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I am having trouble understanding the specifics of failure in Dungeon World. According to the rules, a GM should "make a move" against players when they fail, and that's alright, I get that.

What I don't get is how a GM is supposed to advance the plot by doing so. Let's take an example:

Rick the Fighter is climbing a massive chain that serves to hold down the wizards tower, preventing it from drifting off. He makes the move Defy Danger, to avoid slipping of, since it's raining hard, and the chain is slippery with algae and moss. He rolls and get a score of 5, meaning he fails.

In the above situation, he fails climbing the chain, so the GM should make a move. I have a hard time seeing what move would advance the story here, since I feel that the failure would imply that he doesn't get to the tower.

Is this one of those situations, where you just skip making a roll, and just let the players climb the chain, or does anyone have any idea how to handle the move, so that the story is advanced somehow?

I just want to be able to give the players some dangers that aren't traps and monsters, and I thought that a flying wizards tower was cool. I'm having a hard time seeing how I can advance the story on a failure in this situation.


Let me elaborate on the problem. I will not say that it's wrong to make the players succeed with some "cost", even on a failed roll, it just makes true "failure" impossible. That's my beef about it. The players will eventually succeed at anything that doesn't outright kill them.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The beauty of all of the Apocalypse World hacks is that the players do always have the option to "get what they want" ... the key isn't in making them fail, but in attaching strings to their eventual success AND offering them other options if the complications are too much for them to stomach. Then it's not that they "failed to save the princess" but that they wanted to "rescue" the treasure more than rescue the princess. They made the choice, not the DM, but the DM gets to create the choice the players get to make the choice. \$\endgroup\$ – aslum Nov 27 '12 at 17:12
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First off, all of edgerunner's answers are great. But I wanted to add some Dungeon World specifics:

Check p.19 and you'll see that 6- isn't "failure" - it's "trouble". The GM will say what happens and the player will mark XP. You are attaching non-DW simulationist ideas to DW mechanics by your supposition that 6- means "failure."

These principles can apply in all sorts of games, and have been used by GMs for years. If the PCs have to climb a fence, they're just going to keep trying until they succeed, right? So even in traditional games, many GMs will read "failed" rolls as a lack of some quality - not fast enough, not quietly enough, not without hurting themselves, etc., instead of just keeping them on the wrong side of the fence.

This is because failure is boring and stops moving the story forward. So you are correct, there is no plain-old failure in DW. It's not in the GM's agenda to make the PCs fail. There is no move for failure.

So the problem isn't that edgerunner's ideas are non-optimal, it's that your concept of what 6- means is wrong and that static failure doesn't exist in Dungeon World.

Expanding on 6-

From the text:

Generally when the players are just looking at you to find out what happens you make a soft move, otherwise you make a hard move.

Somewhere in Apocalypse World itself it says about hard moves:

make as hard and direct a move as you like

Early PbtA games like DW assumed you understood Apocalypse World. And this phrase is often tacitly implied in PbtA games even today.

6- means trouble as I said. The GM is free, on 6-, to make a move as hard as they like. That doesn't mean as hard as you can think of.

AW says:

It’s not the meaner the better, although mean is often good. Best is: make it irrevocable.

So while a 7-9 should substantially give the character what they wanted (they accomplish their intent even if their action created complication), on 6- you are free to deny the intent (the action still has to have consequences beyond "no" though) and in addition make a move as hard and direct and irrevocable as you like.

Climbing a mountain a soft move is "The boulders above you on the rock face begin to wobble as the grappling hook you've tossed up there sets itself. What do you do?"

A harder move is "The boulders have tumbled off the edge of the ledge and after hanging nearly motionless for a tiny instant above you, are now plummeting towards you, gaining speed every moment. What do you do?"

A really hard move is "The boulders are yanked free by your grappling hook and come smashing into you, tearing you from your narrow perch and scattering the contents of your pack into the yawning emptiness beneath. What do you do?"

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This looks like a good spot to let them succeed with complications. Some ideas that come to mind are:

  • He climbs the chain but drops his weapon in the progress
  • The chain he climbed happened to be on the wrong side of the tower, so he must brave more of the tower's denizens to reach his goal.
  • The chain also happens to ground the tower's lightning rod, and it's a rainstorm. He arrives at the tower with smouldering prickly hair.

Yet still another one that would really advance the story would be:

  • The climb turns out to be very troublesome and taxing. He makes it to the top and hangs onto a window sill to catch his breath just as the wizard himself approaches said window to see the source of the panting outside.

PS. I must tell that I don't know about Dungeon World, so this answer isn't based on DW rules. I'm assuming that you want failure to advance the story.


Here's another example that reeks of failure, yet still advances the story, as per your comments.

