Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Realism and Challenge

I am back with another contribution to the GM's Roundtable of Doom.

This month's topic comes to us courtesy of Lex Starwalker:

Many of us probably remember the AD&D days when the DM could roll a black dragon on the random encounter table and end a low-level party’s career. The 3rd and 4th editions of the game led some newer players to believe that every encounter should be defeatable and appropriate to their level and capabilities. However, 5th edition has moved away from this structure. 

We see this mirrored in other games as well. At one end of the spectrum is the style and belief that the PCs should be able to overcome any challenge that comes their way, that challenges should be “appropriate”. On the other end of the spectrum is the syle and belief that the world should be realistic, that every fight shouldn’t be able to be won, and that one of the requisite skills of the game is knowing when to fight and when to run.

Where do you, as a GM, fall on this spectrum, and why? Should the PCs always be able to win?

I was reminded of a recent quote from Ken Hite on his excellect podcast:  Ken and Robin Talk about Stuff.

Ken Hite ("More Like Winter Derleth" -- Ken and Robin Talk about Stuff Episode 140)-- "If you are looking for logic in the mouth of  chromatic dragon, you are looking in the wrong place."

My original version of this post revisited themes familiar to those that read this blog.  Communicate with your players.  Understand expectations.  While these are important themes, I have said pretty much all I have to say on these subjects.  Make the game your (plural) own.  The rules are there to facilitate your game.

These thoughts sent me off on a bit of a tangent -- and one that I will pursue instead.  What is the role of failure in an RPG.

Failure by Tinuo Bao (flikr)
One way to read the question is to ask if failure is a realistic option for your players.  More directly, is it ok to include components in your settings that are your players are pretty much guaranteed to fail if they confront them?

One can imagine the probability of failure along a continuum from failure being ever present and likely to rare.  Different RPGs dwell along different points in this continuum.  Call of Cthulhu (CoC) is famous for PCs who fail a lot -- even at the sorts of things their characters are supposed to be good at.  In one story I heard at a con, the players had done just about everything "right" in the adventure but they could not get a success roll to start an airplane to escape their predicament -- so the party all died.  This is just how CoC operates.  In CoC, if players fail to discover a key clue the adventure comes to a halt.  The Trail of Cthulhu (ToC) system is motivated, in part, to solve the problem of characters failing to discover some clue that is essential to the story.  Games on this end of the spectrum create games that focus on human frailty and the necessity of sacrifice.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Cypher System seems to render failure rare.  Players have tools to overcome just about any challenge if they are willing to spend resources.  Rather than successes being rare -- or even 50/50, they are common.  It is failure that is rare.  This approach emulates a pulp heroic storytelling where PCs are larger than life and the universe seems to be rooting for them.

Of course, other games also fall on this continuum.  Original and 1st Edition ADnD were closer to the frustrating side of this continuum.  4th Edition DnD is closer to the pulp tradition.

You can probably guess that I am not going to say that one of these approaches is right.  I am also going to say that one needs to make the choice transparent to the players -- that is the part that I have already talked about.

I want, instead, to talk about some unexpected consequences of one or the other approach.

There is a very real danger that each of these approaches will backfire if you are not careful.  The CoC game of human frailty can devolve into comedy.  If players do not become frustrated with frequent failure, they can instead start to be jaded.  They can detach from the game and see their characters from a distance as they bumble through the story.  The CoC story about the doomed group that could not start the plane was told with a smile.   I have no doubt that my players would be laughing through the experience.  If players fail at what seems like simple tasks or fail too often, the players will just see it as amusing.  This can kill any attempt at a tense horror game.  Instead, you have Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

There are similar risks with failure being uncommon.   Players can start to assume that everything will be easy.  They may lose interest (why bother planning if you are assured a success?) or become quite upset if they actually fail at something.  It can turn an adventure story into a horror story -- without the players buying into or anticipating such a turn.

I am still trying to learn how to calibrate the balance of success and failure.  I want failure to remain a realistic possibility -- but not for simple tasks.  One way around this -- and one reason I like the Cypher System so much -- is to change the game from a focus on probability to a focus on resource management.  Players have resources to invest to overcome bad luck.  Spending these resources keep the activities on the success side -- but there is the risk of running out of resources when they need it down the road.  Similarly, the Gumshoe System (ToC, Night's Black Agents, etc.) use a resource mechanic as an abstraction where the resources meter out who gets the spotlight in the group rather than focusing on the probability of success or failure.

Think about the game you want.  If you want to have players face the limitations of their powers,  do signal that this is the case.  If you want to focus on letting the characters do interesting things and be the center of the worlds in which they reside, play with the continuum of success and failure.  Do make sure, though, that success and failure are present in the game.

You can submit a question for a future roundtable to gamemastersjourney@gmail.com.

See other responses to the questions at

John Clayton -- Files and Records
Evan Franke -- A Sage among His Book
John Marvin -- Dread Unicorn Games
Marc Plourde -- Inspiration Strike
Peter Smits -- Planeatery Express
Lex Starwalker -- Starwalker Studios
Burn Everything Gaming
Allan Kellogg -- Mythus

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