A sort of common trope I encounter in pbta games is moves with a partial that has you succeed but with the effect "lasting only a moment" (or some similar phrasing). The example I am going to work with is Zuko Style from Dungeon World. The text from that move reads:

When you bend a flame to your will, roll+WIS. On a 10+ it does as you command, taking the shape and movement you desire for as long as it has fuel on which to burn. On a 7-9 the effect is short-lived, lasting only a moment.

From the Dungeon World SRD

Some of these moves (all that I am aware of) tend to have a problem where this partial is sort of all or nothing. That is depending on what you are trying to do it either means a partial is indistinguishable from a success or it serves to do nothing (essentially a silent failure). For an example of an "all" case (in my experience most cases of ZS tend to fall into this category):

The players have a plan of attack, their comrades are in wait on a nearby hill and the party is finally in their place. The agreed upon signal is a burst of flame in the sky. When the time comes they pull a fire starter from their adventuring gear, set of a spark to bend it into a skyward burst. The dice hit the table and come up an 8.

Here we have an issue since the effect was only meant to last a moment the partial is no different than a success. There are plenty of interesting things that could happen here that would certainly make good partials but none that seem to fit the wording of the move.

Here is an example of a "nothing" case:

While the players were distracted fighting off the occultists the library of esoterica was caught in the blaze. Scorch-Skin jumps into action swiping their hand to extinguish the flames. The die are cast, and come up 8.

Here extinguishing the flames for a moment is about as useful as not extinguishing the flames at all. And to make matters worse what is almost certainly going to happen next is that Scorch-Skin is going to just try again. It amounts to pretty much just a silent failure.

What ways should a GM handle a partial on Zuko Style that exemplify the principles of Dungeon World? Is it even possible? My goal is a solution I can use in any pbta game, but I have chosen to ground the question specifically in Zuko Style and the rules of Dungeon World, so anything beyond that is extra. I'm looking for answers that don't involve modifying the move itself or breaking the rules of Dungeon World.


2 Answers 2



Remember to start with your Agenda, such as fill the characters' lives with adventure, and follow up with your Principles, such as begin and end with the fiction, think dangerous, and ask questions and use the answers.


Your question assesses success vs. middling, but doesn't really cover failure. This is important for context.

Success is defined as control with a fuel limit; failure is thus complete loss of control. Sure you can make a fire snake to attack your enemies, but maybe the snake just attacks everyone instead. This is a failure, and the 6- calls for a hard or soft GM move.

A partial is a limited effect, but still largely under the player's control. Maybe there isn't enough fuel to do as desired; maybe the character is simply losing control and lets the fire die or redirects it safely somehow. 'Momentary' doesn't necessarily dictate why it's brief, just that it is. A good question to ask your player is why it didn't work as expected here. Remember that this is a conversation, and just because the characters are rushed doesn't mean you or the players need to be. You don't have to immediately respond, and in particular you can ask for clarification and remind players of the state of the world. If you feel stuck or lost, I'd also encourage you to reread the Agenda and skim the Principles during the game.

The Flare

So Scorch-Skin started with a spark. There is not a lot of fuel there. He musters a column of flame, but it is so momentary it doesn't have time to really hit the sky. This is a pretty handy moment of uncertainty.

One thing to try is ask some questions: Did nearby allies think it's enough and rush in? Did far away allies see the flash and think it's the signal and go, or that you were just dealing with some other pesky problem and wait? Then, use the answers. There is a fine line to walk here around the environment (enemies) reacting to this. Your player didn't trigger a GM move, but you are still obligated to portray a fantastic world.

The Library

The intense inferno is ripping through the stacks, lit pages caught in the updrafts only spreading the blaze faster. Scorch-Skin tries to suppress the conflagration, but it's just too hungry.

Here is a great opportunity to think dangerous in context of portraying a fantastic world. The fire clearly is dangerous, but what is it a danger to? Scorch-Skin didn't put it out. However, Zuko Style may be enough to suppress the flames long enough to achieve some short-term goal, depending on what was described before. Here are a few options:

  • The flames are pushed back just long enough for the fighter to rescue the unconscious librarian, saving her from a fiery demise.
  • The flames in the aisle are doused just long enough to provide an escape route.
  • The Immolator wills a hole in the flames just long enough to reach in an grab the Great Book of MacGuffins and run.
  • The fire hasn't spread to every section of the library yet, and Scorch-Skin is able to briefly redirect the flames to another row of books, penning in the last of the occultists.

Be a fan of the characters.

That's the principle that should guide you, here. Give them what they've earned, don't take away what makes them interesting.

So how do you make it pop, here?

Give them what they've earned.

Remember that a 7-9 does what it says it does, not that it must necessarily be a compromised success. If you just want to take a blow for somebody a 7-9 Defend is a success. If you only have one good question to ask a 7-9 Discern Realities is a success. If you only want to do one, maybe two, things as an animal, a 7-9 on a Druid shapechange is a success. If there are only two things you care about not breaking, a 7-9 Bend Bars Lift Gates is a success.

You don't have to invent something bad that happens on a 7-9 when the text of a 7-9 gives the characters exactly what they wanted. They just didn't want everything they could get.

If what Heats Flamesman wants to do with fire only lasts a moment, like that signal flare, they can get everything they want from a 7-9, no weaseling from you and trying to create "a moment of a moment". They're still risking failure that gives you a free hand to get things complicated.

Don't take away what makes them interesting.

Not "take away" in this case as much as "ignore". One of the things that should be making every character interesting is the bonds that they have with all the other characters - in other words, the way they work together.

Picture this: you're watching a movie, and a big muscly somebody grips something heavy, strains, levers it a foot or two off the grounds, and then shakes their head, saying through gritted teeth: "Hurry up, I can't hold it!" What's going to happen? They just let it clang back down, accomplishing nothing? Would someone who wrote a scene like that be a fan of the character?

No. Somebody's going to take advantage of the opportunity they created, if only for a moment, to do something they couldn't have done otherwise.

It's a common flaw when running Dungeon World to consider moves in isolation, as if a character and their immediate concerns exist sealed off from the entirety of the plot that's unfolding. But that doesn't have to be the case: Sir Justice is locking blades with the cult leader, but he's also the best one to organize an evacuation, so when Hots Burnguy shouts they can't hold it, Sir Justice runs off into the library, leaving the fire to bar the cult leader's pursuit, and oh hey, look who's just standing there waiting for them!

It's also a common flaw to just let a move "sit there" when moves should be moving the story along. But let's suppose there isn't a reason for someone to take advantage of that because the fire's not coco-bananas crazy yet, big enough for Sparks McGee to control in its entirety. (There are limits on that, right? Can't just point at an entire continent on fire and say "cut it out" and have it stick.) They still have control of the fire for that moment, and they can shape it to do something. Unless it's somehow inevitable that the fire is going to go nuts, like if these were salamander cultists and there's naphtha all over everything, that shape matters. They could bundle it all up and leave it in an open space and hope it doesn't get too crazy unattended. They could stream it out the window and make it not the inside's problem for the moment but what's out the window? They could just spray it back all over the fight and make everybody have to deal with putting the fire out almost by default. And now that they're not actively dealing with the fire anymore, you can make the results of someone else's move splash over to them.


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