Dungeon Mastering 101: Failing Forward

Having disarmed the trap, Alaina turns her thieves’ tools against the lock on the door, but loses her lockpick in the keyhole. Heaving from the exertion, Ulfric once again sets his hands and puts all his might behind another futile attempt to dislodge the boulder blocking the way. In a grand sitting room, Leopold tries to imagine if physically putting his foot in his mouth would do anything to alleviate the gaffe that had earned the duke’s dark scowl and reticence.

Inherent to any system that involves random chance is the possibility of failure. It is no different in DUNGEONS & DRAGONS. Whether a failed attempt to pick a lock, a bungled negotiation, or even the whole party getting wiped out in a series of unfortunate rolls, Dungeon Masters must frequently contend with situations where the player characters are unable to surmount the challenges before them. In this article, we will examine some approaches and techniques to handle this aspect of running the game, and some things to avoid.

Mitigating Failure

Very often, the first reaction of a Dungeon Master whose party has encountered some insurmountable challenge or suffered some drastic setback will be to attempt to mitigate it. The duke finds the hopeless blunder of the characters endearing instead of insulting; the keyhole in which the lockpick is wedged is, in fact, a false keyhole, and the real one can still be defeated; the party is rescued from certain defeat by the timely appearance of some allies, or some other contrived occurrence that, in effect, invalidates the failure.

There is a danger involved in this practice, as invalidating the failure of your players is ultimately taking away their agency to the same extent as would be if you guaranteed their success. Rigged games aren’t fun, and the more you employ these strategies, the quicker your players will suspect that their choices don’t really matter. If you are going to mitigate failure, it should be only as a last resort.

Failing Forward

While consequences can suck, the worst thing that can happen with a failure is actually not that something bad happens, but that nothing happens at all. When this happens, everyone’s time gets wasted. Why bother having obstacles that offer no drawbacks? Why is that door even locked if there’s no consequence for the characters failing to open it? And if it’s simply a matter of time for them to get in, why bother making them roll? When nothing happens on a failure, the game slows down unnecessarily and frustrations rise.

Okay, maybe it can be funny sometimes.

Having an unlocked back door, physical or metaphorical, to cover when the characters fail is a crutch for poor adventure design. There are times that it can make sense, but to actually make failures meaningful, the characters should face consequences. When those consequences advance the story in another way, this is called ‘failing forward’.

Failing forward is about putting the narrative first, for good or bad. It assures that the actions of the characters always have meaning, that the story is based on them. While not everything has to be prevented or caused by the characters, failing forward means that none of their own actions are inconsequential.

The following scenarios show a few ways a party can fail forward.

Entering the Kingdom

The party has entered a country through a port city and is told—as was common in medieval times—that they required permission from the local lord to go further into the kingdom. They go to the duke’s palace and discover that he is a minor, and his uncle is the regent. In fact, the uncle is part of a conspiracy to restore the previous king to the throne, and has received word that the party are agents of the current king’s allies. When the party arrives to petition to enter the kingdom, the duke has been instructed to reject their request. They try—and fail—to persuade him. (There was a chance they could succeed if they had made a better case before the duke’s court, but they didn’t roll well enough.)

As they are going to leave, a servant discretely passes along a note encouraging the party to meet that night to learn a way to get their petition approved. When they arrive at the meeting place—an abandoned house near the edge of town—they find an agent of the Crown, who tips them off about the regent’s suspected duplicity and offers a lead on how to check into his affairs. If the party can find damning evidence, the regent can be removed from his position and the party granted passage.

Alternatively, the party can attempt to escape the city via some other means. The gates are closed after dusk, but there are any number of ways to get around that, some more dangerous than others. The walls surrounding the city are about 30 feet high—low enough that a single feather fall spell would allow the party to safely drop down. A few small rowboats might, under the cover of a moonless night, escape notice as they passed by the fort guarding the entrance to the harbour and conveyed the characters to shore a quarter mile up the coast. A caravan may be able to hide the characters amongst the wares so that they can get through the gate. The possibilities are myriad and limited only by the creativity of the players.

If the characters opt to skip town in a clandestine manner, they will have lost the opportunity to take down the regent at this time, which might have repercussions down the road. For now, they’ve managed to meet whatever urgent deadline has driven them to possibly ignore this opportunity.

The Vault Door

Deep in the heart of the archmage’s private demiplane retreat is the door to the wizard’s vault. This massive edifice has a custom lock created by a master locksmith (whose memory was subsequently erased) and is accessed by a chamber where seven magic circles are inscribed on the floor. The lock has seven parts which can only be accessed one at a time, each requiring at least 1 minute and a DC 30 Dexterity check with thieves’ tools to defeat. Casting knock or dispel magic on the door reduces the DC for all checks by 10 for the next 10 minutes. Failing this check by less than 5 increases the DC by 1 until the lock resets (see below). Failing this check by 5 or more triggers a trap.

Each part of the lock has its own trap, summoning a different type of creature into the magic circles of the chamber. If the final part is not disarmed within 10 minutes, the lock resets and the characters must start over. The seven keys that are needed to open this door are sequestered in the wizard’s other, less secure and well-hidden, but very widespread and obscure retreats—places such as under the floorboards of a cottage in the Catskill Mountains on Earth, in the false bottom of an old barrel in a Waterdeep townhouse, behind a loose brick in an old tower just outside Specularum in Mystara’s Grand Duchy of Karameikos, and so on.

This is an example of an acceptable plot-essential door. This isn’t a simple pass/fail skill check, but a full encounter that has many moving parts that can offer a real challenge to your players. Failure and success have meaning, with the likelihood of failure serving to add danger to this encounter. There isn’t even any need to have wandering monsters who can happen upon the party whilst they futz with the lock, since a failure is likely to summon enough creatures as needed to pose a challenge.

Putting It All Together

Player agency is one of the easiest things to lose. Contriving circumstances to eliminate the consequences of failure or offering players a succeed-or-nothing option are mistakes that every Dungeon Master has made. The best adventures are ones that let players fail and which turn that failure into new opportunities. When you design a storyline, adventure, or encounter, it’s best to remember that no plan survives first contact with the party, and therefore you should have devised alternative solutions or considered the expected consequences.

Often, problems of ‘rail-roading’ result from Dungeon Masters not applying this philosophy to their adventures. Using the door as both a reference and a metaphor, consider why a door should be locked not from an in-game perspective, but from a game perspective. If the party has to pick a lock, what’s the point of the lock? If it is to push them to solve another problem first, that’s fine, but if you know you’ll have to let the party open it whether they succeed or fail, without any repercussions for either choice, then what was the point of it? Why bother allowing players to have a choice if the result is always predetermined such that they can’t screw it up?

At the end of the day, all adventures are a series of doors. Make sure yours all have a purpose and you will be one step closer to writing great adventures.

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