Let’s talk failure.
Failure may be the most complicated facet of tabletop gaming because it often means different things at different moments – TPKs can feel like victories, griefers love when things fall apart, players may get everything they set out for and still feel cheated because of how they got it. But today we’re just talking about immediate character failure – when the dice turn against you, the difficulty was just too high, the modifiers dogpile a PC, or for some other reason, they failed to do the thing they were trying to do.
The core problem with this (and why many GMs make the mistake of trying to avoid it altogether) is that failure in most systems is a simple binary – you hit the orc or you didn’t, you hack into the system or you didn’t. The “didn’t” side of that line at minimum means wasted time and effort, to say nothing of possible death or mission failure depending on the task at hand. Failure is a wall, at least temporarily, and no one likes running into one.
Success is often judged on a gradient (“I hit, now I roll for damage”) but failure is a singular state of nothing – with the possible exception of critical failures, which rarely make anyone who’s already frustrated want to dance for joy. Moving that measuring stick seems to be a big key to keeping failure from feeling like a wall and turning success and failure into different roads rather than progress and stagnation.
The first system I ran across that did a good job moving the stick between success and failure was 13th Age. Their “fail forward” philosophy attacked the very core of the failure issue in most tabletop games by making failures still matter without grinding things to a halt. With fail forward mechanics, failing a check often means still getting what you were after, but to a lesser degree or with interesting complications. An attack that misses still does a small amount of damage – even if you miss all night, you contributed something to the group damage fund. Or you gather the information you need, but your inquiries bring you to the attention of the local crime lord who also wants the artifact you’re asking about. The rogue disarms the trap, but triggers something which slams the door closed behind you, cutting off the way back to town.
Failure changes the path you take, but doesn’t stop things cold. While 13th Age naturally has a lot of mechanics in place with their system to handle fail-forward, it’s very easy to apply the philosophy at large to any system or setting. In essence, fail forward is a different kind of safety net – you’re not avoiding the PCs’ failure, you’re avoiding the game grinding to a halt, whether they fail or not. But failure still needs to matter – else, why are you having them roll anything at all?
In addition to fail forward, there’s also the “establish/resolve” mechanic from Fiasco to consider. While not exactly a traditional tabletop game, Fiasco has a lot of wonderfully modular tools that can be applied to any system. In Fiasco, each player gets to choose to establish or resolve a scene. If they set it up, they have control of the framing, the content, and the characters involved, but the other players choose how it ends. If they choose to resolve, the other players control all the pieces and framework, but the player chooses the resolution.
Some part of the narrative is always controlled by the player either way, and that control can often make what would be a painful scene far more enjoyable by empowering the player to choose the shape of the destroyer. As a GM, you can choose to cede this same control when a PC fails. The resolution has already been determined, but the player can narrate the shape of the failure itself. The character still fails, but the player may have fun describing how. If you do cede control of the narrative, make sure to rein things in if they start to get out of hand. You may want to save this option for larger points of failure that might impact the flow of the session, rather than letting PCs describe every single mixed shot. Alternatively, give the PCs three chips that they can cash in once a session to choose when they want to narrate their own failure.
Another system where narrative control helps counter failure is Dust Devils, where players face off with poker hands rather than dice rolls. In any given conflict, the winning hand gets whatever goal they had started when the conflict started, and the loser does not. However, the scene is narrated by the player holding the highest card, regardless of whether they won or lost. That high card power means a player can have the worst hand at the table but still get to describe how it all goes down – something a number of players relish, especially in Dust Devils’ wild west setting.
The fact that Fiasco and Dust Devils can build entire mechanics around narrative control as a balance to the bitter taste of failure should tell us something about how valuable that control is to most players. Naturally, failures that could grind the whole game to a stop may be a better place for a fail-forward approach, but for all the rest, just giving players the power to control the particulars of a known, bad outcome can often be all the salve that’s needed to make failing surprisingly fun.