Winning RPGs: You People Made Me Do This

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Every now and again, I am forced to make a last-minute change to my schedule. Well, I say “forced,” but I’m not really forced to do anything. After all, this is my website and I’m in charge. I’m the boss of me. And I say “schedule,” but my schedule is still kind of a vague and nebulous thing. It’s not really a hard and fast plan. It’s more like trying to predict what I’m going to give a s$&% about when the time comes to actually write, revise, or publish a f$&%ing article. And even when most of an article is written days in advance, I still tend to leave some polish and revision for the day before it has to go live. And sometimes, I leave a LOT of polish and revision. It’s just how I work. And while I’m getting better about doing things well in advance of the deadline, I still find that if don’t leave SOMETHING for the last minute, I never get anything done at all.

And that means that when I have an article mostly planned and written, even to the point where I announce it the day before it’s due, I can still have a goddamned last minute rage-induced aneurism and decide that something more important HAS TO be handled. Usually, that comes down to me telling a bunch of commenters from one of my previous articles that they are a bunch of f$&%wits. Or a bunch of Twitterers. Or Redditers. Or all of the above.

So, you don’t get to read about NPCs today. You have to wait. Instead, you get to read about winning in RPGs. And why MOST RPGs can be won. Even the ones that can’t. And why that isn’t just a style choice I make. And why GMs who say “you can’t win at RPGs” are bad at what they do. And why you sure as hell better understand this if you want to run games for anyone other than yourself. And also why Fiasco isn’t an RPG. Yeah, we’re going there. So let’s do it.

Rules, Games, Victory, and Fun

Last week’s article about how the rules are important and only moronic jacka$&es insist they aren’t rustled a lot of jimmies. A lot of people found my website for the first time as a result of that article doing the rounds on Reddit, social media, and other places. And boy did people fly into stupidly apoplectic fits. Because I made a horrible claim. I claimed that MOST people play to win RPGs.

Now, before I go on, let me draw attention to a specific word in there. It’s the one I f$&%ing capitalized and boldfaced: MOST. As in not all. As in it is not a requirement. As in it is not the only way to play RPGs. BUT, it is an expectation of most people. And I’m sure YOU might think you’re the one exception, but, here’s the deal. First of all, you’re not. Dips$&%. You just think you are. And second of all, a single exception does not disprove what I’m saying. The thing you have to understand is that I’m way smarter than you. I know more about MOST people than you do. I can tell because I know most people play RPGs to win and you think they don’t. Of course, if this doesn’t apply to you, ignore it. But I’m probably still smarter than you.

First of all, what is a game? Well, you can vomit forth a bunch of different dictionary definitions for the word. And, if you look hard enough, you can find the one definition you like and then ignore the other ones and say “hah, see, f$&%wit, I’m right.” Yeah, a LOT of a$&holes spewed dictionary definitions at me last week. The problem is I can immediately point to a different dictionary definition, the one that suits what I want to say, and then say I’m right and shut up. Dictionary definitions aren’t a whole lot of good here.

Instead, they key to really understanding what a word means is to figure out what MOST people when you use that word. Yeah, that doesn’t work 100% of the time, but it does work MOST of the time. And when you do encounter someone with odd or different or unusual expectations, you have to have a discussion. And in that discussion, it’s useless to discuss dictionary definitions anyway. Why? Because using different words doesn’t negate different points.

So, here’s the deal: I’m going to explain what a game is to MOST people. You might or might not share that definition. And I don’t f$&%ing care. Because whether you like the definition or not is irrelevant. The rest of everything I say in this article is STILL GOING TO BE IMPORTANT. That is, even if you don’t agree with the basic definition I’m working on for a game, you’re still going to decide whether all of my other points are valid or not on their own merits. That’s called an INTELLECTUAL F$%&ING DISCUSSION.

Can you tell I had more than a few NON-INTELLECTUAL F$&%ING DISCUSSIONS with a bunch of irate, semantic f$&%wits. Yeah. It’s been a fun f$&%ing week.

Invite any random person to play a game with you, and what will that person expect? Well, they will expect that you and they and maybe some other people will be engaging in some kind of activity. The idea that the activity is intrinsically fun or satisfying is assumed, even if there is a prize of some kind. A game is a diversion. A pastime. A distraction. Something done for its own sake. Not something generally done for a profit. And hell, that’s why we distinguish between game and work. And while, yes, there are some games that do involve a profit (gambling) and some people play games to earn a living (professional sports), those are the exceptions. People generally assume that you’re going to be doing something inherently satisfying or engaging as an activity.

Fine and dandy. But that’s not the end of it, is it? There’s lots of things we can do for fun that we don’t consider games. We can watch a movie. We can ingest illegal substances. But don’t ever do that. We can go for a bike ride. Those are activities, but they aren’t games.

A game is more than just an activity done for fun. Most people expect that a game has rules or a process. There’s something specific that defines how the activity is to be done. Even games that seem like they don’t have rules have rules. I mean, technically Calvinball has rules. Whatever rules you invent are the rules, right? Well, that’s technically a rule. But it’s also telling that what makes Calvinball such a funny idea is that it subverts our expectations about games. The fact that a game that doesn’t have any rules is a hilarious joke tells us something about the definition of a game.

We also expect that a game will have some kind of variable outcome and we can’t predict what it will be. Instead, the outcome will be shaped by some combination of physical or mental skill and random chance. This varies from game to game. Chess has no random chance to speak of. It’s all skill. Candyland has no skill to speak of. It’s all random chance. So, the balance of random chance to skill varies from game to game. But the inability to predict the outcome is key.

Implicit in the idea of unpredictable outcome is the idea that there are multiple possible outcomes and that some are more desirable than others. This is where all games become competitive. Yes. All games are competitive. Even the cooperative games. In a competitive game, the players are struggling against each other for a victory which only one (or a few) can achieve. In a cooperative game, the players struggle against some kind of system for a victory that one, some, or all can ultimately enjoy. Competitive games pit player against player. Cooperative games pit players against the system.

Those are only the simplest, of course. And we’ll get to more complicated types like team games and hybrid games in a moment.

These are the things people EXPECT when you say game: an activity that is somehow satisfying in and of itself, regardless of extrinsic rewards, constrained by rules and mechanics, with a goal. If you don’t like that definition, fine. I don’t really give a s$&%. Definitions are actually kind of meaningless if no one understands you. I mean, I can describe some of my commentators as ultracrepidarians, but that won’t do me any good in an argument unless they actually know what that word means.

Why is a Goal Important?

Now, I already talked about all the reasons the rules have to exist in RPGs. Hell, that’s what started this fight. But why is it important to have a goal in a game? Is it important to have a goal in a game?

In a word: yes. Yes, it is important to have a goal in a game. A goal does a couple of things. Most importantly, a goal lends context to the decisions the players make in the game. See, part of playing a game is to take actions or make decisions according to the rules. But those actions and decisions are meaningless without a purpose, without a direction. Imagine trying to play chess without knowing that you were supposed to capture the king. It’s just a series of complicated rules about moving little statues.

And hell, the idea of a goal is so ingrained in games that, if you were playing chess and didn’t know the end goal was to capture the king, you would spend half the game trying to figure out what you were supposed to do. You might guess that capturing all of the opponent’s pieces were the goal. What you would not guess is that the point is just to have fun moving statues around according to obscure rules.

But the goal is also what lends tension and excitement to the game experience. Honestly, without knowing the goal, the idea that the outcome is unpredictable would be meaningless. Sure, you might be curious to see where the game is going, but even when we’re the passive audience, it’s the existence of a goal that engages us from scene to scene. That’s why MOST movies make it clear pretty early on what the protagonists want or what victory will look like or whatever. Curiosity only drives our emotional investment on a shallow level. To get deeply involved, we need to be invested in an outcome. In movies, we get invested in the outcome because we care about the characters and want them to succeed. In a game, we get invested in the outcome because we care about ourselves and want ourselves to succeed.

