Saturday, September 5, 2009

Failure Is Not an Option

I made a discovery a few years back. I don’t remember what exactly triggered it, or indeed if there was a single event or moment in a game that led me to this realization. I think it’s more likely that I knew it subconsciously long before I ever spoke the words, but the discovery was this:

The players like to win.

I say it a lot now, both to myself and to other Storytellers who pride themselves on chuckling evilly and muttering about how they like to make their players’ lives difficult. Most of the time, when I repeat that mantra they look at me funny, and then say, “But you can’t win a role-playing game!”

Well, the truth is, you can win a role-playing game. You just have to keep in mind what the goal of such games is: To have fun. That said, what I mean when I say “the players like to win” is, “the players like it when their characters succeed at the tasks they choose to undertake.”

And yet, there are an awful lot of games and systems within games that seem to indicate that playing failure is fun, too. In this essay, we’re going to talk about characters with crippling deficiencies, how to interpret failed die rolls, how Storytellers can spin planned failure and avoid having dice bounced off their heads, and the many faces of Pyrrhic victories.

My Character is Lame: Flaws, Drawbacks, and Disadvantages

Most games include a system wherein you can take traits that act to the detriment of your character. They’re variously called Flaws (World of Darkness, et al.), Drawbacks (Chill, et al.), or Disadvantages (GURPS, et al.), but it all boils down to the same thing: Your character is less capable than the “base,” therefore you get a few more points to build her up in another area.

If you presume that player characters represent the base capability of any given person in the game world, the logic behind these traits is horribly flawed. I am not the equal of everyone else in the world, or even everyone else in my age and cultural group. The bum staggering down the street toward me might, if statted as a character, have such crippling flaws as Alcoholic, Mentally Ill, Homeless and Smelly, but that probably doesn’t mean he’s stronger, smarter or faster to make up for it. Indeed, most flaws, in real life, wind up being detrimental to development in all other areas of a person’s life.

The presumption is most games, however, isn’t that the characters are just normal folks. It’s that they’re the protagonists of this story (so right away, it should be obvious that we’re operating on a different level from real life), and thus they are more capable than most folks. Going back to the bum, he doesn’t need to built on the same point base as the characters, because he’s a supporting character at best, and more probably an “extra.” Even when the NPC in question is closer to the player characters’ capabilities (say, in a game of Vampire: The Requiem, the character in question is another vampire), the NPC doesn’t need to have the same “point base” as the characters.

On this premise, the “flaws balanced by extra points” model works a little better. Most games explain taking flaws by saying something about players being able to make their characters a bit more well-rounded, “realistic,” dramatic, and so on. Some games are even honest enough to say something like, “you probably won’t have enough points to build the character you want, but you can get more by taking flaws.” The truth of the matter is, though, that players who take flaws for their characters do so for one of two reasons: Because they like playing characters with flaws, or because they want the extra points.

Now, wanting the extra points doesn’t mean that the player isn’t going to play the flaw, or that the flaw isn’t an important and interesting part of the character, or indeed that the player is some sort of twink. It means that the player is using a game mechanic as presented, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that (I almost always take flaws for characters I play, and I play ‘em to the bone, but I also spend those extra points). Certainly I’ve run into players who sneak in flaws that they assume will never actually deter their characters, just to get some extra points. As a Storyteller, I recommend letting them take these flaws if at all feasible and then using them to best advantage the very first session (pure silliness, like taking a phobia of the ocean in a game set in Utah, should be disallowed, unless you’re playing a game that rewards silliness, like Toon).

But what about the players who like playing characters with flaws? Characters in role-playing games are most often defined by their power, be that by the supernatural or mundane skills and abilities that they possess or simply by the fact that they are powerful in comparison to the rest of the world. Even in games where the characters are the underdogs (like Hunter: The Reckoning and All Flesh Must Be Eaten), the characters are still superior to most of their peers — once again, because they are the characters. Playing a character defined by a flaw, be it physical, psychological, or supernatural is indicative of a player who wants something different out of the game than simply besting opponents and racking up experience points (it could also be indicative of a player who sees himself as flawed in some way, I guess, but that’s rather out of my depth).

