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Failing in RPGs

   
Failing in RPGs

So this topic came up in another thread and started pushing the original topic onto the sidelines given my tendency to write far longer posts than is healthy in these sorts of threads. Given that it's an interesting topic, I figured to move the discussion into another thread. Here's what started the topic. In chronological order and quoting each other.











To add another aspect to the discussion, I do have a question about this that I've been wondering for a while. Adventure Paths. How are they designed encounter wise? The impression I have is that they're a series of fairly linear combat encounters that are supposed to be beaten along with a couple of encounters which have secondary objectives that can either succeed or fail, but "defeat" always means death in the encounters, and retreating only means "try again later". Outside of that, I do believe there are more sandboxy APs available that have more potential for interesting failstates. Mind you, this is only my impression without reading any APs, so if it's not actually so I'll retract my word. However, I'm not too keen on purchasing modules I'm never going to use solely for the sake of knowing how they're built.


So. Failing and coping with failure in RPGs. Opinions?

Adventure Paths... It's mostly as you'd expect, Actana. Most combat encounters seem to be "kill or be killed" scenarios, which is counter-intuitive and silly (more on that in the second paragraph of this post). There are a few non-combat encounters (e.g. skill challenges) where failure does not result in death, and it is usually accounted for, but rarely leads to a great, narrative-changing turning point which can impact the entire story. After all, Adventure paths, by their very nature, have to be fairly linear.

I see that the argument was made that "failure = death" may not be an interesting result, but it is at least realistic. I strongly disagree with that. Banning discussions about the importance of realism in RPGs (opinions vary wildly), this is simply not the case. Who in their right mind would fight to the death? Ancient armies had phalanx formations several rows deep; I guess one main reason for that was to discourage the front liners from fleeing. The instict for self-preservation is extremely strong in all animals. Heck, even those wolves mentioned above would flee if injured! Animals are not stupid! My point is that the classical, D&D-esque "fight to the death" is not only unimaginative, but also extremely unrealistic.

I'll give you the skeletons, though

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Heck, even those wolves mentioned above would flee if injured! Animals are not stupid!
they are stupid. but they are wise. there is a reason WIS wasn't nurffed with INT in the animal subtype, a thing most seem to forget.

animals will only truly do thing that will certainly injure themselves when they are pushed into a corner or driven mad (thus result in a RL loss of WIS score). given a choice no pack of wolves would attack an armed group of adventurers unless they could see themselves wining with minimal damage. i say damage, not losses, as injury often means death in the wild.

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D&D-esque "fight to the death" is not only unimaginative, but also extremely unrealistic.
indeed but players often fall into that mindset the second their first (half-hearted) attempt at diplomacy fails. between misunderstandings, weak dimwitted NPCs outnumber the PCs and fearing for their lives the only correct way to RP some fights is to the death as PCs won't do it any other way if they other way might take some wise word usage.

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Originally Posted by Actana View Post
There is no tension because of meta reasons. If there's a threat of death the players will assume they are meant to survive ...
When the opposite is true (failure does not mean death) there's an actual meta consequence of failure.
Hmm. I see what you're saying here, actually, but I don't think that that's always true. The players may be "meant" to survive, but there can always be a chance of failure. They know that - it's about making them feel that that chance is perhaps higher than it is. Also, in a typical party game, the party can still succeed without you personally surviving. Any death is a faff, but there's no reason it can't happen.
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Heck, even those wolves mentioned above would flee if injured! Animals are not stupid!
Wolves would probably not attack a group of armed people anyway. If they did, they'd do it when they could win.
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Originally Posted by Actana View Post
Bandits are dumb, but more importantly they're still people. They might want your gold, but it's easier to have the robbed people give their valuables willingly than risk losing members of your merry band.
It's even easier to shoot from hidden and kill them without even asking. Once they know you're there, sure, get a surrender if you can. Realistically, though, these situations are going to be kill-or-be-killed ones.
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Originally Posted by Actana View Post
It's not about some abstract concept of "realism", it's about a meta agreement and adhering to it. The GM can make up any reason they need for the defeat to be non-fatal, and should design encounters around it and the possibility of failure.
What you're saying here is that the game should be designed to be a game, and the DM should "metagame" to make it play out the way you think is more fun. There's definitely an argument for that, but it is metagaming; it's like the protagonist survive because he's the protagonist, rather than maybe dying anyway because it's Game of Thrones or real life or something.

