DM: “The mine ends in a room constructed of chiseled stone blocks, thirty feet square, with a floor of stone slabs. There’s a 25 foot wall around the chamber, but it doesn’t go all the way to the ceiling of the cavern. What do you do?”PC: “Can I climb over the wall?”DM: “Sure, make a DC 15 Athletics check.”PC: “Oops. I got a 12.”
This is the worst part of D&D. If all you’ve ever played was D&D, you might not even realize it. Here’s the relevant section from the official rules: “...[a failure] means the character or monster makes no progress toward the objective or makes progress combined with a setback determined by the DM.”
That’s not very good guidance for DMs. There are just two options given to DMs. One of them is good (progress combined with a setback), and the other is terrible (makes no progress). Not progressing is boring. The player will just try again, effectively wasting table time. There needs to be more meat to the failure guidelines. That’s what this article gives you.
Inspiration from Other Games
Apocalypse World and the other Powered By the Apocalypse games (such as Dungeon World) have a unique mechanic that really should not be unique. They force the GM to apply stakes to every outcome of every single die roll. Once I tried Dungeon World, I never went back. I apply stakes to every outcome of every single die roll now, and it's improved my GM game considerably.
(If you use the link below to get a copy of Dungeon World, you'll give me like twenty cents, so that's neat, I guess?)
The way the Powered By the Apocalypse games do it is simple: The GM has a list of Moves. When the players look to the GM to see what happens or when they're sitting around doing nothing exciting, or when they fail a roll, the GM uses a Move. The moves are the "failure" stakes for their rolls. Every player move has success stakes, and the failure stakes are just that the GM will make a move, though sometimes they describe a bad outcome and also note that the GM will make a move.
It's simple in concept, but taxing on your creativity to frame every roll so that there are stakes for every outcome. It requires frequent improvisation, even within published modules. The Powered by the Apocalypse games help GMs out with that by giving them a list of moves; so every time the GM has to improvise, they can just scan the list and choose the one that seems most interesting at the time. The list of moves helps you stay creative, even when you don't know what you should do. It's not limiting -- just about everything a GM would want to insert into play is covered by a Move. It just provides inspiration and advice.
The list of moves is a list of things that make the situation the characters are in more exciting. Even when a move is subtle or off-screen, it should raise the tension. Most of the moves add complications, conflicts, or cause problems.
So I said to myself, why not do that for D&D?
Below is a Moves "system" for Dungeons & Dragons DMs called DM Moves. You make a DM move when a player character fails a roll or looks to you to see what happens. The move should always follow a PC's actions, but it doesn't have to be something that happens to the PC directly. There are examples under all the DM Moves, below, that show how the DM Moves work.
Like most of my writing about how to improve your D&D game, these DM Moves don’t modify any existing rules. They just guide DMs toward what works best to engage players and generate fun.
When to Make a DM Move
When a character fails a check
PC: "I want to climb over this wall to see what's on the other side." DM: "OK, make an Athletics check, DC 15." PC: "I got a 7." Make a DM Move.
When a the characters get new information
PC: "I want to look for information about the Red Wizards of Thay in the library." DM: "Make a History check, DC 15." PC: "I got a 19." Give the player the information they earned and make a DM Move.
When the players look to the DM to see what happens
PC: "I want to shoot my Fire Bolt cantrip at the cask of oil, hoping to cause an explosion." Make a DM Move.
Unlike a Powered by the Apocalypse game such as Dungeon World, you won't need to use DM Moves in combat very often. D&D Combat is a tactical game in and of itself. It uses its own, separate, system. Attack rolls, spells, class abilities, and saving throws have their own “within the combat system” stakes built in for failed rolls. However, sometimes in combat, the players get new information or do something creative and look to the DM to see what happens. Make a DM move then.
Failed Checks aren't Failed Actions
In the Powered by the Apocalypse games, failing a roll doesn't necessarily mean the player fails to do their intended action. Remember, even the D&D rules allow two different possibilities: The character “makes no progress toward the objective” or the character “makes progress combined with a setback determined by the GM.” That can mean...
