by Delos

Failing Forward

Last time I wrote about what happens when a character almost makes a roll, a success with complications. Now I’d like to talk about when a character completely botches it. The example I used last time was a thief trying to sneak into an orc stronghold. Now regardless of system there is always the chance that the dice will try to murder a PC. It happens, but how a GM handles a failure can make for something interesting or something lame. So the thief tries to sneak in and fails his roll. Some things you could do would be:

  • The thief is spotted when he gets to the top of the wall.
  • The thief is unable to find a way in.

Both of these make sense but from a story perspective they are not really interesting. The first one makes the thief look like he just doesn’t know what he’s doing. The second one just stops the action cold. Not fun. Let’s try to spice them up.

  • The thief gets to the top of the wall. He waits as the orc sentries pass by. As he hops over to the walkway he is hit over the head by a club being knocked out cold. A goblin is holding it, damn those things are sneaky.
  • The thief finds an old sewer drain and enters in. It leads to a grate and a ladder leading up. There is no light coming through the grate. The thief opens it up and goes through in pitch black darkness. Suddenly a torch is lit and 10 mean looking orcs are revealed and staring at the thief.

Now we are going somewhere. The first one keeps the thief looking cool because he avoided all the orcs but the goblin proved that it was a little better. The second example lets the thief be clever and find a way in but then he ends up going up the wrong pipe and ends up facing down a bunch of orcs. Dungeon World gives a great big list of things a GM can do when you a player fails a roll. They are:

  • Use a monster, danger, or location
  • Reveal an unwelcome truth
  • Show signs of an approaching threat
  • Deal damage (and cause an injury, don’t just do numbers)
  • Use up their resources
  • Turn their move back on them
  • Separate them
  • Give an opportunity that fits a class’ abilities
  • Show a downside to their class, race, or equipment
  • Offer an opportunity, with or without cost
  • Put someone in a spot
  • Tell them the requirements or consequences and ask

With my last two examples I used “use a monster move” and “reveal an unwelcome truth” respectively. There are plenty of ways that one can use these moves, but they should always follow the fiction of events and most importantly you should follow up everything you say with “What do you do?” (Granted if they are knocked out you’ll probably turn to the other players or you fast forward to when the thief wakes up) If you take away anything from this it should be “Even in a failure something happens and the story moves forward.” Thanks for reading.


  1. By Anonymous


  2. By Philmagpie


  3. By Delos


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