Alice and Bob make a deal. However, Alice has much more power than Bob, because Bob is really desperate for whatever Alice is offering, and will do whatever it takes to get it. Alice ends up abusing this power badly, reneging on the initial agreement and making a seemingly endless series of demands on Bob without ever keeping her end of the bargain. Each time Bob fulfills her requirements, she simply adds another one. If he protests, she threatens to withdraw her offer entirely. This is Moving The Goalposts.
For example, Bob wants a promotion. Alice, his boss, says that he'll be promoted if he succeeds in closing a particularly important deal. Bob lands the deal... but Alice tells him that, though it was impressive, the deal didn't bring in as much money as she forecasted, so Bob needs to bring in a couple of big clients. Bob does... and then Alice tells him that he hasn't attended an important course, and he needs to complete the course before he's eligible for promotion. And on it goes.
This set up can end in a number of ways. Sometimes, just to add insult to injury, Alice will manipulate Bob until she gets bored or has everything she needs, then tells Bob sorry, but it'll never happen (e.g. someone else has been given the promotion that Bob's been chasing). Sometimes this will result in a Freak Out and some well deserved retribution. Alternatively, Alice will develop a conscience (or a third party will hammer one into her) and finally live up to her promise. A third option is that Bob will decide Celebrity Is Overrated and no reward is worth endless, humiliating and unappreciated labor, which, ironically, may lead to Alice finally letting him have the now-worthless bargaining chip. In Fairy Tales, the king setting Impossible Tasks may eventually decide it's not worth it, but, usually, one of the tasks backfires on him. Badly.
There's also a Blackmail version of this trope, where the powerful party keeps his word — more or less — but makes it clear that he could change his mind at any time. Murder mysteries that involve the death of a blackmailer usually cite this as a motive: the blackmailer made an initial demand that was met, but soon realized that they had their victim trapped, and kept making additional demands until the victim decided the only way to get free was to kill their tormentor. Military/political agreements where one force is stronger than the other often have this connotation to them: a one-off favor might be used to bully the weaker country or politician into supporting the stronger, whether they like it or not. Indeed, it can be a problem with any Leonine Contract.
The effect on the viewer depends on whose side they're on. If they like the weaker partner of the deal, it can be hugely frustrating to see them strung along like this (expect to be yelling What an Idiot fairly loudly). If their sympathies lie with the more powerful half though, it can be used as slapstick humor. If the roles are usually reversed (Bob is Alice's boss, for example) it can be used to give a bossy or overbearing character their comeuppance.
On the odd occasion, Alice might have genuinely good intentions. Maybe Bob wants Alice to introduce him to Alice's pretty coworker, who Alice knows is a Manipulative Bitch and a Gold Digger, so she tries to deter Bob from the girl without saying outright that she's bad news because she knows Bob wouldn't believe her.
There also exists a situation that looks like this, but isn't: the proposed item fulfills the stated requirements, but not the unstated ones. For example, offering a reward for the head of a Gunslinger, but forgetting to add "unattached to his body". Or asking for a polite courtier, and getting one who delights in stealth insults and backhanded compliments.
"Moving the goal posts" can also be used to describe a debate 'tactic' (read: fallacy). In this scenario, essentially Alice will make a point and/or demand evidence to counter his argument. Bob provides evidence or a counter argument to Alice's original argument. Alice then dismisses the evidence and/or demands further evidence on grounds which were not introduced or required in the original point and which may only be tangentially linked to Alice's original point, if indeed they are linked at all. For example, Alice claims that there's no product that easily kills fleas on cats. Bob directs her to a product which does so, only for Alice to then dismiss Bob's point by claiming that the product in question doesn't kill fleas on cats and on dogs.
Compare Taking Advantage of Generosity. Can overlap with Social Darwinism.
Compare and contrast There Will Be Cake. I Lied is the even more shameless version. Certain character types, like the Bad Boss who always has one last task for their employees to do before they get a "favor" that they had earned anyway, are particularly prone to this trope. See also Win Your Freedom, Obvious Rule Patch, and No True Scotsman.
Sadly, not only Truth in Television but a common tactic employed by those running a 419 Scam or Spanish Prisoner one.
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One Outback Steakhouse commercial played with this - the proprietor was offering a free steak to whoever could hit a bullseye on a dartboard. Cue a dozen darts all in that spot. "Wait, did I say bullseye? I meant a triple 20." The last line of the commercial: "Wait, did I say blindfolded?"
Anime and Manga
In One Piece, this is more or less Nami's backstory. Arlong forced her to amass a very large sum of money to buy back her village's freedom. When she finally does (a process that takes her several years), he gets a corrupt Marine buddy of his to confiscate it before she can officially pay him back, and tells her to start from scratch. Fortunately for Nami, Luffy and his crew decide to beat the everloving tar out of Arlong and his men.
In Ranma ½, a village hosts a race: whoever arrives first wins an all-expenses-paid trip to a spring resort of their choosing (including the Cursed Springs that gave the main character his curse and also has the cure). However, the village doesn't actually have the money to pay for the trip, so they place increasingly dangerous obstacles on the course to dissuade everyone from finishing, finally resorting, when everything else fails, to Moving The Goalposts; in this case, two villagers lift the goal and carry it away from the approaching racers.
The villains in Kaiji like doing this. Congratulations, you just won a ticket worth several million yen! Now you just need to go cash it in at the adjacent building (which means walking a long, narrow steel beam, suspended hundreds of meters above ground and rigged with traps.)
More than one Asshole Victim in Detective Conan was killed by the person they were subjecting to this. The most infamous case is the mystery writer Daisuke Torakura.
Lamp Shaded by combining this with Screw the Rules, I Make Them! in Elemental Gelade, in regards to a fighting match. Up to this point, the character's been winning every 1-1 fight she's been in; then her creditor, who also owns the arena, says "Since I make the rules, I'll just change them." and has her fight two guys at once, to ensue she'll never be rid of him. She beats them handily (with a little help from Coude and the gang), and beats the creditor to death backstage (I think, the last we see of him is his unmoving body with his eyes rolled back in his skull).
In The Grateful Beasts, at the instigation of his brothers, Ferko has to, in turn, cut all the corn in a single night, gather it all into barns the next night, and summon all the wolves in the land. It stops with the wolves because, they're wolves.