There's a Problem
The character fails to do their intended action because of the problem described by the DM Move you made. A character doesn’t just fail to progress because of the tumbling of a mystic icosahedron in alternate dimension. They fail because of a problem in the shared imagined space of the game world. Because of the DM Move, the character has to try some other approach; or they have to deal with the complication the DM Move introduced before they can try again.
Important note: If you’re using an ability check to get past an obstacle preventing the PCs from getting to more interesting parts of the adventure, use “Another Door Opens” or “Success with Consequences” instead.
Another Door Opens
The character fails to do their intended action, but your DM Move gives them an opportunity to achieve their goal another way. Sometimes it's an opportunity that draws them into doing something more exciting, dangerous, interesting, or dramatic. Sometimes the opportunity has a cost. Sometimes it just helps develop the fiction, explore more of the setting, or draw the characters deeper into the adventure.
You might wonder why giving a PC a new opportunity is a good sanction for a failed check, rather than the reward for a successful one. Consider it from the player’s perspective: They wanted their character to do something, but the dice say they can’t. Instead, if they want to achieve their goal, they have no choice but to do it a different way - a way they wouldn’t have chosen. To the player, offering them an opportunity will feel like a sanction.
Success with Consequences
In the rules, this is called “progress combined with a setback.” In RPG theory circles, it is called “fail forward.” On Run a Game (and in the Fate RPG), it is called “success with consequences.” The character succeeds at their intended action, but triggers the problem caused by the DM Move you chose. If you used a "hard" move (something immediate and irrevocable), the consequence happens right now, and the players have to deal with it. If you used a "soft" move (something distant, off-screen, or vague), it sets up more danger down the road and raises the tension level, but doesn't make an immediate demand on the characters.
Never Use “No Progress”
When there’s no reason not to repeat the attempt, and the attempt doesn’t cost anything,, don’t use a “makes no progress toward the objective” outcome. That’s boring. The player will just keep rolling until they succeed. The only time a PC should be allowed to try again on a failed check is if every failed check comes with a cost or consequence. Even that can turn an exciting scene into a frustrating one, so use it sparingly.
The DM Moves
Here are the D&D DM Moves. Remember, when a player fails an ability check, gets information, or looks to the DM for the results, you should make a DM Move. Moves that do not directly harm the characters or change the conflict are called "soft moves." Moves that harm the characters or change the conflict are "hard moves." (Click the list to download a printable PDF page of the moves to bring to the table.)
- Have the dungeon interfere
- Leverage an opportunity or drawback of someone's class, race, or equipment
- Highlight a conflict using their Alignment, Trait, Ideal, Bond, or Flaw
- Take away their stuff
- Make something deal damage
- Name the price, and ask
- Put someone in a spot
- Split the party
- Reveal an unwelcome truth or signal an approaching threat
- Increase the time pressure
How to Use the Moves
1. Have the dungeon interfere
This is an "A Problem Arose" move, but it can also be a "Success with Consequences" move. The dungeon is full of dangers including monsters, traps, curses, shifting walls, spells, crumbling architecture, water, gas, fire, and so much more. Failing to do something is not just "no progress" -- something has to stop the adventurer from trying again. And in this case, what stops them is one of the dungeon's many hazards. Even outside a dungeon, you can think of a cool “fantasy hazard” to interfere. This is the best move for pushing the fantasy exploration elements of D&D.
Example: With difficulty, you climb over the wall... and hear the sound of crossbows firing rapidly! Arrows are flying toward you. What do you do?
2. Leverage an opportunity or drawback of someone's class, race, or equipment
Failing to do something can come along with an opportunity. In this case, use an opportunity that fits the class' abilities. The idea is to show off a character's class. It doesn't have to be the character who failed the roll. You can also have a problem arise that fits a class, race, or equipment in the party. The Baron can’t be persuaded because you brought a stinking dwarf. This is the best move for shifting the spotlight and showing off a character’s outward traits.
Example: There are no handholds where you can reach, but if you could stand on a magical Floating Disc, you could reach the handholds higher up the wall..
Example: You can't get over the wall because your armor is too heavy. If you take it off, you can heave it over, then climb over yourself, unarmored. What do you do?
