When to call a mission failed: questions on failing forward


New GM here. With the idea of failing forward we introduce new complications when a test fails. When is the point at which GM should say, you failed too many tests to be able to get this goal with this method (but it might be possible with a new method)? Simply continuing to add complications seems to eventually get to a stage where it is not realistic, the opposition has been reinforced, the party split up, weapons lost. Really, the question is when is it ok to not fail forward and simply say for example ‘no, they have all the advantages now, they won’t be intimidated by you’?

On a separate but linked question, how much of failing forward complications should be linked to the goal/task (your quarry leaps over a high fence, out of your eyesight for now) or to separate narratives/goals (you hear a shout for help as you dash for the quarry, the girl you promised to save is being kidnapped)? The first adds challenge to the current belief, where the other can create a moment for decision between two beliefs.

My thanks for your advice.

This is where the “Let it Ride” rule comes in, which says that when a test has a result, that result rides until the situation changes in a significant way. So you can fail, and that result “rides” as well as having a consequence that can also remain constant if needed. The example given in the book is that you can fail forward picking a lock by saying that you get into the room just before the guards catch you. This means someone else couldn’t say that they stop the guards, or something like that, because the result is set by the failure.

The complication is usually there to say “You don’t get your intent.”, and anything beyond that is really up to the GM. The examples I’ve seen say it does necessarily need to be related at all.

Yup, Let it Ride says when you fail you can’t retest for the same goal using the same method. The result of the test should reflect that things happen, rather than just adding difficulty.

Goals really should be Beliefs, and you should never have an occasion when your Belief just becomes impossible unless it’s a very big, meaningful moment. Enough failures could instead add up to meaningful impediments: you can’t do that now because you’re going to have to do something else to make it possible first.

But this is also part of the art of GMing and deciding what you want to see in your game. If the interesting thing is to have the players succeed at X, then the obstacles should make it more costly or more annoying but still eminently doable. If it’s interesting for everyone at the table to face failure, then you can go ahead and make it obviously not something that’s going to happen. The risk of the latter is that you can end up getting sidetracked from sidetracks as the failures mount when the players are trying to overcome previous failures. Remember that BW has a lot of failing expected, more than in many systems; don’t make failure painfully punishing or you make players averse to facing tests, which makes them averse to engaging with the game.

Basically, the point of failure isn’t really to cause suffering. It’s to do something unwanted and interesting. It’s perfectly fair to have failure mean the character succeeds at doing what he attempted; maybe he even gets his intent, but something else comes up in the process that is a Bad Thing.

Getting intent on a failure seems wrong except for the Resources Gift of Kindness. If your stated failure result is “you get your intent but this bad thing happens” I wonder if the stated intent was the actual intent…

Yeah the commentaries say this as well: sometimes failure when you want to kill someone isn’t that you don’t do it, its that you have been seen to do it or arrested for doing it.

Succeeding on the roll means you get your intent without some kind of quirk, curveball, or gotcha. You get what you want. Intent always has an implied “and that’s all” appended. I do what I set out to do, and that’s all.

Failing means you could not get your intent, but you could also get your intent with one of those unwanted additions. Sometimes the problem is even unrelated to the task. You succeed, but bad luck strikes. That’s something to use sparingly, but it’s kosher.

If you succeed at Stealthy, you sneak past the sentries to the cultists’ secret ritual. If you fail, maybe you get caught. Maybe you’re too slow and the ritual is all but complete already. Maybe you make it in just fine, but after you sneak in you find it’s much worse than you imagined; it’s not two cultists performing the ritual, it’s two dozen, and one of them is the queen. Maybe you realize you cracked your holy water flask on the way in and now you have no way to put a stop to the proceedings. Maybe the sacrificial victim turns out to be your brother… and willing.