Is Fun Ever the Goal?

Now, I’ve heard a lot of people say things like “the only goal of an RPG is to have fun” and “you win if everyone has fun.” S$&% like that. And with all due respect, those sentences are horses$&%. Oh, wait, I mean with NO due respect. No respect is due that sentiment. Because it’s meaningless nonsense.

Yes, we do play games for fun. Or at least, we play them for some kind of emotional payoff. In fact, I’ve written all about the eight different reasons people play games. What we call “enjoyment” or “satisfaction” comes in a lot of different flavors for a lot of different people. And we seek out games that scratch those particular mental itches. Some people, when they play games, don’t seem to be having fun at all. They are working their hardest and getting frustrated and struggling. But when they win, that’s just about the best feeling in the world. That’s FUN for that person. But it might not be fun for you.

Fun is a feeling we get as a result of playing a game that tickles the right brain parts in us. But that comes as a result of our interaction with the game. It’s outside the game. A goal is a part of a game. It’s what makes the game a game. In fact, it’s part of what makes the game fun for MOST people. Many of the forms of engagement require either the context and direction provided by a goal OR the tension that arises from an uncertain outcome OR both.

A Game of Many Goals

Now, let’s start to drill down into some of the complexities of goals. By the way, accomplishing goals is how you win. But goals can be very complicated things. There can be many different goals in play in complex games. And different players can be working toward different goals. And different players may feel differently about the importance of goals.

Take that last part, for example. Players who play primarily for challenge put a lot of importance on achieving the game’s goals. Victory is the most fun part of the game. It’s the part that tickles their brain. Players who play for submission, on the other hand, don’t care so much about accomplishing goals. It’s the mindless working at a task that engages their brain. The goal exists to facilitate their losing themselves to a task. Narrative seekers need the goal because it gives impetus to the story they are trying to experience and provides the structure around which the story hangs. Fellowship players can take or leave a goal, but a cooperative goal makes them feel like part of a team. Fantasy players use the goals to drive their character’s actions so they can lose themselves in the role with some kind of context. When you get down to it, the only players that really AREN’T helped by goals are sense pleasure seekers and expression seekers.

The thing is, though, is that no one is purely one type of player or another. People tend to have elements of several different types of player. And people do tend to focus on different things over time. The expressive parts of my brain don’t care about the goal, but the fantasy part of my brain needs a goal to put my character’s desires in context. See?

Moreover, any given goal can speak directly to one or more of the engagement types. A goal like “slay the princess and save the kingdom” speaks directly to challenge and narrative seekers. A goal like “kill a hundred dire rats” is for submission seekers. A goal like “explore the sewers” is really appealing to a discovery seeker. But just because a goal speaks most directly to one type of engagement doesn’t mean it negates others. Engagements are almost never a zero-sum game.

Now, what makes role-playing games big and complicated is that there can be many different goals in play. And that the participants involved can define their own goals.

First of all, in MOST role-playing game adventures and campaigns, there are two goals that get handed down to the players. One is to survive. Now, different games might define survival differently. In Call of Cthulhu, for example, an insane character is a dead character. Survival just means that the character remains a playable part of the story. Hell, I’ve run games about corruption wherein, if you turned evil, I took your character away forever because evil characters weren’t allowed. Then, I started providing lots of temptations and slippery slopes for the players to slip into evil.

The second goal that gets handed down to the players is defined by the game itself. Usually, it’s in the form of a mission or adventure goal. Rescue the dragon, slay the princess, investigate the murder, explore the dungeon, whatever. It may be written by the GM, it might come from a published module, it might be a campaign length goal, or it might be a sub goal on the path to a larger goal.

Hell, it doesn’t even HAVE TO be handed down to the players. The players can choose their own game goals. They might agree on a goal as a group (let’s conquer this city and rule it as tyrants) or they might choose the goal as a step toward a larger goal (if we can find a magical sword, we can defeat the lich).

See, a role-playing game is a complicated beast even if we just consider adventure and campaign goals. Because they tend to come and go and they can change. Lots of campaigns do have some sort of final goal, but many RPG campaigns play out as a series of games with the same characters, with a new goal for every adventure.

But role-playing games add a further layer of complexity because they allow for players to bring their own goals to mix too. Characters can have personal goals for their characters as well. Find my father’s killer. Reclaim my throne. Buy an airship. Become the most powerful champion in the world. Become a god. Become a lich. Become a lich-god. And, in an RPG, those goals become as much a part of the game as any other.

And that’s because even when goals are universal, victory is personal.

A Tale of a Game with No Challenge

Let’s talk about Kirby. Not the comic book artist. Not the lawyer. We’re talking about the video game character. Kirby is a small, pink sphere with an insatiable appetite. He got his start as the main character in a series of platforming adventure games on the Nintendo Game Boy, Nintendo Entertainment System, and then the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Then he got in the tournament fighting circuit and things got weird.

Now, Kirby games are not, what you would call, terribly difficult games to play and win. But then, they were intended for kids. However, when Kirby’s Epic Yarn came out for one of the consoles named after bodily functions like the Wee or the Poo or something, even the Kirby fans got a little upset. See, in that game, Kirby can’t die. As you explore levels, you pick up money. If you get hurt by a monster, you drop all of your money. But if you have no money, you just get stunned for a second and then you can continue. There is absolutely no question that, given enough persistence, you absolutely WILL beat every level and defeat every monster.

But here’s the thing: Kirby’s goal in the game is not to get to the end of every level and defeat every monster. For inexplicable reasons, Kirby is actually trying to build a really nice dormitory for all of his friends. He needs money to buy the best furniture and expand his building and make all the Kirby critters happy. When you get hurt, you drop all of your money.

See, Kirby’s Epic Yarn presents two different goals: defeat the levels AND build the best apartment complex ever. One is pretty easy to accomplish. One is much tougher. And you, the player, have to decide which one you have to care about and how much.

Whatever mix of goals are going on at the table currently in an RPG, it is up to individual players to decide which goals are the most important and how much victory matters to them. But that’s NOT unique to RPGs. ALL GAMES allow that. Kirby’s Epic Yarn is built for that. But the video game community is filled with self-imposed challenges and variable goals. Completionists aren’t content with merely accomplishing the core goals of a game. They need to find everything. Speedrunners have to play games fast. Hell, some players don’t even care about finishing games. And some players invent whole piles of complicated self-imposed goals. Like the Pokemon Nuzlocke challenge or the Reverse Boss Run of Super Metroid.

Goals are universal. Games have goals. And that means a game is something you can win and you can lose. But victory is personal. You, the individual player, decides how important victory is in terms of your enjoyment of the game. And you decide what constitutes victory.

The Not Being an A&%hole Thing

Now, all of that being said, it’s important for individual players to remember that they are not alone at the table and that the goals of the game are there to serve everyone in a different capacity. The challenge seeker needs to do his damndest to win the adventure to have fun and the fellowship seeker wants the team to succeed together. So, even if the adventure goal isn’t particularly important to you because you’re just there for creative expression, you owe it to the table – as part of the team – to work toward the adventure goal. Otherwise, you’re literally in the way of other people’s fun when they aren’t in the way of yours. Likewise, your personal goals can’t f$&% with other people’s. Otherwise, same issue.

Generally speaking, this is why role-playing games are considered cooperative, even when the players can have all sorts of personal goals. And, in fact, this is why MOST role-playing game adventures and campaigns even have a built-in goal. Because, while some players are quite happy to create their own goals and a very small number are happy to ignore goals completely, lots of players EXPECT goals but DON’T WANT TO create their own. That is, they expect a game to happen.

