Monday, June 13, 2011

Smelled Like Victory

Saturday evening I wrapped up a long campaign. There were flawed heroes, there was struggling against the odds. There was a long fight hard won.

That sweet, sweet smell of victory.

No, it wasn't some phase of the Domain Game, nor were there any funny dice involved. But there was some kingmaking involved and even some roleplaying on my part as I tried on the role of politico.

When we sat down to play our Hill Cantons game Sunday, it was hard not to linger on thoughts about “winning and losing” in roleplaying games. (After action report here by Desert Scribe, I continue to be too self-conscious and/or lazy to do session reports anymore.)

From early on we have been told that unlike most traditional games there really aren't any winners or losers in these games. There is a great deal of truth there, it was one of the liberating and, dare I say genius, elements of D&D from the get go. But there is a bit of obfuscation in there too.

Competition either directly or indirectly supported by game mechanics never truly disappeared, it just became papered over and muted.

Winning and losing, those concepts so near and dear to competition (imparted to us by a couple centuries of indoctrination), never truly disappeared either. They just became part of a more subtle dance.

Sure you could play it straight--some still do. Many of us have been on the receiving end of the Killer DM stereotype. It's the worst kind of game imaginable; on par with playing Chess against an opponent whose pieces play by any rule—or none—of their choosing. It's an invitation for an evening filled with eye-rolling and hair-pulling. Despite it having the outward form, it's no real competition at all.

The best form is the dance between the mock adversity of a GM and his players. Yes he can be tough as nails, throwing everything and the proverbial sink at the players in the course of the session. 

He can be sneering even, taunting and taking seeming delight in their misery. He becomes, as someone whose username I now forget (T. Foster?) called a comic opera villain, twirling his oiled mustache.

The “foiled again” curses are an act. You are secretly rooting for the players. You want them to feel like they had to beat you, to overcome you as a player. To rise—or fall—to the occasion. Like a great competitive game it creates a real, visceral dramatic tension.

Will we make it through this battle and grab the swag? Will our vorpal blades go snicker-snack? Or do we die here paralyzed and consumed by the Jabberwocky?

I love this dance, it creates almost more than anything else at the table that elusive emergent story. It has created an oral tradition amongst lovers of the game. Think about your own experiences, think of your own proud stories of great victories—or laughingly amusing ones of a character's passing or colossal screw-up.

Do you tell those stories in a distant third-person?

No, my gut says you tell them with lots of “I” statements, they are real. They have weight in the telling. You won or lost and had a story to tell by doing so.


  1. Peter U. had phenomenal dice luck.

    In a proto-Imperial Urutsk starfaring game, his ill-prepared character inadvertently offended a saurian alien early in the day, and despite all of my attempts to kill his character for his increasingly outrageous attempts to stay alive, Pete's character failed only a hand-full of rolls, and not a single was his last-ditch (only perception or initiative types) rolls.

    At last, the now-power-suited saurians (now plural) had finally manoeuvred Peter's character (armed only with a snub-pistol and HEAP rounds) to the docks, and their leader was about to deliver the Coup de Grace, when... The weapon failed to fire: Indication -- Out of Ammo.

    The thing just looked on in disgust and threw his useless weapon down and walked off with the others. They were so demoralised. I was astonished, flustered...

    Peter had overcome intentional malice on my part with ridiculous grace and mercy from On High.

    We both laughed and spent the next hour recounting the improbabilities:

    "No, Pete! Give me a 12 on 2d6, then followed by another 6 on 1d."

    "K, that's too hard. At least make it a 11+ on 2d. If I make it that far I have a chance to get a 6 on the third die."

    > grumble <
    "Alright. But then you've got to give me a 6 exactly on that third die. No whining, no pleading."

    "Deal. > roll-roll< Natural 12, K. Still want me to roll on that third die?"

    "Yes, damnit, Peter!"

    So it goes some times. :D

    I do hope for the PCs, but the truth be told, my NPCs rarely ever roll well enough to give anyone a very difficult time.
    --They are only good for inducing tragedies, like killing off favoured NPCs and the like. :(

  2. Thing about roleplaying games, as non-zero sum gaming goes, is even losing characters doesn't have to mean losing the game. This is especially true in horror gaming, where most or all the characters can die and a fun and successful game can still be the result.

  3. From what I understand, you lost at D&D at NTRPG Con.

  4. Congrats to all involved. Victory party at Los Barios? Nice, man. I dig their cilantro+garlic pesto-salsa thing.

  5. @Doc
    Absolutely agree, in fact many of the best stories rise out of spectacular deaths: "losing" with style.

    Yes sir, I lost at D&D big time at the Green Dragon Lord's table.

    Thanks. And congrats yourself for crossing that first hump toward a nursing career.