So, what does all this have to do with success or failure? Consider this: Flaws and disadvantages in role-playing games should be impediments and character facets. They should be obstacles to be overcome during the course of the story, meaning that as Storyteller, you should present opportunities for characters to recognize, fall victim to, and ultimately overcome their flaws. Players, when you choose these traits, you should expect your character to suffer from them occasionally.

As an example: A friend of mine played a character in a game of Dark Ages: Werewolf with the Lame Flaw. In game terms, this means that the character suffered from a limp and couldn’t run as fast as her packmates, and that’s really about it. But the player took this a step further; the character didn’t tend to get into combat because her packmates usually reached the enemy and killed it before she had a chance. As such, the character was “apart” from her pack during dire circumstances, and even during the few times I ran the game, it was evident that this was having an effect on the group dynamic (I’d have been very interested to see how that dynamic evolved over a long period of time).

Note, too, that flaws don’t have to give you points to be important and necessitate attention during the game. A personality trait that you decide (or discover) in your character can be detrimental to the character or to the group, as long as it isn’t detrimental to the story. Some games, for instance, give point bonuses for traits like “Impatience” or “Curiosity,” and that’s fine; it tends to get the group moving when things bog down. “Honorable” is another trait often listed as a flaw, the logic there being that a character who can’t lie well is going to suffer penalties on attempts to deceive people. From a strictly game mechanics point of view, that makes sense, and if the result of that flaw is such a game penalty, well and good. If the only "effect," though, is "you should roleplay your character as being curious/honorable/etc.," I wonder about that trait's efficacy in the game. Does everything need a number attached to it? No, but my experience has been that folks who don't like rules ignore them anyway, and those who prefer that the rules work get annoyed when they get handwaved. Silver Age Sentinels from the now-defunct Guardians of Order stipulates that Defects are traits over which the character has no direct control — things like nemeses, physical defects, and so on. Personality traits can be fun to play, but they don’t give you extra points.

Another way to run flaws, incidentally (and the World of Darkness system does this), would be for the players to receive experience points or some other benefit when the flaw actually comes into play during the game. This would prevent people from taking ridiculous flaws, and would only reward players who play to their characters in their entirety. Games using the FATE System, including Spirit of the Century and Houses of the Blooded, use something like this; when one of a character's Aspects causes his trouble, the player can accept a Style point for it (or spend Style to avoid it). Ubiquity, which powers Desolation and Hollow Earth Expedition, does something similar.

Another category of flaws that bears special mention are those that have a bearing on a character’s ultimate destiny (you’ll sometimes see positive traits, like “Merits” or “Advantages” labeled Destiny, too, but taking such a thing as a flaw puts a different spin on the idea). If a character has a flaw like “Dark Fate,” this puts a couple of big obligations on the Storyteller. Not only do you have to screw that character over in some hugely dramatic way, but you have to make sure that nothing happens to the character before the boom falls (or if it does, you’d better be prepared to spin it in such a way that it fulfills the flaw’s parameters). I’m of two minds about flaws like this. On the one hand, it can be a cheap dodge of players who don’t want their characters to die and know that very few games ever actually end, meaning the moment of destiny will probably never arrive. On the other hand, it’s cool when players try to work out what their characters’ story arcs are going to be; I had a Storyteller ask me once what my character’s “tragedy threshold” was and then arrange a chronicle event accordingly. Some games ask during character creation what a character's path or story arc might look like, building in the notion that every character has a destiny (though it's typically kept loose; hard to account for everything that might happen during a game).

The Dice Hate Me: Incidental Failure

I talk about dice and when to use them in another essay, but I want to address a couple of points here on the subject of failed die rolls, more for players than Storytellers.

