Fail Forward


Second Edition

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(I am starting this thread as it came up in another and would be off topic there.)

A term that gets used but I think is ill defined.

John Lynch 106 wrote:
The definition I could find is this
Quote:
Failing forward is the idea that you still get to unlock the door on a failed roll, but it comes at a cost.

That isn’t how skill checks are described in the rules for the playtest core rules.

If you actually want to hear why I think that’s awful feel free to start a new thread. It’s pretty off topic for this one.

So I have started a new thread. However I agree in principal that this approach is bad.

A better definition of the term I heard was in regards to overall plot getting blocked to then progress at some cost.

Of course what is "blocked progress" is open to interpretation. As is the "cost".

[NOTE] a tpk would certainly block progress. But I accept that and make a new campaign.


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Fail forward removes all player agency. It says “no matter how much you mess up we WILL reach that predetermined outcome because nothing you do matters.” I have yet to see an example of failing forward with skill checks actually being good. If anyone thinks they have one I’d be willing to discuss it.


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Failing forward is bad for the same reason fudging dice rolls are bad. I know a lot of people defend fudging dice rolls, but it means the PCs actions no longer matter.


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I wouldn't say it that way

To create a good fail forward the gm has to create a gray zone between success and fail

A few examples:

locked door: you open the door but alarm people on the other side/a patrol runs into you or the lockpick breaks

sneaking past guards: the party does not succeed but they are lucky and the guard who finds them is REALLY drunk (easy checks to convince them)

searching a room: the party does not find the clue they were searching for but instead a lead which can lead to a (maybe) even better clue - with more work

failing forward can create memorable moments, but one has to draw two lines, one where it starts, one where it ends

it if happens too often it becomes unbelievable


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I will disagree and say that failing forward is good, because it means something interesting always happens when you roll dice. If the PCs roll low on a survival check to track an enemy down, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ve lost them. But perhaps the tracker was so focused on finding the enemy’s trail that they missed the signs that a vicious owlbear calls this territory home.

And so on and so forth.


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I've mostly seen fail forward used in d6 based games as failing is more likely there, between the limited options and odds being what they are. In games where you have the d20, big bonuses, and nearly a dozen ways to tackle any problem succeed at a cost is hardly necessary


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I think fail forward is a great mechanic for a lot of situations. It's one of the core principles of the Powered by The Apocalypse System which I enjoy GMing for short games (it doesn't do as well for long campaigns IMO) and I am glad to see it ported to PF2 in some respects.

That said using this principle does require more GM interpretation than simple success/failure. And as John Lynch says it does remove some player agency, e.g. the freedom to completely fail.

Some folks enjoy a game with complete player agency and others prefer something much more railroady, less player choices but a more coherent story. Most prefer some sort of compromise.

If you are willing to give up a little bit of player agency in exchange for giving the GM more power to tell the story they want than fail forward is a good mechanic in some instances. Most notably when information is plot critical, perception and tracking seem like good options for this mechanic to be introduced. I would argue that unlocking a door isn't since you can still "fail forward" by failing to unlock the door you just need to take the time to bash it down which is loud and time consuming.

If you are unwilling to give up that agency, or don't like your GMs story than fail forward probably isn't for you.


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I think that in the Paizocon Glass Cannon gameplay when the players were looking for the Hydra Jason explained that even if the Ranger had failed the survival check the party would still have found the creature but it would take longer (they were in a time crunch, they had an marriage to attend).


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Failing Forward fundamentally means "regardless of whether you pass or fail, something interesting or engaging happens". Now the thing that happens will be better if you succeed than if you fail, but what won't happen is "nothing, no progress is made."

For a simple example: the PCs are trying to get through a locked door and roll to pick the lock.
On a success: you pick the lock and can go through the door, progress is made.
On a failure: you make a noise that alerts someone on the other side of the door, who opens it and puts the PCs on the spot leading to a combat or social encounter. Once that is resolved, the PCs can go through the door, and make progress.

Basically the idea is to never waste your players' time by making them wait around for a big enough number to appear- failure has a cost but it is not "you are stuck here." In terms of player agency, the kind I am 100% in favor of removing as both a player and a GM is "the agency to create situations in which nothing a player would be interested in, want to happen, or enjoy happening does happen." I strongly prefer fail forward style games and I did this in PF1 games I ran too. I just feel "you fail, and are back to square one" to be fundamentally disrespectful to people's time, which is precious since scheduling a time that works for everyone is hard.

Scarab Sages

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I've played in games where the idea was to fail forward and never really felt that the players lost agency. I was in a Dungeon World game and the rogue failed to pick a lock that we needed to get into a Barron's home to steal some paper work. The DM described how the moment the thief failed to pick the lock the door suddenly opened and standing there was a maid. TLDR basically we paid off the maid and we got the papers. That in my head is a really smart way to fail players forward, it was funny and could have escalated if we played it all differently. A thing an old DM of mine always said that stuck with me when I DM is never make a player roll if you aren't ready for them to fail. Take that as you want but usually when my players pick up the dice I have a quick backup as to how the fail could change to a positive without leading my players to feel railroaded.


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John Lynch 106 wrote:
Failing forward is bad for the same reason fudging dice rolls are bad. I know a lot of people defend fudging dice rolls, but it means the PCs actions no longer matter.

I think you and i would have a fundamental disagreement about the game. As long as you don't shatter the kayfabe fudging rolls and fail forward mechanics in the interest of fun are 100% okay in my book.

The most important thing is was the game fun to play?

For you that might mean it's only fun if all rolls are in the open and you and the GM have complete information parity.

This is not the case for any of my players so if I fudge the roll to end a fight early that is dragging on too long, or if I let the party fail forward instead of stopping the plot dead in it's tracks I think it makes the game more fun for everyone involved.


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PossibleCabbage wrote:
Failing Forward fundamentally means "regardless of whether you pass or fail, something interesting or engaging happens". Now the thing that happens will be better if you succeed than if you fail, but what won't happen is "nothing, no progress is made."

This is pretty much how I've always understood the idea. It is something us DMs have been doing since "day 1," or what we are always trying to do to various degrees.

My sense is way too much is being put into a particular and rigid understanding of the phrase as represented by the OP.