The real world doesn't care about narrative or anything like that. You're as likely to kill the big bad boss guy then get knifed in the back by a mugger as you are to "win" an encounter or go down (only) in a blaze of glory.

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Originally Posted by TheFred View Post
Hmm. I see what you're saying here, actually, but I don't think that that's always true. The players may be "meant" to survive, but there can always be a chance of failure. They know that - it's about making them feel that that chance is perhaps higher than it is. Also, in a typical party game, the party can still succeed without you personally surviving. Any death is a faff, but there's no reason it can't happen.
In a normal D&D encounter, the "chance of failure" is not really an actual chance. Instead, adventures are more often than not prolonged tests of attrition where the PCs have their endurance tested - hit points, spell slots, consumables, the like. Individual encounters are meant to wear the PCs down and to provide the illusion of an upcoming threat that can take them out, but rarely is there a chance of failure in an individual encounter, because if the players do fail what happens is a TPK: the players die and the game is over. That's not really "failing", it's just ending the game. Sure, it's technically a failure, but it's the dullest and least interesting kind of failure.

Of course, the players can retreat and try again later, with the GM hopefully providing consequences for their retreat, but even that isn't guaranteed and retreating rarely happens for whatever reason.

For individual deaths, I personally don't like killing PCs by random in the middle of a session because it's anticlimactic, but neither have I said it can't happen. My example of the mechanics of Fate Core's concessions is a prime example of failing and the threat of death done right: players can individually concede or they can try to keep fighting on the pain of death: you can either keep trying to succeed and risk death (or other serious injury, which is a big deal in Fate), or ensure your life is kept but be unambiguously defeated. D&D, for example, does nothing of the sort in terms of mechanics, relying that the GM will play the game out so that the PCs do survive, for example honoring surrenders against intelligent foes (not like surrendering ever happens outside situations where it's made explicitly and unambiguously clear that the PCs don't stand a chance, mind you) - but this is hardly a given and depends entirely on the GM. Fate places that choice firmly in the hands of the player, and they are ultimately responsible if their character dies, and if they do they are dying for something they really cared about - otherwise they would have conceded.

There's a lot more about the Concession mechanic that could be discussed, like how the players are compensated for conceding and how even negative traits on your character can be turned to your advantage, but those are beyond the scope of this post.

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Originally Posted by TheFred View Post
It's even easier to shoot from hidden and kill them without even asking. Once they know you're there, sure, get a surrender if you can. Realistically, though, these situations are going to be kill-or-be-killed ones.
Do you also have a habit of sending assassins against sleeping PCs without giving them even a chance or warning before they die? And why don't villains patch their obvious flaws and faults in their plans, making them practically invulnerable to the PCs? These things don't happen because they're entirely unexciting and in many cases offer absolutely no chance of meaningful PC input (for what it's worth, I don't see "roll Perception to see the ambush" as any sort of meaningful PC input). If they for some reason do happen I'm not going to change my mind of it being a wholly poorly designed encounter.

This is entirely besides the point, however, because realism takes second place to a good narrative. Realistically speaking most D&D characters would retire after their first or second adventure, given that the value of the magic items they find could easily net the characters many lifetimes of luxury and carefree living.

