Success and loss : a traditional obsession

DeReel's picture

I am beginning to think my aversion to loss is justified in RPGs. Quoting Rickard Elimaa, "Default is failure, success is fought for" : this horizon is where everything goes and sinks. You end up storing healing pots instead of watching sunset by the pond with someone you love. If peace was all about the next war, that would be a very sick peace.

Is there a psycho social reason to this obsession with success, like power fantasy escapism ? Does it have to do with "character advocacy", a concept I don't see clearly ? I understand it's important that the game world respond to characters' actions. But why the can/can't ? That seems to me hardly meaningful.

Billy's picture

Help me understand a little more what you are thinking about.

Do you mean an obsession with success/failure as an aesthetic interest? E.g., the typical Hollywood movie plot that involves a person striving towards a goal and facing setbacks.

Or success/failure on a mechanical level? I.e., action resolution mechanics, conflict resolution mechanics, games with a win/lose state (XP/death).

I guess this is also a question of success for the players vs success for the characters.

What's the alternative you are thinking of? What would be the elements you would like to see take central importance instead of success/failure?

DeReel's picture

Thank you for your help.
It's a hard question, I see examples of both :

- in a PbtA game, players at my table frustrated about not getting the best results when they spend resources for their rolls.
- in a french trad game, "descriptive pauses" being eaten away by crudely utilitarian concerns
- in Penny for my thoughts and Otherkind, players retropedaling away from consequences they had set for their characters. Like children, they will set up a conflict and chicken from it when they face it.

When I think of it : I am the one who plays to win. They (well, some of them) play for their characters to win. What a mismatch !

Apart from reassurance etc. what's the clues that a game or a player need character advocacy or not ? and are there cases where the line is blurred ?
To me, it's very clear : doing what's best for the story doesn't prevent me in any way to feel what my character would feel. On the contrary : I trip him in the mud and feel sorry for him, and confused and humiliated at the same time. If you see what I mean. And when I set a mud puddle, my do all the other characters become graceful athletes or careful ninjas !

So it's clear to me, but I am obviously missing something important. My worst suspicion is that so many players are content to use RPGs for power fantasies alone (the psycho social hypothesis). My, do I feel pretentious saying that !

komradebob's picture

I think I understand what you are getting at DeReel.

To a degree, yes, I do think most RPG players are engaged as a type of power fantasymost of the time.

Fear of failure, of being embarassed as their character, relate to that, but also to how most RPGs are designed.

The majority of RPGers are character players
Most RPGs are based around action adventure
Most Player characters are designed as potential power fantasies in an action adventure setting/genre
Player Characters can take a great deal of time and mental energy to create ( really anything beyond old school D&D quick, randomly rolled character generation)
Losing a character ( or even having them temporarily sidelined) leaves the player of that charatre with very little to meaningfully do during the play session.

With all of that in mind, I'm ot surprised to see players avoiding failure at all costs, even mere embarassment .

By comparison, the GM has effectively unlimited numbers of characters to play ( ranging from deeply consdered and developed to ones that can be sketched for portrayal in sconds using little morte thanwhat is already in one's mind).

If those characters win or lose or look foolish or die...the GM still has something to do during the play session. What happens to the character never sidelines the GM.

The GM learns to accept failure for the characters one plays in order to support overall group enjoyment.

I would posit that playing either more often as a GM in a traditional game or in more GM-less games may help players gain an ability to accept those minor and humorous fgailings of their characters more easily.

Then again, perhaps not.

DeReel's picture

It's true that players that are more self assured (GM mentality) or newer into RPGs (getting in with all the story games technology) are also less afraid of losing control.

I am getting a clearer view of my situation. It's a compound. Some problems come from a mismatch of taste, others from "bad habits" in older gamers, others from older "incoherent" games, or games we unknowingly "drift" from their normal use.

One problem is by definition, like being left "with very little to meaningfully do during the play session" because of different time scales for different character agendas, or de-powerment of the character as a consequence of loss. I think in the future, I'll use techniques copied from Rickard, Avery Alder and WarriorMonk :
- make extrovert players enroll others, play NPCs of sorts as Rickard proposes
- the same, only with non person NPC, as Avery Alder (and Matthijs Holter, and Paul-T once) proposes
- have a deck of NPC / non person NPCs for players that are out of a scene, as Warrior Monk does with his "trolling deck"
This will flag what I want, perhaps reassure some ("character depowerment assurance policy"), and it's really not much work for anyone to bolt it on the side of anything else. Except OSR play (where playing NPCs and non person NPCs unbalances the game) but I don't play these games.