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I agree with the OP that failing forward is bad, my reason being that it invalidates skill levels. If you attempt a task and succeed with some difficulty, and someone else attempts the same task and succeeds with no difficulty, I would assume that the latter person is more proficient at the task than the former person. But mechanically the results are arbitrary. A it means that regardless of skill everyone can (eventually) achieve the same level of success.

Failing forward means that those who are more skilled needn't put forth as much effort as those who are not. I would rather it be that, AND that those who are more skilled will succeed MORE OFTEN than who are not.

BTW, I'm assuming we're talking about tasks that are challenging and require effort? In other words, tasks that must be accomplished under a short amount of time, while under stress, or while there's a deficit of resources? If we're talking about tasks that are trivial or that can be accomplished if one takes their time, then I reverse my stance. Although I am also of a mind that skill checks should only be used if a task is risky or would yield results that are narratively interesting. Otherwise, no skill checks necessary. It's just a tree, let them climb the damn tree.


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Failing forward in a story in my opinion is a very positive direction to go. Just because your destination is going to be the same does not mean that the situation will be the same when you finally get there.

Failing to gather information in an easy way may have brought you around a winding path just to get up to the place you needed to be. That could have resulted in some attrition in your resources or more importantly may have resulted in advancing the plan of the malevolent forces at work in the background.

While it may not mean as much to you in a pure mechanics standpoint having more NPCs die as a result of your delay may weigh heavily on some characters.. but at least they managed to stop the evil plan before it could execute in full and kill many more people.

Failing forward to me typically means that you may miss out on some helpful loot or resources, missing out on information that could help you bypass a difficult encounter, or result in an encounter that you could have otherwise avoided.

Not many people have fun with being unable to continue an adventure because someone failed a skill check or they happened to miss a tiny bit of information that was dropped.


I think a good mix of failing forward and just plain failing are needed for a good game. Whatever feels right in the moment, doesn't stop the game dead in its tracks, doesn't overly frustrate the players (or you), and lets everyone have fun.

If every time the party loses a fight, however, the enemy stops to kill all of your players, where's the fun in that? Enemies take hostages, leave people for dead, or 'have other plans' all the time in movies, comics, novels, and other works of fiction, why not in game? Is that not failing forward, since it progresses the story in some manner and could lead to other fun or interesting narratives?


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I mean, I'm a fan of just handwaving "you succeed" if I can't think of anything interesting to happen in case you don't. Like if a PC is stuck in a hole and literally the only option to get out is "climb" then they are climbing out and if any rolls are required it is to figure out how long it takes.

Likewise if you absolutely want to shut down a particular PC plan, it's much better to just not let them roll ("a la no, you cannot jump to the top of the tower, it is not possible") than to let them roll and fail and give them nothing.

As an aside, I think PF2 will have a much greater focus on time pressure than its predecessor, if nothing else then to make the 10 minute rest less automatic.


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I agree that failing forward is a tool to be used, not something that should happen each and every time. It does not mean "the party progresses in their goals even on a fail" it means "the story progresses even on a fail."

Examples I have used in the past:

Party failed a tracking check on a corrupted druid, they end up stumbling on the home of an angry forest spirit that was angry at all intruders due to the actions of the druid. More interesting and let to a fabulous encounter rather than just saying "you lose the tracks so I guess that is the end of this chapter."

Party failed a diplomacy roll convincing the King their group needed resources to combat a growing threat. I stated that the roll was high enough to convince a few members of his court and revealed dissatisfaction with the Kings rule.

One thing I think PF2 can do with its 4 degrees is also implement Win at Cost. Win at Cost allows a player to scrape by a success from a failed roll by optionally taking on some negative to themselves. An example "you can find the documents you intend to steal, but in your rush you accidentally drop a piece of telling evidence."


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I also think this whole discussion pivots on a matter of perspective.

As the DM, I am aware that if the party fails to unlock the door that there will be other interesting opportunities for adventure somewhere on this side of the door, or that there are other ways to open the door (e.g. locksmith in town, etc., etc.). In fact, I probably know that it is possible that they may not unlock the door, and have other interesting prepped in that very case.

The player will fail at the check because of their roll, and if the character decides there is no chance to get through the door, then to them they have failed (completely).

Me, as the DM, know that there are other opportunities, and maybe they will come up, based on what the players decide to do next, or not.

So, the party failed at that task, but, I, as the DM, have prepared interesting opportunities in case the do fail.

Or, you could either stop the campaign because of the failure, I suppose. Just depends on the story of the campaign.

A DM, should always be looking for interesting opportunities regardless which way the die are cast. That is what I get from the fail forward concept when it comes to DnD.


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PossibleCabbage wrote:

Failing Forward fundamentally means "regardless of whether you pass or fail, something interesting or engaging happens". Now the thing that happens will be better if you succeed than if you fail, but what won't happen is "nothing, no progress is made."

For a simple example: the PCs are trying to get through a locked door and roll to pick the lock.
On a success: you pick the lock and can go through the door, progress is made.
On a failure: you make a noise that alerts someone on the other side of the door, who opens it and puts the PCs on the spot leading to a combat or social encounter. Once that is resolved, the PCs can go through the door, and make progress.

Basically the idea is to never waste your players' time by making them wait around for a big enough number to appear- failure has a cost but it is not "you are stuck here." In terms of player agency, the kind I am 100% in favor of removing as both a player and a GM is "the agency to create situations in which nothing a player would be interested in, want to happen, or enjoy happening does happen." I strongly prefer fail forward style games and I did this in PF1 games I ran too. I just feel "you fail, and are back to square one" to be fundamentally disrespectful to people's time, which is precious since scheduling a time that works for everyone is hard.

This is pretty much why I have grown to like a lot of the narrative-based games of recent years. It changes the dynamic. Binary pass/fail isn't as interesting to me as, say, FFG's Star Wars games, where you can fail but with some advantage, or succeed but with a complication, and the narrative that unfolds as a result makes the character's actions matter just that much more. It's a way of saying, "Your character has chosen to undertake this action, so it has meaning, whether you succeed or fail."


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Pathfinder Rulebook Subscriber

I was big on it for a while, but then I ran a game (Open Legend) that used it for every roll. It got fatiguing to adjudicate every failure that way. I find myself now leaning more heavily on structural solutions like the Three Clue Rule and saving it for when it’s really needed.