But if we're going down the realism path with the bandits again, what are the chances of actually killing the entire group in one volley? And what about retribution? If there's a code of laws in place, robbery likely carries less severe punishments than manslaughter. And if you can capture people alive you can also ransom them back for even more gold. The GM has, again, an unlimited amount of methods to give the bandits a reason not to kill the PCs in an encounter but somehow, for some reason, the idea of "they must die" is apparently the first thing everyone thinks of, despite it being the most boring and unimaginative reason there is.

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Originally Posted by TheFred View Post
What you're saying here is that the game should be designed to be a game, and the DM should "metagame" to make it play out the way you think is more fun. There's definitely an argument for that, but it is metagaming; it's like the protagonist survive because he's the protagonist, rather than maybe dying anyway because it's Game of Thrones or real life or something.
Quite honestly... Yes. a roleplaying game is still a game and should be treated as such. Realism can go sit in the corner as far as I'm concerned. Creating a fun narrative for everyone is far more important (to me) than creating a "realistic" narrative that doesn't care about anyone involved.

The whole "metagame bogeyman" is such a ridiculous concept but is still somehow so prevalent in people's minds. Metagaming is not inherently bad, despite what D&D rulebooks might tell you. Metagaming can be done both for positive and negative effect, and shouldn't be discounted just because players can metagame negatively (which is always taken as an example as to why "metagaming is bad"). Everyone metagames when playing RPGs, you can't avoid it. Sure, you can try to apply your real life knowledge to gain an in-game benefit in a way that doesn't make sense in-character, but you can also apply that same knowledge to make the game better and more exciting.

For the Game of Thrones example, it's still entirely "metagamed", insofar as novels have that phenomenon through the writer's own plans and forethought. There's tension, buildup and a climax that, in this case, just happens to result in the character's death. Characters don't die randomly: they die from the actions they've taken and all of them are entirely appropriate to the narrative. You don't see major characters randomly dying to bandits who jump out of the woods and shoot arrows into them (or, well, don't jump out and just shoot them from the shadows), and even minor characters who do die to those sort of events die to establish the scene and reinforce the narrative. Game of Thrones isn't real life and shouldn't be used as an example of "realistic narrative", because unless we're talking actual events in history, no fiction is truly realistic. Everything in created fiction is planned and executed to fit the narrative.

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Originally Posted by TheFred View Post
The real world doesn't care about narrative or anything like that. You're as likely to kill the big bad boss guy then get knifed in the back by a mugger as you are to "win" an encounter or go down (only) in a blaze of glory.
Good thing RPGs aren't supposed to model the real world and instead focus on creating collaborative stories. And I don't think it needs to be said that stories do care about the narrative and are always influenced by the collaborative metagaming of the group. This inane adherence to "realism" is something I will not ever understand. Of course, I come from the more narrative based side of RPGs, and care little for simulationist games.

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Originally Posted by TheFred View Post
The real world doesn't care about narrative or anything like that. You're as likely to kill the big bad boss guy then get knifed in the back by a mugger as you are to "win" an encounter or go down (only) in a blaze of glory.


Except not at all? How many people in the US Get mugged? It's probably less then five Percent and I imagine probably even less then that get fatally mugged.

Beyond that , The major difference is in a game like WoD Vampires can't just stay in there house and go to work like most people in real life do. If RPG's would be realistic you wouldn't have parties of more then four people , you'd have a party of like one really close spouse , your mom because your dad died of heart disease six years ago and charlie and bob from high school.

And you'd be a bank teller and you'd die at seventy with your grandkids around. RPGs are not real life. They're not even
vaguely comparable and nobody wants to play Bank Teller 3.5E revised addition now with reverse mortgages!

