By now, I think pretty much everyone has heard of the phrase "failing forward". For those who haven't, here's the rundown. It's about saying, "Yes, you manage to grab the vine before plummeting to your death, but now there's a hungry Pterodactyl circling above." Or this, "No, the demon grabs the scepter before you can reach it; however, in the demon's haste, a ring fell out of his black pouch... the ring of power!"
To fail forward is just a path of partially successful stepping stones leading from one danger to another until the very end, when the heroes save the day. You see it a lot in movies, tv shows, and books. It's a worthwhile technique that definitely has its uses.
Indeed, depending on the system and genre, I think that's a great way to run a session or campaign. Something like Hollow Earth Expedition, Star Wars, or 13th Age - that style is well suited to failing forward.
But then there's failure failure. The kind where things just do not work out and there's no silver lining to save anyone's ass. That's the old school stuff some of us contemporary GMs eschew. I understand why. Players like it when they're given chance after chance after chance, like a never ending lifeline... the GM guardian angel waiting in the wings, making sure no one fucks up too bad. And if the players are happy, then the GM is usually happy. Everyone's having fun. It's a good game.
But do we always want "a good game"? Roleplaying can do a lot of things. It's not only for generating a 3 or 4 hour action adventure story that's fun for the whole family. Occasionally, gamers want something with teeth. That bleeds. A hardcore session or campaign that makes lesser gamers run home to their mommies.
Yes, sometimes we want to play a rough and tumble, quick and dirty, dark and deadly old school kind of game. I'm talking about the difference between pulp and noir. That's when failing forward can feel aesthetically wrong. If you want to recreate that 70's and 80's vibe with games like original D&D, AD&D, Call of Cthulhu, Cyberpunk, Traveller - even new games like Fiasco and Dungeon Crawl Classics - there has to be plenty of dead ends and dead player characters.
Failure, in and of itself, doesn't have to be the end. Faced with a brick wall, the trail going cold, or a gun aimed at the back of your character's head, there aren't many pleasant solutions. Sure, failing forward is always an option, but with the right RPG and group, ordinary failure works, too.
As a player, I can remember doing something stupid or getting unlucky. I faced failure. The real kind - and died (horribly, most likely). Yeah, it stung. But it taught me a couple things. 1) Shit happens. 2) Prepare yourself for when shit happens.
You do your best and move on. Old school.
Authored by Venger Satanis