Advanced Study: Call of Cthulhu and the Unwinnable Game

Okay, at this point, I got most of the important crap out of the way. RPGs are winnable. MOST people expect them to be. Goals are important to drive player decisions and actions AND to serve the various forms of emotional engagement that different players bring. If you got this far, you can go now. Oh, and remember this word: tubalcain. Because, here’s the deal: I got into a lot of discussions with people over the last week who only read my headline and first paragraph and then wanted to tell me why I’m wrong. And a lot of commenters. So, here’s the deal, if you want to leave a comment or send me an e-mail or discuss this with me, you MUST give the password: tubalcain. That means you read this far. Put the word in your comment or e-mail or discussion. If you don’t, I’m deleting the comment and/or ignoring the conversation. And don’t tell ANYONE about this. If you read this far, being allowed to discuss the ideas in here are your reward. Tubalcain. Got it? Good.

Now, let’s talk quickly about Call of Cthulhu.

Someone pointed out that CoC is designed to be unwinnable. If you’re not familiar with it, Call of Cthulhu is a horror game in which the heroes are investigating the activities of powerful extraplanetary and extradimensional entities that are incomprehensible and invincible. It is inevitable that the heroes will eventually lose. Their investigations WILL drive them mad or WILL kill them.

In that respect, the game is, for practical purposes, unwinnable.

But this goes back to the difference between goals and victory. The game provides a goal. There is a point to the investigations. And the players and their characters are trying their damndest to get there, even though they know (or eventually figure out) that they probably can’t succeed. And even if they do succeed this time, the next goal will probably kill them. Or the next.

Does that mean it is unwinnable? Or that it doesn’t have a goal? Does that mean it doesn’t count as a game? Not hardly. In fact, it’s kind of the opposite side of the whole Kirby scenario. It’s a game that is so hard that it’s almost impossible to accomplish the in-game goals. The players in Call of Cthulhu GENERALLY play CoC primarily to see how far they can get, how close to victory they can get, and then, when they lose, they make more characters and play another game to see if they can do better. Now, just like any other RPG, there are lots of different ways players might engage with Call of Cthulhu and for different reasons. But the goal still provides context and tension. It’s just that the tension comes not from winning, but seeing how far short of the finish line you fall.

Advanced Study: Fiasco

Now, a few people also brought up Fiasco in the comments and on Reddit. And I think there’s some really interesting fodder for discussion in there.

Fiasco is an indie game designed by Jason Morningstar and published in 2009 by Bully Pulpit Games. And it received a lot of attention from the sort of people who get all excited over terms like “story-driven” and “narrative-focused” and “collaborative storytelling” and “no game master.” The same pompous elitists who get worked up about that Bulls$&% GNS thing.

Basically, Fiasco is a game about telling a wacky heist or caper story. Using dice, the players establish relationships with each other and other plot elements. Then, the players take turns acting out various scenes. It works like this. The player whose turn it is gets to decide whether they control the scene or the resolution. If they control the scene, they get to describe a scene in the story, explaining where it is and what is happening and what the conflict is. Once the player has established the scene, the rest of the group will decide whether that player gets a good outcome or bad one. And then the player has to describe what that outcome actually is and how it plays out. Alternatively, the player can choose to control the resolution. Then, the rest of the players get to choose all of the elements of the scene and the player controlling the resolution gets to choose either a good outcome or bad outcome and describe it.

After everyone goes around twice and a few other events have happened, everyone gets to roll the dice they’ve gathered and that determines whether the characters succeed, fail, or die. And then everyone gets to play out the ending that leads to the various successes, failures, and deaths.

Now, Fiasco is a neat game. It has some cool mechanics. It’s well put together. And it’s interesting. But I don’t personally enjoy it. It’s not for me. But none of that has anything to do with what I’m about to say.

Fiasco is not a role-playing game. Lots of people describe it as a role-playing game. But those people are wrong.

Now, before you flip the f$&% out and lose your goddamned mind, keep this in mind: I’m not saying it’s a bad game. I’m not saying it isn’t fun or well-designed or interesting. But, for a very specific reason I’m about to explain, I don’t judge it by the same standards as I judge role-playing games. And I’m not allowed. You might notice that neither the creator nor the publisher describe Fiasco as a role-playing game. In fact, on Fiasco’s page on Bully Pulpit’s website, it is described as “a GM-less game.” Never once does the phrase “role-playing” come into it.

And there’s a very important reason for that: asynchronous goals.

See, in an RPG, the player is trying to make the decisions that the character would make in a given scene. “Confronted with this obstacle and knowing this is your goal, what does your character do.” In essence, in any RPG, the character is an avatar for the player. In point of fact, that’s central to the idea of “playing a role.” You’re trying to adopt a persona, project yourself into the mind of a fictional character, and lead them to success. When the character has goals, you, the player, share those goals. You want your character to succeed. And that’s important, because those motives help guide your choices. Now, personality plays a part too. If you’re playing a drug addict, you might make a choice to ignore or endanger your goals in order to score a hit of drugs (or whatever the kids say). But you make that choice by thinking like your character. In fact, a drug addict’s goals are to get and ingest drugs. So you are living by a goal.

In Fiasco, the players have a lot of narrative control. They don’t just make the choices that their characters would make. In fact, they often don’t make in-character choices at all. A players are controlling scenes and resolutions, they are building conflicts and then telling stories about how those conflicts get resolved. And those stories aren’t entirely about character choices.

For example, in D&D, you might come upon a powerful ogre in a room. And you can decide to fight it, to run away, to sneak past it, or to trick it. In Fiasco, instead, the choice you made was to put the ogre in the room in your way in the first place. Then, a resolution is dictated to you and you have to explain what circumstances, including your character’s choices, led to that outcome. In point of fact, your character’s choices don’t even have to be a part of the outcome.

Fiasco is about a bigger picture, it’s about playing a story, not a character. You’re, in fact, playing a different game than your character. You’re not trying to get into the character’s head, you’re trying to be an author or a filmmaker. It’s a game about telling a story, not a game about being a character.

Now, again, that doesn’t make it bad or wrong or stupid or horrible. I can’t say that enough. There is nothing about what I’m saying that makes Fiasco BAD. But I would never, ever use it as an example of an RPG because the core engagement is so different. It’s not a game about personal decisions and consequences on a character level, it’s a game about telling an engaging level on a narrative level. Which is why the mechanics are also so abstract. The mechanics aren’t about actually resolving the outcomes of scenes based on the actions the characters take. Instead, the mechanics are about strategically telling an entertaining story.

In an RPG, you, the player can only choose what your character does. In Fiasco, you, the player, control the character’s circumstances or their fate.

Now, remember the password and have fun fighting with me on this one.

Class dismissed.

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92 thoughts on “Winning RPGs: You People Made Me Do This

  1. Good Article, however, needs more biblical Hebrews, like tubalcain.

    I agree with your analysis of Fiasco, but I find the terminology frustrating. Clearly, Fiasco is a game, and it has role playing in it. I absolutely do make character level decisions when I play Fiasco, in addition to the story level decisions. So it seems like it ought to be a roleplaying game. It is clearly distinct from the traditional style, and I think we need better terminology to define this, but I think the idea that “Roleplaying Game” has to mean “Roleplaying Game in the style of Dungeons and Dragons where all decisions are made at the character level.” is awkward.