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Originally Posted by Actana View Post
In a normal D&D encounter, the "chance of failure" is not really an actual chance. ... Individual encounters are meant to wear the PCs down and to provide the illusion of an upcoming threat that can take them out, but rarely is there a chance of failure in an individual encounter, because if the players do fail what happens is a TPK: the players die and the game is over.
There often is a chance of failure, and going by the book a certain proportion of encounters are meant to be particularly difficult; the typical four-vs-one is not very threatening, but even then, a(n un)lucky crit can completely change things.
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Originally Posted by Actana View Post
Do you also have a habit of sending assassins against sleeping PCs without giving them even a chance or warning before they die? And why don't villains patch their obvious flaws and faults in their plans, making them practically invulnerable to the PCs? These things don't happen because they're entirely unexciting and in many cases offer absolutely no chance of meaningful PC input (for what it's worth, I don't see "roll Perception to see the ambush" as any sort of meaningful PC input).
I have yet to have PCs killed in their sleep, though I've threatened it before. As for the villains and their flawed plans, I hate them. What's more unexciting, a challenge which is nigh-insurmountable or a game where you know you're going to win because the game has purposefully been designed such that the "narrative" dictates it? Doesn't this bring us back to exactly the thing you were against (encounters where the PCs winning is a foregone conclusion)?
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Originally Posted by Actana View Post
You don't see major characters randomly dying to bandits who jump out of the woods and shoot arrows into them (or, well, don't jump out and just shoot them from the shadows), and even minor characters who do die to those sort of events die to establish the scene and reinforce the narrative.
A lot of characters die a lot of ignoble deaths to randomers, and yes, that's part of the narrative - it can't not be, because it's a novel. However, the very nature of the narrative is one which doesn't care about keeping people alive because of special story reasons; people die when it makes sense for them too, regardless of whether we want them to or not. GoT is just an example which many people have heard of.
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Originally Posted by Actana View Post
This inane adherence to "realism" is something I will not ever understand. Of course, I come from the more narrative based side of RPGs, and care little for simulationist games.
Well, as I've said, it entirely depends on what you want. "Fun" can be had any which way, after all. If you want to tell a story, though, why not tell a believable one, rather than one where the good guys win because they're the good guys or some rubbish? If I'm role-playing a character from a comic book, sure, let comic book things happen! If I'm role-playing a person, in a world, I want that world to act like a world. Some level of suspension of disbelief is fine, some level of metagaming may happen, but it ultimately boils down to what kind of "story" you want to tell.
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Originally Posted by MrDTW View Post
Except not at all? How many people in the US Get mugged? It's probably less then five Percent and I imagine probably even less then that get fatally mugged.
Ah, the US, a country which completely represents the "generic quasi-medieval fantasy setting" in which most D&D games are played!

In most such settings, life is cheap. If robbery gets you hung, why would you hold back on killing people? The Olden Days weren't like today, just with swords and stuff; hell, most likely you'd just catch something and die of that, and sod the monsters.

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Originally Posted by TheFred View Post
There often is a chance of failure, and going by the book a certain proportion of encounters are meant to be particularly difficult; the typical four-vs-one is not very threatening, but even then, a(n un)lucky crit can completely change things.
And we still have yet to address the part where the threat of death is an incredibly bland and unimaginative threat, which is the entire point here. What happens when the entire group dies? The game is over, or you start new characters. What happens if a single PC dies? Their player is disappointed, feels sad for their character's death if they're particularly attached to them, shrugs and creates a new one. Moving on as before. That's not exactly interesting as a failure state. Compare to, say, if a character is taken out by bandits and gets captured and the bandits gets away with that character, planning on ransoming him back. Now we have a whole new exciting arc where the rest of the characters have to rescue their friend while the captured character tries to escape. It adds to the story, unlike a random shot from the dark that ends a character.

Lets take another example for failure. The players are trying to race to the top of the Tower of Evil to stop the Evil Sorcerer of Evilness from summoning a powerful demon. When they get there, a climatic fight scene occurs. If the players win, they stop the Evil Sorcerer from summoning the demon and perhaps manage to kill the Sorcerer.
Which is a more interesting result upon failure: if the players fail, they die and the game is over. Or, if the players fail, they are beaten and bloodied, while the sorcerer manages to summon the demon, wrecking devastation on the kingdom and laying siege to the capital with his demonic hordes? Now the players need to find a way to banish the demon and stop the Sorcerer from killing even more people.

