Keeping the Thrill of Victoryby Walt Ciechanowski
Keeping the Thrill of Victoryby Walt Ciechanowski
By Walt Ciechanowski
Keeping the Thrill of Victory
So here I am, sitting amongst a pile of Super Bowl party fare that will last my wife and I a week and then some. While I'm not particularly an Eagles fan, I do live just outside Philadelphia and there is a definite sadness in the air (as I write this, it is the day after the game). As I drove home from work today, many of the "Go, Eagles!" signs were still up, although I'm quite sure the people who put them up will not have that same enthusiasm as they pull them down. Many of my colleagues at work who were so fired up a couple days ago were dejected and hopeful that "maybe next time..."
Of course, it could easily have gone the other way. The Eagles were within striking distance of winning throughout the entire game. If a single key play had been reversed, the streets outside my door last night would have been alive with cheers and victory dances. The energy would have ripped right through my workplace and we all would have been eagerly awaiting the victory parade through the city tomorrow.
So what does any of this have to do with roleplaying games?
Imagine if a referee stepped out onto the field at the end of the fourth quarter and declared "I'm sorry, but the Eagles were supposed to win this game. Let's take away a touchdown and a field goal from the Patriots and finish out the quarter, okay?"
While that example seems insane, I could rattle off a half-dozen correlations to RPG sessions I've participated in. Just recently, I was part of a D&D session where two party members were mentally coerced to fight the rest of the party. During the battle, one of the "turncoat" players announced that his character took too much damage and would instantly die. The GM looked shocked and asked the player to recalculate. The player confirmed that, by all rights, his PC should be dead. Suddenly, out of nowhere, an NPC pops in, heals enough damage to save the PC, and pops out again.
Here's another example. A few years back, I was running a Witchcraft campaign. The party had stumbled into a secluded town controlled by an ancient coven and made enough of a spectacle amongst themselves that two-thirds of the party ended up locked up (with one slated to be the host for a demon). Thinking fast, I allowed the remaining player to gather enough NPC allies to rescue the party and win the day.
In both examples, the players realized that they had been "saved." In both cases, it sent a message. In the first example, the players learned that no matter how close to death they come, the GM will bail them out when need be. In the second example, I taught my players that I'll iron out any screw-ups they make to ensure that they are able to win the adventure. In both cases a referee trotted out and announced that the game was arbitrarily being played.
I know there are some people who would say "so what? If everyone's having fun, who cares if the GM manipulates events in their favor?" RPGs are almost unique among games (except maybe tee ball) in that everyone is on the same side. The players typically work together to solve the GM's scenario, and the GM wants his players to have a good time. There are no Patriots to be insulted if the game is handed to the Eagles.
Unfortunately, this breeds apathy and sloppy playing. Sure, the players might get a kick out of roleplaying their tails off all night, but don't expect them to be worried about leaping into the middle of a gang war when they know that the worst that could happen is their characters may end up battered and bruised and the plot placed on hold while they regroup (or, in annoying cases, they are knocked out of the fight while the NPCs wade in to finish the fight for them. Trust me, it's happened). Don't expect them to be smart during character advancement either. It's easier to dump one's points into pet projects when one doesn't have to weigh the consequences of using those points to buy up a less desirable but more useful skill.
If you are going to have a game where winning matters, you want to encourage smart play, and you don't want experience to get out of hand, then you have to enforce the rules of the game. Here's a secret: the players want you to enforce the rules, even if they don't realize it. They still hate to lose, but victory simply doesn't taste sweet if the players realize the win was handed to them on a silver platter. Soon they simply won't care what is happening at all.
So, where do you draw the line?
I suggested a few things in my last article, "Keeping Darwin at Bay" to encourage smart play. While I think it's a good start, make sure you follow through. Initially, create adventures that have minor consequences for failure and allow your players to fail. It hurts a lot less if they fail to prevent an art thief from stealing a painting than if they let the serial killer escape to another city. This will help the players figure out where they need to sharpen their skills (both the player's and the character's). Don't hammer them when they lose, either; or risk watching the game degenerate into screwball comedy or losing your players entirely.
This also gives you (the GM) a chance to shed bad habits. If you allow them to fail once, it will be easier the second time. Help the players understand why they failed. I would also point out what you expected them to do. This can go a long way toward building an understanding between the GM and the players as to what constitutes "smart playing."
Once they start succeeding regularly, go ahead and up the stakes. If a bad dice roll causes something unexpected, like a character death or derailment of the adventure, and the players realize it, make sure it stands. Reinforce the fact that this is a game, and that luck plays a role. This will encourage them to do whatever they can to stack the deck in their favor.
I'll end by reiterating a point I made a few paragraphs up. Players want to feel like they've accomplished something when they've won. They don't want to feel like the ending was inevitable. Make sure you don't destroy that illusion for them.