^-^ What could go wrong ?

Billy's picture

This reminds me a little of something Keith Johnstone talks about in one of his Impro books. He told his class of students to pretend to being having a tightrope contest. So they lined up and started pulling the imaginary rope from both sides. But neither side would give in! Even though it wasn't a real game or a contest, nobody was willing to improvise being on the losing side. He had to go through specific games and exercises to get people to stop trying to "win" every imaginary skit they were placed in.

DeReel's picture

So, yes, in a game of Police and thieves, you don't want to be shot down, and bad faith is a problem every human can have in this situation. But I think Johnstone's example is not airtight. For the game conversation to work, you have two dimensions to consider : power and coordination. In the tug of war example, the Power part is not wanting to lose, but the Coordination part is not having a clear visual to coordinate with your team : each team facing the other one, their members only see each others' backs.

But what about the conclusion ? Would framing a situation to be deadlocked, only to provide a solution, be a way of easing players into the idea that "it's not me losing" ? It's ethically problematic for me.

There's probably something to borrow from music playing or dancing, where the focus on coordination defuses status questions. Like taking the time to frame various outcomes, and point at their merits and flaws. Slow salsa for beginners. I am thinking now the trolling deck does that : getting players to consider the "story" part of play. Not because it would be better than the "character" part, but because I want to play with both.

* doing my homework I found that I can also maybe touch both character and player with status games; But's that's a whole nother design I save for later.

Rickard's picture

He told his class of students to pretend to being having a tightrope contest. So they lined up and started pulling the imaginary rope from both sides. But neither side would give in!

I had the exact same experience in my murder mystery creation game The Murder of Mr. Crow. One person plays the detective and another a suspect. The whole point of the game is to create the final act of a Sherlock Holmesesque story, but because one is playing a suspect, that person will be bound to protect itself and answer evasively. By doing so, it will be hard to tie the knots together for the final reveal of who's the murderer.

If I phrased the role of the suspect differently, like being a (non-guilty) witness, the role be interpreted differently and participants playing the detective and the "suspect" would be more inclined to collaborate. At the end, it would however turn out to be that one of the witnesses were indeed guilty of committing a murder.

Rickard's picture

Is there a psycho social reason to this obsession with success, , like power fantasy escapism

Could be, but I would argue that the important things are not within the conflicts, but the aftermath. People tend to become bored when things are predictable, so we can insert contingency. In roleplaying games, for most parts, this is handled by rolling dice. While that works, it also creates a certain types of games. What would happen if the game made us succeed with all rolls? What other forms of contingency would we need to use?

Beyond Play: A New Approach to Games

Stochastic Contingency: stochastic is just a fancy word for "random".

[see Randomness below]

Social Contingency: about never being certain of another person's point of view.

having someone other than you in charge of saying what happens...
...a strong GM role with great control over the world / plotline...
one participant's interpretation, perhaps having a rule system with open-deterministic results or using cards that are open for interpretation.
enforcing of people's opinions, like voting for outcomes or making pacts.
using different techniques or rules during a scene, which may steer the story in a certain direction. "What? Is someone going to fall in love?"

Performative Contingency: you either succeed or fail at a task.

one participant's effort in succeeding. (performance uncertainty)
two or more participants against each other.

Semiotic Contingency: the outcome is open for interpretation, changing the meaning of all the previously actions.

Seeing things in a different light.
Realizing that you were dead the entire time.
The pieces are falling together from the new information.
A twist in the story.

Lecture at NYU

Incomplete Information:
if you don't have all the pieces, you don't know where it's going.

...players pick elements of the story that other players must include in other characters' storylines.
...picking a different oracle and elements for each session inspires the players to create an interesting history full of twists
...hidden or undefined knowledge about something the players /.../ care about.
...exploration and mapping...
I would see Exploration and Mystery as two genres / elements that use curiosity at their core.
...Hexploration genre, where you can travel to each place in a sandboxy way...
one participant adding something that isn't obvious what it's for.

Randomness: the general solution in roleplaying games.

conflict resolution /.../ task resolution
...a random table or a deck of event cards or a stack of map tiles.
the use of real world happenings, like having the weather or certain events in the newspaper affect the session.

