Monday, October 1, 2012

Great Expectations

This past week Ravyn at Exchange of Realities published a pair of posts on the subject of failure, specifically rules for handling alternatives to outright failure and creating opportunities for failure to be mitigated.
How in blazes is anyone supposed to screw up and then find an oblique way around it when all these failures seem so unrecoverable? When screwing up means going back to the blasted chargen, do not pass go, do not collect any of the local currency—things disappearing forever, things being broken past repair, and nine times out of ten they’re the things that really matter because the GM is fond of gut-punching? So will I fall and not get up?

I rather like the idea of being able to fail in a controlled environment and remember how to Plans B through Z back to something slightly better than the status quo. Second chances. They’re pretty awesome.
It's a subject which generates some heat among gamers, particularly when death is on the line. I've written a couple of times about this already - in short, I disagree with the notion that death is among the 'least interesting' consequences a character can face. If my character can't chance the fate of Vaughn Bodé's Captain of the Guard (warning! NSFW!) - part I | part II | part III - then I'm playing the wrong game. Even so, I do expect other consequences of failure as well, which I'll explore in a another post.

But there was something else which jumped out at me from Ravyn's post.
There’s a lot I like in a character. Justified confidence. The ability to snark anything. Who doesn’t? But my favorites are the ones who fail. The ones who completely screw things up, sometimes repeatedly, and who in the wake of their sequential screw-ups look around, shake their heads, mutter something about how they got to this point, and then get up and start fixing things. The ones whose first plan isn’t quite what’s needed, so they back off, regroup, and come up with another plan. And then another. Who will turn any situation into a plan, and when it fails, just move on to the next letter. Into the next alphabet. Start pulling plan designations from the syllabaries. There are a lot of writing systems out there to name plans after, and these people, as long as they keep surviving their failures, keep learning who they can and can’t trust, who they can stay with and who they need to flee from as fast as is humanly necessary, which solutions work and which don’t and which will probably get everyone they love killed in the process (hopefully they didn’t get that one by experience; that’s depressing)….
Wow. That's a pretty extensive list of expectations to lay at the foot stool of (1) the referee, (2) the other players, and (3) the game, with the belief that all three should work seamlessly together to satisfy them.
Then I find that the tough part is playing them.
Yeah, I would kinda imagine so.

To be perfectly honest, my gut reaction is, 'Fer cris' sake, just write a friggin' story an' be done with it,' but I know it's not really as simple as that. That subset of roleplaying games which explicitly strive to inculcate aspects of collaborative storytelling do have a game element to them which affects play in ways that, frex, online text-based roleplaying generally doesn't. There are twists and turns generated by the rules and randomizers, limitations on the character's power to change the direction of the story, and so forth. These games can provide the 'space to fail' for which Ravyn is looking, in the interest of a compelling narrative.

Proponents of such games often insist that roleplaying games with an emphasis on producing a satisfying narrative are really no different from other more traditional roleplaying games. Perhaps that's true - I haven't enough personal experience with them to say.

But even if the games themselves, viewed from lofty perch of the the cameras aboard the Goodyear blimp Spirit of America, are of a kind, I think the expectations of the players who gravitate to games which, frex, offer conflict resolution over task resolution, say, may be profoundly different. Expecting to play Wesley in my campaign can produce severe cognitive dissonance when you discover that you can end up like Count Rugen instead, and that that's a feature, not a bug.


  1. This is something my wife and I have discussed. She finds the fear of character death to be she doesn't play RPGs, especially when I'm the DM.

    But for me, without the possibility of the kind of misfortune you allude to above, I don't see any point in playing the game. Just write a story, novella, or novel at that point.

  2. I don't kinda seems like this discussion is developing a false binary: either character failure = DEATH DEATH DEATH or character failure = Potential Narrative Device.

    There are some things in my game that can result in catastrophic consequences if you fail. One such example was a PC trying to disarm a bomb on the outside of an asteroid in a system with an incredibly radioactive dying sun. Yes, failing that acting did in fact result in character death...but not every risky proposition in my games is succeed or die.

    On the other hand, failure, while potentially interesting, should also be failure, and consequences should be...well...consequential. Adversity isn't adversity if its sole purpose is to show how awesome your character is.

    Hey, GMs: Not every situation has to be life-or-death/unrecoverable consequences

    Hey, Players: Some situations will be. If you don't want to risk your character's life...don't.

    1. As I noted in the linked thread at Big Purple, the difference isn't between those for whom death is the most significant consequence and those for whom it's not; it's between those for whom death is one of the significant consequences and those for whom it's rarely a consequence.