    I think there’s a fundamental issue though – I agree that games have goals. However, I disagree that completing a goal is the same as “winning”. In World of Warcraft, someone might give you a goal of “Kill 50 rats”. But if you kill 50 rats, you haven’t won, you’ve just completed a goal. In Tetris, blocks fall from the sky forever until you lose. The goal is “avoid losing as long as possible” but you CAN’T win. In an RPG, you might overthrow your brother, the Duke… but that doesn’t mean you win. It just means you have completed a goal.

    Fundamentally, I think “winning” implies that the game is over. Because otherwise, the outcome could still change. You cannot win a game that doesn’t end. Or that has an indeterminate ending point and no real way of judging victory. If in an RPG, if you save the Kingdom (you WIN!) but die an ignominious death on your way to the next kingdom, before you even have a goal other than “get to the next Kingdom to find something to do.” have you won, because you saved the kingdom? (You fulfilled your goal!) or lost because you died? And if you didn’t win, then obviously, saving the kingdom wasn’t actually a win state, and the only win state is “not losing” – which brings us to Tetris. You can’t win. This is I think where you failed to go with your Call of Cthulu analysis.

    So I think that I have to reject your point that people play RPGs to “win” or that you can “win” an RPG. People play RPGs to fulfill goals, and that is absolutely a thing that they can do in RPGs – Call of Cthulu or otherwise.

    So many games can’t be won, because they don’t really have fixed end points. They can only be “not lost” for as long as possible. Now this obviously isn’t true of all games – games with fixed endpoints, where the kingdom is either saved or it isn’t, or where your ninja has the Scroll of the Ancients and all the others are dead, these games can be won. But I don’t think that’s particularly representative of RPG play as a whole.

    • Is a campaign of an RPG one game or many. I mean, an RPG itself isn’t even a game. It’s a system for running and playing games. The games are the specific adventures and campaigns you run. I mean, you can win a baseball but lose a season. And there will be another season next year. And the year after. We don’t say “well, you can’t win baseball because there’s no fixed endpoint.” The Yankees don’t really WIN baseball until they have that final win and there is no more baseball. For a less sporty example, we can talk about games like Risk: Legacy or Pandemic: Legacy. Where do the games end? They go on forever, each one remember the previous one and building on it.

      Ultimately, the problem is that people think of D&D and Pathfinder and Call of Cthulhu as a game. They are not. They are game consoles. The adventures are the games. Episodic games that can be tied together into franchises or seasons or whatever else.

      • Great point on D&D being a game console rather than a game, that really spells the whole thing out. “Dungeons and Dragons” doesn’t have a goal, but “Temple of Tubalcain” and “Hoard of the Dragon Queen” absolutely have goals, no question.

        I think stuff like Fiasco should be called “Storytelling Games”. It’s got some common DNA with roleplaying games, but it’s a different thing.

      • Would you say that you win Call of Cthulhu if the characters find out cool things about a cosmic-horror mystery and then die in a spectacularly horrible fashion (which entails keeping your characters alive long enough for the end to be suitably cool)? I’ve never played CoC, but based on what I’ve read about it, that’s basically what I would be expecting to get out of it.

        (Of course, there’s that famous story about the guy who “won” Call of Cthulhu — Old Man Tubalcain? no, Old Man Henderson, that was it. But he’s kind of the Sir Bearington of CoC anyway.)

        The Lovecraftian co-op board games, like Elder Sign and Arkham Horror, have more traditional win conditions (you make it so that Cthulhu or whoever doesn’t wake up and destroy the world); something tells me that wouldn’t be a satisfying end to a game of CoC.

        • I think it’s not as bad as in “Tubalcain’s Legacy” where everybody’s bound to die. Take “Trail of Cthulhu” – most scenarios have clear winning conditions. Your characters might still not live past the final reveal, but living till the final reveal and going mad is the goal – to have had the full Lovecraft experience, getting yourself ever deeper into the mess, and then staring Tubalcain right into the tentacled belly-button and going barking mad.

          If you consider the fact that campaign advice for ToC and CoC often simply assumes that when your character dies a butler, friend, relative, former lover, or fellow book club member picks up the reins because of their ties to the recently deceased/institutionalized PC, it becomes a lot like a video game where you can spend multiple lives to reach whatever the campaign goal is.

          The major goal is to cheat death and madness until the reveal in purist games and in more pulpy games survivability of characters is actually not that bad. “Tubailcain’s Legacy” withstanding, that is.

    • While I agree with the quest line thinking and tubalcain reference, I think there is a better analogy.

      RPGs are like a season of sports games. Individual goals and in-game ‘quests’ or plot lines are a lot like individual games, leading up to the championship. Making it to the championship (or failing to do so) can be interesting whether or not you win or lose.

    • Funny you should bring him up, I was just reading about Tubalcain this morning. Weird.

      Anyway, I respectfully disagree with you semantics in two respects, but I do understand where you’re coming from in both. First off, I don’t think we need to stretch the meaning of RPG any more than it’s already been stretched. I prefer ‘story telling game’s for things like Fiasco and Rory’s Cubes. It fits better, and they really are a different sort of game, at least in my mind.

      The second point I disagree on is that winning implies that you stop playing, except I sort of agree, too. I think of an RPG session as a series of games, like a tournament, or a baseball series. Angry calls them scenes. In a tournament, you play another game after the last one finishes, on and on until you get disqualified or the tournament ends, and anybody who isn’t disqualified won the tournament. But other people won during the tournament, right? So I suppose it might be more precise to say that you can win while playing D&D, whether or not you can win D&D depends on the structure of play.

    • I’d like to say we could refer to Fiasco and the like as “storytelling games”, but White Wolf already uses that for their World of Darkness RPGs about playing the werewolves and the vampires who are all descended from Tubalcain.

  2. Lol, did I spark this reaction or were others on Reddit making the same arguments about CoC and Fiasco? tubalcain. I do agree that games have goals, and I think your writing about approaching scenes with NPCs and the game in general with a goal in mind is very good advice. Something that seems so simple but so many forget.

    In early RPG intros you’ll often see them say that you can’t ‘win’ at D&D, etc. Now this isn’t technically correct but as you say I think they were trying to head off the misunderstanding of goals and the power gamers who thought that any game was about them ‘winning’ over the other players and DM. They were trying to get people out of the mindset bred by the video games of that period. It is that attitude I think people are trying to address when they say you ‘can’t win’ an RPG. Today with the popularity of co-op board and card games more people are likely to get the nature of an RPG right out of the gate.

    I think I agree with Mike P. that parsing what is and isn’t an ‘RPG’ never seems a fruitful exercise and often becomes just an act of retroactive defintion. Like the endless debates in video games about what is and isn’t a ‘game.’ The way one relates to one’s role in Fiasco is different than in other games but that doesn’t convince me it is an entirely different genus than RPG but since so many care so deeply about their particular defintion of an RPG we can call it a ‘storygame’ or whatever and leave it there.

    • No. Those “debates” aren’t built from an intellectual framework. They are made to fling around insults, generally. “Play a real game!” That kind of crap.

      There are many reasons to discuss where we draw lines of genre and how far we move before we invent new genres. A common language is absolutely vital for intelligent and critical analysis, which leads to academic discussion, which leads to improved games. Genres work as a marketing shorthand. They help people find games they like and sell people to interested parties. Referring to those sorts of narrative experiences as “story games” for example, makes it easy for fans of those sorts of games to find the games they like and fans of traditional role-playing games ignore games they might not like. And they also help the audience approach the game. Genre familiarity is extremely valuable for creators because it means you can assume certain things about your audience and a certain level of buy-in. It also prevents you from expecting other types of buy-in that fans might not be willing to give. And genres also tend to come with their own restraints and core assumptions. Thus designers who set out to make something within a specific genre tend to build preconceived notions into their game which they might otherwise be able to break out of. I’m pretty sure, for example, the creator of Fiasco DID NOT set out to make a role-playing game. In fact, he might have purposely said “I need a different experience from what role-playing games offer.” An accurate genre convention ALLOWS a creator to break the mold and explore in ways they might not otherwise consciously do.