3. Highlight a conflict using their Alignment, Trait, Ideal, Bond, or Flaw
The move represents an opportunity that opens up, but it creates a conflict with one or more characters' alignments, personality traits, ideals, bonds, or flaws. The conflict can be an opportunity or a setback. An opportunity can start a discussion between characters who have different perspectives. For instance, the opportunity to kill a slumbering orc is expedient for a Chaotic character and dishonorable for a Lawful one. The trait you're highlighting doesn't have to reside in the character who failed the check. This is the best move for shifting the spotlight and showing off a character’s internal motives and drives.
Example: You just can't get up the wall. Only Sir Marley is strong enough to get over the wall. Remember Marley, your Flaw is "I secretly believe that everyone is beneath me." What do you do?
4. Take away their stuff
“...the Lord will come like a thief...” (2 Peter 3:10). This move is different from "name a price and ask" (below), because in this case, you don’t ask. The player doesn't have a choice. Make sure the loss of the item is more than a minor inconvenience. The character should be worried about the loss. However, the loss doesn’t have to be permanent - it just has to be interesting, exciting, or push the PCs toward some danger. Because magic items are very rare treasures in 5th edition D&D, don't just destroy them. You can take them away without taking them away forever. This is the best move for highlighting the value of equipment and emphasizing the resource management aspects of D&D. It can also draw the PCs into greater danger, chasing after or replacing lost or stolen gear.
Example: You get over the wall, but you lost your balance and almost fell at the top, and your bow slipped off your back, clattering down the other side. What do you do?
5. Make something deal damage
Things in D&D deal damage all the time, and failed checks are an ideal time to do it. Damage is part of the combat system stakes, but you can deal damage outside of combat, too. This makes the PCs more vulnerable if a combat starts. They might take the time to heal the damage you dealt, so don't bother dealing damage unless you're dealing at least twice the party's level in total damage to a single character, or an amount equal to the party level to every character. You can deal more damage than that, if you want. Five times the party's level is a heck of a lot of damage. Ten times the party's level is likely to drop or kill someone. This is the best hard move when the PCs know there’s a battle looming, enemies chasing them, or they’re on a short timer and have to hurry. It combines well with “Have the dungeon interfere” because dungeon hazards from Kobold archers to pits of fire often deal damage.
Example: You get over the wall, exhausted and scraped up. Take 1d6 damage. What do you do? (The example character could be Level 2, so 1d6 damage hurts enough to be worth it).
6. Name the price, and ask
Describe how the character will fail unless they pay a price. The price has to be a resource that the characters care about. If the party is not racing against the clock, wasting an hour of time isn't a big deal. If the party has ten thousand gold pieces, twenty silver pieces isn't a big deal. You can also name the price in terms of story - “give us the child and you can walk away” or “I’ll tell you, but you’ll owe me.” Like “Take away their stuff,” this move can highlight the resource management aspect of D&D pretty well, but it introduces a hard bargain, so it’s even better for highlighting strategic decision making or adding complications to their well laid plans. It’s also a natural hard move in social conflicts, to make NPCs demand proof, bribes, compromises, or concessions.
Example: You'll need to use all your pitons if you want to climb over this wall. You won't be able to get them back from the other side, so you’ll have to mark them off your sheet. What do you do?
7. Put someone in a spot
The character's failure puts them in a sudden, unexpected, dangerous situation. They need to take immediate and decisive action or get help from their allies to get out of it. You can also put a character in a vulnerable position. This is a hard move that changes the situation dramatically, but still gives the character a chance to get away. Unlike “Make something deal damage,” you’re giving the PCs a chance to avoid the danger. The character in the tight spot can be the one who failed the roll, or the failure can put someone else in a spot. This is the best move for raising the stakes fast.
Example: You get to the top of the wall, using the vines as handholds. Just as you're about to grab the top edge, the vines start to tear away. You fall five feet immediately before the vines catch. You're dangling twenty feet off the ground, and the vines are about to tear the rest of the way free. What do you do?