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Failing forward is a tool for GMs to use. Like any tool, any particular GM can choose to use it, or not. It very much hinges on GM perspective, and whatever social contract the GM and players have set with regard to the game.

It is a useless tool in games in which the players wish to be held strictly accountable for every mistake or bad turn of the dice. If that's the game that is fun for the people at the table, it makes very little sense to include most kinds of "fail forward" ideals.

As a few others have noted, I think it is a useful tool when the table wants to have a more open or nuanced style of game that moves away from the strict pass/fail binary. But it's best used sparingly, according to situations to enhance enjoyment and add complexity to a given check or activity.

And for those who like a wholly narrative experience, heavy use of failing forward is quite useful. It limits (or outright eliminates, depending on how heavy it's used) player agency in regard to the chance of success, but in a game in which the players and GM all agree they want a more straightforward play experience that hinges more on the narrative to determine the consequences of success and failure, there's nothing wrong with that.

I tend to fall in the middle. Sometimes failure meaning a penalty or hindrance in lieu of a hard "you lose" can enhance the game, but there should, generally speaking, be a chance for players to entirely fail a given task.


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So, something that I’m actually finding confusing. People are claiming that fail forward eliminates player agency.

How? How does this method prevent the players from making choices?


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Near as I can presume, failing forward can be loosely interpretted as railroading since whether you pass/fail the check to open the locked door, the door will open (difference being one might have an alarm raised) which you can squint and interpret as your character being along on the for the ride of the story.


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I don't think fail forward is always a good way to go. However, I think it is strictly superior to wasting table time on failure not actually being possible.

The best example of this is lockpicking. In many cases, picking the lock on a door really has no failure state. It's roll-until-you-succeed. I really can't see how anyone can defend that as anything except a waste of table time in most cases. You are going to succeed eventually - who cares how many die rolls it takes you to get there?

So I'm a big proponent of... I don't know if "fail forward" is the right term, but rather "every roll changes the game state". If you fail a lockpicking roll, something happens such that simply retrying the exact same role at the exact same bonus is not an option. An outcome of "you succeed, but it takes you a long time/alerts nearby enemies/etc" is a good way to accomplish that.

I think a lot of GMs do this anyway. I know I'm not the only GM who likes to rule that if you nat 1 a lockpicking attempt you jam the lock and can't try again. That, effectively, is fail forward - your failure has advanced the game state. Now you have to deal with a door that can't be picked. Maybe you could call it "fail backward" because it's a setback.

But surely anything is better than "fail stationary", where a failure doesn't actually have any consequence. THAT is removing player agency, IMO.

Grand Lodge

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MaxAstro wrote:
I don't think fail forward is always a good way to go. However, I think it is strictly superior to wasting table time on failure not actually being possible.

Or worse, failure meaning the adventure is over.


John Lynch 106 wrote:
Fail forward removes all player agency. It says “no matter how much you mess up we WILL reach that predetermined outcome because nothing you do matters.” I have yet to see an example of failing forward with skill checks actually being good. If anyone thinks they have one I’d be willing to discuss it.

Let's say you're in a hallway and need to get through a sealed passageway. You're low level, so you don't have Etherealness or whatever. There's people chasing you, so you have to get going fast.

You fail the check. In PF1, you now are 100% stuck and have no options.

Assuming fail forward, you get the passageway opened, but maybe it took long enough that some of the people chasing catch up to you.

Obviously, this is a contrived example that I made up in 5 seconds, but you get the point. Basically what it does is prevent scenarios where they need to pass the skill check to move onwards (find the whatever they needed, get through the passageway, etc), but since they failed, they're just stuck.


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TriOmegaZero wrote:
MaxAstro wrote:
I don't think fail forward is always a good way to go. However, I think it is strictly superior to wasting table time on failure not actually being possible.
Or worse, failure meaning the adventure is over.

Who doesn't recall that epic adventure were everyone shows up, they failed to open the door and everyone shrugs and then goes home?


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I certainly recall the adventure where the plot assumed the PCs pass a DC 30 Linguistics check in order to find the plot, and I had to frantically figure out what to do when no one in the party was able to make it.


MaxAstro wrote:
I certainly recall the adventure where the plot assumed the PCs pass a DC 30 Linguistics check in order to find the plot, and I had to frantically figure out what to do when no one in the party was able to make it.

Linguistics is a skill you can take 20 in so a 30 isn't too unreasonable: either for the PC's or if none have the skill an NPC skilled in languages. So IMO, you drop a hint that there's something that can't quite put their finger on in the text and let them find a friendly NPC that can help in that situation.

That said, I'm a fan of putting multiple ways to overcome an obstacle in place. So if you need to get into a house you can pick the back door, or intimidate the maids to get in the side door or bluff your way past the guards at the front door or climb to an open window on the 3rd floor or... each can have their pro's and con's.

Grand Lodge

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MaxAstro wrote:
I certainly recall the adventure where the plot assumed the PCs pass a DC 30 Linguistics check in order to find the plot, and I had to frantically figure out what to do when no one in the party was able to make it.

This was the point, yes. Too many adventures require a stupid skill check in order to proceed to the next part, with no caveat for how to get the party there if they fail.


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Fall-forward mechanics are a bad game design..

As mentioned by John Lynch 106 it’s not only is a massive tool of railroading, it commits the worse sin against tabletop RPG’s: Discouraging Intelligent though.

Now this might seem outrageous but it’s tragically true, why bother thinking about a alternate method to overcome an obstacle if your already going to succeed using the default option regardless of success or failure . It encourages ‘one true method’ thought process and teaches Players and GM’s alike that there is only room for ONE answer to any question.

To use the ‘locked door’ example you can pick the lock to proceed…or you can
…rip it off the hinges (Strength check)
…smash it pieces (Damage)
…use acid to melt the lock (tool use).
…cast the Knock spell either through class feature, wand or scroll [Magic).
…exit through the window and shimmy across the drainpipe to unlock the door from the other side (alternate Skill use).

Should these options not be enough you can also…
…Dimensional Door/Teleport to the other side. (Magic)
…Skip the door and break down the wall in the way (Damage or Strength check).
…or just find another way in from a different location (Occam’s Razor).

But you can still do these things in a Fall-forward RPG right? Yes. Will you though? Nope!

