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Listening to some old podcasts, I stumbled over the idea of "failing forward" mentioned in a March 2020 (in this interview) edition of Court Games (RPG). The game designer Max Brooke there described the idea like this (starting at about 1:03:00) when talking about failing unexpectedly with Korvar, one of the hosts:

Max Brooke: Another thing I'll do is [...] let them succeed at [a] cost. We don't have a hard succeed-at-cost mechanic, but sometimes it is narratively more satisfying and fitting. [...] You succeed but you might not like what happens.

Korvar: Yeah. Actually, you have over succeeded. You haven't failed. You've over succeeded. [...] But anyway, you can kind of do that with a dramatically unsatisfying failure where it's like you succeed, but you might not like what happens. Yeah, I think actually a succeed with cost thing, the kind of fail forward. I like that as a mechanism, and it's obviously quite a good thing, too.

Then, I remembered that I believe Exalted 3rd Edition (2016) had something that was described to me as "failing forward" in some manner when I was encountering it the first time. Well, looking at the book again it is more a call to be an absolute fan of the PCs and say "YES" to all things the PCs do, or at least never say outright "NO" but instead answer with some kind of compromise in the shape of "No/Yes, but...".

The first mentioning here on our own site seems to be in connection with Fate in 2014 and in connection with Dungeon World in 2012

So, I presume that at some time between 2012 and 2020, or likely even before, Failing Forward had become a specific concept in game design... but when, from where, and what was the idea expressed with it?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Are you interested in its first mentions in play (EG DM blogs) or it being written into the mechanics for a system? I don't know which came first, but the answer could be different \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 6, 2022 at 18:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ The game design idea and early implementations both would be good starts - this is abouz the concept \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Commented Jun 6, 2022 at 18:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ Gentle reminder that instead of speculation and lead-ons in comments, solving the problem is the job of answers (where it should be with the full needed support). If there is no discernible/distinct origin this question might just sit unanswered for a while (and that's ok) or an answer which can properly establish that should be posted as such. \$\endgroup\$
    – Someone_Evil
    Commented Jun 7, 2022 at 9:24

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13th Age (2013), though the inspiration is older and the concept older still.

One thing that's definitely true about earlier gaming is that GMs tended to run games however they pleased. I can't provide a formal accounting of those informal times, of people who might have run games under this principle but didn't regard what they were doing as unusual or deliberate enough to pass on or popularize. What I can provide is:

A simple but powerful improvement you can make to your game is to redefine failure as "things go wrong" instead of "the PC isn't good enough." Ron Edwards, Luke Crane, and other indie RPG designers have championed this idea, and they're exactly right. You can call it "fail forward" or "no whiffing."

-- "Fail Forward!", 13th Age p.42

Saying "you can call it" rather than "it's called" or "it's been called" indicates that Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet believe they're making use of the phrase in a novel context for an RPG. Given their experience in the industry at the time, I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of this assessment.

I can't give a definite linguistic origin for the phrase. It's certainly possible that John C. Maxwell's 2000 motivational book, Failing Forward, helped popularize it and it crossed genres, but that's less important than where Heinsoo and Tweet say they got the concepts from.

Ron Edwards is notable in a couple of ways - his independently published games, beginning with Sorcerer (ashcanned in 1996, formally in 2001), and a forum called "The Forge" that he started to foster discussion of RPG game design and philosophy among independent designers, Luke Crane among them. Here's a decent backgrounder on the site and what went on there. Looking through Sorcerer I can't find explicit callouts of this necessarily - rather, Sorcerer is a game with prominent driving tensions, where there may be inconsequential failures but they don't stall out the game.

Luke Crane's 2002 Burning Wheel, however, has this to say:

Two Directions

When a player sets out a task for his character and states his intent, it is the GM's job to inform him of the consequences of failure before the dice are rolled.

"If you fail this..." should often be heard at the table. Let the players know the consequences of their actions. Failure is not the end of the line, but it is complication that pushes the story in another direction. [...]

Failure Complicates the Matter

When a test is failed, the GM introduces a complication.

"You can try to pick the lock, but you don't have much time. It is highly likely that the guards will return before you finish."

Try not to present flat negative results - "You don't pick the lock." Strive to introduce complications through failures as much as possible.

-- "Testing Your Abilities: Failure", Burning Wheel

Whatever online discussions may have preceded this, this is probably the first clearly published statement of what 13th Age would later call the "fail forward" principle.

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Improvisation for the Theater (1963) ?

It seems it comes from improvisation theater. It was widely disseminated with the work of Viola Spolin https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viola_Spolin . Mostly with Improvisation for the Theater (1963). Herself was inspired by JL Moreno in the 1920s and his sociodrama role-playing therapy techniques.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center. \$\endgroup\$
    – Community Bot
    Commented Jun 27, 2022 at 16:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ A page or section marker would be very helpful with such a work. \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Commented Jun 27, 2022 at 16:57
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Probably 2012

The problem with getting a definitive answer is that the term was common in pop psychology and business jargon from the early 2000s. Surprisingly, no one used it as a book title until 2016. So casual usage in RPG circles might have been borrowed from there.

The earliest RPG to use it was 13th Age, released in 2013 but in pre-release in 2012. According to Justin Alexander, there are no mentions on either http://rpg.net or http://indie-rpgs.com before 13th Age.

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