In Ferdinand the Faithful, whenever Ferdinand does whatever the king asks, the king decides it's time to ladle another on him as the price of not executing him. Until finally, the princess decides she'd rather marry Ferdinand than the king and tricks the king into letting her kill him.
In Hansi and the Nix, a young cowherd named Hansi falls in love with (variously) a water spirit or a freshwater mermaid he calls "Nixie." But then fall comes, and she doesn't want to come up to the surface of the lake anymore because it's getting too cold. So Hansi agrees to live with her. But then he starts to get homesick for the classic aspects of Yodel Land. He misses his dairy cow, and when Nixie brings her to him, he wants to sample the cheese he made from the cow's milk a few months back. When Nixie brings him some of the cheese, Hansi gets wistful for wildflowers. Nixie responds by bringing his entire village down into the lake.
In one Naruto/Ranma ½ story, Neji seems to be doing this, claiming that he'll admit the Gentle Fist is flawed if Ranma can beat him. Then if Ranma can beat a given trainer, then another trainer, all the way up to the Clan Head. Tenten however, notes that after the first trainer lost, Neji just kept doing it so he could watch Ranma beat up Main Branch members.
The Empire Strikes Back. Vader makes a "deal" with Lando that, if Lando turns Han over to The Empire, then the Empire will leave Cloud City alone. Vader then turns Han over to Boba Fett and tells Lando that Leia and Chewie will have to remain prisoners on Cloud City. Then Vader decides that he's taking Leia and Chewie with him and threatens to leave a garrison if Lando keeps complaining. It's also suggested that Vader is going to leave a garrison anyway. When Lando calls him on it, Vader threatens him: "I am altering the deal. Pray I do not alter it any further!"
Subverted in Office Space: Joanna's annoying boss attempts this, guilting her about wearing the "bare minimum" number of pieces of flair. She never takes the bait, and eventually after a particularly long and insistent chat about this walks out.
In Down Periscope, the main characters take part in a military exercise using an old World War II era diesel submarine, the USS Stingray, against the modern US Navy, but keep getting tighter restrictions placed on them by a vindictive admiral when they succeed in spite of the odds. In the end the admiral is called on his behavior by the senior admiral who had arranged for the exercise in the first place. Subverted in that they had higher orders and so completely ignored the new rules.
In The Pentagon Wars, featuring a fictionalized version of events about the development of the Bradley fighting vehicle, the tests are blatantly set up to favor the Bradley and cover up its woefully deficient armor (shooting it with poor-quality ammunition that will bounce off as duds instead of exploding, draining the fuel tanks so they can't catch fire even if punctured, etc).
This is implied to have already happened in the lead-up to Gunny Highway taking over the command of Recon Platoon in the movie Heartbreak Ridge. Specifically, rather than traditional "war games", Recon has been reduced to instigating a very blatant and unsuccessful ambush of the more "elite unit" and be faux-slaughtered horribly. Highway, who has already had several tours of duty (it was his off-duty antics that got him in trouble) knew that the enemy would never be so considerate as to only set up an ambush at a previously agreed upon time and place; so he moved the goalposts back and Recon proceeded to annihilate the unprepared "elites".
Tamora Pierce's Protector of the Small series features the first girl to openly train as a page. The training master, Lord Wyldon, doesn't approve of female knights and puts her on probation. If she can't keep up with the boys, she will be dismissed. The girl, Kel, excels at her training... but rather than lift the probation, Wyldon keeps setting her more and more difficult tasks, sometime moving the goalposts (or at least the archery target/jousting target) in an attempt to dissuade her, while not demanding the same standard of his male trainees. He ends up conceding defeat in the end though, only because Kel is that good. (At one point he shouts at her for screwing up at jousting, something she normally excelled at - why was she suddenly waving her lance all over the damn place? "I'm terribly sorry, sir, I forgot to ask for a weighted one at the armory. This one's too light.")
In Squire he admits that even though she passed every test and worked uncomplaining through everything he threw at her, even though she kept going when he thinks most of the boys she was training besides would have quit, he almost didn't let her pass her first, probationary period. His honor made him let her pass, but it was a close thing, and by that point the thought of how close it was shames him.
This is the method used by the N.I.C.E. in C.S. Lewis' That Hideous Strength to recruit Mark Studdock and others. Mark desperately wants to be in "the inner circle" and the various evil members of the N.I.C.E. use the promise of a sure position or moving up in the N.I.C.E. to manipulate Mark into more and more compromising acts.
This is one of the main plot points of Catch-22. There are a certain number of missions each pilot has to fly before they can go home, but Colonel Cathcart keeps raising the number of missions before anybody gets to go home.
A major part of the colony world of Harmony And Reason in the Rats, Bats and Vats novels. All 'Vats', or cloned citizens, are charged for the cost of being cloned, raised, and trained by the government. This charge is put to absurdly high compound interest, plus additional charges for mandatory 'luxuries' like training camps owned by Shareholders. If a Vat lives very frugally and has a very successful career, he might theoretically buy himself out of debt and purchase a single share in the colony before dying of old age (a Vat who owes money to the Colony cannot purchase shares). Why? Because only Shareholders can vote, and they don't want the Vats getting enfranchised.
In Honor Harrington: Echoes of Honor, an admiral who didn't care for a new technical development managed to get himself put on charge of the evaluation board, and started putting more and more restrictions on how the weapons could be used in an effort to get a test battle in which the new LACs would be decisively defeated, and use this to justify scrapping the project. The captain in charge of the final stage of the project retaliated by sending memos to the admirals superiors mentioning her concerns about the test parameters, which would presumably lead to the higher-ups looking at the results of all the tests, rather than just the one where the LACs failed, and realizing that they lost because the admiral stacked the deck. This counter was never actually needed, as an attack on the base where the tests were conducted forced the LACs into actual combat early, in a battle where they decisively defeated the invading fleet.
The Battle School in Ender’s Game uses this principle. Ender is virtually unbeatable in his war exercises so the administration of the school start stacking the odds against him. Ender's opponents are given such benefits as head-starts to strategically place their troops, partial immunity to Ender's weapons, and eventually are allowed to attack him with vastly superior numbers. Ender starts using technically-legal but unconventional strategies to win, which the administration always makes illegal after every victory. Ender eventually gets so pissed off at the blatant cheating that he starts outright breaking the rules of combat himself, which it turns out was exactly what the administration wanted.