      Role-playing gamers are constantly speaking past each precisely because no one gives a s$&% about building a good language for game design and everytime someone comes along and tries, some other dumba$$es come in and say “this is useless debate and a retroactive definition.” Look, once upon a time, science-fiction and science-fantasy were one genre. Hell, once, science-fiction and fantasy were one genre. But as time went on, we realized that the the different engagements being offered were too broad for one genre anymore and those genres weren’t communication anything useful. Now, savvy people differentiate.

      Every time someone pushes the boundaries of a genre, it is useful to discuss whether it is better for everyone – creators, audience, and academics – to expand the definition of the genre or admit something new has happened.

      • That seems fair enough. tubalcain. As you say I think it is the ‘it’s not a game so it is crap!’ rhetoric that makes defintions difficult where they shouldn’t be. When a defintion is used to disparage something new or merely different is where I think people get their hackles up amd everything declines into debates on semantics rather than more productive discussion.

        PS. I think much of the negative reaction could have come from the simple questioning of anything that Saint Gygax may or may not have said. There are still a depressing number of people who treat Gygax as an unquestionable authority, despite disasters of design like the 1e grappling rules or Cyborg Commando.

      • What you described kept me from playing a game I wouldn’t have liked, Monster Hearts. “High School Drama with Lots of Sex” turned me off immediately. I’m OK with HS Drama I don’t have to live, but don’t care for the sexual aspects.

        If it hadn’t been for that branding, I might have had to sit through or walk out of a very uncomfortable game for me if my friends had wanted to try it.

        Tubalcain.

      • Tubalcain, I agree with the idea that games like D&D and games like Fiasco are different genres of game, and that the creators and fans would be better served by differentiating between the two within our common language. However, I would argue that a common language does exist to a certain extent. We just (unfortunately) use some terms to refer to multiple things. The reason that the claim that games like Fiasco aren’t RPGs or shouldn’t be called RPGs is that many people who read that are not thinking of roleplaying as a genre of game in the same way that scifi is a genre of novel. Instead, they are often thinking of RPG as the medium and are attempting to use the stupid GSN model to describe different genres within that medium. So, to many people, “Fiasco is not an RPG” sounds less like “Dune is not fantasy” and more like “Dune is not a novel.” In order for the goal of refining our common language so as to differentiate between “games in which you play the role of a character to accomplish goals” and “games in which you direct the actions of a character to formulate a narrative” to be successful, it is first necessary to establish RPG as the name for a genre of games, not the name for a medium which encompasses many genres.

  3. I played in a Pathfinder game once when one of the players decided they were not going to help us other PCs assault the Lich Tower, but he was going to find the nearest-by stream and go fishing. Maybe he thought he was “winning” by not doing what was expected, but it was super annoying to the rest of us. He’s OK as a GM, but he can be a bit difficult to play with.

    It’s a hiss-and-a-byword cautionary tale for our group. We use that standard to determine if our characters work with the group or not.

    Tubalcain.

    • O mighty Tub’al’ca’in, help!

      That is not a player, that’s a saboteur. I had this kind of player, and on a bad day he just waited for his first chance to fuck the group up. And as we got tired of his shit, there were more of these days. We tried to play a rather loose and chaotic Basic D&D, and he was just hogging the attention and trying to make everybody groan over his latest decision…

      Absolutely incompatible goals. Last time I will tolerate such a player.

  4. Stupid f$&%wits! I’ve been counting down the days for the second half of the NPC Villain article, tubalcain, and y’all had to go and f$&% it up and make me wait even longer… How do you expect me to keep my main villain alive huh!? Especially now that my murderous players have caught his scent…

    Oh well, other than the additional week of waiting – great article.

    • Yeah, I’ve been waiting for the second half of the tubalcain as well”. I was surprised and co fused when the patreon said one thing and then another.

  5. Is the GM in an RPG playing an RPG? It seems to me that a player’s role in fiasco has a lot of overlap with a GM’s role. They concern themselves with structure, conflict, and resolution. They may determine how each NPC acts, and they may do so taking the NPC’s own goals into account, or that NPC’s place in the scenario (as an ally, obstacle, etc) or in some combination. Is tubalcain right to advertise Fiasco as GM-less? Or is is every player in Fiasco a GM?

    • Tubulcain, I’ve got to agree with this take. Because a GM is a playing the game as well (this is also why I think the terminology for “referee” has fallen out and “dungeon” or “game master” has become part and parcel of RPG parlance). You aren’t just a neutral interpreter of rules, you’re playing out NPCs and developing story (AN ARTICLE WHICH I WAS LOOKING FORWARD TO YOU IDIOTS ON REDDIT).

      Now there is a difference, but let’s take another game Angry hates – FATE. In FATE, you can use your FATE points as a player to reshape the world around you, change decisionmaking, add stuff and events and the like. Is FATE suddenly not a RPG, despite the fact that it generally functions the same as other RPGs in the rules, having a game master, resolution of shared tasks, all the other tasks Angry uses to distinguish it? I don’t think it does, and that calls into question the conclusion at the bottom. It’s a slippery slope, which is why I don’t think this argument resolves the point Angry is trying to make.

      That being said, Angry is perfectly within his right to not like Fiasco! I personally love it, and I also love running D&D games, and playing FATE, and don’t think we need to pick and choose winners and losers here, but THIS IDIOTIC DISCUSSION SOMEHOW KNOCKED OUT THE VILLAINS ARTICLE I WAS LOOKING FORWARD TO SO HERE WE ARE

      • Regardless of what the Lubecaine said, FATE still sticks to the bottom argument’s points: You may be using points to control the story outside of what your character could from within the world, but you’re still deciding as the character.

        The moment you as a player spend points is the moment the character thinks “I’d be _really_ lucky to get this right, now, please!”. The way I see it, you’re still playing as the character, you just have more control of your world as a regular person would have.

        Which doesn’t make it a _better_ game for Angry’s tastes, but that’s not the point.

        NOW LET ANGRY KEEP HIS SCHEDULE, REDDAMNIT.

    • I would argue that that the GM isn’t “playing”. That’s why he, and Tubalcain, are both distinct from “players” i.e. the ones playing the game. The GM is running the game, adjudicating the game, and possibly designing the game. Not playing it.

      In much the same way, a referee isn’t “playing” football (I’m British, so I mean “real” football, where your feet are used to kick a ball that is ball-shaped). Nor are the guys who make the rules. (Which is not to say, of course, that those people never played the game; simply that their roles as referee or rules-makers is separate from the roles of the players.)

    • Perhaps a GM isn’t playing an RPG, but running an RPG; after all, the GM stands in contradistinction to the PCs (which I suppose means “GMPC” is actually a misnomer. It’s a GMC). I always thought the first edition term “referee” was helpful in a lot of respects, and here it’s also applicable. Eddie Tubalcain may referee many NFL games, thus participating in them, but I don’t think anyone would argue he is himself an NFL player.

      • I have to wholeheartedly disagree with tubalcain. Angry constantly advocates for the GM as role-player, and I agree. The difference is that the GM must roleplay everything and everyone but the characters. She is also making narrative decisions, refereeing, and conflict managing, but roleplay is still central when you get into any kind of interaction with the characters. That’s crucial.

        • Yes. Or at least, when I DM I very much consider myself to still be “playing D&D”. I’m in a different role to the players (many roles, in fact) but it’s still a game and I’m still playing it, or my name’s not Jonathon R. Tubalcain III (it’s not, but I stand by my point regardless).

