I am having trouble understanding the specifics of failure 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.

EDIT: Due to the first answer, 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

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?"


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.

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!


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.


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

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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