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Originally Posted by TheFred View Post
I have yet to have PCs killed in their sleep, though I've threatened it before. As for the villains and their flawed plans, I hate them. What's more unexciting, a challenge which is nigh-insurmountable or a game where you know you're going to win because the game has purposefully been designed such that the "narrative" dictates it? Doesn't this bring us back to exactly the thing you were against (encounters where the PCs winning is a foregone conclusion)?
I fail to see the relevance here. In fact, my approach that "failure is not the end" means that you can put far more challenges against the party, because failure becomes something everyone can handle and not the end of the narrative (for a group or single character).

My point in the part you quoted was the problem of presenting "realistic" threats or threats that are carried out as optimally as possible. Because if that course is taken then everyone would fix problems in their plans and attack the PCs when they're sleeping. All of this gets us to the point where the characters engage not in a story but in a game of finding a loophole in the plans of the GM (who can fix those loopholes with a handwave if he wants to).

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Originally Posted by TheFred View Post
A lot of characters die a lot of ignoble deaths to randomers, and yes, that's part of the narrative - it can't not be, because it's a novel. However, the very nature of the narrative is one which doesn't care about keeping people alive because of special story reasons; people die when it makes sense for them too, regardless of whether we want them to or not. GoT is just an example which many people have heard of.
Except characters are kept alive because of special story reasons. Those story reasons are to kill them off later in a more dramatic and/or satisfying way. They're kept alive to fulfill some more important role in the story, even if that means they're killed off at a later date. It's been a while since I've read the SoIaF books, but I can't remember any more major character dying in a "random encounter" typed situation.

Also, you used the line "whether we want them to or not". Correct me if I'm wrong, but this indicates that you're comparing the deaths of PCs to the deaths of characters in a novel, and the players and readers occupy the same place, ie an outside observer? Otherwise your analogy rather falls apart, you see. However, this is a problem that we're facing in terms of communication. I don't think we're on the same page here, as I see the players and GM on a more equal storytelling level, while the two separate groups can easily be seen as an "actor" and "reactor" roles, where the GM tells the players what happens and the players react to that. To me, the players and GM are both involved in telling the story through different but no less equal means.

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Originally Posted by TheFred View Post
Well, as I've said, it entirely depends on what you want. "Fun" can be had any which way, after all. If you want to tell a story, though, why not tell a believable one, rather than one where the good guys win because they're the good guys or some rubbish? If I'm role-playing a character from a comic book, sure, let comic book things happen! If I'm role-playing a person, in a world, I want that world to act like a world. Some level of suspension of disbelief is fine, some level of metagaming may happen, but it ultimately boils down to what kind of "story" you want to tell.
You seem to equate "realism" to "threat of death on failure", which has nothing to do with realism, but just narrative and encounter design (which is a part of every kind of game, whatever you're aiming for). And, to me, defaulting to the threat of death is, as I have many time stated but which has always conveniently ignored, ultimately the most boring and unimaginative threat there is.

A story can be believable even though failing doesn't result in death, it happens all the time. Furthermore, you keep ignoring the part where I talk about Fate's Concession mechanic which keeps both failure non-lethal but still allows for the threat of death to be present.

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Originally Posted by TheFred View Post
Ah, the US, a country which completely represents the "generic quasi-medieval fantasy setting" in which most D&D games are played!

In most such settings, life is cheap. If robbery gets you hung, why would you hold back on killing people? The Olden Days weren't like today, just with swords and stuff; hell, most likely you'd just catch something and die of that, and sod the monsters.
Again, any number of reasons. You, as the GM, just chose to default to the "realistic" approach of "kill everything in sight" without even apparently thinking of other ways to end an encounter in failure. I've given you quite a few examples already. The possibilities are endless and it just takes a bit of imagination when designing the encounter, and allows for far more interesting things to happen with failures. Failure should always be a possibility and failing is a big part of stories, but the consequences of failure should be something more interesting than characters dying.