  • Very close to the top of the chain, our hero loses his grip but his foot gets stuck in one of the huge links. He makes a lot of noise trying to get back but his ankle is hurt badly. Two of the tower guards notice the the noisy adventurer and come out to grab him while dangling helpless from the chain. He quickly finds himself in a prison cell in the tower, due questioning by the wizard himself.
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In DW failure means consequences, even DEATH

When a character rolls 6- you make a hard move. That means a move that has immediate and irrevocable consequences.

In my opinion (I'm unsure on the exact rules) a hard move always comes after a soft move, and the soft moves shapes the hard move.

Soft moves cause danger and prompts players to act and therefore trigger their moves. Hard moves comes when players don't deal well with the danger and get the consequences.

Although DW is constructed in a way that makes action flow and failure advance, failure exists nonetheless. Players can utterly fail.

For example let's imagine a trap (without a thief)

Soft move -> You give clues about the trap
Ask your players: what do you do? Their answer might mean direct resolution without roll or might trigger a move and mean a roll

If they fail the roll you get a hard move, and that can actually be the full effect of the trap (beheading for example).

This is all connected to the narrative. So your players should narrate their actions in a way that makes failure non lethal.

Your case:

Soft move-> There's the flying tower tied with a massive chain covered with moss and algae, it seems the only way to get to the tower but the ascend seems terrible difficult and a fall would be mortal. (See, you state the dangers, that's a soft move). If your players decide to climb it it's their decision, if they fail the roll they must die.

But they have other options! They can use the narrative to circumvent the dangers. Just have to use some rope and ascend while remaining tied to the chain. This way it's impossible for them to fall to their deaths.

If they do this you could decide they get to ascend without even rolling. They still might fall two or three times but they won't have a problem getting up again. Or you could state another danger with a soft move: "With the rope there's no way you will fall. But although the guards will not notice someone ascending up the chain they might notice someone dangling from it".

Now it's their turn to act. Maybe they devise some way to distract the guards without rolling any dice so you could let them ascend the chain without a roll. Otherwise it's time for a roll and if they fail the roll the hard move is obvious; they get noticed!

Conclusions

Try to state your dangers (soft move) clearly. That will make the following hard move obvious, for you and for your players also. So when they decide to climb a chain covered in moss and algae they know a fail will mean death. There's nothing wrong with killing your players, just make sure you all know their actions might end up in death just by the whim of the dice.

People say in DW failure makes the plot advance bla bla bla, but I disagree. Failure means failure. You are the GM which means you can indeed make the plot advance from a failure. But you can also run a really hard game where there's death at every roll of the dice, DW fully supports this. Even more so, partial success means you get to make more soft moves, which can perfectly mean stating more dangers, with more dangers means more chances of a failure and a hard move that might perfectly end up with death.

DW tries to makes the plot advance through PARTIAL SUCCESS. Causing partial success means players get what they want but you get to state new dangers and new complications! Which they will have to react to! Which might mean more partial success and so more dangers and more complications! Etc, etc...

But new dangers might also mean FAILURE or TOTAL SUCCESS; you need to be aware of that. Success is not a problem because afterwards you can make new soft moves and keep the story going. But failure means failure and sometimes even death.

MEGA IMPORTANT

The tone of the game is set in the soft moves. Soft moves are the building blocks. If you want failure to not be a big deal your soft moves should reflect that. If you want failure to mean death your soft moves should reflect that.

If you are not ready to kill your characters don't use a soft move that might end in death. If your characters decide to roll even with the stated danger of death be consequent and KILL THEM IF THEY FAIL.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is an interesting answer, but when you’re departing from an apparent consensus, I recommend using more quotations from the rulebooks and designer notes, and less bold-all-caps. \$\endgroup\$ – Bradd Szonye Aug 27 '14 at 17:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ And, I think you'll find that 6- is an opportunity for a hard move. GM makes a move on a miss, but hard / soft is not defined. See the SRD. \$\endgroup\$ – gomad Oct 13 '14 at 10:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ I really really like this answer. Players are but human and often times knowing they can't fail will make them lazy and turn a game into a group storytelling. "There's a huge super hard to climb chain. What do you do?" - "Eh, I climb it" - "now there's a huge pit with spikes underneath and it's too wide to jump over. What do you do?." - "I guess I jump really really hard?". The possibility of failure state for those not taking it seriously can make people try harder. There's always a way out for the player, but if he doesn't take it (repeatedly?) then does the rest of the party really need him \$\endgroup\$ – IcedLance Jul 11 at 6:29
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Firstly, never ask for any kind of roll if you cannot imagine an interesting failure. Your players' characters are extremely competent, heroic people. They succeed unless the challenge is significant, like indeed the example above. Bluntly when you imagine the climbable chains you should spare a thought for what cool thing happens when you fail to climb them.