Why you ask? That’s because no matter what you do your success is still 100%, so the first (and most obvious) choice is the one you’ll take because…well because all of the other options exist solely because you can fail at the first option.

Compounding this issue is the lack of “Price of Failure” or simply put: You CANNOT fail, therefore there is no real price of failure. Any so-called prices are simply narrative elements that either would be there regardless of dice rolls or are minor inconveniences that don’t matter as they lack teeth.

I mean really! If your using a Fall-forward system you not going to be ‘hardcore’ with ‘failed’ results, the ninja’s do not hear your party picking the lock; use the hidden passageway and murder-knife the wizard while no one is looking, for example.

Going back to what’s been said in the earlier posts: If success is guaranteed, and failure has little meaning…then there is no real value to your characters choices.


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Pathfinder Adventure, Rulebook Subscriber

Its the difference between:
- You fail the check and the adventure is over and
- You fail the check, continue to step 2 but now X more difficult

The lock picking is a good example. Another one that comes to mind is "You have to defend the keep/castle/town/etc from overwhelming force." Since the PCs can't win every fight, you abstract it to "defense points" or "preparation bonus." Failure to collect enough "McGuffin fluffs" means that you "fail" to defend the location, but instead of just ending the adventure there you continue to the next phase (usually go kill the BBEG), just with less resources or more mooks in the fight, or the BBEG has better spells prepared etc.

There is a consequence for failure without being a TPK (not that those are always bad). It's the same idea as a GM fudging the TPK into, "you all wake up in the dungeon with out any of your gear." You failed, spectacularly, but is allows you to still finish the story.

Shadow Lodge

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Magus Black wrote:
Going back to what’s been said in the earlier posts: If success is guaranteed, and failure has little meaning…then there is no real value to your characters choices.

The freedom to starve is small solace.

Silver Crusade

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From my personal experience, the people who talk about the value of not being able to solve a problem or the virtues of finding yourself up the manure creek and without a paddle are the people who lose their peanuts first when actually confronted with such situations. And they tend to blame GM first, the other players second and never themselves nor the ruleset :)


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Pathfinder Adventure, Adventure Path Subscriber

Meh. As with most things, the "truth" is somewhere in the middle.

Sometimes failure-that-is-a-setback should be a thing. Sometimes failure-that-succeeds-at-a-cost should be a thing.

Neither approach is entirely wrong, or entirely right. They're tools, and it takes some skill to recognize when to use a given tool.


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j b 200 wrote:

Its the difference between:

- You fail the check and the adventure is over and
- You fail the check, continue to step 2 but now X more difficult

The lock picking is a good example. Another one that comes to mind is "You have to defend the keep/castle/town/etc from overwhelming force." Since the PCs can't win every fight, you abstract it to "defense points" or "preparation bonus." Failure to collect enough "McGuffin fluffs" means that you "fail" to defend the location, but instead of just ending the adventure there you continue to the next phase (usually go kill the BBEG), just with less resources or more mooks in the fight, or the BBEG has better spells prepared etc.

There is a consequence for failure without being a TPK (not that those are always bad). It's the same idea as a GM fudging the TPK into, "you all wake up in the dungeon with out any of your gear." You failed, spectacularly, but is allows you to still finish the story.

Or the adventure changes to “escape the Big Bad’s victorious Army.”


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Magus Black wrote:

Now this might seem outrageous but it’s tragically true, why bother thinking about a alternate method to overcome an obstacle if your already going to succeed using the default option regardless of success or failure . It encourages ‘one true method’ thought process and teaches Players and GM’s alike that there is only room for ONE answer to any question.

To use the ‘locked door’ example you can pick the lock to proceed…or you can
[examples]

I think this is kind of a bad faith reading of what failing forward means. Certainly there are many, many ways to get past a lock. What's important though is that the PCs commit to something and there are repercussions to their choice and its success or failure rather than "nothing happens, keep trying this or other things until something works."

What should motivate the PCs to try picking the lock in lieu of smashing it, or bluffing past the guard instead of sneaking is some combination of "the chosen tactic has the best estimated risk/reward ratio" and "the chosen tactic is more compatible with the PCs' abilities and priorities."


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Failing forward in a story definitely does not mean that there is no cost to your failure. It's not like you make a skill check and then suddenly just because you fail something magically happens that turns it into a success.

Typically the cost of "failing forward" would be represented in either a more difficult skill challenge, paying someone through gold/items/favors, having to retreat and come back to a heightened level of defense, or most commonly some sort of combat could break out.

J b 200 had some pretty great examples above but the primary goal is that the adventure keeps moving. If you have to constantly go around the table attempting random skill or attribute tests because you can't pass an obstacle... or you have to simply "keep rolling until you succeed" it's a bad design IMO.

One of the most common examples being used is lockpicking a door. Since it's something that's typically an extended test failure could be represented in many ways with the three most common being that you broke the pick in the lock and you can no longer continue your attempt, you took too long and were discovered by some sort of patrol, or in a time sensitive situation you simply took too long and the encounter changed from a chase to tracking down the objective.

There are plenty of other options available to you but they could also fail for various reasons. The point is that you shouldn't be required to simply brute force every single option until you succeed.


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TOZ wrote:
Magus Black wrote:
Going back to what’s been said in the earlier posts: If success is guaranteed, and failure has little meaning…then there is no real value to your characters choices.
The freedom to starve is small solace.

That depends on 'why' your starving though, if your doing it because doing so benefits others then you can say that only is it a personal choice, but that it's a noble act.

If your starving because the world's been blasted to irradiated ash and soot, for which you can do little more than curse mankind and the gods...then it's a tragedy.

...and if your starving because your utterly incompetent and too lazy to farm or hunt, then your a goblin!

Choices should matter, especially in a Role-playing Game...this isn't E.A. after all.

Gorbacz wrote:
From my personal experience, the people who talk about the value of not being able to solve a problem or the virtues of finding yourself up the manure creek and without a paddle are the people who lose their peanuts first when actually confronted with such situations. And they tend to blame GM first, the other players second and never themselves nor the ruleset :)

Cant speak for anyone else but I'm too much a veteran of the old Warhammer 40k RPG's to have that mentality (40k is inherently an 'unfair' setting), I'm too used to having no other choice but to grab every tool or idea at my disposal to survive another day.