Besides, what do you do when there's a TPK? Just end the campaign? Isn't that terribly dull of a conclusion to any sort of story? "And then the heroes were killed by bandits. The end." Sure, it might be "realistic" (even though it's as realistic to have the bandits do something else that doesn't outright kill the PCs), but is it fun for the players to just drop the entire game because a bandit had a lucky crit four times in a row?

Characters fail in stories all the time but they don't, and shouldn't, die from failing. They get beat back, their objectives fail, they don't manage to stop their enemies from achieving their goals.


My overall point here is that it is good narrative and encounter design to create encounters that do not have to end in death when failed, because it allows for far more challenging and interesting encounters, where you can't say if you're going to win because both victories and defeats drive the story forward, something that is very hard to do when the only failure result is death.

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Originally Posted by Actana View Post
What happens if a single PC dies? Their player is disappointed, feels sad for their character's death if they're particularly attached to them, shrugs and creates a new one. Moving on as before. That's not exactly interesting as a failure state.
That depends on the story, the situation, and the player. The player may be quite happy to go down all guns blazing, and even if it's an ignoble death, he may appreciate it - indeed, just as an outside observer might enjoy to read a novel like Game of Thrones.

The "player gets kidnapped" example sounds cool in theory but tends not to work so well in practice (I've been there).
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Originally Posted by Actana View Post
It's been a while since I've read the SoIaF books, but I can't remember any more major character dying in a "random encounter" typed situation.
It depends what you consider to be major, or random, and anyway it's by the by, although...

But that's just off the top of my head, and anyway, it's sort of getting off the point...

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Originally Posted by Actana View Post
You seem to equate "realism" to "threat of death on failure", which has nothing to do with realism, but just narrative and encounter design.
...
Again, any number of reasons. You, as the GM, just chose to default to the "realistic" approach of "kill everything in sight" without even apparently thinking of other ways to end an encounter in failure. I've given you quite a few examples already.
No. I'm saying that a lot of the time, and without qualifying this in any way, I would say most of the time, threat of death on failure is realistic. Most of your examples were like that. Bandits? Players may get the opportunity just to give them their gold (which is an even lamer kind of failure - if there's one thing players fear more than dying, it's losing their stuff), but any bandit who doesn't take an opportunity to put an arrow through a target's neck first is a pretty stupid bandit. Wolves? How can you "fail" that encounter and not die? Your example seemed to be driving the wolves off, but that's an alternative win condition (it's the wolves failing and not dying, not the other way around). Most of the others were just "you can flee" which ought to be an option most of the time, but is hardly the epitome of encounter design.

Which, in fact, was largely my point. I'm actually quite a fan of allowing people to "fail" in interesting ways - as part of allowing them to fail at all, and if that means death, so be it. That can be fun - as I've said countless times, it really does depend on what sort of game you're going for. However, I disagree that all encounters should necessarily be like that, or that an encounter with an imminent threat of death is somehow "less good", necessarily less imaginative, or worse encounter design than one without.

Even a "free win" encounter may be less interesting overall than another, but that doesn't mean it's a waste of time - much of the RP and non-combat stuff that players engage in has a forgone conclusion, too - and indeed, anything where the narrative forces them to win has a foregone conclusion, even if you manage to open up a few different options for how they get there - but it can still be fun. Otherwise, why would people play anything?

Although, if you want failures which don't result in death, death can still count - in D&D, there is resurrection magic, for example.

If you look at something like Eclipse Phase, that's pretty cool. Die, and you just "reload" (very like a PC game) from a backup. "Death" isn't really true death, which is a lot harder to come by.







 

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