap ("you were only supposed to blow the bloody door off!"...)
Well, I did say it was a terrible example!
 

Bedrockgames

Villager
It doesn't create a world where failure is never a possibility. It creates one where a specific group of heroes played by some players continue forward in the narrative rather than stopping dead. Like in a movie. It doesn't apply to every task, or even to anybody but PCs.
!

I think if your going for something that feels more like the flow of a movie that makes a lot of sense. My play style is a little different so I am curious if this is something you feel needs to be tied to the task resolution system itself or if you are okay with it simply being more on the GM end of things. So I guess if its part of the task resolution system something like attempting to find a particular book in a library on a skill roll might not result in the actual book but maybe a lead to another location where more information can be found. But if it isn't tied to the roll itself, the players fail the roll, but after further questioning of people in the area or after a successful roll looking for a lead, they might find out about the other location. Both would largely lead to the same place, but one isn't as baked into the system.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
so I am curious if this is something you feel needs to be tied to the task resolution system itself or if you are okay with it simply being more on the GM end of things.
I don't think the word "needs" goes anywhere near my thoughts on the subject. I think it's a useful tool with different implementations and I'n curious about folks' opinions on it. I can see both of those two suggested implementations.
 

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