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Failing in RPGs

   
Personally I prefer the term "narrative" for that, since story implies a greater whole that is slightly more coherent than possible in a cooperative storytelling game. Narrative, on the other hand, is just that: the things that have been narrated, ie the stuff that has happened.

There you go then, Actana: Narrative. I'll happily substitute that word for "story" if it makes folks feel better

Chia, thanks for the follow up. I'm glad our views aren't as disparate as they seemed at first!

Cai, it does makes me feel better. Thanks bud.

And finally, for Vlad...I hear ya on the dogmatic views disturbing you. I really do. But that's why I said I thought this was a miscommunication more than a debate. As Cailano stated, it's simple really. Whether you call it "story", "narrative" or something else entirely, the reality of it remains the same: It is the summation of all other aspects, wrapped up into one cohesive, holistic thing. I don't think that that's debatable, which is why I said I was right. I get that that's hard for people to hear. There are very few things that are cut and dry in this world, but this feels like one of them to me. I never shout from the rooftops during contentious debates that, "I'm right, you're wrong, so there!" In this case, however, I think it's perfectly appropriate to say, "I'm right; no one else is wrong, but they may simply be misunderstanding me."

On a personal note, Vlad, after all the time we spent playing together, it kinda hurts that you would so seriously misjudge me. I'm not dogmatic. I'm a guy who looks for the gray area. I'm a guy who believes empathy may well be the key and sole salvation of the human race (which is a shame, because that likely means we're all screwed). I am not a guy who says, "I'm right," unless I'm absolutely certain that I'm right. In this case, by simple mathematics (again, thanks Cai), I think it's pretty clear I'm right, even if the terminology doesn't suit everyone (as Actana so helpfully pointed out).

I think we should get back to discussing other ways to implement failure into the game besides death. I recently started getting into apocalypse world since they implement a rather unique failure system. I think most narrative game systems use other kinds of failure systems since they are collaborative. Although they do it by separating the player from the character to a certain extent.

Sounds good.

So approaching this from a storytelling perspective, failure is usually a way to increase tension, leading up to an even greater victory down the road.

So some positive outcomes I can see to look for in a situation where your players look like they are going to have a mis-step would be to use it as either 1) An opportunity to make their antagonists seem more formidable and to help them engage with that antagonist on an emotional level or 2) A way to increase the stakes in the narrative. Possibly both.

As an example of 1 - If your big bad is going to kill off an NPC, make it seem like a fight happened. If the NPC isn't combat ready, maybe some other NPCs tried to intervene and got wiped out. Maybe the big bad used high-level magic or took on a large force. Maybe he just had an ingenious plan. Maybe he struck from the shadows leaving only vague clues, or left behind grizzly scenes of death and debauchery. I've used that last one to great effect in game. Make the bad guy badder.

As an example of increasing the stakes, maybe a favorite NPC gets kidnapped, or the children from a village. Maybe you can work in some kind of ticking clock effect where the PCs can fix the "failure" but only have a limited time to do so. Maybe the failure can cascade into an even worse condition and the PCs have to act quickly to stop it from getting even more out of control. The key here would be to go visceral over intellectual. The problem shouldn't be something like upsetting a mercantile treaty, it should be something like creating refugees or getting a friend tortured or having the PCs attempt at dealing with one threat end up creating a horrid abomination of a monster that is even more dangerous than what they were already facing. Something so awful that they are just morally incapable of letting it escape into the world.

Good topic, and I'm encouraged by what I read. The idea of failure being interesting is one that I generally don't see much support for or understanding of, but it's the one I prefer.

As I see it, player enjoyment and ongoing meaningful participation should never be on the line. It should never be staked on a choice or a die roll. I say "Failure should be interesting," for short.

Death can be made interesting, but it tends not to be, because players tend to have only a single character, and tend to have nothing to do if that character dies. Additionally, they may not enjoy not being able to use that character, meaning that even if they can still participate they aren't enjoying the game.

If my players want a high risk of death, I ask that they have a backup character ready to go, complete with a "trapdoor," which is something about them or their backstory that lets them be introduced and pick up the adventure immediately upon the death of the other character. This preserves their ability to participate meaningfully, and because it's a character of their making, presumably they'll enjoy playing it.

Under those conditions, I feel death is minimally impactful to the fun of the game. Arguably, the players will tend to be less careful with their characters, since the main risks of death are out of the picture, but if that's the case then they probably don't enjoy having to be careful.

Plenty of other stuff is iffy, such as capture and retreat. Both can be interesting, but that's not the way to bet. Get player buy-in if you're expecting either of those to happen.

And of course, there are the narrative failures, that don't necessarily involve character death. I favor those at all times, and I usually work with the players to come up with what failure and success look like. Often they're similar, but with a downside for failure. You reach the top of the wall, but the rope is too frayed to be reused. You reach your destination, but too late. Etc.

Spirit of the Century, D&D 4th Edition, and Dungeon World all turned me on to the idea of interesting (often player-chosen) consequences for failure. I've even found that players subject their own characters to consequences many GMs would find difficult to impose.

Hmm... so you are the second or third person to not like making players retreat, Beta. It's not something I usually do. I think this was the first game where the players got themselves into a bind that left them trapped with few options. What would you do in such a situation. Or do you avoid encounters that are above the players ability to handle. It doesn't have to be the werewolf encounter. I am running a Mummy's Mask campaign and I could see chaotic players deciding the skulls and imminent death warnings across half the map as a sign for better treasure, which would put 1st and 2nd level character up against gangs of ghouls. Thats seems another case of escape the danger or risk becoming a ghoul, or dead, both just as bad.

As for HOW to implement interesting failure, look to television and movies. Showrunners and writers have the same problem as many GMs: following through with killing the characters isn't feasible (at least until some conclusion), and (because audiences know this) threatening to kill them (before the conclusion) isn't very believable.

So, they threaten via third parties (can't kill of Carrie Fisher's character, but you can vaporize a planet), status ("Again we see there is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away."), property ("He might only take your ship..."). Threaten the course of history. Imagine if Sauron had obtained the Ring; Aragorn and the others might well have survived Frodo's failure, but they'd be living in a vastly changed world.

In short, find stakes other than the lives and freedom of the PCs. Escalating toward some final doom is probably fine; if characters die in the last session of a game, the players are probably cool with that (though ask them).

It's easy to give alternate goals to enemies. If all else fails, they can be fanatically driven to complete whatever their goal is, with no real interest in killing or need to kill the PCs. Mention has been made of "mindless" creatures, but undead can easily be imagined to be "programmed" by their master, or obeying impulses that drove them in life. If one truly can't see how to have a given enemy crave anything other than the destruction of the PCs, maybe don't use that kind of enemy.

awwww... but what about my mindless zombie's love of brains...I'm kidding.

Some good food for thought.

Why isn't it believable that we'll kill the PCs? Heck, I try to do that all the time. I throw CR appropriate-ish combats at them and play the bad guys to win, according to their character and intelligence at least. It's on the PCs to survive.








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