Failing Forward – RPG Concepts

It’s classic roll playing, you’re at a house, the door is locked, and as the rogue, you’re rolling to pick the lock. You roll the die and don’t get enough to unlock the door. You ask the Dungeon Master, “Can I try again?”. They respond that no one is coming, so sure, roll again. Three more times you roll and eventually get it and you guys get into the house safely.

Image Source: D&D Beyond

Why were you rolling the die?

If nothing bad was going to happen, there was no reason for you to roll the die there. You aren’t in character spending time rolling the die over and over and over again. I’m guilty of this as a DM sometimes, not having any real pressure on the players while they make the die roll. So there has to be a better way to make the die rolls matter.

How do you do that?

There are two ways that you can do this. The first is immediate consequence. To stay with my previous example, you roll the die, you fail, the guards patrolling the estate or the town come across you and now you’re either running from the guards or you’re fighting them. It gives a threat of real punishment for what has happened and for failing the roll. It’s very straight forward.

But what if there’s an important map that the characters know for a fact is in that estate. They run away, they come back the next night, they fail again, they run away, they come back the next night, and the cycle continues and it gets pretty boring. We want to avoid that bit of boring in our role playing games.

So the other option is to, as the title suggests, fail forward.

Critical Fail

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What does that even mean?

Failing forward is the idea that you still get to unlock the door on a failed roll, but it comes at a cost. So you get into the house, but you startle a cook who screams. Now your plan of sneaking around the house slowly and avoiding all the guards is shot. You’re in the house, so you better use your opportunity, but this is going to be more of a smash and grab than a cat burglary.

Failing forward is a great concept to use because it can create a lot of interesting situations. In my example with the cook, do you kill the innocent cook who was just at the wrong place at the wrong time, because the cook screaming means the damage is done already. But I’ve also managed to keep the story moving forward. Instead of trying the same thing over and over again either without consequence or on different days and the game gets stuck in a rut, now things are moving quickly. In fact, by failing forward and having the cook scream, things have to go even faster and the players need to be even more creative.

Maybe the rogue and monk make a run for the map while the wizard and fighter stay behind to deal with any guards who might be coming to their escape route. Maybe the wizard decides to cast charm person or suggestion on the cook to get them to say that they had just seen a mouse, which is why they screamed to try and defuse the issue. Either way you’ve ratcheted up the intensity of the scene and made the best laid plans of the players go by the wayside, but you didn’t grind the game to a stand still.

Making sense thus far? The next question that I would have had is, how do you keep the pressure on without it turning into the scenario where the guards show up and you get into a fight?

That is true, we want to avoid that, otherwise, we can just use that option. If your group loves combat or doesn’t mind having those combats, definitely you can go with that option. However, if you want to change things up, there are some things that you can do.

When failing forward, I’d strongly consider using a skill challenge to show the timing of what is happening. A skill challenge is where the players try and get a certain number of success before they end up failing and having the guards, in this case, swarm them. My rule of thumb is that the players need to get twice the number of players successes, so six successes for three players, before they get the number of players failures, so three for three players. To continue with the crunchy bits for a bit, you then set a difficulty check for the players to beat using their abilities. Maybe the rogue wants to persuade the cook to lie and say it was a mouse, the player then rolls their persuasion. If they succeed, they get a check mark on the success track, if they fail, on the failure track. Then it goes to the next player, and the next player cannot roll persuasion for their check. So everyone has gone around once, they have two successes and a failure, it’s back to the rogue, the rogue can’t roll what they’ve rolled the previous round, so persuasion, or use the skill that was previous rolled, so the fighter who rolled strength to knock down a locked door. And you continue like that until the  players either succeed or fail.

Image Source: D&D Beyond

So, why might you do it this way?

First and foremost, it allows you to skip combat sometimes. It means that you get to do something different than the normal three things in a lot of RPG’s, either exploring, role playing with NPC’s, or fighting. It allows you to use skills that you wouldn’t use normally.