Sancho is offered dinner with a lot of delicious dishes. Every dish they present him, a doctor signals that he cannot have it because it’s not in a governor’s diet. This is done until an angry Sancho asks what he can eat: only some cookies and fruit.
Sancho asks an innkeeper what food he has to offer. The innkeeper answers that every meat, fish or bird he could ask. Everything Sancho asks, the innkeeper doesn’t have. When Sancho asks what the innkeeper really has, he answers only a couple of cow-heels.
An inversion: When Dorothea recounts how she agreed to sleep with Don Fernando, son of the Duke, under a promise of marriage, she was constantly Moving The Goalposts. In retrospect, Dorothea realizes that Don Fernando answering “yes” to all her demands was the proof that he will fulfill no one of them.
"All this that I have now repeated I said to him, and much more which I cannot recollect; but it had no effect in inducing him to forego his purpose; he who has no intention of paying does not trouble himself about difficulties when he is striking the bargain."
The Star Trek Expanded Universe trilogy The Q Continuum gives us 0, an entity as powerful as Q but infinitely more evil. When 0 suggests that they test younger races, Q is eager. However, while Q is willing to accept failure, 0 is not. When the Calamarain refuse to allow 0 to take control of them, he turns them into a block of ice. When Q asks why he did that, 0 simply says that the Calamarain cheated and must be punished. The next "test" is to put the powerful Tkon Empire (which is trying to replace their dying sun with a new one) into a state of civil war. When the leader of the Empire manages to convince both sides to stop fighting and complete the project, the enraged 0 causes the dying star to become a supernova and destroy the entire race. Once again, the shocked Q confronts 0 about this. 0 says that any younger race that overcomes a challenge set to it by a powerful entity like 0 must have either cheated, or the challenge wasn't sufficient. Q privately disagreed, and while he did test "younger" races in the future (especially the Enterprise-D), he always left in at least one achievable victory condition, and was a relatively Graceful Loser when they "won" (at the very least, no Diabolus ex Machina).
"Gladstone spent his declining years trying to guess the answer to the Irish Question; unfortunately, whenever he was getting warm, the Irish secretly changed the Question..."
In Taylor Anderson's Destroyermen, the Empire of New Britain has a long-standing practice of "obligations" applying to women purchased from the Holy Dominion (or to women fleeing the Dominion requesting passage). Ideally, the women work off the cost of the transportation by doing anything requested (surprisingly, non-sexual but involving manual labor) until the obligation is worked off, and the woman is free to marry an Imperial citizen (she herself cannot become a citizen, but her children can). Unfortunately, over the centuries, this has caused all women (both free and those under obligations) to be treated as second-class citizens and gave enormous power to the Honourable New Britain Company that holds these obligations. The titular destroyermen quickly pointed out the obvious Loophole Abuse - a holder of an obligation may simply move his obligated women from one island to another, constantly increasing their obligations by the cost of the journey (see similar examples in the Real Life section below). Once it's revealed how widespread this practice is, the whole obligation system is abolished.
The members of the The Babysitters Club put Mallory through numerous pointless trials so that she can join. Fed up with their unfair treatment, she quits. making them realize that they've been acting like jerks. Similarly, in a Sweet Valley Twins edition, Jessica bullies a girl who wants to be a member of the Unicorns by giving her impossible tasks to complete, to the point where even the ringleaders of the group tell her she's taking things too far. Sure enough, the girl finally grows a spine and tells her off.
First inverted, then played straight in The Hunger Games, with the mid-game rule change that two tributes can share victory, provided that they are from the same district, which is then revoked at the last possible moment. This backfires, though, as Katniss and Peeta will have no part in this chain-jerking and threaten to kill themselves, leaving the Games with no victor. This forces the gamemakers to go back on going back.
Done again in Catching Fire, where for the Quarter Quell Games they draw their tributes from the pool of victors for previous games. It's normally the case that only people below 18 are eligible, and that if you do win and are under 18 your name is removed from the draw in future. This is viewed as very unfair by many, even within the Capitol. The film adaptation gives one of the tributes the opportunity to explain her perspective on the situation.
Johanna: The deal was that if I win the Hunger Games, I get to live the rest of my life in peace, but now you want to kill me again. Well, you know what? F*** THAT! AND F*** ANYONE THAT HAD ANYTHING TO DO WITH IT!
Live Action TV
Inverted in one episode of Touched by an Angel, when a woman, joined by Monica, has difficulty completing an obstacle course designed for men, specifically that rope n' wall thing. She trains hard to overcome the difference, then the chauvinist Drill Sarge tells her that she doesn't have to complete the same course as the men, being allowed to skip said wall. Monica finishes, and the woman falls behind. Just before she crosses the line, she stops and asks the Sarge whether command actually sent that order, instead of it just being the Sarge's requirement. Then she goes back, climbs the wall, and makes it across the line just in time.
This seemed to be what was going on in Kung Fu. Whenever Caine would complete a task, it seemed his master would come up with something else he had to do (snatch the pebble from my hand, walk on rice paper without tearing it, etc.).
Imperious Leader: Welcome, Baltar. I have grave news. A handful of Colonials prevail, but we will soon find them.
Baltar: What of our bargain? My colony was to be spared!
Imperious Leader: I now alter the bargain.
Baltar: How can you change one side of a bargain?
Imperious Leader: When there is no other side.
The "blackmail" variant was used on The Office, when Phyllis made increasing demands of Angela to keep her silence about the latter's affair.
In the various Star Trek series and films, the Prime Directive is the ultimate in moveable goalposts. When, where and how it is applied is completely variable, and even Starfleet and the Federation government, which are the ones imposing it, are highly-prone to treating it as anything from an inviolable law with a specific set of conditions to an abstract moral ideal that is more of a guideline than a rule. In general, its applicability is entirely driven by Rule of Drama on an episode-by-episode basis.
This was especially prevalent in Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Voyager, where both Picard and Janeway were not above countermanding their own orders if they had a change of heart on a particular matter, often to the bewilderment of their crews, who then had to respond to changes in what had previously been seen as fixed plans.
In the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode, "In the Pale Moonlight", when the character Tolar protests that he has fulfilled his obligations to Sisko and Garak: "We had an agreement." Sisko responds with the words, "I'm making a new agreement." - Thus implying that their previous arrangements are invalid.
