Failing Forwards & Upwards: My d6 Go-To Results to Streamline GMing


We need not know every way to Fail Forward. We only want a few reliable go-tos.

In the discussion after last night’s Story Stakes Workshop, the topic of skill checks came up. For d20 games, I mentioned that a fail doesn’t have to be a hard no or a binary 0 result. Any game system can support a Fail Forward approach.

However, it gets tougher coming up with Fail Forward results the later in a session I go. Brain fatigue sets in. To compensate, I have a small cadre of options I use again and again.

There are a few wins in this approach of going deep instead of broad. First, variation keeps things fresh. Second, we master our craft with repetition. Third, it costs almost no brain power to summon the familiar.

Malfunction, for example. This is one of the Fail Forward methods in my small go-to collection of ideas. There’s always something in the scene that can break.

However, before we get to specifics, we must decide if we will reduce success. The easiest thing is to allow a full success. That requires no thinking. So instead, we add a downside.

You succeed…but…

You succeed… but the rope breaks just before you get to the top. You’re able to flash-grab the cliff edge and hoist yourself up, but your rope is lost far down below.

d6 Forward Fails

Here are some of my default Fail Forwards, currently:

  1. Malfunction. Permanent or temporary? Cost and time to fix?
  2. Alarm. In some way, foes are made aware of the PC’s presence.
  3. Injury. I offer a Devil’s Bargain: succeed and take a hit, or fail?
  4. Misinformation. I tell lies. 🙂
  5. Resource Drain. Expendables, destructibles, and meters.
  6. Relationship. There’s a strain or worse now between the NPC or Faction and the PC.

During sessions, when a roll results in a fail and I want to instantiate Failing Forward (because not every result needs it), I summon my list and pick a category. That’s usually enough of a prompt to help me decide on a Fail Forward complication or setback.

Avoid trying to assess or use every Fail Forward possibility. Instead, run from a short list of potentials like mine above. It will speed up our GMing, relieve us of hard thinking when we get tired, and maintain our session’s pace.

GMs Respond to Failing Forward

The Failing Forward tips above drew a big response from Roleplaying Tips GMs! Here are three of the emails I received with great thoughts on Failing Forward in your campaigns:

Failing Forward Definition

Roleplaying Tips GM KY writes:

Johnn,

So just to rephrase for my own sake – failing forward means there is never a “you fail” and that’s it, when it comes to a skill check. That skill checks ALWAYS succeed, BUT…at some kind of COST if they would have “failed” and blew the roll.

In my Star Trek Adventures game, I had the doctor trying to heal three scientists of some kind of radiation poisoning, a simple roll that he should have made. And of course, he didn’t!

And I really had nowhere to go with it. I ended up with them still being poisoned and the science team therefore had more difficulty in passing their rolls.

I SHOULD have had them be healed by the doctor, but perhaps with the same effect – the science team was a little slower on the uptake of things.

So to genuinely have “failed forward” I should have just had the doctor succeed with the same consequence. Am I interpreting that correctly?

I responded:

Hey KY!

The tip I wrote was not authoritative on Failing Forward, alas. Sorry, that wasn’t clear, in hindsight. The intended point was to have a few standard Failing Forward responses ready in your back pocket in case you get caught without ideas or for when you’re tired.

I don’t think I’ve officially defined Failing Forward before.

Unless a game system has specific rules for it, I try to channel this:

Failing Forward: Giving the party an opportunity to take a step forward in the face of failure.

I also don’t know if there’s an official definition of how Failing Forward works. I generally try to go by:

  • GMs should pick and choose the right moments to Fail Forward. It’s not every time. And it’s not mandatory. Read the group and situation. Pick the best tool from our GM Toolbox for the job.
  • Success isn’t guaranteed. You can partially fail / partially succeed. Or you can offer a dilemma where one player choice is to keep the complete failure result.
  • It might not apply to critical fails or be compatible with your game system or GMing style in some way.
  • It doesn’t have to involve just the one NPC. Use the party, NPCs, and environment.

“I ended up with them still being poisoned and the science team therefore had more difficulty in passing their rolls.”

This is a perfect outcome. The party can still move forward, albeit the challenge is greater. Perhaps the party can try to mitigate the penalties with additional actions. I would not Fail Forward this roll unless there’s something important I don’t know about the situation.

Also, I don’t advise using Failing Forward just to avoid making players sad or frustrated (though certain exceptions apply). There must be chance for failure during sessions or there’s no uncertainty. Without uncertainty, you’re not playing a game any more. The activity is something else.

This doesn’t mean not to Fail Forward. Instead, you offer it at strategic times, such as to increase the pace or open up new gameplay for The Infinite Game.

Thanks for the email, KY!

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Only Roll When Necessary

I also received this great comment from RPT GM Andrew:

I like this. Personally, I don’t have people make skill checks if they must succeed to progress. If failure brings the PCs to a complete stop that is a bad check to call for.

This is how I fail forward.

If the check must succeed, if the story would be significantly inconvenienced by failing the check, then they don’t ever fail.

The d20 roll is how well they succeed. The lower they roll the more it costs to succeed. Then you can tax them, HP, spell slots, money (for bribing), and special Items.

One of my favorite things to do is give them a burden rather than take stuff away. In return for the information you do a “thing.”

Failure still hurts the players and party but it does not impede game progress.

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Dr. Maim

And then, to wrap things up today, a funny comment from RPT GM NoizyDragon:

Johnn,

I couldn’t help it. As I read and reviewed your 1d6 Results of Failing Forward, my brain was looking for a mnemonic.

Lo and behold, I found one that required only minimal rearranging of the key words:

  • Drain resource
  • Relationship
  • Malfunction
  • Alarm
  • Injury
  • Misinformation

I give you DR MAIM.

Happy Gaming.

LOL! Thanks NoizyDragon. RPT GMs, let’s all add a reminder to be DR MAIM on our GM screens. 🙂

Cheers,
Johnn
roleplayingtips.com
https://discord.gg/6MxTRAqQ76
Have more fun at every game!

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