I also refuse to recognize that there is a problem that high explosives cannot solve!

Paizo Employee

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One of the things to note is broader examples of failing forward, rather than the narrower "locked door that always opens" analogy.

A massive mountain range bars the path forward. The PCs fail their check to avoid triggering the avalanche and now the way is impassable, so instead they have to cut through the goblin infested mines. That's a fail forward.

The PCs need to confront a vicious pirate king who's been terrorizing the coastal regions, but when they try to jump his mate, they get their booty handed to them and wake up in the brig of the pirate king's ship. That's a fail forward.

The PCs are sent to hunt a dragon terrorizing the forests near a town, but they utterly bomb the survival check to find it. That night they find the dragon as it murders half the town and makes off with their reward money, leaving a more visible trail to follow back to its lair as it flies off with a leaking bag of coins.

So on and so forth.

A fail forward is simply any point in the story where the PCs failing to accomplish a thing is rewarded with "Instead of X, Y happens."

The only times you're not going to have fail forward points in an adventure is if it's so sandboxy that the thing you were trying to do didn't really matter to your overall goals anyways or when failing the check or task is rewarded by the GM saying "OK, great game everyone, the lich wins, you're all dead, and its Sam's turn to GM."


I mean, PF1 had many examples of some abstracted "loot points", or "defense points", or "negotiation points", or "militia points", or "supplies points" which are won or lost through various events and clearing certain thresholds got specific desirable results (e.g. "more defense points means fewer are lost and less infrastructure was destroyed").

Since the PCs are in some diplomatic negotiations and it's not about "how high is your diplomacy mod" but "who can you convince, how much do you need to promise, and how committed are they" is just a better way to model this sort of thing than binary pass/fail.

Latter day APs did this sort of thing all the time- the Silver Ravens organization can be pretty incompetent, but the PCs can be hated by Kintargo but they're still going to murk Barzillai, the Ironfang PCs can be woeful at leading the survivors but their group will never disband, etc. Instead of asking the PCs "are you bad enough dudes to do the thing?" just give them better or worse outcomes based on how they went about doing the thing and let the thing get done.


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PossibleCabbage wrote:
I think this is kind of a bad faith reading of what failing forward means.

Isn't that the whole point of this thread? "As long as your character exists you'll succeed no matter what you do, so your choices never matter" is not in any way shape the definition of the term being talked about or what any game designer talking about this philosophy has ever proposed.

It's not a thing, but as long as people like Magus Black and John Lynch can pretend that's what other people are arguing, they can keep acting outraged about it.

It's the most rudimentary strawmen you can concoct and those are great because you never have to actually worry about defending your positions or countering someone else's argument, you just make up whatever you want to argue against and call it a day.

Seriously, if John Lynch can find me a single designer of a major narrative driven/fail forward game system that has argued that a good tabletop is the GM writing a story where the rest of the players have absolutely no say in anything that happens because everything happens automatically, I'll log off my paizo account and never come back. One.


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If failure has little meaning, then I agree that it is a meaningless decision and not an obstacle the players should be confronted with. But fail forward as presented seems to change the challenge from success / failure to boon / setback, based on the situation. That seems like a useful tool for a gamemaster.

“You are 7th level? Well, of course your skill is such that you can track down the hydra. But time is of the essence - can you do it without wasting too much time?”

Or from the crypt of the everflame game Jason ran for the GCP crew at first level:

“You need to get down the hill. A relatively easy task - gravity will be happy to help you all the way down. The question is, can you get down without getting too hurt?”

And that later situation is one that appears in games all the time. One of the first obstacles that appears in the Sunless Citadel in 3.0 is climbing down the cavern. If you fail, you don’t remain at the top. You fall. So this is a framework that has always existed in the game, its just being formally labeled and possibly, should you so choose as gamemaster, applied to more situations.


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I thought I would be on the side of supporting failing forward, but I find myself convinced now that that terminology does seem to imply that the locked door does need to open now in order for the adventure to continue, and that that is not good adventure design. Let some doors stay locked until the party is ready to dedicate the resources to opening them, and if they don't let the adventure proceed without whatever is behind it.

Regardless of the term, I think it is more important to design adventures where failure is possible and can still result in a fun and satisfying story than for the whole thing to hinge upon rolling the dice until one skill check is successful. That often becomes the case when the GM is leaning too heavily on time constraints to lead the party in a specific direction, and isn't ready to let let demons tear open a portal from the abyss and destroy kingdoms.


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"If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do."

The idea that "fail forward" inherently removes character agency is, I think, a completely backward way to look at it. Rather, the concept lends itself more readily to embodying player agency than anything. It's a way of saying "This action matters." Pass or fail, you're doing it because it has some kind of meaning to your part in the story. After all, if it didn't, you wouldn't be doing it. And "matters" doesn't even have to mean dice rolling. Your character may choose to give the last bit of water in their canteen to the haggard wanderer in the desert, only to find out that the wanderer was the son of a powerful lord having escaped his captors, and gain an ally in the region—and an enemy in those who kidnapped the prince.

If the action matters, then the agency is in simply undertaking it, in being the reason that it matters. Nowhere in any great story do you see the heroes thwarted with no chance of learning from the event. In fiction, there is no such thing as a binary pass/fail upon which the entire narrative hinges. Failure often has more interesting consequences than successs. Frodo is captured in Mordor because they failed to sneak past Shelob. He's stabbed on Weathertop because they failed to avoid the Ringwraiths. And Sauron is defeated ultimately because he failed to account for someone thinking differently than him, that his enemies would only seek to destroy the Ring and not use it (thus falling prey to it). There are many, many thousands of examples of this.

The concept of still gaining something, or being able to progress in some way, to change the game state and the story, that's what "failing forward" means. It doesn't mean "you just unlock the door anyway." If it wasn't important to have a chance of failure, you'd not bother rolling. Maybe you trigger a trap that looses an avalanche of rocks that damage the party but also the door, allowing the stronger characters to force it open. Maybe you alert the orcs on the other side, who open the door, but now you're in a fight you might have avoided.

There are a lot of ways to do this, and not every single action ever needs to have such dramatic potential. But the idea that it removes player agency is, to me, strange, when "nothing happens" is the most agency-robbing result possible.