          Actually, one of my main RPG message board bugbears is the annoying uptight martyr-complex guy who’s all like “I’m not there to have fun, I’m there to facilitate the fun of others, it’s not a game for me, it’s work goddammit, but someone has to do it and I shoulder the responsibility willingly because when I see the smiles on their little faces it’s all worth it!” It’s an RPG, not a f—ing orphanage, you tool.

          Sorry, got a little carried away there. That last part wasn’t directed at anyone present – just thought it was worth pointing out.

    • Of course the GM is playing a RPG! It’s just as Tubalcain H. said in his “Theory of Games”: a GM roleplays the world, or at least he should if he is trying to do a proper job.

      After all, we design monsters and opponents and traps and natural disasters, and all of that has an goal or intention. If SOME GMs acts as if they where only a ruleset and a bunch of statistics, well, it’s they that aren’t doing a proper job.

      The same way, I could play chess giving names and dreams to each of my pieces and thinking about their goals before moving, but that doesn’t make a RPG out of chess.

      Now, I haven’t played Fiasco and I don’t know the rules, but maybe we should look at the way the game is intended to be played. I seems to me that “roleplay” isn’t built in the Fiasco rules (again, I may be wrong on this, I don’t know them). It is primarily about telling a good story. A RPG, on the other side, implies on its rules, not just on the name, that you achieve your objectives by playing a role, and the rules are built with that in mind.

      FATE is a bit trickier, and is also another system I don’t know. But based on what @clawforce said, I would call it mostly a RPG where the player has a bigger portion of control of certain things. He is still roleplaying, not just building a story.

      Now, back to the GM thing. He is playing a game. Just, not the same one as the PC’s. He has other goals overall, or other ways to play (I want my players goals to succeed as much as them, but my primary goal is to make sure it is going to be hard for them to accomplish theirs). We often have other engagements with the game then a player would have. But yeah, we are players also.
      (I believe Angry talked a little about that in a recent article. I just can’t remember which one.)
      The GM role is not to be a storyteller, or at least, not only that. And certainly that isn’t the main function either, or at least, It doesn’t look like that to me.

  6. I don’t have any insight to add to the conversation because I totally agree with Angry on this one, but I just wanted to say I greatly appreciate these articles still. They make think and stretch me. I’m getting settled in to the east coast and looking forward to getting back to some gaming soon. tubalcain

    I was pleased to read the whole thing and appreciative of the throw backs to the articles about FUN. Those were great. Keep the random stuff coming!

  7. Tubalcain.

    Thank you for this article, rant, essay, or whatever the he!! you want to call it. I have two things to say – one to this article and one that pertains to an annoyance…

    You mentioned that games typically have some question about winning and losing, or, at least, the question of outcome. I put forth the somewhat lame argument that this isn’t always the case. I play hockey in an adult, non-professional, “beer league.” (A bit ironic for me because, due to my diabetes medication, drinking alcohol would result in a very bad outcome for me!) Even our teams are named for beers or beer companies. That said, if the team I’m on, Osiris, were to play against a professional team, say, the Chicago Black Hawks, I can say with certainty what the outcome would be. Even if we were to skate the entire game with a two-man advantage. I wouldn’t be there to win the game, since I know that it would be impossible. However, the privilege of competing against those players would be worth it, even if they had to carry me off the ice on a stretcher.

    Now to the annoyance: You promised an article about NPC villains, and you stated that I wouldn’t like what you’d have to say. I’m in the process of creating some new villains for my two groups, and d@mm!t, I want to do it right! One of the groups will be finalizing their current adventure this Saturday and starting into their next one. The other group probably next week or the following. I can only stall for so long! Arg! Tubalcain! Tubalcain! Tubal-f****g-cain!

    • In the hockey game you mention, you’re effectively playing CoC, as Tubalcain mentioned in the article. You’re not trying to actively win, but you’re going to play your hardest and try to make their winning margin as small as possible. The goals become “stop one goal by one of these guys” or “get the puck all the way to the half way line” or whatever sporty things you chaps do.

      “Winning” can mean a hundred different things, when actually winning is impossible, you set a bar for yourselves that makes you feel proud for having been out there.

      • You correctly identified why my argument is somewhat tubalcain, er lame. You’re right – I may know the outcome of the game (Osiris 0, Blackhawks >0 by a significant margin), but playing such a game wouldn’t be for the score. I would have other win conditions: Keep the puck on my stick longer than 2 seconds. Stay vertical. Get at least one shot on goal. Share a beer with a pro-player or two after the game. And so on.

        This is true of RPG’s and STG’s as well. And, as someone asks in a later comment if GM’s have win conditions. We don’t always play a game to get the best score. Every participant has a goal they are trying to achieve, otherwise they wouldn’t participate. Whether or not that goal is outlined in the rules, or even supported by the rules, is irrelevant.

        If I’m playing chess against the grand master of the world, my goal isn’t to win, but to get beaten by the best player in the game. Just to sit at the table is a goal in and of itself.

        As a GM, what are my goals? What are my win conditions? Shall I tubalcain, er, enumerate?

        1. I want to create a fun environment for the players. This means they, and their characters, must be challenged at a level where they aren’t overwhelmed, but at the same time, don’t find the challenges too easy. When this occurs, I consider it a success.

        2. I’ve created my own setting, and like an author writing a book, I enjoy the process of rolling out the mysteries, secrets, backstories, and other elements. When the players are talking outside the game sessions about these plot elements and what they plan to do in future sessions, I score this as a goal achieved.

        3. As a game designer, author, and developer, I personally enjoy the creative process. (Check out my forum/website for more information about my exploits.) I’ve put in a lot of effort and have written setting elements that its possible my players will never see. In the same manner that I enjoy spending hours building elaborate settlements in Fallout 4, which serves little or no in-game purpose, I get the feeling of accomplishment. Win.

        Sometimes it’s not about stats, scores, or objective victories. In fact, I’d argue that the subjective goals are more important than the objective ones – especially when it comes to table-top gaming in nearly all its tubalcain forms.

  8. I would like to applaud you, Angry, in not only providing entertainment with your Long Rambling Intro (TM), but also providing a well thought reaction to an extraordinarily moronic outcry. I love that people have opinions, it keeps things interesting. I hate that people seem to think that they don’t need to provide a logical argument, a frame of reference, and some god damned common-god-damn-tubalcain-fucking sense.

    That being said, I am actually interested in a comparison of Fiasco to GMing itself. Reading the last bit of your article about it gave me the strange feeling that I was reading one of your “How to F$&%ing GM” articles.

    Last note. Boo, no NPC continuation this week. Disappointing, but well explained in your first few paragraphs.

  9. Can I move that we call games like Fiasco, Fate, and Tubalcain “Storytelling Games” (STGs) from now on? It rolls off the tongue so much better than “not roleplaying games”.

    • We should, but that would confuse people because White Wolf pretentiously calls their RPGs “Storytelling Games”, and World of Darkness is still one of the bestselling RPG lines, isn’t it? People sure love those games about how vampires are all descended from Tubalcain.

  10. Another excellent article. Your bringing up Kirby’s Epic yarn as an example was a good one, though I think there’s some room for middle-ground with that analogy. tubalcain. Take Prince of Persia (the 2008 version); an action platformer where your character cannot die. Whenever you’d make a fatal fall or take a lethal wound from an enemy you’re magically lifted back to the start of the platforming sequence, or both you and the boss are healed to full health. Your character literally cannot lose, but winning still requires that you ‘beat’ the puzzle that is presented before you, be it a tricky jumping sequence or parrying a boss’ attack at just the right moment. You also can’t ‘lose’ in Dark Souls, since death happens repeatedly in-universe but is basically just a reload to a previous checkpoint with none of your currency. In some ways that’s even closer to Kirby since both give you an optional resource that isn’t required to win the game, though in Dark Souls that resource can be spent to make progression easier.

