Wednesday, February 10, 2010

When the fall is all there is, it matters

Gamers crave absolution.

For an array of reasons, we don't like to lose. Some of that comes from the "game" part of the hobby but that's not all of it. We most get into this because we have ideas of heroes triumphing over overwhelming odds through pluck, cunning and sheer force of will, and we don't want to come up short[1]. We want to hold the line. We won't let it happen on our watch. We will run barefoot across broken glass in Nakatomi plaza because somebody has to.

This creates a lot of problems, especially when you're trying to do something that depends on players losing. I'm not talking about randomly losing a fight or pulling off a TPK, but rather the kind of defeats and setbacks that mark the second act of a lot of stories. Even the most trivial of these sorts of problems will often be met by players digging in their heels, putting up their fists, and refusing to let it happen.

At this point, things get ugly. Even if the GM is totally fighting fair, the players may be angry and resentful, and accusations are likely to be thrown about (or worse, linger unspoken). The easy fix for this is, of course, to skip the second act entirely, and that solution works - it's demonstrably worked just fine for gaming for decades - but sometimes you just want to push it a little farther.

This is where absolution comes in.

The trick is that defeat is not about the characters, it is about the players, and as a GM, you need to address those players. You need to get across that the tragedy is coming, whatever the characters do. It is not on their heads, so with that settled, are they willing to get onboard with making it awesome?

It's a simple proposition, but one that is not natural to all players, but usually one or two in a group can pick it up pretty easily, and they provide an example for the rest. An example of what? That's the trick: once players have bought into the idea that things are going to go bad, you need to give them the ability to really direct how badly it goes. Given that, players will generally be much, much nastier to themselves than you would EVER be willing to be.

It's one of those balancing acts of trust and control. Because they know the outcome, the trust level is high, but they still want to maintain control. They're willing to fail, but they need to be allowed to fail big. By absolving them of the normal responsibilities that come with failure, you free them to go for the gusto in ways they never can normally[2].

One of the best examples of this is in Exalted. It is a fact of the setting that the Solar Exalts of the the First Age fell, and the heroes of the game (by default) are the reincarnations of those dead heroes. Because they're tied to that past life, it is not uncommon for events from the first age to come up, most notably in how the character died back then. Players given leeway to describe how that went will, provided they've bought into the idea, make sure their own falls are magnificent, enthusiastically throwing themselves into their character's death because they accept it as inevitable. There is no way for them to be so cunning or charming or stubborn that it won't happen, and with that relation, they seize on the one thing they can do, which is to make it awesome.

1 - This is, incidentally, one of the hardest parts of trying to use fighting anime (and other fighting material) as source material for gaming. For all it's visual awesomeness, the default mode is that the hero gets beat to crap, but won't give up and fights harder at the end, and that's enough to win. Very dramatic, but it makes for crappy play.

2 - The closest you can come is announcing that this is the last session of a game. That can, at times, be intensely liberating.


  1. One thing I have trouble with is instilling caution in some PCs. Since I've started running Alpha Omega, there are power thresholds that my players aren't accustomed to. They can buy the most torquey hand cannons available out of the main book and still not be able to slow a semi-potent threat down enough to avoid a 1-shot death. I try to stress: "OUT OF YOUR lEAGUE" so they keep their heads down, but sometimes they just don't listen... I'm thinking there may be a few PK's coming in the near future...

  2. This is a great issue for exploration. In real life, we suffer setbacks, we retreat, regroup, come back with a new strategy. In most RPGs, where the PLAYERS have nothing at stake but their time, their CHARACTERS face every challenge with intractable berserker fury. As GM, I've had to reorient entire game sessions because the players were obviously NOT going to cut their losses when things began to go south, they were going to dig in and keep going until TPK. The issue is worth a lot more discussion. What are some good ways to get players to react with the caution and worry that their characters ought to feel?

  3. Mutants and Masterminds uses its Hero Points in an attempt to enforce the genre element of the early defeat of the heroes before the rise up for the big finale.

    It's not unlike FATE; the GM and the players agree that this event will occur (a villain escapes, a hero is knocked unconscious etc.) and in return, the players get a hero point (a potent Bennie) that makes them more awesome in the story's actual climax.

  4. Damn, Rob. You addressed here something we have been struggling with on my post on Rebuilding Vampire. And you did it even before we got to that issue in the comments! Good insights.

  5. I agree utterly: get the players on board with the idea that Losing Can Be Awesome, and This Time, Let's Lose High, Wide and Mighty....and a whole lot of players will jump in with both feet and have a ball.

    I don't know what you do with players whose 'identity', if you will, is tied up in being Awesome by winning. If you force them to lose - if you force them to give up what makes gaming fun for them, you may lose *them*. Maybe sometimes you have to just say "Hey guys, this week we're going to Lose Awesomely. If you don't think you can enjoy losing, sit this one out. You'll hear all about it, next week."

  6. I agree entirely with warning the players about the impending doom, but I have mixed feelings about abrogating their responsibility for the tragedy. In the heroic structure, the tragedy is really meant to be the product of one-or-more heroic flaws -- making the hero, in some way, complicit in the tragedy. This heightens the emotional impact of the tragedy in a way that would not be accomplished, if the hero had played no part.

    In the classical superhero second-act, for example, the villain distracts the hero from the larger problems at hand by endangering a group of hapless innocents. If the hero had a proper sense of priorities, he would have ignored the busload of tourists, and prevented the villain from enacting his plan, because that would ultimately save more lives, but the hero is too soft-hearted to bear seeing innocents die right in front of him, if he can do something to stop it. When the hero sees the impact of his decision, it weighs heavily on him, because he knows he could have chosen differently.

    So, I don't think it's bad to inject some Faustian choices that play to the various virtues and flaws of the player characters, in a similar fashion. Maybe one of the guys refuses to negotiate with terrorists. Maybe another one is too blindly in love to see the flaws in his paramour. Maybe there's a mother who is out to avenge the death of her family, at all costs. Maybe one is just a shameless do-gooder, who needs to learn that good-and-evil is not as simple as he thinks. You can use all of this stuff, as long as you tread carefully around the pragmatists.

    On the electronic side of the house, I think that "Dragon Age: Origins" does a really good job with using choices to heighten the emotional impact of misfortune. I can't say more, without spoilers, but anyone who has played it through to the end probably knows exactly what I mean.

  7. @tess I think you're absolutely right, but the trick is doing it without the players feel like they're just getting screwed over. If the players feel like the GM is cheating (in either presenting them with Hobson's choice or by twisting the outcomes to make them suck) then it can let the air out of a tragedy very quickly, turning it into a social issue.

    Though, man, yeah, Dragon Age nails it.

  8. Your point about Hobson's choices is entirely fair. (Players are pretty savvy about that sort of thing, too.) A pointless choice may be worse than no choice. But it's possible to reward a choice, without necessarily averting tragedy. As well you know, rewarding a choice does not always mean something good happens. :-D

    Every time I watch Hamlet, I always feel this odd urge to write an alternative version, where Fortinbras -- vexed by his Uncle diverting him to Poland -- approaches Hamlet to propose a deal where they collaborate to get rid of Claudius....


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