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Game WISH 49: Winning

I know I’m over a year late on this, but I only just read it and have to respond, because by coincidence I’ve thinking about those very questions a lot lately.

    Is there a way to win or lose in a roleplaying game?

Yes and no – or maybe yes and yes. In my mind I’ve divided the idea of “winning” in a roleplaying game into “The Big Win” and “Small Wins”. I shall expound upon this division now.

Unlike most other “games”, RPG rules rarely define any “You’ve Won, Game Over” point. Typically campaigns end by either player / GM consensus (usually at the logical conclusion and resolution to the campaign’s plot, but cancellations due to time/life constraints are included here) or the deaths of every player character in one fell swoop. The closest condition to a “win” here, the logical conclusion and resolution to the campaign’s plot, can’t really be defined by rules; instead, they depend very much on those playing the game. This is what I think of as the “Big Win”. The Big Win is like life; the journey can be long and arduous, and there’s no guarantee you’ll even get to your goal.

The trick, in my opinion, is to make sure the journey is as interesting (from a play level) as possible, and that’s where the “Small Wins” idea comes in, at the session level. I think the core of the “Small Wins” idea is two concepts: “Challenge” and “Contribution”.

I find that each individual session should have some Challenge to be overcome by the players as a group, one difficult enough so it isn’t a “freebie” win for the players, but not so difficult that the players feel they are incapable of overcoming it. If the GM can pull it off given time constraints and player preferences, I think an individual challenge for a player or two per session (with the other players acting as “supporting cast”) is also a good idea.

Surmounting or overcoming – oh, hell with it, beating this challenge is where Contribution comes in. I’ve noticed that, when it comes to RPGs, what most players ultimately want is to actively contribute to the overcoming of the challenge in some meaningful way.

Even if they don’t strike the killing blow themselves, they want to strike the blows that weaken or distract the monster enough so the killing blow can be struck; even if the even if the monster is just driven off, they want to help push it in the right direction; even if there’s naught to do but flee from the monster, they want to aid in the escape.

Then there's the active part of the contribution. Being nothing but the punching-bag for the monster while the other players go for its weak spot and/or rescue the damsel might be a meaningful contribution, but the player is just sitting back and counting down the hit points. Every player needs the opportunity to have their character do something, not (or not just) have something done to him or her (or it). Part of that is letting each player utilise his or her character's Cool Stuff. There's a reason why each player was drwan to the type or style of character he or she is playing, and if the player doesn't get the chance to explore/exploit that reason, he or she will feel cheated.

(It’s the selfish part of Contribution, the part that wants to look good while doing it. Even if the game is Call of Cthulhu, I think every player should get the opportunity to say, “Oh, horror! Oh, angst! Oh, the sheer, unmitigated Ia! Ia! Cthulhu ftaghn! of it all!” at least once every few sessions.)

In summary, each player wants to feel part of the process. That’s why I think active, meaningful participation – contribution – in overcoming a challenge is the Small Win of RPGs. If you and your players are having lots of Small Wins, you mightn’t even notice that there’s really no Big Win anyway.

    Are you in competition with other players, NPCs, or the GM?

There has to be competition of some sort, or else there’s no challenge. Really, the only sources of competition the participants have in a role playing game are each other, and in many roleplaying games, the responsibility for providing competition rests with the GM.

However, that competition shouldn’t be overly competitive. The nature of challenge in an RPG should be less like a team sport (grid-iron, soccer, rugby, etc.; the "challenge", the opposing team, might be beatable, but doesn't intend to be beaten) and more like an obstacle course. The challenge is intended to be beatable, designed to be beatable, whilst still making sure the players get a workout while they accomplish it. That’s where the rules come in. They’re the GM’s tools for building the obstacle course, and the players’ tools for getting to the finishing line; they're the guarantee for both sides that the competiton will be fair. While a GM can penalise a player for not knowing the rules, he should always give the player the opportunity to learn them.

    What are the rewards for winning or the penalties for losing?

Now, there’s the rub, especially with regard to losing.

Winning first, though. From a Small Wins perspective, experience points have been the commonly accepted coin since D&D, although some recent games shy away from giving awards out for Small Wins (Feng Shui and Heavy Gear are two games of mine that spring to mind). As mentioned before, there’s no real guarantee a given campaign will ever reach “Big Win” status, and as the campaign is basically over at that point, XP are meaningless.

Ultimately, though, the only thing XP can be spent on is to improve your character, which indicates that XP aren’t a reward in and of themselves, but instead the means to the actual reward: the ability to face greater and greater challenges. And form a rules perspective, isn’t that what ultimately happens after each Small Win in a roleplaying campaign?

