F is for Failing Forward

From the Dictionary of Fearless Gaming

I recently ran a game for a friend. One player, one gm. About an hour-ish, so it’s pretty tight. The whole session takes place at a remote gas station. Out of maybe five opposed dice rolls, he wins one —maybe.

Failing forward is this technique we hear about not letting failed dice checks put up an impassable wall, a dead-end to the overall progression of the game. Fail -but keep it moving. As far as I’m concerned, Succeed at a cost, is not Failing forward. I see these get swapped about sometimes. F is for Failure. I’m a fan of failure escalating stakes or a dramatic change of the status quo for the worse.

Don, a mage on the run from the Technocracy is in a battle of wills against the ghost of a former apprentice. She is about to ambush and beat the crap out of another mage-colleague Don wants to remain hidden from. Don loses that test with the ghost of his young former apprentice. Don has failed to stop the assault and remain hidden. The hit is swift, brutal the other mage is felled, stunned, eyes shut and yelling in pain, he hasn’t identified Don, not yet. Don still has a problem, I’d say worse than before.

Don goes on to fail a series of consecutive tests against this demon ghost, against a sheriff -it’s just not his day. In any game, many failure results can seem exhausting to generate. Stay with the fiction my friend, it is your ball of thread through the maze. In Don’s case, he lost another battle of wills against his ghostly charge and she revealed to him a terrifying secret (One from the player’s character premise) he’ll have to deal with at some point, she gave that mage another beating with a spiked club and the sheriff recognized Don as a wanted fugitive and someone she went to the academy with (more from Don’s setup). Oh, and Don gets shot fleeing the scene.

You have to know your players or at least check in with them. A series of bad rolls can be terrible. Brendan and I have played many games together, we have built up some history of trust. After he narrates Don fleeing the sheriff in the gas station, I cut the gas on the burning fiction. Don is running to exit the scene. I let it happen, in that way Bill Bixby leaves town at the end of the Incredible Hulk show. Don and his ghost, Mouse running through a cornfield. End of session.

Failing forward is about honoring the failure, pushing it, twisting it to make a new situation, a new status - I shoot for very different than the previous situation, now what are you gonna do? And if you get a run of failures -push through the inferno. I’ll try to use every rule to help get players through the smoke & heat (I’m also a Fan of the PCs), we’ll deal with the consequences on the other side.

Cut to Don and his ghost friend running through a cornfield away from the gas station, the camera pans back for that distant wide shot. My friend had a nasty run of bad rolls and that can totally suck. I like to make those work for us. Next session I’ll handwave the gunshot to color, bandages, blood, messy clothes maybe set up the first scene around that - but no mechanical penalties, that would be brutal IMHO.

I’ll bring back that Sheriff and the fate of that other mage in a future session, it’s a card I have to play anytime now. Don knows, and now we know, that ghost demon is out of his control. We learned that from those horrid rolls and playing into them. What’s Don gonna do about that?

-Play Fearless