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Unicore wrote:
I thought I would be on the side of supporting failing forward
You are. Literally your next paragraph:
Unicore wrote:
I think it is more important to design adventures where failure is possible and can still result in a fun and satisfying story than for the whole thing to hinge upon rolling the dice until one skill check is successful.

is describing, in a nutshell, the core principles behind fail forward game design. The notion that the campaign shouldn't hinge around a single check or set of conditions being fulfilled and that failing to meet those conditions should lead to interesting, meaningful consequences and not potentially campaign ending banality. That's what the terminology means.

In the locked door example it could come in the form of merely taking longer to unlock the door and wasting time, or it could be smashing the door down instead and potentially drawing unwanted attention, trying to steal a key from someone instead, looking for another way inside and so on and so forth.

Either way, the princple isn't that success is inevitable, it's that failure, especially mundane and uninteresting failure, shouldn't stall out the game. That dice rolls should generally lead somewhere.


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Pathfinder Rulebook, Starfinder Roleplaying Game Subscriber

It's also worth noting that most systems that incorporate failing forward do not have a binary pass/fail system - it's not "succeed vs succeed anyway but at a cost" as many here are suggesting, but rather "succeed vs succeed but at a cost vs totally fail", where failing forward falls largely into the middle category.

That said, most games that use a system like this also have a mechanic in place to prevent "stagnant failures". For example, in PbTA games, on a total failure the GM is directed to take a "hard move" introducing a new, pressing, and dangerous wrinkle to the situation.

To use the example of picking the lock on a door, a total success would be picking the lock, a partial success would be making noise and guards opening the door to fight you, and a total failure might be something like failing entirely to open the door, and being attacked from behind by guards you had previously snuck past.


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Woah! That's a lot of replies. I go to sleep for a couple of hours and this thread explodes. I know people don't like it when someone responds to a lot of points in one post. Sorry. I don't want to make 20 different posts all in a row so this is what I'm doing instead. If you don't want to read it I won't be offended. This is a pretty big post.

Before I start reading and replying, there's sure to be proponents for failing forward and they're likely to get upset by my opinion. So here's a disclaimer.

I play D&D/Pathfinder (regardless of edition) because I want to play a game where I pretend to be a wizard and kill stuff with my spells. I expect us to be playing a GAME where success is possible and failure is possible.

Failing forward mechanics/fudging dice remove what I enjoy out of D&D and Pathfinder. I find games that employ inspiration as described in the Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition Player's Handbook to be less enjoyable then games that don't include inspiration.

If you enjoy games where the players will successfully reach the final battle no matter what, then that's great. Clearly we enjoy different things from D&D and Pathfinder. My intense dislike for removing meaningful failure from the game does not negate your ability to enjoy a good story that occurs independently of the dice.

At a quick glance I see a few people mentioning games other than D&D/Pathfinder. I haven't played those games. I'm not going to criticise or comment on something I haven't played. Anyone who wants to fly to South Australia is welcome to let me know and I will give you the courtesy of playing one of those games with you. Otherwise I'm not going to "give them a chance" because my gaming time is limited and playing games I, in all likelihood, will not enjoy is not a priority for me.

I have played D&D and Pathfinder games where fail forward and dice fudging were used. I instantly stopped enjoying those games the second it became clear what the GM/DM was doing unless the GM/DM promised to stop doing it.

Seisho wrote:
sneaking past guards: the party does not succeed but they are lucky and the guard who finds them is REALLY drunk (easy checks to convince them)

That isn't a fail forward mechanic. That is an example of the players not having complete information and the risk not being as high as they originally thought. But they did not fail to overcome the challenge. The challenge was simply lower then originally expected.

Seisho wrote:
searching a room: the party does not find the clue they were searching for but instead a lead which can lead to a (maybe) even better clue - with more work

Having multiple ways of getting information isn't failing forward. That's good adventure design. This you will see in countless Paizo adventures.

Seisho wrote:
locked door: you open the door but alarm people on the other side/a patrol runs into you or the lockpick breaks

This is the archetypical "fail forward" example and is also complete nonsense. In D&D and Pathfinder locked doors have a DC. You either beat the DC and unlock the door, fail to beat the DC and the door remains locked or sometimes fail to beat DC so badly that not only is the door still locked, but the lock no longer functions and future attempts are no longer possible.

And people act like that's the end of the adventure. Which is nonsense. Most buildings do not have a single point of entry. But let's say this is a dungeon and the person who constructed the rooms wasn't concerned about getting trapped in this chamber. You don't need a fail forward mechanic to overcome that door. Your fighter has a lock pick. It's called his axe. And there will be consequences (it takes longer, is noisy and gives time for people on the other side to ready for your arrival) for using it.

Seisho wrote:
failing forward can create memorable moments

I have yet to find a situation where "fail forward" made the adventure more enjoyable.

Ventnor wrote:

I will disagree and say that failing forward is good, because it means something interesting always happens when you roll dice. If the PCs roll low on a survival check to track an enemy down, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ve lost them. But perhaps the tracker was so focused on finding the enemy’s trail that they missed the signs that a vicious owlbear calls this territory home.

And so on and so forth.

So the DC wasn't to "find and follow the tracks". The DC was to "look out for trouble while following this very clear and obvious path". It sounds like the GM just used the wrong table to determine the DC. It happens. GMs are only human after all. I've certainly stuffed up plenty of times and played with GMs who messed up. No-one holds it against the GM.

Bardarok wrote:
If you are willing to give up a little bit of player agency in exchange for giving the GM more power to tell the story they want

And this is really the great philosophical divide between pro-dice fudging/fail forward and anti-dice fudging/fail forward. I don't want to play with a GM who wants to tell the story they want. I want a GM whose going to create a fun game where events will unfold and through play a story will emerge.

I don't demand a complete sandbox. I am willing for the GM to say "this game is about doing XXX and your PCs will need to be willing to work towards XXX." If I like the sound of that game, I'll make a PC that fits the requirements. If I don't like the sound of that game, I wont' play that game as described. But once I've worked with the GM to make a PC that will work towards the end goal, the collusion stops. They are there to arbitrate the game world and to dictate the consequences of my PC's actions.

