Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Pwning the Game and the Fear of Failure

Why is it that so many gamers are not just satisfied with success, but they must have success on the scale described by the US military as “shock and awe”?

One of the golden rules of roleplaying games is, "Thou shalt pick a role and stick with it." Spread around points, and you'll typically end up with a watered down character incapable of taking on the adventure's larger challenges. Careful planning is the name of the game.
— Kat Bailey, Associate Editor, GamePro

Kat’s talking about the video game Skyrim, but one only has to look at the extensive character optimization threads in the D&D forums hosted by WotC to see that min-maxing is the name of the game for many players. But in the context of an RPG played on the tabletop, you’re usually not flying solo. You have a team around you, a supporting cast. It’s OK to have a weakness, or a quirk, or a blindspot. Some other member of the team likely has it covered.

…failure serves the deeper function of making players readjust their perception of a game. In effect, failure adds content by making the player see new nuances in a game.
— Jesper Juul, Fear of Failing? The Many Meanings of Difficulty in Video Games
I wrote yesterday in The Elements of a Good Story that complications, and overcoming the challenges of complications, were key pieces to a good story. So, it seems like it would be more fun to have a character that might, at times, not be able to pwn the monsters, challenges, and any NPCs the GM happened to roll out. It’s one of the reasons that dice are a part of RPGs. You roll the dice. You risk failing. That sensation of wondering which way the die will fall… How enjoyable is it really when you roll a two on a d20, and announce, “Uh, two. That’s 36 versus AC. Does that hit?”

In one game in which I play, one of the players has built a nigh-unhittable character. He’s studied the rules, combined the most advantageous of them, and as the combat gets underway, he begins activating bonuses and maneuvering about until he’s added near double-digit bonuses to his defenses. It’s all within the rules of the game. And, my suspicion is, that for him it is a sort of commentary on the state of that particular game. I don’t have a problem with a well-built character. And, I don’t have a problem with a rule set that allows such min-maxing to occur. What I find myself wondering though is what the players are really getting out of the game?

Is it really satisfying to take the risk of failure out of the game? When complications and failures are the time-tested and proven elements that authors have been using for centuries to hook readers into caring enough about their characters to turn the page and keep reading?

So, I’m challenging you to consider that the next time you sit down to generate a character for an RPG. Understand that you will be “adding content” to your gaming experience by embracing failure and seeing where it leads. And for GMs, what about exploring the possibilities by presenting a carefully-crafted unwinnable encounter? Can you plunge your players into the pit of despair, yet leave a trailing, frayed end of rope of hope dangling just within their reach? Or, are you willing to accept their crazy MacGyver solution to the problem? A solution that you’ve driven them to create because you cast them into that pit? I think both players and GMs would benefit from adding a little bit more failure to their games. What do you think?


  1. I say let players fail. It’s just a game. If they can’t fail, where’s the challenge? And what will happen if they do fail? No child has ever died because a 20th level cleric died in combat.

    If they take it more seriously than a game, as in it being a reflection of themselves as real human beings, then I agree with Ralph Waldo Emerson.

    "Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail."


    “Every hero becomes a bore at last.”

    I am curious about what commentary you think the almost unbeatable player is making about the state of the game he’s playing in by having so many bonuses….?

  2. To each there own I suppose. I think weaknesses can make things more interesting.

    One game I'm itching to try is Chaosium's Call of Cthulu. I like it precisely because the characters have no superpowers. For some of the monsters, it says Damage: Instant Death. Even the lesser ones can knock half your hit points off in a single hit. It's a very very dangerous world for your character.

    To top it off, in true Lovecraftian fashion, there is a sanity mechanic as well. See a roomful of headless bodies, you can lose sanity points. And you don't just get them back (although there is a mechanic for it).

    In short, you character can be very prone to either dying or ending up in a padded cell (should your sanity fall to zero).

    So, why do I want to try it? Because I think it's interesting. Game play encourages caution and thinking skills. It encourages you to maybe not open that door and maybe back out and burn the house down.

    It's a horror game, so the threats have to be credible. And if a character dies, well, as one of my storytellers once said "it's just a piece of paper".


  3. Anna, my best guess on the intended commentary of Mr. Mega-Bonus, is that he believes the system to be needlessly complex, and probably broken. That's just a guess on my part. He's also the source of some brilliant insights on gaming and game structure,and someone I respect for that.

    Patrick, I've played in games with fragile characters and vicious mechanics. It does make you thing at least twice about many of your actions. Personally, I like a game with a mix of fear and heroics...

  4. For me, a large part of what makes an RPG enjoyable is the freedom to not produce predictable outcomes, either by the roll of the dice, or by the genius (or its opposite) of collaboration.

    Hand in hand with this is the understanding of heroism as braving dangers no one else will, despite having no reasonable chance for success. I find that games typically billed as being about heroic characters tend to really concern themselves with ones predisposed by the system toward victory. While there is enjoyment to be had in playing the Special People giving aid to the mundanes, it is heroism of another sort, and one which requires challenges - often moral, or at least ethical - to give it any lasting value or attraction.