While this isn’t necessarily how it’s done, it’s a good rule of thumb to think that a success should result in something the player could have narrated. It’s exactly what he or she was envisioning and wanting. A failure means the result requires GM narration, because it’s some kind of unpleasant twist.

Some of those sound perfectly kosher. Some really don’t. Maybe the way I think about it is just wrong?

First player states intent and task. (If necessary, clarify)
Then GM chooses a failure possibility. Based on the chosen failure, pick one of the many places to focus attention on part of the task and use the appropriate resolution method.
OR pick one of the resolution methods, then choose a failure possibility tied to the method, and if you can’t, choose the failure first.

The resolution method should use skill(s) appropriate to the task and appropriate to the failure. It picks out 1 focus to generate a random result of succeed or fail for the intent, though there are many places the spotlight could be focused.
Now resolve.

So in your examples…


Perfect. Stealthy is even rooted in Speed.

Whaa? If GM knew this in advance, it’s not a failure result, it’s what happens when you succeed your Stealthy roll. If GM didn’t know this but maybe the players were BSing about the possibility or something, it really feels like this is two separate things, and maybe you should be testing Stealthy linked to Cultist Ritual-wise. Nothing related to Stealthy-ing past some sentries could turn 2 cultists into 12+Q. This failure for Stealthy displeases me.

Perfectly fine for Stealthy. IRL I’m much more likely to break things when trying not to wake my wife than when just doing things normally.

Again whaa? Surprise, you were bad at Stealth so your brother’s creepy? Again, if this is known in advance it’s not a failure result, it’s a success result, and if not, I say throw a -wise in there. Stealthy linked to whatever.

Am I doing it wrong? Are you? Are both okay? The Codex has one (and only one?) example that’s kinda not well related… intent: assassinate the queen, implicating your enemy. task: sneaky stiletto. failure: your dear friend is implicated. But that one actually seems fine to me, you just stiletto’d at the wrong time, with people in the wrong mood. Presumably there was some reason your enemy would be implicated and you failed to stiletto in such a way that the reason was no longer valid.

I dunno, it just feels aesthetically wrong to have failure completely divorced from task. I just did a search for “fail” in a dozen or so of the BWHQ play reports and none of the fail results were divorced from the task. I admit, I don’t see any place the rules say failure should be related to task…

The player doesn’t choose the Task. They just describe what their character does to achieve their Intent. The GM chooses the Task based on the player’s description.

Just semantics, but…

Player chooses the task. The task is their description of what their character does. GM determines if it’s appropriate and what the resolution method is, maybe “Say Yes”, maybe choosing the ability to roll, maybe a DoW, etc.


What “the queen is a cultist” and “your brother is the sacrifice” are, however, is pretty good examples of how to escalate a situation and challenge beliefs, as a totally legit follow-up, to either success or failure. The witch hunter passes a Stealthy roll to sneak into the sewer temple and get in a good position to use his crossbow on the ritual leader, only to realize that the blood-soaked, knife-waving priestess commanding the circle is the queen who gave him his commission — that’s kosher. Just because the player got their intent (to set up the ambush) doesn’t mean you can’t push their buttons about whether to go through with it.

You’re right. The Task is literally the description of how they try to achieve their intent. The GM determines what to test. My bad.

I don’t like failures that are essentially divorced from the task, as the examples you point out above, but I’ve seen them used and there’s nothing wrong with them as long as they’re used carefully and sparingly, and (as always is key) if the players at your table find it enjoyable, not annoying.

My examples are missing a piece, though: they assume that the task is Stealthy sneaking and the intent is to disrupt the ritual, not just to reach it. They’re disruptions of intent that aren’t really task-based, and not even necessarily because you can’t do what you initially intended. But the consequences will not be what you initially wanted, and should give you pause.

You’re absolutely right that those are lousy failures if the intent is just to reach the ritual.

And whether Stealthy should get you to the ritual or be enough to wreck it is a prime example of how scope of intent sets the zoom on important and unimportant parts of the game.