Author’s Diary for February 8, 2020

We’re into the rules for failing forward today. Click through to learn more.

Failing forward, at least as it applies to roleplaying games, is an antidote to a common problem in roleplaying games, that of character failure slamming a story to a halt. The classic example of this is the party’s rogue picking a lock. If xi can’t pick it, the party can’t get through the door and to whatever’s on the other side.

Some gamemasters deal with this by letting the rogue try again until xi succeeds. Or you can say that, if xi fails xir lockpicking check, then xi manages to defeat the lock, but makes so much noise that she alerts the guards. This is what failing forward is all about.

To put it another way, you don’t make a check (or in Covenant’s case, a bid) to succeed. You make a check or bid to succeed without consequences.

There are times when you want a character to outright fail, of course. Plus, I’m not so sure if failing forward is appropriate for a science-fiction game like Covenant. No one would ever mistake it for hard science fiction, but I do want it to be harder than Star Wars and even Star Trek. That means a lot of The Cold Equations, especially in space scenes, where the characters will sometimes have to face the consequences of bad decisions and being unprepared.

But, again, this is something for playtesting. Who knows? Failing forward might turn out to be just what Covenant needs: a flexible way for the Force Majeure to advance the story, even if the characters come up short.

Here’s what I’ve written today.


  • If a character fails a bid, the Force Majeure (FM) can let xir fail forward instead.
  • A character who fails forward on a bid succeeds at least partially, but with consequences.
  • Characters most commonly fail forward when making fixed bids.
  • The winner of an opposed bid can let the loser fail forward instead of losing the bid. When this happens, the loser wins the bid, but takes the full consequences of failing forward.
  • We recommend that the FM let a character fail forward when:
    • The character is incapable of making an important bid
    • The character wants to do something crazy or desperate
    • The player is getting frustrated
    • The FM wants to introduce something unexpected into the story
  • The FM does not have to let a character fail forward on a bid. This is just one of the FM’s options.
  • There are seven ways to fail forward, with a setback, silver lining, improvement, opening, condition, drain, or with ablative gear.
    • Setback: The character’s actions cause a related problem.
      • EXAMPLES:
        • The character sneaks into an office and finds secret documents, but trips an alarm or alerts the guards.
        • The character’s spaceship evades a missile, but strains its systems in doing so and burns out an important system.
    • Silver Lining: The character fails xir task, but gains something unexpected or succeeds at a related task.
      • EXAMPLES:
        • The character is captured while sneaking into an enemy camp, but overhears the guards talking about an upcoming attack.
        • The character fails to find a cure for a disease, but discovers a technique that halves the cost of xir next crafting bid.
    • Improvement: The character fails this time, but gains 1 advantage the next time xi attempts it against the same target.
      • EXAMPLES:
        • The character misses with a machine gun or mortar, but adjusts xir fire and “walks” her subsequent shots into xir target.
        • The character fails to crack a safe, but figures out part of the combination that xi needs.
    • Opening: The winner of an opposed bid voluntarily loses it in exchange for a tactical advantage. Xi takes the full consequences of losing the bid, but either xi or an ally gains a benefit on xir next bid against this opponent. These benefits can include 1 or more advantages or immediately recharging an asset.
      • EXAMPLES:
        • The character’s opponent hits xir target, but overextends xirself and gets tripped up.
        • The character’s opponent is so busy chasing xir starship that xir wingman has a chance to get into a better firing position.
    • Condition: The character succeeds, but suffers a condition as a result of xir bid.
      • EXAMPLES:
        • The character climbs over a wall, but strains xir back, imposing 1 disadvantage on all physical bids.
        • The character sneaks past the guards but makes too much noise, imposing 1 disadvantage to stealth and fast-talking bids.
    • Drain: The character succeeds, but suffers a drain as a result of xir bid.
      • EXAMPLES:
        • The character climbs over a fence but rips xir arm open on a piece of exposed metal, leaving xir bleeding.
        • The character concocts a cure for a poison, but xir chemicals react unexpectedly and explode, setting xir clothes on fire.
    • Ablative Gear: The character succeeds, but loses a piece of gear selected by the FM in doing so.
      • EXAMPLES:
        • The character barely manages to jump over a chasm, but drops her backpack as she grabs the edge and scrambles up on the other side.
        • The character’s starship fails to dodge a missile, but xi ejects a module from the ship that takes the hit instead.

That’s it for now. Stop by tomorrow for more.

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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