In Stargate SG-1, the computer does this to Teal'c during a virtual reality battle scenario, and the characters even refer to it by name. Every time he completes the scenario, it adds an additional element to keep him from winning. It does eventually hit a wall, but it took a while. On top of that, Teal'c was moving the goalposts himself. The scenario was designed to program itself around an individual's own beliefs and experiences; at this point in the story, Teal'c was convinced of the righteousness of fighting the Guoa'uld, but still firmly believed that it was a fight that was impossible to win, hence every "victory" quickly becoming a surprising defeat.
Burn Notice had a very small-scale one: Sam is trying to get a list of companies from the head of a local Better Business Bureau type group. The contact keeps saying he will have it soon - at every (expensive) lunch meeting they have. Probably by the next meeting. Eventually Sam claims to be DEA, and frightens the contact into turning over the list.
On Malcolm in the Middle, Francis comes up with a pair of Monster Truck rally tickets, and keeps making deals with his brothers for them only to renege. When he eventually ditches all of them to take a girl, they respond by framing him for kidnapping.
The English comedy series End Of Part One did this — although the goalposts weren't moved very far.
Norman Straightman: Sir, I really do need a loan.
Bank Manager: ...Get on your knees.
Norman: ... (does so) Please?
Bank Manager:(smiling) No.
Frasier: Mel and Niles' sham marriage. At first, he agrees to spare her reputation by attending a couple of weeks of public engagements before she files for divorce. The first amendment is that he's also not allowed to be seen in public with Daphne. Then, the "couple of weeks" gets dragged out to unreasonable extremes. Then, he's informed that in order to make the breakup look authentic without reflecting badly on Mel, he has to start acting like a dick in public so it will look like she had to dump him.
On Spartacus: Blood and Sand, the Romans do this constantly, in addition to their Chronic Backstabbing Disorder. Indeed, virtually any agreement anyone makes usually gets altered by whichever side currently holds the advantage. Glaber, Batiatus and Crassus are the most notable offenders, but all the Romans also do it too.
The US TV game show "Truth or Consequences" used this. The show was based on asking each contestant a 'skill testing question' which had to be answered correctly both to win a prize and to avoid facing the 'consequence' of appearing in some mildly embarrassing stunt for the audience. The questions tended to be trivial, but obscure. In the rare event that a contestant answered correctly, the MC Bob Barker would reach into his pocket and reveal that it was really a two part question. In at least one case a third part had to be revealed. It would have been a nice touch for the producers to have turned the tables on Bob by planting a contestant that could answer very many questions, perplexing him until the contestant pointed out the cameras and gave him a birthday present.
Dr. Keyworth: It can't be easy being you. I don't mean the job. I meant being inside your head. [...] They keep moving the goalposts on you, don't they? Get As, good college, Latin honors. Get into the London School of Economics. Get a good teaching job, Ivy League School, tenure. Now you got to publish, now you got to go to Stockholm — Bartlet: It is not good for a person to keep setting goals? Dr. Keyworth: It probably is, but it's tricky for somebody who is still trying to get his father to stop hitting him. Bartlet[Hiding the cut from that last remark] Well, I'm told that most men lead lives of quiet desperation. Dr. Keyworth:Yeah, but that is most men. That's notyou. Thats theotherpeople. The people who does feel stress. You are destined for something else. Bartlet: I have abilities. Dr. Keyworth: And now you have an opportunity to use them. Bartlet: I think I have. Dr. Keyworth: That room I passed down the hall, on the left, it's got a name, right? Bartlet: I think you're talking about the Lincoln Bedroom. Dr. Keyworth: Right. This is a hell of a curve you get graded on now. Lincoln freed the slaves and won the Civil War. "Thank you. Next. And what will you be singing for us today, Mr. Bartlet?" "Well, we've had six straight quarters of economic growth." Bartlet: That's not easy. Dr. Keyworth: Okay. Bartlet: It's not easy. Dr. Keyworth: ...I believe you. Bartlet: I think I've made tough choices. Dr. Keyworth:I think Lincoln did what he thought was right even though it meant losing half the country. I think you don't do what you think is right if it means losing Michigan's electoral votes. Bartlet:You don't know anything. I'm not trying to get my father to like me. Dr. Keyworth:Good. Cause it's never,nevergoing to happen.
In the folk song "Soldier, Soldier, Will You Marry Me?", the soldier keeps coming up with things he lacks that would be necessary for a proper wedding (clean shoes, a good coat, and so on), which the young lady supplies for him. In the end, having obtained a complete new outfit at the young lady's expense, he admits to one more obstacle that she can't overcome — he has a wife already.
The Song Sixteen tons, describing the life of a miner. Sixteen tons, and what do you get / another day older and deeper in debt / St. Peter, don't you call me, 'cause I can't go / I owe my soul to the company store.
Mythology and Religion
In The Bible, this is how Jacob ended up with two wives. Laban had two daughters, and Jacob fell in love with the younger one, Rachel. The father agreed to let Jacob marry her if he worked on Laban's land for seven years. Jacob obliged. At the end of his agreement, Laban snuck the elder daughter, Leah, into bed with Jacob in the dark of night, and in the morning claimed that he couldn't possibly let the younger daughter marry before the elder. He gave Rachel to Jacob shortly after in exchange for another seven years' labor (bet the daughters were really grateful to dear old dad for this set-up), so Jacob continued working. He ended up walking off with almost half of Laban's possessions at the end of twenty years.
It's worth noting that Laban was Jacob's uncle. Yes, the man was enough of a greedy Jerkass to swindle his own nephew out of seven years of labor. As for the twenty years bit, after Jacob had worked for 14 years for his wives, he stayed with Laban as a contractor for six years, wherein Jacob would not be paid any cash, but they would divide the flock between them according to certain features on the sheep (whatever sheep had a certain feature would go to Jacob). Again, Laban tried to swindle Jacob by interfering with his ability to breed sheep that would bear the features that would go to him as his payment. This ends up backfiring.
Subverted (inverted?) in the tale of Doubting Thomas, who wanted to touch the wounds of Christ before he believed in the resurrection. One common interpretation of the story says he believed as soon as he merely saw them.