I’ve seen it happen a million times; the player throws the dice, the rolls fails, and the players says, “Can I try again?” with no hesitation. Yes, failure is a bummer, but next time, try considering what a failed roll really means. It might mean that your character doesn’t know anything about what’s being discussed, and, that in mind, might decide to stop thinking about it (especially if you took those extra points for flaws like “Impulsive” or “Impatient”). A failed physical roll might involve a muscle cramp or a sudden loss of steam. A failed social roll might involve a sudden burst of laughter or gas (if you have to ask why such a thing would constitute a failed roll, you need to get out more). Yes, the Storyteller can adjudicate some of this stuff, but she’s probably already overworked. Besides, if you take a little of that responsibility on yourself, you’re contributing to the chronicle and exerting greater control over your character, both of which are usually good things.

Failure can lead to character beliefs and hang-ups, too. I played in a game with a guy who, every time his character tried to use a specific power on were-creatures, failed his roll. After a while, he decided that his character figured that the power simply didn’t work on lycanthropes, and so stopped trying it. Yes, the player knew full well that the power had no such limitation, but the dice seemed to indicate otherwise.

The point here is that even the dice — which don’t hate you, remember, all they do is choose numbers — can provide interesting character bits, provided that you as the player are willing to let go of the mentality that says, “Aw, crap. I failed,” and instead adopt a mentality that says, “I am learning about my character as s/he experiences this story.”

God Hates Me: Setting the Players Up to Fail

I occasionally see pre-written scenarios that include scenes that the characters are supposed to fail. Mostly, these are combats that the characters lose so that they can be taken before the Grand High Muckety-Muck and charged with a quest/given a threat/sacrificed on an altar/what have you. As with most things in gaming, there’s a right way and wrong way to do this sort of thing. Also as with most things in gaming, the right way depends entirely on your players and what their preferences and thresholds are.

Some players, and I have to admit that I’m often one of them, don’t like to lose combats. But, for me at least, it has less to do with the notion of losing and more to do with the fact that if a combat (or indeed, any situation) has a predetermined outcome, I’d prefer not to have the illusion of choice. I played in a Mage: The Ascension game many years ago wherein our characters were ambushed by a bunch of Men in Black (now that Mage: The Ascension is over, that reference isn’t going to make as much sense, I guess) and the Storyteller told us we could each have one cool moment before being overpowered and render unconscious. That, to me, was fine — it made the combat quick because we didn’t each have to get beaten to a pulp (which in that system took forever anyway), and we weren’t under any illusions about whether or not the Storyteller was fudging dice rolls or otherwise “cheating.”

What if your players aren’t of this mindset, and refuse to roll over and let their characters fail without a fight? Well, ignoring the obvious trust issues plaguing such a group, you have a couple of options. One is, of course, to cheat. You let the players have whatever moments or successes they can manage out of the scenario…but your rolls are behind a screen, and you can very easily add in more enemies, a sudden rainstorm or any other wrinkles you need to bring about the result you want. The trick is doing it without being obvious, and the problem is that when you go from a defeat into an obviously well thought out scene, your players are probably going to pick up on what happened (hopefully, they’ll see why it was necessary and not be too put out).

The other option is to make the scenario difficult, but let the chips fall where they may. If you’ve got a sense of what the characters can do and how the players usually react and strategize, you can probably set up a situation that’s too tough for them, let them try and fail, and then continue on with the story. The caveat there, of course, is be prepared. In my essay "Living with Lady 10-Sider", I advise never to call for a die roll unless I’m prepared for failure. The reverse is also true: If you aren’t prepared for a successful roll, better just to stipulate that the action isn’t possible. This doesn’t work at all in combat, of course, but it’s fine in investigation scenes.