Complexity: the interaction between the pieces of information or the overflow of information makes it hard to predict the outcome.

parallel stories with one ending. How will the stories change each other?
telling a story with a fixed ending. Now you know how it's going to end, but not how the story will travel to the end.

Escalation: early points of the game doesn't matter as much, because the stakes are increasing all the time. Like the three rounds in Jeopardy.

I think that the games people really like have good conflict escalation mechanisms (either formal mechanisms like in AW or Polaris or in terms of initial set-up like in Poison'd.)
...strong characterownership where you can keep and reveal a secret about a character under your control.

Potential Barrier (Decelerator): you don't know if you will overcome them. They are there to change the scale and the pace and to make the end seem closer than what it is.

Sometimes you want to put out hints, create an expectation by having set up scenes and finally a big reveal that might lead to new questions.

Hidden Energy: saved up resources that may come in handy later.

Cards on hand.
Turned down tokens and other fog-of-war mechanics.
Secrets. Information, powers and more.

Cashing Out: the game score (or resources) resets so everybody starts at the same level. Anybody can win.

From one combat to another in D&D4. Who will be standing the next time?

Uncertainty in Games

Performance Uncertainty: [see Performative Contingency (Malaby) above]

Randomness: [see Randomness (LeBlanc) above]

Analytic Complexity: [see Complexity (LeBlanc) above]

Player Unpredictability: [see Social Contingency (Malaby) above]

Hidden Information: [see Hidden Energy (LeBlanc) and Incomplete Information (LeBlanc) above]

Solver's Uncertainty: finding out the solution given by the designer.

Discovering the algorithm behind the game, like figuring out how the AI works.
Resolving a murder mystery.
Doing things in the right order.

Narrative Anticipation: to awaken a curiosity of what to come.

Knowing the end doesn't mean you know the way to reach that end.
Learning more about the characters over time.
Twists in story.
Creating tension within the setting.

Development Anticipation: when the developers add more stuff to the game.

Release of expansion sets.
Updates, changes or corrections of the rules.
Change of playstyle or genre.

Schedule Uncertainty: resources limits the amount of time the player can spend on the game.

Energy in social games.
It takes a long time to build a certain element, where the player can't do anything but wait.
Resources to build things are generated over time but runs out quickly.
A cap on the internet restricting the time for the player.

Perception Uncertainty: difficulty to perceive what's going on.

A clogged up interface, like in Nethack.
Scanning the playing field, like the pieces in Tetris.
Finding the rhythm in, for example, dancing.
Trying to search a room to find more about what's in it.

Malaby's Semiotic Contingency: [see Semiotic Contingency (Malaby) above]

All in all, not knowing the outcome is what keeps up the curiousity. However, it's never about the conflict, but what the conflict results in.

... and conflict + [conflict resolving] (with various degrees of success/failure), is not needed in tabletop roleplaying games.

DeReel's picture

Many solutions for uncertainty here depend on players listening acutely and thinking.

Randomness is also an element that prevents mastery (nothing wrong with that, such as when you play with kids, or to balance analysis paralysis). It's like, behind the success / loss thing, dice rolls are a way of creating artificial changes in status at the table, so the improvisation keeps interesting. But RPGs are too long for this and players burn out on these little sugar rushes. Whereas listening can be put on slow burn, but requires concentration.

I have no clear cut solution... Merely envisioning all the tools, each for its own usage. Sorry if I unknowingly drift the conversation, I am evolving my thesis with new data (various playstyles from actual play videos and improv storytelling workshops).

DeReel's picture

Sorry to double post, I bring a quote from Joshua Newman that rang a bell for this thread :

" I don't think that different kinds of games, whether story-inductive or tactical, necessarily differ that much at their heart.

What does make a difference is how much the rules allow you to care. I've been struggling for years trying to make a Mobile Frame Zero RPG that fully integrates battles. But as soon as there's a throwdown, you can only think about winning; to do otherwise is simply to lose. The best I've come up with is secret objectives, where each player's win conditions might be in conflict with those of their putative allies."

komradebob's picture

The best I've come up with is secret objectives, where each player's win conditions might be in conflict with those of their putative allies.

I've been on another website talking about Braunsteins, and that was exactly what has been discussed at length.

