More on Failing Forward

Covenant Game Design - More on Failing Forward

We’ve talked about Covenant‘s fail forward mechanics, but I want to touch on something more fundamental here: how the Force Majeure (FM) can prevent failed bids from grinding their games to a halt.

This was inspired by a post on the RPGdesign subreddit from xxXKurtMuscleXxx entitled: “A new (?) kind of social mechanic“. The rule itself is interesting – I might even steal it later – but it’s also unimportant to this discussion. What I want to focus on is the top response, by remy_porter

The underlying problem here is the same as the lockpicking problem: how do you fail forward? If an NPC has vital information, having the NPC clam up derails the plot.

This touches upon the fundamental problem in RPG social systems: they tend to take the fundamental “winner/loser” logic of combat and apply it to social interaction, which isn’t how social interactions work.

… and the top response to that, by DastardlyCoxcomb:

This complaint is always so contrived. It’s not a system fault, it’s the GM’s fault for, in order:

– Hiding plot-vital information behind a fail state

– Not having more than one way of accessing vital information, fail state or not

– Lacking flexibility to introduce said other ways of accessing information even if not originally present

– Railroading players in such a way that the players missing one plot thread instantly derails the entire plot

– Not understanding that sometimes players just want to make a U-turn and turn the campaign into something else.

Your complaint applies to literally any system where players can fail a conversation in some fashion, from DnD to PbtA (ed.: Powered by the Apocalypse).

The best way to do handle these situations, of course, is to not gate vital information, items, or events behind bids. This is because even the easiest bids can be failed. If the players fail a bid that’s vital to the story, then the prize behind that bid is inaccessible, and the FM will have to scramble to either replace it or come up with an alternate way to get it into the players’ hands.

One way to handle this is to give the players anything that’s critical to the story, possibly through a cut scene-like bit of narration. Some FMs might feel this puts the game on rails, though. In addition, some players may not appreciate just being handed stuff. After all, they want to earn their shinies, dammit.

If you’re an FM, and you want to avoid railroading your characters, then there are a couple ways to handle story-critical bids. They’ll require you to do more work, of course, but they’ll give your players greater freedom while ensuring that they don’t dead-end the story:

  • Alternate Methods of Success: Make sure your players have more than one way to succeed at story-critical bids, and try to tailor them to their characters’ specializations. For instance, one PC might be good at fast-talking NPCs, while another is good at stealth. If the first PC can’t talk a piece of information out of a NPC, give the second a chance to, say, sneak into the NPC’s home or office to steal it.
  • Fail Conditions: Make sure your story isn’t a straight line from start to finish. When planning it, include forks at critical points, with one branch for the PC succeeding and another for if the PCs failing. Plot out both branches fully. After all, you won’t know which one the PCs will take until they get there.

That’s about it for now. I promised last week that we’d be talking about tactical movement during scenes, and I intend to deliver on that tomorrow. Stay tuned for that!

Published by radiofreecovenant

A podcast about the science-fiction roleplaying game "Covenant" and the urban fantasy novel "Crossing the Line", soon to be published by Black Opal Books.

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