If you’re going to set the players up to fail, however, you need to be damned sure that they’ll have a chance to get their own back before the night is over, or at least to see where the action is heading. I love cliffhangers, but a Storyteller-imposed cliffhanger is very different than a player-imposed one. By that I mean, if the characters go marching into the dragon’s mouth and are immediately confronted with potentially deadly repercussions, they shouldn’t be surprised and can’t really blame you. In that case, ending the session with the henchman pointing weapons at the characters (or whatever other danger is fitting) is fine, and will probably have your players thinking about your game all week. But if you lured them in, or forced them in, they don’t have the same emotional attachment to the situation because they didn’t choose it. As such, you need to let them a little farther into the plotline before winding up, otherwise the conversation next session will consist of people saying, “What happened last time? Oh, right, we got our asses kicked and then some other stuff happened.”

A final word on setting the players up to fail: Don’t make it cheap. When I play Dungeons and Dragons, I tend to play magic-user characters. Mages and other spell-casters grow quite powerful with experience, and the sheer amount of power they can throw around is somewhat daunting to some GMs. So, I’ve noticed that as the final confrontation looms (or during any confrontation they don’t want the players to win “too easily”), suddenly magic just stops working. I hate that.

Ignoring the fact that mages in D&D (3rd Edition, anyway) are completely useless if they can’t use magic, disallowing a character’s special powers because you feel it would make things “too easy” is cheap, lazy and shortsighted. If you feel that the abilities or powers that become available to characters in your chosen game system are too potent, change the system ahead of time and explain why to your players (and be prepared for a player to say, quite legitimately, that you should consider running a different game). Don’t allow the players to purchase traits for their characters that you don’t like and then toss in cheap methods for your NPCs to bypass them (now, when players become over-reliant on their characters’ special powers to the point that they stop thinking, which I’ve found happens often in Mage: The Ascension, then it might be time to arrange a story in which they can’t simply magic their way out of everything, but that’s a separate issue). This applies not just to magic, but any special power that characters might acquire. A fighter in D&D is optimized toward fighting, so you should allow that character to get into fights that are challenging, but not sure losses or stonewalls.

If a character must fail at something that should be his/her forte, try to find some way to work it into the story rather than just saying “Yeah, I know you rolled five successes, but nothing happens.” At least make it experiential: “You cast the spell correctly. You know you did, you felt the power leaving your body toward the target. But about midway there, everything in the room went cold, and your target still stands, unfazed.”

Pyrrhic Victories: We Won, But it Hurt

I like costly victories, myself. I like consequences to actions, and I like the notion that to gain something, you must sacrifice. I also recognize that this attitude might be a by-product of my employment with White Wolf, however.

A Pyrrhic victory, as you probably know, is a victory in the academic sense — you won, but another such “victory” would kill you. In a role-playing game, such victories are rare because normally you’ve got a group of people working toward whatever the goal of the current story is and therefore several minds all working out a strategy. Also, players tend to come with ideas so cool they should work. I tend to side with the players when they come up with great ideas. At the very least, I don’t go adding extra obstacles because I feel the players are having too easy a time of it.

But there’s a difference between upping the difficulty level of a story while it’s still in progress and allowing the NPCs to think on their feet. If I’m running a game of Vampire and I start adding dots of Disciplines to an enemy character while my players’ characters are chasing him down, that’s cheap. If I decide that he recognizes that he’s not going to win this fight and he starts fighting appropriately — that is, takes no prisoners, sets fire to the building, bargains for his unlife, or takes other actions that aren’t normally in character for him — that just means the supporting characters are responding to the situation that the players’ characters have created.

In short, every victory should cost something, but not just because you don’t want to make it easy on your players. Every victory should cost something because they need to know that they earn what they get.

But what about a true Pyrrhic victory, the kind that after the dust settles the characters are thinking, “If this is winning, must’ve been some way we could have lost.”? Here are some ways that victories in RPGs can become Pyrrhic:

• Character death: The characters accomplish their goals, but one or more of their number dies. This is a bigger problem in some settings than others (because in some settings, you can have your dead comrades resurrected), but killing off characters is often a touchy issue. It’s a great way to make the players realize that their situation is serious, but it’s also a good way to piss them off. Make sure everyone’s OK with the possibility of character death during the course of the story.

