It’s not that kind of game

Is the game part of Role Playing Game ruining RPGs?

Generally, games are meant to be won, from tic-tac-toe to Monopoly, there is a winner at the end. Of course, tic-tac-toe played by two people trying to win can only end in a draw and personally I’ve never finished a game of Monopoly, but I’ve heard that it can be done, though not without hard feelings.

There is a renaissance of board games these days and most of them have the binary nature of win-lose. Of course there are collaborative games that pit the players against the game itself but again,  it’s a win-lose proposition.

Role playing games are not supposed to have winners or losers, it’s about creating a shared narrative. In a perfect world it is. However, we do not live a perfect world. Clearly.

Back when I first started playing Dungeons and Dragons, it was very much an adversarial game. The DM would create elaborate dungeons filled to the brim with deadly monsters and cruel traps and incomprehensible puzzles. There was one DM in particular, lets call him JB, since that was his name. He is not innocent and should not be protected. He delighted in killing players. Sorry, player characters. He was no saint by an astronomically wide margin but he was not a murderer, IRL.

Once, he killed my favorite character, a Lioniod paladin, (it was a homebrew race created by JB) by secretly rolling and telling me that there had been a three percent chance that I would fall off a cliff and die and then took my character sheet, wrote DEAD in red magic marker.

I’m not recounting this because I’m looking for sympathy, although I’ll take it if offered, but as an example of the mindset of that period of tabletop rpgs. Many DMs felt that they had not done their jobs if everyone walked away alive and with all of their magic items at the end of the session.

In spite of that, I still play tabletop role-playing games. A little counter intuitive given what I just outlined but in the end, the good out weighed the bad. Or maybe I’m a glutton for punishment.

This is not the case generally speaking today. Many games encourage game masters to be fans of their players, to challenge them but still root for them. It’s a much better outlook. If the game master is excited when a player does something clever or even just rolls well, then everybody is having a good time. A friend of mine used to say of running games, “You are the shepherd of their fun.”

There is an old joke about someone being asked if they “won” D&D. The stock answer is that “no one really wins or loses. It’s not that kind of game.”

Except it kind of is. Most RPGs are set up with a goal, slay the dragon, defeat the invading aliens, save the city, and so on. There are of course games that don’t stress such stringent victory conditions, but most have an end in mind.

That is an inherent quality to almost all games. I say almost because I’ve not played every game, that would be impossible, I haven’t even played all the games I own, that would also be impossible.

While it is usually a good thing for players to understand the rules and how to use to the their benefit, it may not be to the overall narrative. Most stories have their protagonists win at the end of a movies, books and TV shows. Sometimes with a cost.

But many players are not interested in paying that cost. They will jump through hoops to avoid that bill, using any and all rules or other resources to avoid it. Even the dreaded, “My Character Wouldn’t”. Perhaps the last refuge of the desperate player.

For the purpose of complete transparency, I have done that sort of avoidance. A lot of us have. Mostly because of game masters like the aforementioned JB, we’re all a little like stray dogs, skittish and wary of anything that looks even vaguely suspicious.

These days, I find myself trying to do the interesting thing, a choice that a real character might make, even if it is not the safest path. After all, being safe is often the dullest thing to do. Remember all those exciting movies and TV shows where the heroes defeat their foe without putting themselves remotely in danger? Me either.

The real crux of this is trust. You need to trust that your game master is not there to make things frustrating or unpleasant for you. That does not mean always making things easy. Sometimes, it can mean not “winning”.

I know players hate to not win. It’s frustrating, and can make you feel like that they have wasted their time. But it can up the stakes. A villain who has beaten your heroes gives you extra motivation to continue.

Don’t always make the strategic choice. I know it runs counter to everything you know but give it a shot, it can make things more interesting. Be motivated by your character’s flaws or desires. Fight when it would make more sense to retreat. Take a bullet, or arrow, for a friend. Make an empty handed leap into the void.

As a friend of mine says, “Perfect is the enemy of fun”. If every plan went off perfectly, things would get extremely dull. In trying to recreate genre adventures, don’t forget that mistakes are made, or sometimes you just have bad luck. But that just makes it a more interesting story.

We all know this on a rational level, but the desire to win is baked into us. Try to fight it and have fun. After all, it’s not that kind of game.

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