In some tellings, the reason Hercules had Twelve Labors is because the king invalidated two labors (cleaning the Augean Stables and slaying the hydra) for technicalities. In the case of the hydra, he had Iolaus help him by burning the neck-stumps, so Hercules hadn't performed the labor alone. In the case of the stables, it was disqualified either because he was paid for the job, or because he did it by redirecting a river and therefore "the river did the work".
There was a music contest between Apollo and someone else (the myths vary). Apollo with his lyre and the challenger with his flute duke it out musically and the judges (except Midas) all agree that Apollo is the better musician. Incensed that someone might disagree with that, he promptly challenged his opponent to play the instrument upside down or while singing (the myths vary), which lets him win handily.
In the comic strip Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz, Lucy repeatedly fools Charlie Brown by snatching away the football he is about to kick. This captures the feeling of this trope in a single instant, distilled down to its essence.
In the Animal Crossing series of video games, your character moves into a new town full of animals. The local shopkeeper, Tom Nook, sets you up with a place to live... and then gives you a bill that you cannot possibly afford. Even after your stint as his personal assistant, it will still take you some time to pay off the debt. Once you do, he offers to renovate your house, and ends up doing so whether you agree or not. And sticks you with that bill as well. It takes many iterations of this pattern before he is content to let you not be in his debt.
In the video game The Misadventures of Tron Bonne you start out with a million in debt that you have to pay off. When you raise that money, the loan shark takes it and insists that you now owe Interest that comes to 2 million MORE. When you finally pay that off, he says that you owe interest on your interest. When the main character refuses to comply, he kidnaps her and forces you to invade and destroy everything. The ending shows Teisel claiming that it was all part of his plan to get the entire stash of the Big Bad. On one hand, tricking someone you know will try this trope is believable. On the other hand... the Bonnes coming up with that?
In Sword of Vermilion a greedy king makes you go through three progressively larger and harder dungeons in order to get a ring you need. In the end, the hero gets fed up and forces the king at swordpoint to hand the ring over. And it turns out the ring is a fake.
Resident Evil 6: Simmons forces Helena to help him with his plan to assassinate the President by holding her little sister hostage, and soon after decides to simply use said little sister as a C-Virus test subject regardless.
In Steal Princess you need to pay debt to the kingdom (the main character's a thief), when the first (relatively cheap) payment is done, the king moves the goalpost up because he says that he's compensating for the expensive things that were stolen. This repeats several times.
Doom 3 was like this: Whenever you reach whichever location you were previously ordered to go, your squadmates have already gone ahead and your commander would radio you to go someplace else, making it feel as if you were accomplishing nothing in the game. Or rather, nothing beyond killing a lot of zombies and stuff, which is the real point anyway.
Both New Super Mario Bros. titles work this way. In the old days, you were simply in the wrong castle, but this time around every single fortress/castle is the one containing the princess, but you'll watch her get swept away to the next one seventeen times in a row, Mario.
Unless you use a cannon, in which case the bad guys graciously move the princess ahead for you.
Didn't Hotel Mario do the same thing? Dare me to find her, indeed...
World Star-4 in Super Mario 3D World features a literal moving goalpost. What appears to be a simple 8 second Breather Level turns into a frantic chase as the winged goalpost moves ever further away from you.
Samurai Warriors Katana. Tachibana Ginchiyo in Savior Story's last stage. First, she tells you to get to the top of an inclined plane without taking any damage. You will fail this part repeatedly because the game doesn't adequately explain how to strafe, the specific control scheme is ONLY used in that area, and you can't attack. When you reach the top, she sends 30-ish enemies at you and expects you to defeat them without any attacks landing successfully on you (you can block attacks and deflect arrows as usual). Fail here, and you have to do the first part again. Only thing saving it from being That One Level is that once you deal with the enemies, Tachibane concedes that you're actually strong and doesn't make you fight her.
You're working to bring ale to The Snake in one mission in Stronghold. The quota is low first, but it's likely that as soon your industry begins to run, he makes an excuse to demand more. He mercifully stops after a while, allowing you to complete the mission. If you know this is coming (one of the level hints points out that the Snake isn't trustworthy, but that's it), you can stockpile a large amount of hops before you start brewing ale. If you subsequently make enough brewers, you can complete his task before he moves the goalposts, but it's tough.
In King's Quest IV, the Big Bad captures Rosella and sets her to a task to earn her freedom. Upon completing that task, she is given a second one, followed by a third.
In Ultima VII Part II, you need to free a captain so that you can sail to the next town. The guards want you to pay his fine: 100 Monetari. If you try to pay the fine, they up the fine to some amount slightly larger than the amount of Monetari you have on hand, and will continue to do this if you come back with more. The only way to free the man is to track down a cache of gold bars. This can make the game Unwinnable or cause a Game Breaker depending on what you do with the gold bars. If you convert the bullion into Monetari, the guards will just up the fine again. If you offer to pay in bullion, the guards will take all of your bullion and free the captain. If you drop all but one of the bars, you can free the captain, reclaim the rest of the bullion, and have more than enough money for the rest of the game.
Crisis City as Classic Sonic in Sonic Generations has a literal example of the trope. When you reach the goal sign, the flaming tornado in the background uproots it and carries it away. You'll have to play through the level a bit more to reach the goal sign that was moved.
In Always Sometimes Monsters, you can try negotiating with your Cranky Landlord by offering to pay him whatever money you've scrounged together so that you can stay in your apartment that night, even if you can't afford the full $500. He'll consider this, and potentially agree... but if you pissed him off by refusing to hand over your key, he'll add that you also have to pay a $5000 security deposit upfront to cover the cost of replacing the locks.
Abathur from StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm. His job is to try to make the Zerg Swarm perfect. However, "perfect" is different from moment to moment. He is well aware that he'll never achieve perfection, and takes it in stride, settling for chasing it.
Papers, Please: The rules of Grestin border checkpoint change in the matter of days, as the gameplay becomes a lot more difficult toward the player. Aside from making your life harder, this significantly affects some entrants who do not adapt to sudden changes, rendering their passports invalid.
In Not A Villain, Danni has been struggling with this. Due to her paralysis, her City considers her a "costly liability", and they've been changing their rules to impose more and more difficult requirements on her to justify the resources she consumes. They want her to fail so that they can take her off life-support and import a replacement citizen capable of working on the Farms.