[Braunsteins being a type of game ( often, but not always, using miniatures) where there are multiple players, basically few or no NPCs, and a GM ( or GM team) who are, ideally, acting as neutral referees and play facilitators. Not entirely different from some forms of scenario/situation based LARP with pregenerated, scenario-specific characters.]

So, that's one approach.

Another aproach may be to couch the games in terms where there is more of a choice of stance used in the design which employs a greater seperation between characters and players, with player goals seperate from character goals.

For example, I've been working on a concept for a long time, where I describe the players' role as being writers on a movie or tv show pilot.
They are given a concept, a situation, and some roughly sketched characters, plus, probably some nods to similar kinds of already existing films or shows that provide inspiration, and possibly a "rating" of suggested maturity level/warnings.

As a player goal, they need to collectively create most of a "film/pilot" through scene by scene play in no more than three sessions and no more than 12 hours in real world time, total, including all breaks, OOC and out of actively played scene discussions, and so on. The tension/challenge is about, essentially, how do we do that when we have all kinds of creative people with different ideas about how to accomplish that, with only a limited set of tools and time.

Now the characters? They may have all kinds of competing, in-fiction goals. Players are going to certainly be responsible for portraying and developing at least one character, and possibly several, a figuring out what happens to them. As it turns out, this may involve all sorts of terrible things happening to some of those characters. Because of the player/character seperation, that isn't inherently a "loss" for the player. Heck, it might even be a "win" of sorts.

A loss would be a complete breakdown and inability to produce anything like even a basic seriesof scenes that dvelop and tie together within the time constraints, probably caused by a como of ineterspersonal inability to work together or use tools for aiding the same overall goal successfully.

Naturally there can be partial group success, and this is likely the most common outcome, and not a terrible one.

In any case, this is a kind of reframing of what the group is doing that opens the possibility of character failure being acceptable to players.

I don't know that it would be a very good fit for many players, simply because so many players only do character play, as opposed to scenario designer or GM play, where it is expected that some of your characters will fail, be defeated, die, look foolish, etc. but that uit doesn't prevent you from continuing play as GM.

Silmenume's picture


I apologize that I don't have much to offer this thread but I wanted to quickly highlight something DeReel quoted and then be on my way.

Sorry to double post, I bring a quote from Joshua Newman that rang a bell for this thread :

" I don't think that different kinds of games, whether story-inductive or tactical, necessarily differ that much at their heart.

Not only do I agree I posted a thread on The Forge pretty much saying the same thing. Both Gamism and Narrativism function at the conflict level. It is the engine that drives that game. As an aside this was why Sim/myth/bricolage play was never understood as it is not play driven by conflict - it is a specific way of thinking. Conflict is a convenient (and useful) tool but it is not the engine that drives this CA nor is conflict sufficient to fully express the CA.

Anyway, I doubt you need my support on your musings on G and N functioning similarly at heart but this is my 2 cents nonetheless.

I'm not quite sure I understand what you're working at (which is due to my limitations as a thinker) but this is an interesting thread and I do wish you the best on your quest. I wish I had something useful to add...



DeReel's picture

Many games take success and failure quasi out of players hands. That allows for funny rainmaker's moments, where one can brag about how they did (roll) well. The disconnect introduced by clumsy simulation is not an obstacle. Like, at all. As Emily Care argued, this is also reassuring for a player that doesn't know about the topic at hand in a conflict : the dice will decide, whatever they come up with, they won't be judged. Disclaiming responsibility helps also on the player side.
Less extreme on the "player skill" spectrum, some games, like Danger Patrol or other Otherkind system offer you to mechanically back up an increase in narrative stakes. According to @Paul_T : "It doesn’t actually hurt our chances of success, so you get to narrate your character as powerful and untouchable or struggling terribly, getting wounded, and getting into trouble… it’s up to us, and any of these options are equally viable - we can do whatever seems like the most fun." Push your luck mechanisms are a good way of making the roll matter more and more. The boost from randomness kicks in when it's pure, like 50/50, and the stakes are exponential (perceptions scales are logarithmic).

Rickard's picture

Is there a psycho social reason to this obsession with success,

To go back to the original question. Another reason of using a mechanic where you're rolling for stuff, is because it's one of the strongest reward patterns - variabled interval schedule. (Psychological explanation: we tend to seek patterns, and when we learn the patterns, our brains release dopamine. Less learning, less dopamine. But if it's just random and dished out at a seemingly random pace, our pattern seeking minds goes nuts.)