When a player get's a 6 or less you make a hard move. You take away their stuff, separate them, add more enemies, use up their resources etc. Do something that hurts. If that makes you uncomfortable you can also add a bunch on minor complications. There are some great examples above but I also highly recommend reading the Dungeon World Player's Guide which gives some excellent advice on how to make soft and hard moves.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The trouble with this is that it doesn't acknowledge that in DW, rolling is done when a move says to roll, and moves are triggered by what players say, not by the GM asking for a roll. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Dec 16 '13 at 20:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think 'being a fan of the characters' kind of acknowledges that. You want to play an interesting story, if failure won't be interesting don't roll. \$\endgroup\$ – Miki Madero Aug 31 '14 at 7:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ I believe DW makes no distinctions on the hardness level of the DM moves to be made on a miss, and explicitly leaves that decision to the DM. And the core difference between a soft and a hard move is not how terrible it is but the presence of an opportunity to react and circumvent the consequences. It's a hard move if consequences are immediate and unavoidable. It's a soft move if the player can do something to avoid it. So, "the goblin spits in your face, it's gross" is a hard move while "the giant boulder will crush you to a pulp in a moment, what do you do?" is a soft move. \$\endgroup\$ – edgerunner Mar 13 at 9:36
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The "forward" in "fail forward" means "motion", not "progress".

So, you may be familiar with games that don't do anything special on failure. You line up to make a roll (like an attack roll) that generally does nothing more than succeed or fail, and when it succeeds you can change something (like deal damage) and when it fails nothing happens. Often you're making these rolls in some kind of overarching framework (like combat rounds with initiative) where failing a roll and "losing your turn" means something else gets the chance to do something nasty to you before your turn comes up again (like a marauding ogre tries to club you into next week).

When play has moved beyond the scope of an overarching framework in one of these games, you can falter a bit by trying to play like there's still a framework there. If you fail and nothing happens, what happens before your turn comes up again? Does nothing happen? Do you get infinity turns? So why are you rolling? But this is still hard, shouldn't you be rolling?

"Fail forward" is a philosophy to approach these situations that basically means: don't present the same game state twice. Every roll, success or failure, changes the state of affairs somehow so you can't just loop back and try the same roll again for the same stakes.

Dungeon World can have a pretty easy time of this because you're not always making a roll explicitly to try to accomplish something in the game, but rather because if you do it, you do it - you've set up a situation in the game fiction and there's a move that comes out of it. You're climbing up a chain to a wizard's tower despite the threat of the rain, the moss, the looming drop - that's defying danger. On a 6- the move may not say anything at all about what happens next - as the GM, you're given free rein to change the game state.

Because there isn't one fixed thing you have to do, picking a response is an art you'll have to develop. I mean, you still have to make a move that follows, that hasn't changed, but you don't have to make a move that follows strictly along the narrow slice of intent that is the chain, the rain, the moss, the looming drop. You can follow something else in on a collision course. You can follow, among other things, your prep.

Exploit Your Prep

Even if this is the first session you should still at least have some ideas sketched out about the wizard's tower as a whole. If the wizard's tower is largely an unknown quantity to the players you can start developing those ideas out at them. So.

The wizard's tower is a derelict, its guardians and wards as dangerous as its squatters and malfunctions? You might want to separate them:

You lose your grip for a second, Fightgar, but after a brief kicking scramble you manage to secure it again and keep going. It's not until you've gone a few more links up that you hear the sound of shearing metal and realize your boot went almost cleanly through a corroded length of chain. The tower is straining at the chain, buffeted by the wind, held in place by a single link rapidly being bent in two.

So, uh, everybody else? If you wanna get up there with Fightgar, you ain't got long to try.

Or show a downside to their race, class, or equipment:

You lose your grip for a second, Fightgar, but after a brief flailing scramble you manage to secure it again. But, uh, you know how metal exposed to the air builds up an oxide layer to protect from corrosion? Magemetal exposed to reality builds up a similar layer of normal, and you just tore a big chunk of it off. Your family's ancestral warmaul is suddenly and sharply attracted toward the chain like a magnet, basically stapling you in place. It's all you can do to keep it from crushing you.

The wizard's tower is a place of evil, full of prying eyes and bound demons? Sounds like it's time to show signs of an approaching threat:

Your feet lose purchase and you drop, Fightgar, but you're able to hang on and swing yourself back up with great effort. You think you heard something click somewhere? Like, loud, sharp, and clear, but nothing more seems to be happening...

And let's cut away for just a second to the inner sanctum where you're center stage of a crystal ball climbing up, the rest of the party in view at the base of the chain behind you. A withered hand parts the gold and blue robes of Goldor the Blue and rests against a shimmering red field that extends out of view. "Ah, Archibald, we have visitors! Strong visitors. Archibald?"