In The Order of the Stick Belkar strongly suggests that they immediately kill the vampirized Durkon, which is a pretty good idea considering the whole "evil bloodsucking abomination" thing. Roy rejects the proposal because they can't transport the body easily. When that's taken care of, Belkar again raises the suggestion and gets shot down again because there's no cleric to revive him. Everyone else seems just a little too happy to have Durkon back, even if it's not the man they knew to accept that the situation has changed and something needs to be done about it.
Done in the What If? entry "Train Loop" in order to allow for an interesting answer (as in, other than "no"). "Could a high-speed train run through a vertical loop, like a rollercoaster, with the passengers staying comfortable?" becomes (changes bolded) "Could a modified and reinforced high-speed train with a jet engine on top run through a vertical loop, like a rollercoaster, with the passengers surviving?"
The 2009 Christmas event had the depowered demigods attempting to build an airship so they could run Christmas while Santa was missing-in-action. Again, users quickly donated all the gold and items they needed... so Cresento ran them down with his own airship and then sued them for damages, necessitating further donations.
In the Futurama episode "A Clockwork Origin," Dr. Banjo insists that Prof. Farnsworth provide a "missing link" between humans and prehistoric apes. With each link the professor provides, Dr. Banjo demands a link between that link and the prehistoric ape. This continues for a long time until the professor can no longer provide a link.
In one episode of Ed, Edd n Eddy, Kevin finds out Eddy's Embarrassing Middle Name, and uses it as blackmail material to make Eddy do all sorts of publicly humiliating stunts before telling everyone Eddy's middle name anyway.
In the Sponge Bob Squarepants episode "I'm Your Biggest Fanatic" SpongeBob is trying to get into the Jellyspotters, but their leader Kevin keeps stringing him along with increasingly difficult tasks, at which SpongeBob succeeds with ease. When they finally come up with something sufficiently impossible, it winds up in Kevin being Hoist by His Own Petard as the fake "queen jellyfish" he creates attracts a real king jellyfish, and SpongeBob saves the day, revealing Kevin as a complete loser. When Kevin still tries to deny SpongeBob entry, the other Jellyspotters get fed up and take Kevin's crown (which was actually part of his head) and give it to SpongeBob.
Another episode had Spongebob trying to be declared the greatest chef ever. King Neptune (who looks and acts significantly different then the King Neptune who appeared in the film) at one point adding more and more conditions a person must meet to be the greatest chef (such as "must be left handed"), often contradicting previous conditions ("Must wear blue underwear, no, RED!"). Spongebob kept meeting ALL of them.
In the Transformers Prime episode "Crisscross", Airachnid kidnaps Jack's mother and says she'll let her go if Jack finds her within a time limit. Jack does so, but at the last second Airachnid changes the challenge from "find her" to "rescue her"; since Jack didn't save her from where he found her, Airachnid takes that as her excuse to kill them both.
In an episode of Arthur, Buster wants to be friends with a couple of skateboarding older kids. The skateboarders promise to let him hang out with them if he performs a humiliating dare. He does, but then they tell him he must perform another dare if he wants to be "initiated." After a series of ever-more humiliating dares, Arthur manages to convince Buster that they're just stringing him along for entertainment value.
In Rocky and Bullwinkle, a literal example occurs. In a football game, the opposing team actually moves the goal posts.
The parental version of this trope is seen two episodes later in "The Wacky Molestation Adventure", with Kyle's parents saying he can attend a Raging Pussies concert only if Kyle cleans out the garage, shovels the driveway, and brings democracy to Cuba. He does all three, at which point they still tell him no, which kicks off the main plot.
This One and That One is an animated series featuring two anthropomorphic cats as the main characters. In "A Tale of No Tail," they meet another cat-person, but refuse to believe that he's actually a cat because he doesn't have a tail. So they make him do cat-like things to prove that he's a cat, but each time he does them, they insist that he could still be something else because they've seen other animals doing that. "What do I have to do to prove I'm a cat?!" What finally convinces them is when he coughs up a hairball.
Harvey: And don't come back until you're all grown uuu- *Birdgirl climbs out the window, showing a lot of leg and a panty shot.* Harvey: -until you've been to Law School!
In "Fright of Passage" on Dragons: Riders of Berk, Tuffnut and Ruffnut do this to Snotlout, repeatedly adding to a list of ridiculous demands that he has to meet in order to get into their shelter. Each time he brings back what they want, they just add something else, until finally the Frightmare threat is driven away and then Snotlout is able to get in, only to find that everyone is gone and the party he was hoping to attend is over.
Corporations in the 19th century would set up "Company Towns" with "Company Stores" where the employees could get ridiculously easy credit. This had hideous interest, plus the rent and inflated prices all put the employees in a state of perpetual debt. Since the debt was to their employer, in effect they were just handing in their wage packets and couldn't save anything. This inevitably led to riots, conspiracies, mass murders, and the formation of labor unions. Google the Molly Maguires.
Referenced in the song "Sixteen Tons," about the trials and tribulations of a coal miner: "You load sixteen tons, and what do you get? / Another day older and deeper in debt / St. Peter, don't you call me, 'cause I can't go / I owe my soul to the Company Store."
Feudalism worked on a similar basis, as did indentured servitude and the system of sharecropping used to keep American blacks in servitude in the South between the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement.
This wasn't restricted to blacks. There were many poor whites, especially through the first half of the 20th Century, who were sharecroppers.
That was also the main reason why Bolsheviks easily got support of factory workers in large cities, greatly aiding them during the Russian Revolution.
And how some sweatshops work today.
As do sex slavery rings. In theory, the foreign prostitutes only have to pay back the money the pimps invested on their transport and they'll get their papers back to move as they wish. They even get 50% or more of the money they collect "performing." But then they just have to pay for food, shelter and "protection" with that same money, and the original debt always has interest...
Many brothels also charge the sex-slave prostitutes for birth control pills, and shots to prevent STDs. Oftentimes, the prostitutes are forced to take these pills and shots, so they'll have to pay off more money even if they didn't want the drugs in the first place.
419 scams work this way, with the perpetrators asking for bank fees, bribes for officials, money for "taxes," and so forth, with the promise of millions of dollars to come, until the victim either wises up or is cleaned out.
