I’ve been thinking a lot about winning and losing in roleplaying games recently, not least because of several recent games by Vincent Baker that have explicit win (and loss) conditions. Something about these games has really inspired me, but something else has jarred a little – and it’s taken me a while to work out what both those somethings are. It’s been interesting particularly for my current work-in-progress, which pits a thief (or other ne’er-do-well) against the wits of a GM antagonist. Clearly, I could say the thief “wins” if they get away with whatever it is – but is winning-and-losing the right design for this game?
One thing winning-and-losing games do really well is match the tension out-of-character with that in-character. Pitting the GM’s wits against mine makes the threat very real, and so aligns my mental & emotional state with that of my character. In Doomed Pilgrim, my pilgrim is thinking, “Holy crap, how can I survive this using only my wits??” while I am thinking, “Holy crap, how can I get this pilgrim to survive this using only my wits??” That strong identification with my character (point #4 on this post about immersion, in fact) feels exactly right for my thief’s adventures – I want the tension high as the player uses their cunning and wits to get the thief into and out of trouble, and get away with the prize.
But fun though these games are, they lack something for me in terms of replay and longevity – and that’s because they don’t, really, tell that great a story. Sure, they make for a very cool, tense scene – but that’s all it is: one extended scene. As a story audience, I want to see the protagonist develop – if not within that scene, then at least over the course of several scenes. So they survive – phew, thank goodness! Now show me what they do next. And, more importantly, why. But these games aren’t built like that – they’re mostly built as one-shot adventures (sort of) and don’t focus much on the personality of the focus character. (Deliberately, I think! That’s not what they’re trying to do.) They’re like a longer version of a conflict scene in a more narrative-focussed game – and so they’re missing the bits before and after, that frame that conflict and give it meaning. In my thief game, I definitely want to focus on the protagonist’s character development, so a purely win/lose game doesn’t work.
What I’ll Do
So I guess I want a game that’s divided into adventures, each one tense like those winning-and-losing games, but that also strongly promotes character development within and (especially) between those adventures.
To keep the tension high, I think I do want the same “you versus the GM” model – i.e. the GM should be actively trying to thwart the protagonist, rather than (as in some narrative games) just provide an environment that reactively challenges them. The direct antagonism builds the sense of threat – and makes it more personal, too.
An aside: However, I’ll need to increase the win rate. Vincent’s described both Murderous Ghosts and Doomed Pilgrim as having a pretty low chance of winning – somewhere around 1 in 3, I think; certainly less than half – and that doesn’t suit this game, where the protagonist is a master thief. I certainly need to adjust the survival rate – for these games, loss also means death (or doom), which doesn’t work for an extended narrative game – we can’t see character development if the character doesn’t survive for at least a few adventures! Also, their death (if it happens at all) should be a dramatic climax point, not just some mid-adventure mis-step on the part of the player.
A Model For Episodic Character Development
One game that does character development within and between episodic adventures really well is Dogs in the Vineyard (also by Vincent Baker). In Dogs, your job is to save towns from sin. You could call this a “win” condition for each town. But there’s lots of great character development as well – for three reasons I can identify:
- The win condition is defined by the protagonists themselves. (Strictly speaking, “save the town” is always the win condition, but what “save” actually means for a given town is decided by the protagonists.) This shows us something of who the protagonists are – what they value and what they overthrow.
- The definition of winning is challenged throughout the adventure. The town (or certain elements of it) will inevitably resist the protagonists’ efforts to “save” it. How hard can they push before they’re no longer saving the town, but destroying it? Again, since they decide this themselves, it reveals more about their characters.
- There’s an explicit character development phase in between each town. The protagonists reflect, consider whether they did really save the town, and change as a result – with game-mechanical changes to solidify that development for future play.
My game’s going to feel very different to Dogs, I think – but to promote character development despite the GM antagonism, perhaps I can learn something from it.