• Character injury: The characters might not be dead, but they’ve certainly got one foot in the grave. They’ve fought off their enemies or escape from their prison or whatever the case may be, but one even relatively minor fight and someone’s going to die. Now, obviously this has more of an impact in games like Chill or even most forms of Exalted, where healing takes some time and effort, but even in a game like Werewolf enough of the right kind of damage can make the characters (and the players) recognize how perilous their situation really is.

• Depleted resources: Most RPGs have some kind of “fuel stat.” In Vampire, it’s Vitae. In Werewolf: The Forsaken it’s Essence. In Chill, Stamina and Willpower can both rise and fall. In any case, the characters don’t necessarily have to be physically injured, but if they’ve burned all of their “magic points” during the course of the battle, they have most assuredly earned whatever victory they’ve achieved.

• Dead friends: I’ll admit: One of my greatest problems as a GM is that I hate playing NPCs. I’ll do it, but I’d rather they sit in the background and let the players do the important work. But once in a while, I’ve seen relations between an NPC and a player’s character become really strong. What happens, then, when said NPC dies — especially as a result of the PC’s action? While playing Nehemiah (a Vampire: The Masquerade characer, though the game was a weird homebrew quasi-World of Darkness setting), I found myself having to choose between going after my dire enemy or save a character to whom Nehemiah had become very attached. He chose to kill his enemy, for a number of very legitimate reasons. The lady to whom he was attached, however, wound up losing much of her sanity. (And kudos to the Storyteller in question, by the way, for making that decision hard and allowing me to kill Nicholas — that’s what made it a Pyrrhic victory). This only works, however, the players actually have some attachment to the NPCs, and that requires that you play them well.

Ending on a Downer

When players fail at a task, they tend to want to try it again. Some things, though, you only get one shot at. I already recommended never asking for a die roll unless you’re prepared for the results, failure or otherwise. Let’s take that one step further — if you give the players a piece of information, be prepared for them to follow it. Players don’t tend to do well with cryptic warnings of dire danger (because PCs are normally the only ones with enough gumption to go on in defiance of said warnings, so a lot of time when GMs say “Danger! Here be monsters!” players hear “Come on! Here be plot points!”).

If the players follow your cues into the plot points (or ignore your warnings and wind up in the soup) and fail miserably, what then? Ending on a down note isn’t a great idea, usually, but you don’t have to end on resounding victory. Ask yourself the following questions:

• What am I ending? A session can certainly end on a tragic or fearful note. The players will get the chance to right the wrongs next session, and sometimes a week away from the game can be a good way for them to gain some perspective and come back ready to solve their characters’ problems. If you’re ending a major story arc, the characters should be able to point to something in the story as an accomplishment, even if the overall story ended badly for them.

• Can they try again? If the mission was “stop the assassination” and the characters didn’t, then they probably don’t get another chance. If the mission was “retrieve the Golden Whatsis” and it slipped through their fingers, they can probably still track it down. They just might have very little time left, or it might be in their worst enemy’s hands, or something equally dire. If they can’t try the same mission again, perhaps now they must deal with the repercussions of their failure.

• Do they want to try again? My character in a Dark Ages: Fae game ran afoul of a demon in one story arc. During the five years of downtime between stories, he stayed the Hell away from anything that looked like it could be demonic, because he wanted nothing to do with them. “Know thy enemy” didn’t occur to him, because he was scared. If the players decide their characters are letting discretion be the better part of valor, fine. Don’t feel you have to chase them with their mistakes.

In closing, remember that we play these games for fun, but also to tell a story. Don’t worry about “realism,” worry about “drama.” Don’t sweat “balance.” Instead, think about “conflict.” Learn your players’ thresholds for failure, and scale the challenges accordingly. Even if the characters fail, the players will talk about the story afterwards, and consider it a success.