Example:
Player: I worked for the city, so I’m going to roll history to see if I remember the blueprints that were on file with the city. I’m trying to see if there’s a faster route that we can take.
DM: Sounds good to me, roll that die.
Player: 14
DM: You just succeed, and remember that there is actually a servants hallway that runs between some rooms that will let you out right next to the study.

How often would you use history otherwise? Or how often would someone think to look for blueprints? It’s a creative use of a skill that really only comes up in research capacity or trying to remember things and gets to be used in an action sequence instead.

Also, it allows everyone to stay more involved in the story and story telling. Live the above example, the players are having to be creative and are actually creating story elements for the world. This has a real anything goes vibe to it and that can lead to a ton of cool moments.

Skill challenges also can move faster than combat. The action is always focused on the players, so the DM isn’t taking turns and rolling for the five guards to show up. Once the players are in the mindset of thinking about everything they can do and coming up with crazy ideas, a skill challenge will fly by. As a dungeon master, this is where you are going to have to let things go a little bit more loosely. You won’t have been able to plan and lay out this estate in such a way that you’ve thought of everything the players will do. You’re going to want to say yes a lot, or yes and but/and.

Image Source: D&D Beyond

Example:
Player: I worked for the city, so I’m going to roll perception to see if I remember the blueprints that were on file with the city. I’m trying to see if there’s a faster route that we can take.
DM: That sounds more like a history check to me, so why don’t you roll that instead. Since you worked for the city you’d be trying to remember what you’ve seen before.
Player: Okay, I got a 14
DM: You just succeed, and remember that there is actually a servants hallway that runs between some rooms that will let you out right next to the study.

That’s an example of what I mean by yes and but/and. They got to see if they remembered anything about the blueprints, because that is cool, but perception just didn’t make sense for the player to use with what they said. So swapping out for history probably means that the player didn’t have as good a bonus on their roll, but made sense for what they were doing.

What are some downsides?

This isn’t say that there aren’t some downsides to a skill challenge. The main one being is that players will suggest one thing, like my example with wanting to use perception with the blueprints, and when they can’t, then want to pick another idea that they can use perception with. It makes sense because they want to do something where they are likely to succeed. So you can get stuck with someone who is trying to figure out how animal handling can be used in this estate because they have a plus five in animal handling.

Solution for that issue is a timer of some sort. Either, they have to have something ready to go by the time it comes around to them or it’s an automatic failure, but that seems harsh, so if they are taking too long, put them on the clock. Give the player 30 seconds to come up with something, it might not be the most creative, but it’ll keep the game moving and everyone engaged which is what we’re always shooting for when we play RPG’s.

Image Source: D&D Beyong

The other, tied into this, is analysis paralysis. If you can do everything, how do you pick which skill to use. What is going to be better, the ones with the higher numbers obviously, but using acrobatics isn’t going to be as cool so maybe you should try and use animal handling, but how would that work in the situation, and maybe the person after me is going to use athletics, so I should use that, and the person before me did something really cool and I want to do something really cool too so what is the coolest thing that I could do? Yes, that is a horrible run-on sentence that no one should ever write, but that’s kind of the point. That’s how the brain of someone who can’t decide what option to choose is working, they are stuck with too many options.

If you see someone getting stuck in a loop of not knowing what decision to make, how can you help them to keep your skill challenge moving along? There are a couple of different things that you can do. One is to use the timer. That will likely get a them to throw out something, but might end up making them feel like they are getting stuck doing the boring option. The other is to help them by soliciting ideas from other players or from yourself as the DM. If they are taking a while, toss out a bunch of options for them to pick from, and by a bunch, I mean three at the fewest, and five at the most. That’ll either give them something to pick or give them something to jump off of and get them out their run-on brain loop.

So back to the main concept of this article, failing forward. There are a lot of reasons to do it an to use it in your game. The main take away from this should be that failing forward allows your story to continue and progress while the setting up consequences down the line. You don’t end up getting stuck, but there’s still a cost for the players. It buys time for you as the DM to come up with that cost, and it keeps the players more engaged in the game.

Do you have any examples of failing forward? If you do, let us know about them with one of the ways below


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