Then there are "scambaiters," who like to invert this trope by pretending to be unsuspecting victims and making the scammers do time-wasting and embarrassing things, hopefully distracting them from actual victims.
Until 2009, the revolving credit laws in the U.S. allowed an even worse abuse: The credit card companies were free to raise the interest rate on existing balances at any time, for any reason. You could get a credit card with a 4.9% interest rate, buy a $1,000 item with it, make two months' worth of minimum payments to reduce your balance to $980 — and then credit card company could raise the interest rate to 19.9% on the entire remaining $980 balance. Not even variable interest rate mortgages have that kind of abusive power (their interest rates have to be tied to government-controlled indices).
This was something that happens regularly in the US Army for enlisted promotions. The promotion lists are based on cut-off scores - if you have more points than the cut-off score, you're eligible for promotion. This is a constantly-moving line and when the Army doesn't need any more of a particular rank in a particular field, they set the score to be higher than the number of points obtainable in that rank/field.
For example, if you've gotten every point possible, say 798 points, the Army may set the cut-off to 799, knowing good and well that this means no one will be promoted.
The Army also inverts the trope in a frequently frustrating way. With the promotion point cut-off set high the only way to get the promotion is to work hard across a number of areas to earn points. However, just after earning enough points to reach the high cut-off score, the Army suddenly decides it needs a lot of promotions in your field. Sure, you're going to get promoted, but so are all the lazy-asses who sat around while you busted your hump.
In one case in the early 1990s, a senior enlisted promotion board met and needed to eliminate some of the otherwise qualified candidates for promotions. After going through the records of every candidate, the board determined that all of them were more or less equal. The promotion board then decided to eliminate any candidate who had a mustache in his official photo. Surely, no one in the Army was aware that a promotion may hinge on the presence or absence of facial hair.
This is also the case for all military recruitment. The standards needed to join the military change depending on how badly they need recruits.
The promotion points have been rescaled to make it harder for soldiers attempting promotion to Sergeant to get the theoretical maximum of 800 points. How? The Army eliminated the points for the commander's recommendation and the promotion board, which was worth up to 300 points combined. The Army also rescaled matters such as civilian education and awards, both of which are worth far more for the promotion to Staff Sergeant, than for Sergeant. Oh, and you still need both the commander's recommendation and the recommendation of the promotion board to be promoted, even if you have the points.
Similarly, soldiers in Ranger School who are told the standard to pass a particular event may find out that they are being dropped from the school after meeting the standard only because not enough students failed the task.
This is also a known tactic of many parents to get their children motivated without actually having to cough up a reward when the goal is achieved.
"Moving the goal posts" is one of the more insidious forms of invisible or unrecognized child abuse: studies have shown that children with parents (especially overly-perfectionist ones) and peers who keep doing this often suffer from serious trust issues and paranoia for the rest of their lives.
What is even worse is even if you do exactly what they asked for, the fan base will still say it wasn't good enough for their expectations or they will find something else to complain about. This is usually the reason why many companies refuse to hear out their consumers/fans.
This happens in the trucking industry, including garbage collection. The company decides that in order to justify paying you a certain amount of money, you have to collect a certain amount of garbage per week (which on paper sounds fair enough). If you start approaching that limit however, they then determine that you're capable of collecting more and raise the amount of trash they expect you to collect. Which means you go from collecting, say, 98% of your total amount to closer to 90% (while still collecting the same weight). And since you're now only collecting 90% of what they say you can collect, they're cutting your pay since obviously you must be slacking off.
Which means that even if you work overtime, they can still say you're not giving it your best.
An actual incident in the government siege of Mount Carmel (recording appearing in the documentary WACO: THE RULES OF ENGAGEMENT... David Koresh, on the phone to an FBI spokesman, complains of a helicopter firing at them. The spokesman first asserts "there were no guns on that helicopter", then "there were no guns MOUNTED on that helicopter", finally that there may have been a gun or two mounted, but nobody fired it.
Departmental funding works like this in some companies; if they come in significantly under budget by whatever their deadline is, they have to find ways to fritter that extra money away, or else the impressive feat they managed this interval will become the new budget for next interval, regardless of whether or not dumb luck happened to come into last interval's providence at all.
This is pointed out in Freeman's Mind when he explains capitalism by talking about the giant 'nutcracker'. It's almost like he's using Freeman to make a point to the audience. "If we don't spend a billion dollars this year then we don't get a billion dollars next year. If we don't get a billion dollars next year, then we have to hire lobbyists to get our billion dollars the year after that and no wants that because we would be competing with other lobbyists. That's how capitalism works. It's just easy to build a giant 'nutcracker' and write it off."
Also tends to be an explanation for government funded tasks. For road maintenance teams for instance, they may work on a road that didn't really need fixing. The idea is, they had extra money in their budget and they have to spend it. If they don't, then they get less to work with, and spending more in the government is always a bad idea.
Tends to show up in Soul Sucking Retail Jobs that sell extended warranties and/or computer services. If you or your store do well a particular week/month/etc, your goal will be adjusted upward, the demand becoming increasingly harder to reach every time it goes up. When you inevitably can't reach it, there's a stern talking to about how much you "failed to meet expectations."
And sometimes you get the stern talk because a manager was able to sell one when you weren't because they can manipulate the system in ways that would get you fired.
Jack Thompson wrote a "Modest Video Game Proposal", wherein he promised to donate $10,000 to a charity of the choosing of Paul Eibeler (former chairman of Take-Two Interactive, publisher of Grand Theft Auto and target of Thompson's ire) for the creation of a video game involving the player going on a killing spree against people in the gaming industry. Such a game was made, in the form of I'm O.K. Thompson reneged on his end of the deal, though, saying the game had to be published and sold commercially. Thankfully, Penny Arcade jumped to the rescue, donating the 10K in Jack's name to the Entertainment Software Association Foundation Charity.
Conspiracy Theorists are absurdly fond of this. When pressed, they will claim that they don't have to prove their theories correct, they only have to poke holes in the official story. (See the point above.) For example, they will insist that the NIST simulation of the 9/11 World Trade center collapse is incorrect because it doesn't show exactly what happened. Never mind that the rest of their reasoning holds up, or that simulating the millions or billions of pieces of debris would probably be impossible even on a Cray. Likewise, when conspiracy theorists claimed that the towers were brought down by controlled use of thermite, experts showed that the pattern of destruction was incompatible with the way in which thermite burns, at which point conspiracy theorists immediately claimed that it was done with an unknown "super thermite" that didn't act like regular thermite, even though there was no evidence that this super thermite actually existed.
