Character Death and Failure

Tod's picture

It is often said (especially in Narrativist circles) that death and failure are not exciting, and should not be regarded as meaningful options or outcomes. In my opinion this is an understandable position, but lacking in nuance.

As I've often written, categories are not real, and there are very few judgments which can rightfully be regarded as categorical. My tendency is to dissolve classifications, and look within them to make local determinations based on specific circumstances and the differences between them. So it is with death and failure.

In some games death should be a real risk; in a Simulationist model it is part of what you're simulating (i.e., a "real world" with all its unpredictable and uncontrollable aspects). But in games with a more Narrativist bent it is not death but rather failure that presents the most interesting challenges. Like a season-finale cliffhanger, failure to achieve an important goal represents not an end, but an escalation of problems to carry into future sessions.

In other words, while a Narrativist game might choose to eschew death, failure is different. Failure is interesting; often so interesting that it opens up whole new levels of conflict, tension, understanding and gameplay.

DeReel's picture

In Fiasco or Misspent Youth, failure is structuring. In an adventure game, it can be, but it can also be destructuring, opening a long chain of events.
I don't have time for long plays and consider brevity and punctuality in a game signs of elegant design. It's obviously a perspective, not an universal truth.

Paul T.'s picture

...would say that failure is the default state of storytelling. That good stories or films show the protagonists moving from failure to failure, repeatedly, and only in the end does that change.

I don’t know if I agree, but it’s an interesting and clearly a well considered perspective.

The counterpoint for roleplaying, though, is that most of the things a protagonist’s player proposes to do are, effectively, ideas or propositions they are adding to the game. If they fail most of the time, it means that the player’s input is being discarded and isn’t helping drive the game forward. I believe that’s why so much successful game design tends towards “yes, but” as the preferred mode of resolution. If it’s always “no”, the burden of moving the story forward falls elsewhere, and that’s not as effective a way to play.

DeReel's picture

Oh, you're totally right. I will try to nuance, then : I think that action/adventure is rather optimistic and there should be few failures. Conversely, if a game is declared "grimdark", I expect to see lots of bad consequences (and am often disappointed). Nuance : failures/success are not granted, and they can be of different sizes.
More nuance : you don't have to play in such a genre. For my enjoyment, there should be a vital question lifting the table, it doesn't have to always be death or achievement, like in D&D.

Character death is something else. It's so linked to the game format (character generation time, past and overall length of play).

Tod's picture

For task resolution I agree that "no" is not an interesting outcome, and that's why DayTrippers uses everything except a flat "No".

But in the OP I'm really talking about narrative goals, major plot obstacles, "the final conflict" etc. Like the season-ender of a TV show, often the characters' failure to accomplish the "overarching goal" simply ramps things up and makes them more exciting; the next season (session, or mini-campaign) will take place on a higher "level" of narrative tension, with even higher stakes.

DeReel's picture

The TV series case is exactly what I was warning against in 1 PC 1 GM thread : the failure ending means we're bound to have one more season, like it or not. It's the exact opposite of my personal taste for brevity.

Tod's picture

Yeah I get that. And I have no problem limiting my conclusions here to campaign-style play, at least in a general sense. That's certainly what I was thinking about in the OP (as should be fairly obvious).

But then again... If we take a character with a goal and a flaw, and the flaw ends up making the goal a failure, and then the story ends... Maybe it was a small story, lost amidst the scramble of modern life, just one of a thousand sad stories this city tells... Or perhaps the fate of the whole world was at stake, and afterward maybe we can even imagine the world sliding into chaos, all because of this failure... What we have created is a Tragedy in the classical sense. I understand that most people may not enjoy the idea of playing out a Tragedy... but it is still a meaningful and expressive creation.

In a one-shot scenario, closure beats non-closure. In such a case I would prefer a tragedy that comes to a conclusion over a slice of life that doesn't resolve.

Paul T.'s picture

While it’s true that there is generally a “happy ending”, our favourite adventure stories have constant setbacks and failures for the heroes! Everything always goes wrong dramatically, and nothing works as intended.

That can be great in fiction; it can be a very a difficult thing to do in game design, though.

DeReel's picture

I have not much more to say : there can be well timed surprises, but before a game session it's crucial to be on the same page regarding the overall importance of achievement. That's not the kind of things I want to play to find out. We're fighting for success or it's about how we do it.

Emmett's picture

I don't play with story gamers, not because I wouldn't, it's just that my players are much more traditional despite me trying to drag them kicking and screaming into more narratively driven games. I would offer that the vast majority of role players are more like my play group than most designers.

In my group I offer a yes but option and a no option on failed rolls. The majority of the time my players will take the no option over the yes but option. They'd rather have their failure have a null result than success at a cost.