Bardarok wrote:
Most notably when information is plot critical, perception and tracking seem like good options for this mechanic to be introduced.....If you are unwilling to give up that agency

I'd rather play an adventure where the adventure author (either one of the people who write Pathfinder adventures for Paizo or the GM himself) write a better adventure and not include fail forward mechanics. Fortunately I've never seen a Pathfinder with one of these mechanics*

Kyrone wrote:
I think that in the Paizocon Glass Cannon gameplay when the players were looking for the Hydra Jason explained that even if the Ranger had failed the survival check the party would still have found the creature but it would take longer (they were in a time crunch, they had an marriage to attend).

I am 100% for "the PCs can just keep trying until they succeed, although the consequence for failing is X" checks. After playing for a good while with "I roll a d20. Nothing happens. I roll a d20. Nothing happens. I roll...." games I do acknowledge that only one check should be necessary. Either they succeed and avoid the negative consequence for failing and then try again.

But that, IMO, isn't a fail forward check. Here's an example to demonstrate it

Quote:

Player: I try to unlock the door.

GM: Give me a disable device check.
Player: I get a 3.
GM: You fail to unlock the door which was enchanted with a lightning bolt spell to trigger upon detecting a failed attempt to unlock the door. You take 28 electricity damage and are deafened for 3 rounds.
Player: I check the door for traps. This time I take my time and take 20.
GM: You discover the lightning bolt trap and see that the enchantment was a one time use.
Player: I try to unlock the door.
GM: It takes a while but you manage to successfully unlock it.

That isn't fail forward. That's "Once the consequences for failing are removed, I simply keep trying until I succeed." Unless there's a consequence for failing (e.g. the party has buffs that will expire) there's no need to force the player to keep generating random numbers until they generate the right one. You can just narrate it taking a while and then they succeed.

That's not a fail forward mechanic. That's the "take 20" mechanic from the PF1e CRB.

PossibleCabbage wrote:
Failing Forward fundamentally means "regardless of whether you pass or fail, something interesting or engaging happens".

I disagree and feel that if your going to use that definition then the term has lost all meaning.

PossibleCabbage wrote:

On a success: you pick the lock and can go through the door, progress is made.

On a failure: you make a noise that alerts someone on the other side of the door, who opens it and puts the PCs on the spot leading to a combat or social encounter. Once that is resolved, the PCs can go through the door, and make progress.
See. Here's the archetypical "fail forward" example. You can see above why that's completely unnecessary. Fail forward removes player agency. It means "no matter how incompetent you are, you will reach the final encounter no matter what. Nothing you do can affect that outcome." I've played entire campaigns with that mentality. They most certainly did not make
PossibleCabbage wrote:
something interesting or engaging happen
PossibleCabbage wrote:
Basically the idea is to never waste your players' time by making them wait around for a big enough number to appear

You can do that without fail forward. You simply narrate it. Whenever "you keep trying and there is no consequence for failing" is true, you don't even bother asking for a dice roll. Just let them "take their time" (i.e. take 20) and successfully overcome the challenge.

PossibleCabbage wrote:
the kind I am 100% in favor of removing as both a player and a GM is "the agency to create situations in which nothing a player would be interested in, want to happen, or enjoy happening does happen."

That's quite easy to do by good adventure design. Unless of course "failing" is something that players don't want to happen.

PossibleCabbage wrote:
I strongly prefer fail forward style games and I did this in PF1 games I ran too.

And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. I fully encourage you to run games the way you enjoy them. I just won't enjoy the games your describing.

PossibleCabbage wrote:
I just feel "you fail, and are back to square one" to be fundamentally disrespectful to people's time, which is precious since scheduling a time that works for everyone is hard.

I find "nothing you do ultimately matters and we will reach the predetermined ending no matter what you do" to be a far greater waste of time, and thus far more disrespectful of people's time. But different strokes for different folks.

Bardarok wrote:
I think you and i would have a fundamental disagreement about the game.

After reading your post you are 100% correct.

Bardarok wrote:
if I fudge the roll to end a fight early that is dragging on too long

I've had GMs narrate meaningless fights as "You come across a group of twenty orcs. They aren't a match for you and you easily kill them on your way to the Castle. However a few of them get a couple of lucky shots in. Scratch off three charges of your cure light wounds wand."

I am actually 100% okay with that. Our PCs have reached a point where they're so awesome such threats are no longer a problem. The GM wanted to remind us how awesome we were without wasting table time. Had we rolled initiative the wizard with improved initiative and 16 dex would have likely cast fireball and we would have taken zero damage from the orcs. But it's not worth the table time and we have so many wands of cure light wounds that a few charges aren't a meaningful cost. It's a bit of bookkeeping.

Bardarok wrote:
or if I let the party fail forward instead of stopping the plot dead in it's tracks

I find better written adventures are a better solution. Paizo puts out quite a few for Pathfinder!

Elorebaen wrote:
PossibleCabbage wrote:
Failing Forward fundamentally means "regardless of whether you pass or fail, something interesting or engaging happens". Now the thing that happens will be better if you succeed than if you fail, but what won't happen is "nothing, no progress is made."

This is pretty much how I've always understood the idea. It is something us DMs have been doing since "day 1," or what we are always trying to do to various degrees.

My sense is way too much is being put into a particular and rigid understanding of the phrase as represented by the OP.

Here's another fail forward mechanic. The PCs are tracking an expert scout. He can move across the land so well he leaves almost no trace and only the best trackers in the world can even ATTEMPT to track him down. Rather then provide multiple avenues to get the same information, the adventure author decided to fail forward. Which means even if no-one in the party has ANY ranks in survival they can still track this expert tracker despite his excellent skill and the fact he has +22 on his stealth skill and has a feat that means any roll below 10 gets treated like a 10.

That's a typical fail forward example and it (IMO) means nothing I do as a player actually matters. The DM will hand me success no matter what I do. I might have to go through a few extra hoops, but the DM has ensured I cannot fail in tracking down that scout regardless of how skilled that scout actually is.

Aiden2018 wrote:

I agree with the OP that failing forward is bad, my reason being that it invalidates skill levels. If you attempt a task and succeed with some difficulty, and someone else attempts the same task and succeeds with no difficulty, I would assume that the latter person is more proficient at the task than the former person. But mechanically the results are arbitrary. A it means that regardless of skill everyone can (eventually) achieve the same level of success.