Cut to black. "Go play." There's the sound of a force-screen being dispelled, then a frenzied, otherworldly scream.

Or maybe you can just deal damage (v1):

You feel yourself falling and make a sudden, frantic grab at what seems like a loose link in the chain, that rattles around for quite a bit as you finally find purchase. When you look up to keep going, you notice a summoning sigil in the chain ahead of you and a spindly little demon the size of your fist standing right in the center of it. He startles, turns, and yells something up the chain, and sigils start lighting up.

The same yelling's coming from below you too. You look down and, yup, demons there, too. Unless you understand gutter-demon it's not going to make a lot of sense. Mostly gibbering but they seem to be saying the word "chain" a lot? You infer from context, and also from the needle-sized spears they start pelting you with, that they object to your presence.

Each spear isn't a lot, but they've got numbers. Let's say three swarms of numbers? Take 1d6+2 damage, but you've still got your armor for now.

The wizard's tower is mostly benign, but the wizard just wants privacy? Okay. You could offer an opportunity that fits a class's abilities:

You are almost entirely sure, Fightgar, that this chain is somehow animated. You cannot conceive of how you could have failed to grab it so consistently and so precisely that you end up suspended upside down, arms and legs through the center of the links, and a bit pained by the position but not even really hurt.

Certainly Shanksworth is going to have to extract you from this like he was disarming a trap. Unfortunately, what more Shanksworth thinks is entirely up to Shanksworth.

Or perhaps use a monster move (seize something by force):

You swing all your weight over to one of the links in the chain and feel it... rip free? Frantically you make a grab around and manage to secure yourself, then look down curiously to see where the link fell, since the chain seems intact. And it hasn't fallen! It's just tumbling down the chain, end over end, like a conjurer's trick. Then it smacks into the ground anchor, which rings like a gong.

"Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey!" echoes a voice up a sinkhole next to the anchor. ...was that there before? A towering form climbs its way toward the surface and vaults out to land with a stomp. It's an ogre! In the blue-and-gold livery of Bluedor the Gold! ...man, this is maybe the best-fitting clothing you've ever seen on an ogre.

One hand closes around the chain. "Big wizard, he say no visitors today! So you gonna stop climbing? Or I gonna make you stop!" He rattles it from side to side and by the time the wave reaches you, you can barely hold on. What's your play here?

You don't want to play your hand about the wizard's tower yet? Yeah, okay. So there's nothing extra to copter in about their progress on the chain, so just extract a price from them on their way up. You could use up their resources:

You lose your grip for a second, Fightgar, and almost go tumbling, but after a great effort of strength you flip back up and finish the climb. When you're taking stock afterwards, you realize to your dismay that you never fastened your pack properly! Or maybe it popped free when you did the 360. You're not sure.

You are sure that you're going to roll 1d6 3 times and lose a use from that slot in your pack, though.

Or consider dealing damage (v2):

You lose your footing, Fightgar, and for a second you're suspended there by one arm, the ground swinging beneath you - but then there's this rush of adrenaline and you lever yourself back up onto the chain and push yourself forward, just go go go go go! And then you're up at the top of the chain! ...and after a little bit to collect yourself the adrenaline rush wears off and the pain hits you, just ow ow ow ow ow.

Mark the "weak" debility. If you have, like, an hour to hang loose and collect yourself you can clear it, but spoiler alert, you might not be getting that hour any time soon.

And yes, Fightgar's up at the top of the chain, but Fightgar didn't succeed. Not on any scale that really matters. I mean, you don't just make the first roll of the play session, say, "wow, that was everything I wanted out of this! Good game!" and pack up and go home, right? There's more to it than that. There's something Fightgar wants to do at the top of the chain.

Countdown to Destruction

So let's go back to your prep, where you thought about the wizard's tower. There's a reason the PCs are at the wizard's tower in the first place, right? They want to confront Goldor the Blue. They want to seek the counsel of Bluedor the Gold. They want to claim the lost Orb of Bluegold from its last resting place. And you've come up with a way to deny them that without killing them.

It's called the impending doom, but it's not the end of the campaign; it's something bad that will happen if the PCs don't stop it. Goldor the Blue completes his vile ritual and descends to the hells to muster a conquering army. Bluedor the Gold finishes preparations and departs for the end-of-edition climactic metaplot battle; tomorrow, he will never have existed. The tower finally disintegrates and its treasures are scattered across the trackless wilds.

You've got a list of steps to get there too, grim portents to show the PCs things are getting more dire, in addition to perhaps an actual visible countdown clock so the PCs can see that Bluedor's preparations are at 3 o'clock out of 12. Even if you don't directly impose doom advancing as a consequence, introducing unexpected complications gives it more chances to come up.

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