I did some story-gaming over the holiday weekend with a GM who was devoted to the concept of “failing forward”—the idea that a failed skill check or whatever isn’t just a negation of the success, but a failure that still drives the narrative forward.
And this GM was the failing-forwardest of the failing forwards. After about an hour, we were careening toward our collective destiny—individual successes and failures be damned.
At a table devoted to storytelling, where narrative integrity is the highest virtue, that isn’t necessarily a problem. At many Pathfinder/D&D tables, though, it falls short, because the game is also a capital-G Game, and because individual problem-solving (or problem-failing) is part of the challenge.
In those games, failing forward can still be useful, but only if you don’t forget the primacy of the “failing” part.
That’s what my weekend game lacked. The failures were often entertaining, and they had just as much payoff (in terms of emotion, narrative, and overall enjoyment) as the successes. I never felt the sting of failure.
A lot of well-meaning D&D/Pathfinder DMs have taken “failing forward” as a rallying cry. If that’s working for you, great! But consider this: when the “forward” overwhelms the “failing,” you may be robbing your table of drama and tension without even realizing it.
Failing Forward Lite
When I’m DMing and I see a good “failing forward” moment, I’m going to try Failing Forward Lite. Think of it as three parts failing, one part forward. The player still gets the sting of failure. The table condition is incrementally worse (and probably more tense) as a result of the failure. But the failure includes something beyond a simple “you missed/that didn’t work” negation.
Example: When the player fails an Arcana check to decipher some runes on a dungeon door, tell the player “you have no idea what those runes mean” (the failing), then add, “…but you think the restricted library stacks in the Demesne of Memory would have the answer” (the forward). The player feels the sting of failure, the situation is more tense, but you’ve added an option rather than just negating something the player wanted to do. That’s Failing Forward Lite.
Example: The player wants permission to enter the catacombs under the castle, but she fails an Intimidate check against the duke. Rather than just having the duke match intimidation with a forceful personality, have the Intimidate check work too well —the duke faints with fright.
The player feels the sting of failure (no permission to get into the catacombs). The situation is definitely more tense (approaching footsteps indicate that guards will march by soon and see the PCs surrounding the prone form of the duke). And now the whole encounter just took a turn that the players (and let’s be honest, also you) weren’t expecting.
Try that recipe: three parts failing, one part forward. See whether you get the benefits of the “forward” while keeping tension and reward intact.