Failing forward means that those who are more skilled needn't put forth as much effort as those who are not. I would rather it be that, AND that those who are more skilled will succeed MORE OFTEN than who are not.

BTW, I'm assuming we're talking about tasks that are challenging and require effort? In other words, tasks that must be accomplished under a short amount of time, while under stress, or while there's a deficit of resources? If we're talking about tasks that are trivial or that can be accomplished if one takes their time, then I reverse my stance. Although I am also of a mind that skill checks should only be used if a task is risky or would yield results that are narratively interesting. Otherwise, no skill checks necessary. It's just a tree, let them climb the damn tree.

+1

Gloom wrote:
Failing forward in a story in my opinion is a very positive direction to go.

In a story? Sure. But I'm not reading a story. I'm playing a game.

Gloom wrote:
Not many people have fun with being unable to continue an adventure because someone failed a skill check or they happened to miss a tiny bit of information that was dropped.

Good adventures don't grind to a halt on one failed skill check. And no, "the PCs succeed even if the dice say they shouldn't" isn't something I've seen in well written adventures.

Ventnor wrote:

So, something that I’m actually finding confusing. People are claiming that fail forward eliminates player agency.

How? How does this method prevent the players from making choices?

I've covered this in this post. Let me know if it still isn't clear.

MaxAstro wrote:
I don't think fail forward is always a good way to go. However, I think it is strictly superior to wasting table time on failure not actually being possible.

I find not wasting time to be a superior solution then failing forward or wasting time.

MaxAstro wrote:
The best example of this is lockpicking. In many cases, picking the lock on a door really has no failure state. It's roll-until-you-succeed. I really can't see how anyone can defend that as anything except a waste of table time in most cases. You are going to succeed eventually - who cares how many die rolls it takes you to get there?

If there is no consequence for failing the lock pick check, retrying is possible and the PC actually has the ability to overcome the locked door, then I don't ask for a skill check in the first place. I just ask "what's your disable device check? +17. Yeah, it takes you a while but you unlock the door."

Cyouni wrote:

Let's say you're in a hallway and need to get through a sealed passageway. You're low level, so you don't have Etherealness or whatever. There's people chasing you, so you have to get going fast.

You fail the check. In PF1, you now are 100% stuck and have no options.

I don't understand this example.
Skills Chapter in the Pathfinder 1e CRB wrote:
You can retry [disable device] checks made to open locks.
Can you please explain why the PCs can't just try to open the lock again? Wait, hang on....
Cyouni wrote:
Obviously, this is a contrived example that I made up in 5 seconds, but you get the point.

Okay. So when you said "In PF1e your stuck" you meant to say "pretend in PF1e that your stuck." Alright. I'll make believe that the players absolutely cannot retry that lock.

They break out the mining equipment and start digging their way through the masonry. Any consequences for taking too long will 100% occur. But by gosh they will get through that door. And if this adventure is like lots of adventures, there is no actual penalty for taking a long time.

Cyouni wrote:
Basically what it does is prevent scenarios where they need to pass the skill check to move onwards (find the whatever they needed, get through the passageway, etc), but since they failed, they're just stuck.

I've yet to see a real example of where this is actually true in a well designed adventure.

MaxAstro wrote:
I certainly recall the adventure where the plot assumed the PCs pass a DC 30 Linguistics check in order to find the plot, and I had to frantically figure out what to do when no one in the party was able to make it.

This is why I prep adventures ahead of time and make sure there are plenty of signals to the PCs that an expert in linguistics is going to be needed. I find good foreshadowing helps remove the need to create contrived fail forward mechanics.

TriOmegaZero wrote:
Too many adventures require a stupid skill check in order to proceed to the next part, with no caveat for how to get the party there if they fail.

I find Paizo, for the most part, writes really good adventures for Pathfinder. Can you please give me an example where this occurred in a Paizo written Pathfinder adventure?

And seeings how everyone is throwing up these contrived examples to try to prove why fail forward is a good idea. Your going to have to read through an example of where not having fail forward mechanics was a good idea (or simply skip the spoiler quote and don't read it at all).

Spoiler:
In a D&D 4th edition module for Living Forgotten Realms you needed to reach a walled off area in the city that was heavily guarded and patrolled. The game had b#*!&+~& skill challenge mechanic where, so long as you succeeded enough rolls, everyone was going to get on the other side no matter WHAT they did.

Our poor GM though had a group of dwarves. Who had proficiency in mining tools. We asked if there were abandoned buildings near the wall. The GM foolishly said yes. We asked if they had basements. Not catching onto us he said yes.

We finally asked whether or not this mission was time sensitive. He flipped through the module, getting a bit suspicious by now, and finally said no. We entered one of those abandoned buildings. Went into the basement and started tunneling our way into the walled off section of the city Great Escape style.

Now we had an awesome DM who fairly and impartially adjudicated our actions. He didn't say things like "you can't do that! It's not in the module!". He heard what we asked, he decided how the world reacted and then he decided whether or not our approach could succeed.

Why did we do this? Because there was no way all of us were going to successfully get past the guards by climbing the wall or bluffing the guards. Had we been trained that "fail forwards" will make sure we can never fail, we wouldn't have used clever thinking. We would have simply hopped on the railway tracks and rode that fail forward train all the way to the end.

Fortunately we weren't playing in a game where fail forward was being used so we had to engage in clever thinking. That example happened 10 years ago and I still remember that story. That's the power of excluding "fail forward" from your game.

*Dead Suns did have quite a few "the PC's actions don't matter and XXX happens anyway" in at least the first couple of books. And yes, I did politely criticise those books and change them for my game.


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Notice I said sealed, I didn't say locked. If you run into a passageway blocked by rocks on the other side, no interesting gameplay happens. You roll that Break DC until you succeed or fail, or tunnel through eventually because it's literally just a roadblock. You can't fail to get through or the adventure doesn't progress.

In your particular example, fail forward is summarized as:
Crit fail: Takes a long time to get through, meaning you have to contend with all the guards.
Fail: Two sets of guards come upon you as you're digging.
Success: No guards, but they're still hot on your heels
Crit success: No guards, but it's complete in record time, letting you get more distance on them

You're not completely stopped, but the additional consequences might doom you if they keep happening.

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