Fail Forward!

Why did we come here? To roll dice, damn it! Skill checks are a really important part of playing an RPG. However, sometimes, the fear of failure in a critical situation can hinder players from taking the plunge and sending that d20 cascading across the table. So why haven’t we found a way to tweak this and take that fear away? Oh, would you look at that! Someone has!

While not a new idea, the Fail Forward mechanic in 13th Age really solidifies it as an “Indie” RPG by philosophy. The idea of this mechanic is that a character never really fails something, whether it be picking a lock or climbing a cliff face. Rather than outright not being able to do it, there’s an added complication upon your success.  As an example, instead of failing to pick the lock, they simply fail to do so quietly and alert whoever may be on the other side. Or instead of failing to climb the cliff face, some rocks fall backwards (and no, everyone does not die) and causes some (small) damage to your allies below. It keeps the story propelling forward in an interesting way that still reflects the die roll.

Me personally, it has been very hard for me to successfully implement this at the times it would be very appropriate. I feel like that has a lot to do with the whole “product of your environment” type of thinking. When I first started gaming, a failure was a failure, and it could only get worse from there. How do we train ourselves to make more use of this rule? Bad habits can be hard to break, not that this is strictly a bad habit, and it can certainly show in gaming situations. We’re always try to be quick to react in an effort to capture the flow of events in real time, not to get hung up on the narrative details. That’s the exact thing we need to spend time on though now and again, the narrative details! If you’re having trouble thinking of things on the fly, and this applies to anything you may encounter while gaming, don’t be afraid to enact the Take Five Act.

Being truthful, this concept is a legitimate thing and I just decided to give it a funny name. Essentially, this means that as a GM it’s okay to say, “Well, I got nothing and I need a second to think. Let’s take give minutes to get a drink or use the bathroom or whatever while I come up with something.” It’s totally okay to interrupt a game to provide an optimum experience for your players. On the other side of the coin, it can obviously become a hindrance if you do this for every fail forward attempt. A little bit of prep can go  along way in this situation.


                      Image credit to Looney DM

Coming up with some possible skill checks and thinking about repercussions for failure forward preemptively can make a world of difference in the flow of the game.  That said, the saying always goes that no encounter survives contact with the PC’s. We know this to be true, but it doesn’t hurt to at least try to be prepared.

And now we come to the question: Is failure forward always the answer? Simply put, no. You can’t possibly fail forward in all situations, it’s not always dramatically appropriate. A good example of this is combat. While a version of failing forward is built into 13th Age (i.e. miss damage), building upon that further is just impractical and gives the players a bit too much leeway. Conversely, if the player is trying to do something in combat that’s interesting and not just hitting stuff with a sword, depending on the act, it could be compromised. A rogue trying to sneak during combat, no fail forward because it doesn’t make sense. A fighter swinging from the chandelier to kick someone in the face, fail forward could work. Allow some debate to happen at the table between you and the character attempting to do something, two minds most often work better than one. Above all else, use common sense when trying to make this rule work, it’ll serve you well.


Then there’s the dreaded fumble. Fumbles are another exception to the fail forward rule, or at least at my table. A fumble is always a failure outright AND a bad thing happens. Fumbles are fun in the same way a typical fail forward is, at least in the sense that there’s an unexpected complication. Fumbles can be one of those ambiguous rules, however. Maybe you could play them as this is the only time the group fails forward, and all other failed skill checks are simply failures. Or maybe use fumbles as a double fail, single forward. In other words, you successfully do the thing but there’s two unexpected complications. Ultimately the situation is in your hands, but I love the good ol’ “you fail and you get screwed” sort of thinking, especially since it’s pretty much the only time I’m like that with my players.

What do you guys think about failing forward? Tweet at me, leave a comment, reach out on Facebook!

And as always…

Stay Metal \m/

3 Comments on “Fail Forward!

  1. Great article!

    I sometimes ask the player what went wrong: “You opened the lock, but something else happened you don’t like. What is it?”

    My players know “I don’t know” is a fine answer. I’ll come up with something. But often they come up with great ideas I wouldn’t have thought of myself. Like a trap going off that covers the lock-picker in a mixture of red dye and dire-goat urine. Everyone laughs, and I get to figure out how that plays out in the next encounters.

    Liked by 1 person

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