    Your Fiasco analysis is spot on by the way, and finally explains to me why I’ve never been interested in playing it.

  11. From what I’ve heard of some people talking about their playstyles, they seem to make it a goal for the characters to work through interpersonal conflicts. Or they’ll get the GM’s permission to play an evil character because they want to play out a “redemption arc”. Dungeon World facilitates things like this with some of the starting bonds, so players can be all “oh man, our characters are going to HATE each other and it’s gonna be AWESOME!” — and it probably helps that the system rewards you with XP for “resolving” those bonds and changing the nature of the relationship. But some people like doing this sort of thing in D&D as well, in a more spontaneous way. Maybe this is a specific subtype of the Fellowship aesthetic?

    There’s a model for some of this in some JRPGs, as I realized recently when I revisited my childhood favorite Tales of Symphonia. You pick up a party member who, at first, was literally trying to kill one of the original party members; you get betrayed by one or two party members along the way depending on what ending you get; at one point you meet a guy who’s mean and nasty, and you later find out that not only is he an important person in that country, but he’s also tasked with joining your party. And everyone’s like “geez, we have to travel with this jerk?” Nevertheless, in combat, everybody is absolutely on the same side.

    I remain,

    Your obedient servant,

    The fratricidal low-brass player,

    “Tuba L. Cain”

  12. After reading your description of FIASCO i start thinking about FATE: the fate points economy and aspects triggers are all elements that players use outside of their character.

    Then i think about D&D in general: hit points, powers, spells and others high structured sub systems, we now call them Rules of Structure after you, dear angry, explained very well the difference between verosimilitude and structure in the previews article.

    I’m just wondering about the difference between the acceptance of structure for gameplay pourpose and the acceptance of player agency about the setting in favor of story telling.

    Maybe, just maybe, they are the end of a spectrum between story telling activity and game structure, and maybe, they deserve the same insightful analysis and consideration.

    I will now start my new campaign, Age of Tubalcain, with much more insight. : D

    • What you might want to consider for your Age of Tubalcain games is that the elements you mentioned give the player an estimate of what their character is capable of – can he expect to survive a hit from a goblin? How much magic can he do in a day? In what areas will he outshine others by a vast difference?

      That is present in FATE too, and that’s your skill points and your aspects. That is a way to play a role-playing game. The FATE points you start with, the stunts, the skills, and the aspects are nothing that make FATE different. The only difference are the FATE points you earn by creating trouble for your character – because suddenly you switch from being a character to being essentially the GM. You’re doing the GM’s job for them and they reward you with a FATE point.

      I have played with a FATE GM who didn’t even prep a game, just letting the players drive it all. And I think that was a case where there is definitely too little of something. The whole mystery inherent in the discovery aspect of role-playing games is gone. And nobody needs a GM who does nothing but describe what you could have described yourself and just administers a few rules and hands out FATE chips.

      It made me wonder why FATE bothered with the GM at all. I guess games like Spark made a more interesting mix, getting somewhere in between FATE and Fiasco. But a lot of things in FATE are not that freaky until you get to that “player empowerment” part. If you enjoy the challenge as a GM you can give that power to players in any campaign by letting them establish a few facts. Interestingly if you want FATE points you can only establish facts that suck and if you want to establish nice facts, you have to spend the points.

      Now, what always gets me is this the central contradiction: If I consider the game outside of my character and actually disadvantage myself and create more trouble for myself, what do I need these damn FATE points for? Why I should I even spend them to improve the lot of my character? Or should I only use them to establish “fun facts” to my liking in the story? Why bother? What does success of the PC mean to me – when I also actively oppose my own success? And if I actively create complications for myself early on, is the resolution really satisfying? Is “getting away with” gambling the odds in the end worth it?

      These are no rhetorical questions. These are open questions I come up with when I think about FATE – besides its abysmal skill systems and abhorrent dice engine. I mean – I disengage with the character and engage with “the story” – but then I try to drive the story from within the character, too. That’s a brainfuck for me and a bit of a bastard hybrid of two concepts not really belonging together. Spark and Fiasco are more honest and less twisted about what they want to accomplish, I guess.

  13. Angry, for the love of Tubalcain, please enlight me:

    You said that is possible to the players to win in an RPG, by way of accomplishing goals setted by the GM or by the players themselves.

    BUT you often says that you Win in RPGs most of the times. As is know, you do not meddle with simple players peasants, running games from your throne of awesomeness. So I ask you: it is possible for the GM to win in an RPG game? Or, more to the point, should a GM goal be to win the game in the first place?

    • Tubalcain and I would both say no. The GM is the CPU of the D&D game console. They “run” the adventure using the rules provided by the system. It’s players vs the adventure, not players vs the GM.

      • Actually, Tubalcain states, in his “Theory of Games”, that the GM is a player as any other an can win the game. BUT, that is the point, his goal is not to defeat the players. And in this point you are right, @Robert: it is not players vs. GM.

        You wouldn’t say the CPU is against you when you play Zelda. The GM isn’t either. But it doesn’t mean he is necessarilly on your side. He has his own goals. He is not playing by the same rules as the players. But he is playing, he is roleplaying, and he probably wants the players to achieve their goals so they won’t give up and stop.

        Personally, my goal is to see the players winning, but making them work for it and providing an exciting adventure. And, to see they coming back every week to get another fix of dice rolling.

        This way, I lose as a GM if the players aren’t having fun (sand that includes me); I win if they are, if they accomplish some of their goals, and specially, if they ask for another game after this one ends.

        • I don’t know; Tubalcain doesn’t really matter in this case, there’s something else that needs to be said.

          Considering what Angry explained about “fun” not being an acceptable goal of a game, making everyone have fun is certainly an objective you should aim for, but not something that you can define as “winning”.

          By the same logic, anyone accomplishing a specific goal in any game-related activity “wins”. But a referee (not a perfect example AT ALL, but bear with me) does not “win” if the game goes on without any violations.

          When I’m GMing, I’m not fighting against systems and rules, I’m not competing with anyone, and nothing was designed with the purpose of giving me a challenge; it’s just something I try to do every time, sometimes it’s harder than others, and I aim for success. I don’t win just because my task involves gaming and people who are playing; it’s something slightly different.

          I don’t get why people are so convinced that GMs won’t have any fun at all unless you can convince them that they have something they can “win”. It could be better to clarify that a GM gets his enjoyment by other people having fun at his table, without it involving “winning” something.

          That does not make it less fun or engaging, of course. But I am hesitant about calling that kind of success a “victory”. It’s a success, it’s a job well done, it’s a fun time, it’s an accomplishment, but it’s not necessarily a victory. And that’s perfectly fine.

  14. I apologize for linking the last one all over reddit and bringing the likes of Mikal Saltveit over. He was just as fun on /r/rpgdesign, if it makes you feel any better. See, I thought it was great and would prompt interesting discussion, instead no one seemed to get that everything in the Long, Rambling Intro was just a framing device for the actual point.

  15. I am an avid reader of all your articles, but I don’t usually participate in the discussions. This is the first time I’ve read Every. Single. Comment! I laughed so hard. Well played Mr. Tubalcain!

  16. This is a very interesting article indeed. I am a longtime reader but this is my first comment. While I agree with most of your analysis, including the definition of games, I think there are a few areas that bear further exploration.

    First, while I accept that games have objectives, I am not sure that fulfilling those objectives always equates with “winning”. Somehow I agree with Mike P.’s observation that winning has a sense of finality that mere success does not. I can feel successful when playing a game and not win that game. Success in that sense seems potentially incremental in ways that winning does not. While I do find that the sport season analogy helps resolve this issue. Also, perhaps this is a mere semantic issue for some who are completely willing to equate fulfilling objectives with winning.

