Fail Forward, Cypher System Style

What is a Fail Forward?

failforwardHere’s a callout from my upcoming Numenera adventure, The Sun Below: Sleeping Lady:

When you fail forward, a bad die roll means things go wrong instead of the PC isn’t good enough. This way the game doesn’t stall because a player rolled a 2, but there is a consequence.

So What Went Wrong?

Anything that complicates the situation. If you are running out of time, you might have succeeded, but you lost quite a bit of time doing so. You opened the locked door, but the alarm went off. You found the clue, but the clue implicates you in the crime. And so on.

Note: You use Fail Forward in non-combat situations. Combat is a string of successes and failures. Outside of combat, often a single bad roll is all it takes to block progress.

Who Decides?

The GM can make up the consequence, or, better yet, she can ask the player.

“You’re a hero, you obviously didn’t miss your stealth roll because you’re not stealthy. That’s just not what your character does. So what went wrong?”

Then you run with the player’s complication and let the story continue.

Isn’t that like a GM Intrusion?

Yes. But instead of getting two xp, one to keep, one to give away, you get a success. You find the secret door. You open the lock. You find your way to your goal. The story continues.

As the GM, you can choose. Give them a a GM Intrusion, let them fail, or Fail Forward. A GM Intrusion is great fun in combat and is key to giving your players experience. If failure is interesting in and of itself, you might want to let it stand. When failure bogs the game down, that’s the perfect time to Fail Forward.

Doing Both

If a player missed a roll and you give them both a success and xp, make sure the consequences are dire. If your players have regularly been spending xp to reject GM Intrusions, this makes their decision that much harder.

“You can’t open the door, unless you wouldn’t mind setting off the trap?” You wave two xp cards and smile at the player.

“It wasn’t easy, but you open the door. Unfortunalty, you trigger the trap and fall down into the pit with the hungry creature. Speaking of creatures, the rest of you see a swarm of nasty ones leaping over the pit right at you. Everyone roll for initiative.”

Tell Me More!

No. But listen to this 13th Age podcast from Iconic Podcast on how to Fail Forward in 13th Age. It’s the same idea in any game.

Horror on the Cypher System Express

I’ve always enjoyed a great eldritch horror game: Call of Cthulhu or more recently, Trail of Cthulhu. And I really enjoy the Cypher System, the core rules used in Numenera and The Strange. Now, with the publication of the Cypher System Rulebook, I can mix my shuggoths and my GM Intrusions.

CSR-Cover-Free-Preview-386x500So, how does horror work in the Cypher System? First, I should explain a little about how the Cypher System Rulebook works. It’s a menu of rules a GM (and players) can chose from to create their own game. Besides horror, there are rules for science fiction, fantasy, modern, and superheros. Within each genre, you get more choices. Lots of optional rules to tailor the game to just the right kind of horror.

The rulebook has a big bestiary of creatures to choose from and the horror section lists the ones that best fit a horror campaign, including Deep Ones and Mi-Go. It also includes 3 horror artifacts, so if you want more, you’re going to have to make some yourself.

Art by Doug Scott
Art by Doug Scott

The horror rules are all optional rules. Madness will be familiar to Cthulhu players. Cypher System madness grew out of the madness rules found in In Strange Aeons: Lovecraftian Numenera. In this case madness puts a hurt on your Intellect pool and can even change your descriptor. I do something similar in The Sun Below: Sleeping Lady, which has a seriously eldrtich horror vibe.

Shock is another optional rule, more for short term effects like losing control of your character and running away or sitting down to sob rather than fight. Trail of Cthulhu players will find it very similar to Stability losses. Different mechanics, but going for the same effect.

Combine both Madness and Shock if you want a game like Trail of Cthulhu, or just Madness if you want a Call of Cthulhuish experience.

I’ve saved the most interesting for last. Horror Mode. Horror mode is a great way to ramp up tension, as the range for a GM Intrusion (the dice fail kind, not the 2xp kind) goes up to a 1-2 on a d20 roll. Then 1-3. And so on. You can get to 1-10 fairly quickly. Each GM Intrusion brings new horror AND widens the GM Intrusion range by one.

After the horror mode is over, you reset the GM Intrusion range to 1. Until the next time…

Which has me thinking of a Cypher Cthulhu adventure. I’m sure my players would love it!

GMs Roundtable of Doom #7: Scaling Encounters for Small and Large Groups

This month’s topic courtesy of +John Marvin: Oh, that’s me!

How do you scale encounters for a smaller or larger group than you had planned on. Or than the published adventure planned on? What works, and what does not? Do different systems affect how you scale? And what about fish? They have scales.

Dread Unicorn Games, Numenera, Adventure, The Sun Below, Sleeping Lady
Art by Doug Scott

Does this ever happen to you?

“Hey, can my girlfriend and her sisters game with us tonight? I’ll help make characters for them!”