Now to losing. Say everything goes as it should, and each player is actively and meaningfully contributing to overcoming the challenge the GM has set for them – and they fail. (Maybe the dice just went against the players; maybe the GM made the challenge too difficult; maybe the players Just Couldn't Figure It Out.) Are they penalised for this? In some games, yes; they don’t earn XP they otherwise would have. Their characters may be less capable of overcoming challenges due to injury or exhaustion. But ultimately, if they come back for more, they’ll still be actively and meaningly contributing to overcoming the GM’s challenges.

From this perspective, it seems the reward for winning and the penalty for losing aren’t really much different.

Then there’s losing from the other perspective. If a player isn’t actively and meaningfully contributing, whether out of ennui or lack/denial of opportunities, they’ll be bored or frustrated (or both), which is penalty enough. If the situation continues, the player will blow this pop stand and go do something more fun. Is this penalising the player or group? Perhaps; it may be a missed opportunity for GM and players to learn something and improve their gameplay techniques. Or, it may simply be a resolution of an irreconcilable conflict in gaming style or taste.

    Do you feel like your characters have to “win” to enjoy a game?

Not necessarily; I think players can enjoy the game without necessarily overcoming challenges (in the classic sense, at least). In-character, intra-PC chat can be very enjoyable, but I think eventually players will get a little bored and get their characters looking for another Small Win.

Old Comments

As a relative newcomer to the gaming scene I've only had limited experience. There is nothing more boring for a player than to feel that they are simply there to make up the numbers. I've sat through games where I didn't even get to role the dice.
I also thought that we (the players) were the ones to devise our character sheets. The only development should be the addition of experience points etc. Sometimes it feels as though the GM is in collusion with certain players to give them a more prominant part in the game. I don't expect to have a main part in the proceedings, but there are times when it's been hard to stay awake.
As I've said, I'm a newcomer and gaming is a great social activity for me. It's a way to get together with friends. I don't have the urge to spend hours pouring over the game books and I'm lucky that the GMs and gamers I mix with are patient. I just like to get stuck into the game and have a chance to pull off a coup now and then.
I guess what I'm saying is 'keep it moving guys!'


Posted by: Vickie at June 21, 2004 03:37 PM

I can definitely agree with that. From observation and personal experience, there’s nothing worse than being bored or frustrated - or bored and frustrated - at the gaming table. I like to think that I try and avoid creating an environment that encourages boredom or frustration when I GM a game.

Setting a new challenge each session and making sure each player has the opportunity to actively and meaningfully contribute to overcoming it is more easily said than done, of course.

Posted by: IMAGinES at June 21, 2004 04:30 PM

If it looks as though Vickie and I are talking about a slightly different post from the one you just read - well, we are, sort of. I wound up editing my answers to the third and fourth questions after I noticed they weren't really answering those questions; I was off on the hobby-horse I'd suddenly saddled up in the middle of answering Question #2. I reined myself in and cantered back to the central topic of Big and Small Wins, which meant the stuff about the reward of winning being enjoyment was snipped.

Posted by: IMAGinES at June 21, 2004 04:44 PM

I'm going to have to be a bit of a pretentious gamer here, and point out that you haven't really touched on Freeform games.
Most of the freeform games I've played, I've been handed a character sheet beforehand, which has clearly identified objectives. Most of the time it's impossible to achieve all of your objectives, I've personally only done it once out of the 30ish games I've played. (Fishbowl! - Go Britteny!!) Now IMHO, it's a Win if you don't stuff up too bad. Lock in your major goals, or lay the groundwork for them happening in the future and you've won the game. There can be many winners at the conclusion of the game, and then you have the gut-wrenching joy of debriefing where you find that your carefully laid plans have been turned to dust because the person you paid to supply you with those 500 laserguns is not an arms dealer, but is actually a swindler with a gambling debt. (**Damn! There goes my plans to overthrow the tyrant**)
But I do find it fun, even when I find out I've been done over.
Sometimes winning is good, But I'm in it for the characterisation.

Posted by: Lauren at June 21, 2004 04:52 PM

True, Lauren, I haven't. It's probably because I'm not much of a freeform gamer. Seriously, when was the last time anyone saw me in a freeform at a con? I think it must have been in the late nineties.

I also have no doubt there are several other forms of RPGs I've not touched on, simply becuase I don't do 'em. So, I answered the question from my POV.

Why not expand on winning in freeforms over on Simulated? I have no doubt it'd be an interesting read!

Posted by: IMAGinES at June 21, 2004 06:38 PM
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