"Failing Forward" For Dummies (That's You)

Fightin' words, I know, and I'm ready to bring the hammer. Straight out of the gate: fail forward is a big dumb meme that half of all gamers don't understand, either because they've heard some idiotic grapevine version of the concept or because they're cognitively deficient. I'm here to Thomsplain it to you.

It's a buzzword (buzzphrase?) at this point that people throw about. "Fail forward," duh, it's basic gaming lingo. Gamers literally be asking for systems that use "fail forward" mechanics when the entire concept is a style of GMing. Some games have failing forward written into their mechanics: Burning Wheel and its ilk, Apocalypse World, Fate, and so forth. However, you have the power to use failing forward in any game, including the OD&D.

What Failing Forward Is Not

Or why I'm writing this article.

Failing forward seems most misunderstood by gamers who have rarely, if ever, ventured beyond the bounds of the traditional RPG scene of games designed prior to the dissatisfying non-cataclysm of Y2K.

This dumbness is on full display with choice quotes such as:

It always seems pretty lame to me. If a situation leads to complications, it does - you don't need some half-arsed mechanics to tell you so.
IME 'fail forward' type mechanics sort of lead to a carnival of the absurd in the end, where in trying to adhere to the spirit of the rules, ever more weak or bizarre 'fail forwards' are made up.


The recurring top defense of this narrative device has overwhelmingly been "keeping the game moving forward". Lets look at that for a moment. That phrase implies a simple failure brings an entire group of thinking human beings who (presumeably) enjoy games of the imagination to a standstill. Why? Perhaps because after being spoonfed a couple decades worth of storygames being led around by the narrative, players aren't accustomed to ever needing to come up with a plan B. If the story is always set up to to allow plan A to muddle through, perhaps with consequences, there isn't a need. Can't get past a particular door? Leave it and do something else. This isn't rocket science. All this keeping the game moving forward nonsense only applies to hoop jumping railroad fests not games where the players control their own fates. Why does the game need to move forward along a particular path? Why can't the game continue on a divergent path, perhaps taken because of certain failures?

I wouldn't even bother engaging these individuals, given how reactionary and hostile they are to a concept outside of "simulationist mechanics that don't actually simulate anything." If that's your perspective, you're deliberately ignorant or just being an unreasonably grumbly grognard (and I'm all for grumbly grognardism in general).

One guy even dedicates an entire dumb-as-bricks blogpost to misunderstanding the concept:

When relying on fail forward, you'd instead rule something along the lines that the character actually does pick the lock, but she triggers a trap, guards show up/are waiting for her on the other side (replace with wandering monsters as needed), breaks her lockpicks, takes a really long time, and so on. Fail-forward proponents claim that by going this route you prevent the game from "grinding to a halt due to one bad roll", but the problem with this is two-fold.

Shut up.

Less egregious misunderstandings:

Another tool I reach for (and which I’m going to discuss today) is the idea of “Failing Forward” or “Succeeding at a Cost.” In it, when the players fail a flip, you allow the success to occur but penalize them in some way for the failure or introduce a complication to go along with the success.

Take a gander at a D&D "rules rewrite" that misapprehends the concept, or this other one?

Other inquiries and confusion include:

So I’m looking to try some new systems. Ones that have a “fail with advantage” and “succeed with consequence” system baked in.

And also:

I think the concept of failing forward is one of the best things to happen to tabletop roleplaying in a long time. In essence, it means that when a player's dice come up as a failure, the character is able to at least somewhat accomplish their proximate goal though they incur a substantial hardship to be dealt with.

"Success at a cost / with consequence" is not failing forward. Fail with advantage is not failing forward. It's a form of failing forward.

These are all wrong. They're wrong, damnit! And that's what brings me to this place.

What Failing Forward Is

"Something happens when you roll the dice." That's it. That's all there is to it. The entirety of the concept can be reduced to "things happen." It doesn't rely on fancy PbtA mechanics with their 6-, 7-9, and 10+ results. It doesn't rely on Fate points or funky Fantasy Flight Game dice or "storygames." Failing forward means that something of consequence occurs when the polyhedrals hit the table, success or failure.

Failing forward can be used in any game. Here's some examples that I'd happily use in the World's Most Popular Roleplaying Game:

  • The thief triggers the trap when he fails to pick the chest's lock.

  • The fighter attracts the attention of nearby monsters when he fails to kick in the door.

  • The wizard's scroll crumbles to dust when he fails to cast the spell inscribed thereupon.

  • The zombies turn their hungry attentions toward the cleric when he fails to turn unedad.

Wow. Amazing. And you'll notice that not a single instance of these mechanics involves "the character actually succeeds when he fails because dirty storygames."

You can add more narrative mechanics into the mix, and sometimes I do. Sometimes I don't.

Sometimes a failure in my games means "you accomplish what you set out to do, but it takes a long time." Example: climbing a sheer cliff. If you fail the roll, you make it up, but it takes a whole hour rather than 10 minutes.

Sometimes a failure in my games means "you don't accomplish what you set out to do, and you cannot try again, ever, or at least not until there's a dramatic shift in circumstance." Example: trying to persuade the baron to aid the party. If you fail the roll, the baron has the entire party escorted off his property with a warning not to waste his time again.

Sometimes a failure in my games means "you accomplish what you set out to do, but it's going to cost you dearly." Example: sensing if a character is lying. If you fail the roll, you know for certain the character is lying, but he knows you know, and he's going to make his plans all the more devious for it.

Some of those are more narrative than others. It's your game, do what you want. Fail forward or don't--but stop misunderstanding it.