OR

“Sorry, we’re sick tonight. Have fun with the boss monster!”

So, you might have planned on 4 or 5 players, but now you have 8. Or 2.

So time to scale encounters. If you are running a published adventure, the scaling might be done for you. Or it might not. Let’s look at scaling encounters.

Universal Truths

It’s All in the Numbers

More PCs or NPCs means more dice which means more chances to succeed and fail. If you have a combat with 2 NPCs that mostly miss, you might get 0 hits. With 6 NPCs, you might get 2. If they mostly hit, they might get 2 or 5 hits. The more dice you roll, the more likely you’ll succeed at about the chance to hit. So if you have 2 critters with a 30% chance to hit, they both will probably miss. If you have 10 such critters, about 3 will hit.

Obviously, adding more creatures makes things take longer, as you need to make those rolls.

When I’m planning my own encounters, I often make a note that the encounter will have N creatures, where N is the number of PCs who show up. Yup, I’m a pre-scaler. I do this in adventures I sell, like The Sun Below: City on the Edge, because I appreciate that in adventures I purchase.

Crunch and Scaling

Lots of people like games with very detailed rules for monsters and NPCs. These are called “high crunch” games, because rules are the “crunchy bits.” Or something.

In a high crunch game, if I have 1 creature with a bunch of special abilities (can do this 3 times a day, this other thing once a day, and these other five things when it feels like it), that can be enough to overwhelm my little brain in combat. If I have 3 such beasts, I’m hosed.

Changing the power of a creature (including social power) in a low crunch game can be so easy you can do it even after the encounter has started. For example, bumping a Numenera creature up or down a level or two is something you can do on the fly.

13th Age gives me some choices in creature leveling. I stick with the core book for on-the-fly changes and use 13 True Ways when I have time.

As we go up in game system complexity, eventually I hit a wall where I need a few minutes before each encounter for scaling.  For 5E or Pathfinder, I can do simple hacks to hit points or AC on the fly, but if I have time, I’ll take it.

Small Party

I always scale for a small party. If I don’t, there is a great chance that the few people who did show up for the game have a terrible time. They fail at everything and feel punished for even coming to the game. I might go so far as to improv a totally different adventure, which you could think of as an extreme version of scaling.

The first thing I do with a small party is get rid of any niche protection I might have in an encounter. If I added a musical duel to let the Bard shine, and the Bard is a no-show, I drop that and replace it with something anyone can do, maybe an arm wrestling contest. If they need to hack the starship computer and the AI specialist is missing, I let them fool the computer Captain Kirk style, by confusing it with BS.

Or, I might drop a magic/tech one-shot item that gives the PCs that ability they need to succeed, and make it an automatic success. You find the face-melting trap, even though Zogmorr isn’t with you tonight!

And I’ll fail forward all over the place. No dead-ends.

When I have a bunch of NPCs, I scale the number down. I might cut the number in half if half the expected PCs showed up to the game.

With fewer players, their dice can be more swingy. If they fight a creature that is hard to hit, it’s easy to have many rounds where the players all miss. I often make it easier to succeed for small parties. I can lower AC, defenses, whatever the system uses to make things easier.

I drop effects that take players out of the game, or make it super easy to resist and recover from them. 2 players paralyzed in a 2 player group is a real problem. Best to skip that power.

In games with mook rules, I might swap in a mook version of a creature for a normal version. Mooks are easy to kill, but are dangerous until they are taken out.

Large Party

I find it less important to scale for a large party. If I don’t, the players might even enjoy a night of success after unchallenging success. And meager rewards. Kinda boring, but not awful. Most of the time, I do scale.

Here I might add more niche protection. I’ll try to have something for everyone to shine at. What new type of characters are at the table? Add that musical contest, archery competition, computer hackery, or trap finding. And I’ll fail forward, so it’s still a spotlight moment.

A large number of players already slows down the game, so I’ll only increase the number of easier monsters. Mooks, for sure.

Lots of players make it easier to take down solo monsters. Upping the difficulty to hit (AC, defense, whatever…) seems like a good idea, but if 5 out of 8 players miss, that’s annoying to the players who miss round after round. I like to double the hit points or something like that.

Creatures with area of effect attacks (dragons!) are great for bigger parties, because everyone still is in danger. I bump up the chance to hit or the difficulty of the PCs to avoid the area attack.  If the creature doesn’t have an area attack, I’ll add a second attack per round.

The worst thing is watching your 8 player group fight a boss that never hits them. Extra attacks and harder to avoid attacks help you avoid that fate.

And the Fish?

Sahuagin should be in all game systems. And/Or deep ones. That is all.


The Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom is a meeting of the minds of tabletop RPG bloggers and GMs. We endeavor to transcend a particular system or game and discuss topics that are relevant to GMs and players of all roleplaying games.

See what the other Doom Heads have to say:

How can you submit topics or become a participant blogger?
by emailing gamemastersjourney@gmail.com