Does PbtA implement Fail Forward by design?

On a miss (6-) PbtA games mostly say - GM makes a move, as hard as appropriate.
Moves usually make problematic/bad stuff happen to PCs or things they care about, nothing says to do or not to do fail forward, however books tell us that moves snowball.

So when a PC is escaping a pack of Warewolfs and get’s a miss we can do the following:

  1. As you run from the Silverfang you bust out of the doors just to realize that you are in a dead end. Silvenfang and his buddy approach you and drop shackles on the floor then says “Put them on or we will” (capture them, no fail forward)
  2. After you loose that pack that is hunting you and you arrive to the place you parked your car, you find out that it was stolen. (steal their stuff, but with fail forward, PC escaped but finds an asset stolen).

So when and if we should be implementing Fail Forward in PbtA games?


You seem to be considering “fail forward” to mean “you succeed at the task, but here here’s the bad thing that happens anyway or as a result.”

My understanding of “fail forward” (and I could be wrong!) is that it means “the failed check propels the story forward into new and interesting places.” In which case, both of these cases would be failing forward. In the first one, they PC fails to escape the werewolves and gets captured, which leads to all sorts of new, interesting potential situations.

Contrast that with “nope, you fail, they’re still chasing you, what do you do?” or “nope, you fail, the door is still locked, what do you do?” or “nope, you fail to climb the ridge, take 1d6 falling damage, what do you do?” These failures create no significant change in the game state (maybe the d6 falling damage does, depending on how many HP the PCs have), and in my mind, that’s what “failing forward” is a reaction to.

With that in mind, yes, I’d say that PbtA games are intended to fail forward by design. Especially where a miss is “GM makes as hard and direct of a move as they like, guided by their principles,” then a missed roll should change the game state significantly and push the emergent story forward.

It still requires GM intention and experience to do that, though. Because the 6- result on many moves is completely undefined, newer GMs/MCs can fall into “trad” habits and make moves that don’t really change the game state. I’ve done it and I’ve certainly seen it happen.


I think the way I (try to) work this is to say that 6- means something should change in the fiction. If that means failure then the PCs should be able to trust me to make capture and interesting event that drives the story forward … Fail forward for the story, not necessarily for the individual in that moment.


That’s quite right.

Given a typical PbtA design which has open-ended or undefined miss clauses, the part of the design that contributes to “fail forward” is the list of MC moves. (And “nope, nothing happens” isn’t typically on that list.)

However, it’s worth noting that some 7-9 (and even some 10+!) results are examples of “fail forward”, as well.


One thing I want to add: a miss doesn’t mean “failure”, it means “the GM makes a move as hard as they like”. I do this often with things like a miss on “Spout Lore” in Dungeon World, where the character gets at least some information, but either it’s much worse than they anticipated (“reveal an unwelcome truth”) or perhaps while they remember what the bad thing is, they realize it’s already very close (“show signs of an approaching threat”).


I do not like the failure / success semantics of moves. Although oftentimes the ruletext says so. I prefer thinking of what direction the story takes:

  • does it follow a straight line? You got, what was to be expected

  • does it deviate a bit to the left or to the right? Most of the expectations were met

  • action turns in a completely different direction? You got something, but did you expect that?

Talking of failing forward does make sense for me, when you are speaking of classical skill ckecks. But PbtA is - at least for me - not about skill checks themselves, but about the story around them. Missing isn’t about incompetence of the characters: they are always able / competent to do things - they can not fail. Which for me is a consequence of being a fan of the characters. But sometimes the circumstances are problematic and unexpected things happen: you got the security code, but when using it later the PCs realize codes were changed recently and this one is correct but deprecated.


I’ve often thought of rephrasing it, especially for new people as “On a 10+ you get to tell me how your Move works, on a 7-9 we negotiate how your move works, and on a 6-, I tell you how your move works, them make one of mine.” and leave the hit/miss/pass/fail thing entirely out of it.


I agree, @JimLikesGames! I much prefer couching PbtA resolution mechanics in who exactly gets narrative control. I think, in this way, PbtA does naturally “fail forward,” since we’re interested in what narrative change the dice incite rather than the success/failure of an action.

e.g. If a PC decides to hide, maybe they do just make a DEX check or something (Defy Danger, etc.), but in PbtA the mechanics aren’t interested at all in whether or not the PC can hide – instead, the PbtA resolution is interested in what happens with that action in context. On a 6-, maybe you take the only viable hiding spot. Even a 10+ should “succeed forward!” Just saying “okay you hide, it doesn’t find you, what now?” is kind of staid…the exit is probably way clear, no obstacles (but they have to go now), or instead the PCs have the chance to surprise the thing, taking greater position than they had previously.
As a player and GM, I’m never interested in dice rolls unless we’re at a point where a narrative could branch. If players want to roll dice, I take that as a sign that they want to see the plot go in a different direction.


I think that would be really helpful. I’ve listened to many Actual Play podcasts where 6- is just treated as a failure, and almost never hear the MC use it to make one of their many move options.

Recently I was in a game of Bedlam Hall (which I love) but it suffered from this very thing. My recollection is that almost no moves said what happened on a 6- so it was just read as ‘nothing happens, you were unsuccessful’. I think the game process would be so much clearer if it was explicit about what the MC can do in those situations on every character sheet (not the details, just a line like you suggest)


For me when the dice are rolled, it means that something in the narrative will change. No matter the outcome, nothing never happens. So you fail forward on 6-, but you also succeed forward on 10+…and suceed sideways(?) on 7-9.

I wish more PbtA games should include this idea clearly in the text. @Chris_Wolf’s Offworlders does a good job at it:

Nothing Never Happens. No matter what the outcome is, rolling the dice always changes the fictional situation. On a success, the PC accomplishes their goal and the game moves forward. On a complication or a miss, the situation escalates and becomes more interesting. The GM can never say, “Nothing Happens.” The GM should always be honest about the potential consequences beforehand, so the player can take their fate into their own hands.


In theory unless the move explicitly has 6- outcomes the result is a hard move from the MC. Whether that happens as an explicit reaction to or outcome of the miss is up to the MC. Some might “bank it” and bring down the hammer at an inopportune time on the future.

Since MCs are told not to say the name of the move they are makingbit is possible to not realize that something happening in the fiction is the result of a miss.