8. Split the party
The old advice "don't split the party" is there for a reason. Players want to avoid splitting the party because it really puts the characters in a tight spot. So if you want to raise the stakes quickly, split the party. This move is dramatic in a dungeon or wilderness, where the characters can’t get back together before they have to face another monster, hazard, or obstacle before they can reconnect. You can split the party on the small scale, too. Open a simple ten foot wide chasm between them as they march single-file down a five foot wide hallway, or have the monsters attack right in the middle of the group. It’s also interesting to split the characters up across a larger scale like a city or even continent. There are drawbacks to the GM for running a split party for a long time, so most of the time, you should create a split that the players can resolve within a few hours of play at most. This is the best move to make when the characters are in dangerous, unfamiliar territory and already feel a little lost.
Example: Near the top of the wall, there's only one handhold. You have to perch on this one tiny ledge and lunge for the top. It's a heck of a reach, but you make it -- barely. Unfortunately, as you lunge, the ledge cracks and falls free. There's no way for anyone else to get up here. What do you do?
9. Reveal an unwelcome truth or signal an approaching threat
This is a great "soft move" that moves the story along and raises the tension without making the players deal with a new complication. Unwelcome truths are facts that are true in the game world, that the player characters will not like. "...[S]ignal an approaching threat" means give the players a hint that things are about to get worse. You can signal an approaching threat by hinting that some distant creature has become aware of the characters, even vaguely. It’s the best move to make when the PCs are feeling safe or when they don’t know what’s going on or what kinds of dangers await them. It's the best move to make to introduce the stakes of the situation the PCs are in. It can also hint at distant happenings in the larger story or reveal dark truths about the campaign setting. Magic is dying. The plague has come to Neverwinter. The cult is close to freeing the Bound God. It’s fun on the small scale, too. See the example.
Example: You get to the top of the wall with a lot of effort. When you pull yourself over, your armor makes a loud CLANG! that reverberates down the dark hallway ahead of you. If there's anything down there, it knows you're here now. What do you do?
10. Increase the time pressure
D&D works best as a race against the clock, because it has a tight resource management system where every PC resource refreshes after a certain amount of time. If there’s no hurry, the PCs are much, much stronger. Consequently, DMs almost always create some reason to hurry. When you make this move, you introduce a new timer, use up valuable time, or shorten the fuse. Introduce a new timer by describing a new race against the clock. For instance, a sentry runs off to warn their boss, or the characters learn that something bad happens in this dungeon when night falls. Run down the clock by making actions take a lot longer than planned. Shorten the fuse by revealing an unwelcome truth: That the characters have a lot less time than they thought. Be aware of the rest mechanics in 5e and how they create time pressure. Here are some ways to increase the time pressure:
- Create new time pressure where there was none
- Put some new event on the clock (e.g. rival adventurers arriving in an hour)
- Deny them the chance to take a rest before the next battle
- Remind them how many hours are left on the clock (if they’re nearly out of time)
- Take a day off the clock (where there are fewer than ten days left)
- Take an hour off the clock (where there are fewer than ten hours’ left)
- Take fifteen minutes off the clock (where there are fewer than 3 hours’ left)
- Take a round off the clock (where there are fewer than 20 rounds or 2 minutes left)
This is the best move to make when you want to push the PCs to take hasty, exciting, risky, bold, heroic action. It's the best move to stop them from being too cautious.
Example: You approach the wall, but quickly realize there are no handholds. It's flat brick. But there is some scrap wood here, and you could build a sturdy ladder long enough to get to the top. It will take about an hour. What do you do? (In the example situation, using up an hour is only interesting if there are fewer than ten hours on the clock.)
Ask, "What do you do?"
Traditionally, according to Vincent Baker, when the GM makes a Move, they should follow it by asking a player or all the players, “What do you do?’ This passes the "talking stick" back to them and makes everything you say into a prompt for them -- requiring their input. You can use this question to focus closer on the acting character, broaden the focus to let anyone else jump in, or refocus the spotlight on a different character. Use body language and character names to shift the focus of the action around. Here’s an example where the DM makes a move that leverages an opportunity for someone's class and then uses "What do you do?" to shift the spotlight.
Example: OK, Barbarian, near the top of the wall, there's only one handhold. You have to perch your toes on this one tiny ledge and lunge for the top. It's a heck of a reach, but you get to the top -- barely. Unfortunately, as you lunged, the ledge cracked and fell free. There's no way for anyone else to get up here without magic. Wizard, Cleric: What do you do?