Monday, July 22, 2019

Dungeon Masters, Embrace The Concept of Failing Forward!

There are few things more frustrating from the players' side of the table than running into a brick wall when it comes to forward progress with a game. When the PCs can't pick the lock, when they can't find the right contact, or when they just can't navigate their way through the twisting and turning woods, the proper response from the dungeon master shouldn't be to fold your arms and wait for them to roll better.

It's to make something happen that moves the game along.

Did you disable the lock? No... but as you lean close to the door, you hear something on the other side!
To that end, I wanted to explain the basic premise of failing forward, and how you should consider incorporating it into your games so you never lose the pace.

What You Can Learn From A Heist Game

Even if you've never played the game, chances are you've heard of Blades in The Dark. Billed as a rules-light, gritty, heist-style game, the basic idea is that you assemble your crew, and take on intricate jobs that may go through multiple stages before you get your hands on the loot, and make a break for it.

However, there is a concept in this game that I would advocate dungeon masters and storytellers embrace no matter your game of choice; the concept of failing forward.

How does that work, exactly?
I touched on some aspects of this idea back in Want Your Games to be More Engaging? The Make Failing Interesting, but I didn't quite hit the nail on the head. I talked about how failed rolls should have some effect on the game that wasn't necessarily a punishment (missed arrow strikes a lamp, shattering it, and bringing down the light level in the room, as an example), but failing forward takes things a step further.

In short, win or lose, something needs to happen when you tell your players to reach for their dice. And that something should progress the story forward in a meaningful way.

One of the most common examples is when someone goes to scout ahead of the party. When this happens, there's a good outcome, and a bad outcome. Good, they manage to see something without being seen, and they can report back to their allies about what's going on. Bad, they get caught, raise the alarm, or find themselves running into someone else who's trying to sneak in, too. Whether they succeed or fail, something has happened that's moved the story along.

As a dungeon master, you should apply that logic to every part of your game so that the story is always moving forward. Whether they players are leaping forward with grace and skill, or tumbling wildly down the stairs because they tripped, they're still going in the right direction.

If the rogue is trying to open the locked door, and they're just not getting the numbers they need, don't sit there for ten minutes letting them try and try again; make something happen! A guard patrol comes along, with the key to the door swinging off one of their belts, for example. Now the party has to fight them, hide from them, or decide whether to try to swipe the key so they can get in more expediently. If they can't roll high enough on Diplomacy to find the contact they need, have a crew of enforcers roll up with questions about why the party was looking for Mad Jack. Do they talk their way through it, beat up the thugs, or trail them back to the hideout?

And so on, and so forth.

This basically applies to any kind of situation with a game. If the PCs succeed, awesome, the story moves forward on a success. If they fail in what they set out to do, though, introduce a complication that, though it might be a negative consequence, gives them a new opportunity to succeed. This new opportunity might be more difficult, or significantly more life threatening (fighting a squad of guards as opposed to picking a lock and sneaking in, for example), but it will keep the story moving along before players start getting bored and waiting for the right number to turn up on the die.

Get Creative With It

The important thing to remember about the idea of failing forward is that you want it to feel like an escalation, not a punishment. Also, while tossing a combat encounter at the party is often a viable way to do this, it shouldn't be the only solution.

Talking cross purposes with mysterious strangers is one idea, for example.
As another example, say the party has been commissioned to find a particular item that's circulating through the city's black market. However, they don't quite make the right checks, so instead of getting in touch with a dealer who can give them a line on the item, they find themselves getting a visit from the city watch, or even the inquisition. It's a bad idea to just pull steel on the cops (though some might do that anyway), but now they have a chance to find out a little more about the item they've been contracted to find, and they're given some help from the law to lay hands on it... provided they give up the item and their client in a sting operation when the exchange goes down.

There's nothing that stops the party from agreeing to this setup, taking the information the watchmen give them (which they would have gotten from the black market dealer on a successful check), and then double-crossing the authorities to keep their profits while skipping town. But the situation escalated, and grew more complicated, as a result of their failed check.

More to the point, though, the story didn't stagnate. It didn't have time to just stop, and get boring. And that is what failing forward is all about.

Also, if you're looking for some handy lists of NPCs who have built-in roles to help you give your players pertinent information, provide aid, and keep your story from slowing down, I'd recommend taking a look at some of the following supplements:

- 100 NPCs You Might Meet At The Tavern: From scholars and hard cases, to pickpockets and rumor mongers, almost everyone on this list can clue your party in to where they need to go, or who they need to talk to on the next step of their journey.

- 100 Merchants To Encounter: From dealers in deadly poisons, to information brokers, to curse breakers, everything has its price. Whether you're flogging dungeon trash, or you need someone to give you the straight dope about that rare statue you've been asked to steal, someone in this collection can definitely provide what you need... for a price.

- 100 Prisoners For A Fantasy Jail: Just because someone's behind bars doesn't mean they can't be useful. From local thugs and blackmailers, to dangerous sorcerers and nigh-immortal war criminals, there is all sorts of potential in the cutthroats, blackguards, and scoundrels in these pages.

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. Hopefully you enjoyed, and if you've used this tactic successfully in your games why not leave a comment below?

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1 comment:

  1. Presumption: anyone can pick a medieval lock given time and a tool. A thief can do it in seconds, in the middle of combat, or silently. Etc.

    And if that fails, open the door the half-orc way.

    And if that fails, start loosening some masonry.

    Can’t navigate the woods? Bring in a wizard with Disintegrate spells or a bunch of gnome lumberjacks.

    Can’t find the contact? Start turning over tavern tables. Put up a bounty notice. Pay off the jailer to get him to let you in to interview the prisoners with prejudice.

    This kind of lateral thinking is sometimes difficult to cultivate but as soon as one of the players gets that you’re going to allow for solutions you haven’t thought up, they will be able to get through most obstacles.