I've tested this in multiple ways and although some of my players have started to take me up on success at a cost, they still are more comfortable with no being the answer. I firmly believe they are in the majority.

Paul T.'s picture

Can you give an example of what that looks like?

I’ve seen traditional gamers do well with “yes, but” but they were never given the *option* to fail, so that’s interesting. And in a more Gamist mode of play, “yes, but” can be frustrating (since you’re hoping to avoid complications).

Emmett's picture

This is the way I've offered the choice. This is in a trad game so, baby steps. The player is rolling for a skill check and they fail. They can take stress to succeed in the roll. The stress will make future rolls a little harder but they're getting a 5 to 1 payoff so they'd have to roll five more times for the stress to have a negative statistical effect.

The majority of the time, my players will choose to whiff rather than succeed, even when under time constraint or other hazard.

I've tried other methods but explaining them would require explaining whole systems or speaking in terms so abstract that it wouldn't have much meaning.

I think you could test this out in a pbta game though. Let the player choose if they want to do damage on a partial success. If they say no, let them roll against defy danger to avoid harm themselves. That's not very elegant and it's just pushing the ball down the field but I wonder if players, even those familiar with PBTA would take it. Players tend to play in a risk adverse way.

Yes but is more often forcing them to accept risk even if they wouldn't have naturally. That does ramp up the tension which is good from a narrative stance but is it what the players want? If they're looking for tension and drama, yes. If they're looking for tactics and like to play it safe, they may be uncomfortable.

Paul T.'s picture

I’d say balancing risk/reward via a game economy is very different from a typical “yes, but” style resolution. I wouldn’t expect the same behaviour in both cases!

Emmett's picture

In yes but, you're saying you get what you want but with this complication. Although I'm putting an economy in as the complication, it's still the same structure.

like I said, this isn't the only structure I've tried it's just the easiest to explain. They've also rejected a lot of narrative games.

I encourage you to try an experiment, in whatever system you want, give the players an option of a no/null or a yes but. If you'r players are used to yes but, they'll be more comfortable with it but see how often they choose a null result.

Paul T.'s picture

I do think that balancing an in-game economy against failure/success is a very different feel from “success with narrative complications”. One major difference, for example, is that narrative complications scale with the scope of action you’re involved in, whereas a resource spend might be miscalibrated (especially if it’s the same cost all the time, and the resource is vital to what happens later.

My only experience with opting in or out has been with my Lady Blackbird hack (where one feature is the option to choose to mark a Condition in order to succeed), and my Eowyn game (where you can “push” a failure, but you risk a narratively complicated outcome). Both were with people who are not die hard story gamers, but trad gamers or non-gamers.

In the Hackbird, people ALWAYS chose to mark the Condition, without exception. In the Eowyn game, people at first would choose to “push” consistently, but then started to fear it or to choose not to once in a while. Once the stakes were high enough, they started always pushing again (at the climax of our particular mini-campaign). There were definitely moments there where people chose failure over success with complications in the middle of that, though. I’m not sure how it would have gone if we kept playing. And that’s the only time I’ve ever seen that!

Have you asked your players why they choose the way they do?

Emmett's picture

Yeah, I'm not saying I've tried every permutation. It's good to hear you've experimented with it. The fact that there are times when a player doesn't choose to take a condition means it's not always the choice they want. The thing that bothers me is when people claim it's the only way anyone wants to play. I'm sure if you pinned them down on that, they'd back away but that's what the propaganda sounds like.

I've asked why my players don't take a complication and most of the time they shrug and just say they didn't want to. In some cases they will describe being afraid of effects on their characters later in the game. There's sometimes a relaxing as they get to the end of a session though. Because they feel they've reached a climax, they might as well go for broke. They don't feel comfortable with front loading their character with things that could hurt them badly at the end.

Paul T.'s picture

Those are some of the effects I'd be thinking of when you're using a "mechanical resource cost" for "partial success". If the resource is really important for later security/safety, that's a very different calculation than a typical "narrative complication". Attach "partial success" to a crucial resource that determines the character's survivability, for instance, and, in a dangerous game, I'd fully expect people to turn that down more often than not.

DeReel's picture

Thank you for bringing this question. It's not simple and it helps to see it analyzed clearly.
Safety of the character is often put on the side when the game is about making a story. It's not that the environment is dangerous or that people play safe (some do others don't, on some days), it's the idea that you have to make your character live through the game to just, you know, keep playing : that idea is really incompatible with unleashing all your creative energies. It adds a 0/1 factor to all your calculations about resources (1 action being a resource). Going through the story with a ball and chain is possible, but you'll get a very special feel.