The scientific method, more precisely the ideas of falsificationism championed by Karl Popper et. al., can be summarized as doing this to yourself For Science!. What, your theory predicts all the observed phenomena including that were never even recognized before as accurately as can yet be measured? So? What about this phenomenon...
Moving The Goal Posts is also a common (if unsavory) debating tactic, particularly in online forums. For instance, in a debate over the evolution of the bombardier beetle, person A might say "It is impossible for the bombardier beetle's 'flamethrower' defense to have evolved by a series of small steps." Person B then proposes a series of possible small steps that could produce such a defense mechanism. Person A then responds that they can't prove this was the actual series of steps that the bombardier beetle's ancestors went through. The original goal was to prove that some series of steps was hypothetically possible, but person A has shifted the goalposts to now require evidence that these steps actually happened.
Nearly every EULA and consumer agreement out there includes the phrase, "has the right to alter the terms of the contract" somewhere. This is not usually an issue with most customers until they notice the universal price hike a few months down the road.
While the Down Periscope example above was a comedic movie, attempting to fudge the results of a wargame, exercise, or test of a new piece of equipment when it doesn't come out the way someone wants has a long and inglorious tradition in many militaries. Possibly the most notorious example in recent years was the 2002 Millennium Challenge wargame when Lt. Gen Paul van Riper publicly accused the organizers of cheating to ensure a US victory when his unconventional tactics, playing the technologically inferior enemy force, sank the US fleet (which were arbitrarily refloated to restart the exercise and had the rules changed so they were untouchable), prevented communication interception by using couriers instead of radio or telephone (which had the rules changed so he wasn't allowed to do it), and forced the opposition into using tactics which made them mincemeat for American weapons and tactics.
However, he also abused the rules set up for the game to win, including doing things that are simply impossible in real life, such as launching cruise missiles from boats that weighed less than them. This is by and large why the wargame was thrown out, as both sides had bent the rules so much that the challenge had virtually no basis in reality anymore.
This also happens in weapon testing to allow projects to succeed; a good example is with the V-22 Osprey. When the aircraft failed to be able to autorotatenote this allows a helicopter to crash land as the air flows through the rotor blades and causes them to spin, slowing its descent as the wings would get in the way, this requirement was dropped. The above requirement is worse for the V-22 than a conventional helicopter because if one completely unarmored engine loses power and the cross link fails, the aircraft will immediately roll over and crash. Other important features were dropped or decided to no longer be important as weight requirements grew and the designers realized that rotors and propellers as different for a reason and designing a hybrid doesn't work as effectively. These important features include armor and NBC (Nuclear, Biological, Chemical) protection, for an aircraft that is expected to be an assault transport. Relating to the above it is also incapable of carrying weapons as those exceed the already tight weight requirements.
The OICW project was subject to this sort of thing too. When it became clear that the XM29 prototype failed to meet any of the requirements (weight, cost, or effectiveness versus the M4 carbine), the prototype was shelved and the project continued into "Increments" that would have developed both parts of the weapon separately and then combined them to create the full OICW. They were only willing to move the goalposts so far, however - when the XM8, the result of "Increment One", not only again failed to meet weight requirements but also had a host of other issuesnote the plastic casing of the initial models would often melt under sustained fire, fouling up the action and preventing the gun from continuing to fire; the built-in optics of said initial models had a short battery life; and most revisions of the weapon were incompatible with existing accessories, due to using a proprietary "PCAP" system instead of Picatinny rails, the project was shelved indefinitely. Meanwhile "Increment Two", the XM25, has continued standalone testing for its airbursting properties.
This is the issue with taxes. If the government makes a surplus, it could be a sign that they're taxing too much and thus, the citizens won't be too happy. If the government has a deficit, it means they're taxing too little... and the citizens won't be too happy when they pay higher taxes.
The funny thing is that politicians take credit in either case. When there's a surplus of taxes due to over-taxation or factors out of the control of the taxing authorities, the politicians take credit for the surplus as if they had done something positive, such as cutting spending and reducing waste.
Contracts may have been first developed to avoid this problem. Neither side would be able to change the deal, no matter how much power one side had over the other.
This happening in spite of a contract is called "requirements creep" or "scope creep".
The "missing link" argument by Creationists as noted in the Futurama example goes like this: There are no transitional fossils found between distinct species, often just talking about the link between man and apes. When a link is found, they demand the links between the two, or state the creature doesn't count as half of one creature and half another. When the limits of the fossil records are reached (only a tiny fraction of animals are preserved), the creationists claim victory.
Richard Dawkins noted something similar - if a fossil is found which bisects a gap in the evolutionary record, well, the creationist can now argue that there are two gaps instead of one.
If a relationship between two people is strained and one of them wants to make it right, the other person may give off a list of things the person needs to do to regain the trust. As time goes on, the person trying to finish the list of tasks will be exasperated to see that their significant other has moved the goal post by forcing them to jump through even more hoops.
The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, founded in France in 1905 to verify aviation records, stated among its rules that an aircraft should be able to take off under its own power in order to qualify for a record. Thus they did not count the Wright Brothers' aircraft, which had been flying for more than a year at that point, because they used rails and skids to take off, allowing them to claim that a Brazilian-born Frenchman (Alberto Santos-Dumont) was really the first man to fly. No one outside of France and Brazil cared, and they themselves have stamped the Wright Brothers as the first to fly a heavier than air craft successfully.
Common form of carnival game rigging. If the mark actually succeeds in a rigged game, the carny will claim that some heretofore unspecified rule had been broken, such as the mark had to stand a certain distance back or could only use one hand.
One political cartoon depicted this trope in the immediate aftermath of the Bush/Gore election, while people were still trying to figure out which candidate had won Florida.
Steve Wozniak did this after people challenged his assertion that the Apple was the first personal computer. Wozniak changed the definition of a personal computer to an extremely specific one (built-in keyboard input, video output, capable of being programmed, capable of playing games), which was made to match the capabilities of the Apple. This didn't actually work, since Processor Technology's SOL-20 matched all of his criteria and hit the market first.