    I have another potential issue. Can self-defined goals be considered criteria for winning at all? Minecraft is a perfect example of this. There is a goal presented by the game’s creators in defeating the Ender Dragon or whatever it is, but there are other goals derived by individual players. I would say that defeating the Ender Dragon is clearly winning but succeeding player-created goals seem less convincingly “winning”. Perhaps if there were a general consensus on what it meant to win among all players playing a game I would consider that a win. Many games have such a consensus, for example “Next touchdown wins”. In the case, however, when players have different goals at the same table, it is hard for me to call success at any one of those individual goals a win. Now I realize I’m delving deeper and deeper into semantics here.

    Basically, I would amend Angry’s argument that “most people play RPGs to win” to read “most people play RPGs to fulfill certain objectives”. The problem with this definition is that is seems somewhat trivial. Don’t all people play games to fulfill objectives? Now perhaps I’m pulling at something that has no substance, but the fact that player generate their own objectives seems to be important here.

    One final point goes back to Tubular Kain’s point about the GM in RPGs, do they play to win? Now I do seem to remember Angry describing the GM as a player in other articles. Perhaps when the GM inhabits the role of a particular NPC, the GM is “playing to win”, but when he/she is creating the world and designing the encounters, his/her role is different? It could also be said that the GM is merely a facilitator for the players, but that seems pretty lame.

    I am struggling to put my ideas down succinctly, and I’m late to the discussion to boot, but I’m interested to see if anyone has any comment on this stuff.

    TL:DR
    Tubalcain

    “Most players play to win RPGs” could be restated “Most players play to fulfill various, often player-defined objectives”, which seems somewhat trivial.

    Do GMs play to win?

    • I’ll jump in with my first (well, second counting the one just up the Tubal-chain) comment to help process some of these thoughts. Even if various players have various personal goals, in any given session, there is also a consensus goal: beat the dungeon, save the princess, not get wiped, whatever. You can definitely win that one. And I’m increasingly disagreeing with the finality aspect of victory entirely. I would argue there are a great many things where you “win” or “lose” but there’s no sense of finality. There are the aforementioned league sports, military battles, casino games, all sorts of stuff.

      • Neither I, nor Tubalcain can reasonably agree with your examples:

        Sports leagues: You can, at least win a season. Then the teams get shuffled up and everyone starts over.
        Military battles absolutely get won with finality. I don’t really understand how this one is even in the list?
        Casino games, similarly: You win if you walk away with more money than you started with, you lose otherwise. You don’t win just because you got $500 on one hand of blackjack if you lost 1k getting there.

        And the ability to “win” a goal doesn’t mean you “win” the game. Maybe my goal in RISK is to conquer America, because screw those guys. But achieving that goal doesn’t mean I win.

  17. Ask your doctor if Tubalcain is right for you.

    (Side effects of Tubalcain include: nausea, total player kills, anal leakage, fudged die rolls, dizziness, critical hits, swelling, critical misses, diarrhea, random wandering monsters, constipation, loss of initiative, dry mouth, loss of saving throws, and hammer toes.)

    Do not use Tubalcain if you are an internet troll or are thinking of becoming an internet troll.

    On its face, Call of Cthulhu seems unwinnable, and it is… if you play it like D&D. And I’ve seen that happen. To hilarious effect.

    When I first read the CoC ruleset, I understood that combat was supposed to be a last resort.

    You know why? Because there were NO CLERICS in Call of Cthulhu. That’s why.

    That was all the hint I needed.

    Yeah, you can have a Doctor, but that’s no cleric. If you get injured in CoC? Your Doctor can perform realistic medical procedures to keep you alive. But to get back to fighting shape? Weeks of recovery resting in a bed. Like in real life.

    And I understood that if any character was going to last for any duration, that character would have to focus on being Genre Savvy, limit direct exposure to the supernatural, be more skillful in driving a car than shooting a gun, and be willing to cut and run early and often. And to be patient. My character would need to refrain from doing the dumbass things that get people killed in horror movies, yet still participate in the horror movie. A tough balancing act, but a surprisingly satisfying one.

    But many many others read the same rules and decided that Deep Ones were Orcs, Gugs were Ogres, and Night Gaunts were (flying) Trolls. And they were to be battled as such, even though the Investigators made horrible Fighters, worse Mages, only passable Rogues and the clerics? Oh wait, there WERE NO CLERICS.

    The prevailing conventional wisdom at the time that CoC first went to market was: If you didn’t want me to grind that shoggoth down to zero hit points, even though I have no armor, my wizard’s brain just melted and I have NO CLERIC, then you shouldn’t have given the shoggoth hit points. if you have an entire section of a rule book with monsters that have full stat blocks, then many players were going to assume that to refrain from fighting those monsters was to waste money.

    And so, guided by prevailing conventional wisdom, many players approached CoC as if it were D&D set in the roaring 20s.

    It was one thing to watch the occasional player treat CoC like D&D, but I remember one Keeper who insisted on running an entire CoC campaign as if it were D&D. This fellow had our characters transported to the Dreamlands and had us randomly encounter a Gug. Because he was an Orthodox Role Player, and Thou Shalt Have Random Encounters. And he forced the characters into melee combat. With a GUG. This was with characters with no armor and no melee weapons training, because they were CoC characters for [BLEEP]’s sake.

    And the Keeper had the nerve to be surprised when our (few) surviving Investigators and the many new replacement Investigators refused to return to the Dreamlands. Because, and I quote, “[BLEEP] Gugs”. That campaign lasted three sessions, and it was a miracle it went that long. In hindsight, it was hilarious. But at the time, it was less so.

    When I played CoC and I was playing it Genre Savvy, I felt like I was winning, and I was invested in the outcome of the story even if my Investigator was killed off.

    When I was prevented from playing CoC that way, because Random Wandering Gugs, my investment in the story was compromised and I disengaged from the game. As did every other player at the table.

  18. Anything I wrote would just be repeating things Angry has said before, or “Tubalcaining” as the kids are calling it, but this kind of article is SO dang important. New GMs can get so lost if they go online and listen to the thousand voices who just want to play their games the wrong way.

    Great article. Keep it up. More Mega dungeon please.

    • I fully agree: I started playing RPGs from scratch, literally gathering a group of friends, who never played anything like that, and saying “alright, you guys, I want to be a GM, you want to play, let’s go!”

      If only I could have had articles like this from the beginning, it would have been so much better.

      Instead I had to listen to random people “tubalcaining” about useless stuff like “you only win if everyone has a lot of fun and is happy”, “you should dedicate 90% of your efforts to Role-Playing, and only 10% to the Game, because people will love roleplaying so much more”, and “you should only care about the best story possible, and no rule is more important than the thing your players want to do; if it’s impossible, make it possible!”…

      As you can easily guess, my first sessions SUCKED. My games started getting much better only about 9 months ago; coinicdentally, that’s when I first discovered this website.

  19. Spot on, I think.

    It confuses the hell out of one of my players why I like D&D but hate Fiasco. But I’m not Tubal-cain: I need goals and challenges and problem-solving to scratch my gaming itch, and narrative games like Fiasco or Story Cubes just aren’t really designed to provide that.

    Honestly, I think of those as more an expressive or creative exercise than an actual game. Like when you tell a long joke, or build off a writing prompt, or do that thing where each person takes turns adding one sentence/word/whatever to the story. There’s *kind of* a goal in that you are trying to create something that fits the constraints and entertains the audience, but there’s not really any obstacles to overcome, or strategies that do anything, or ways to keep score. There’s just blank pages to fill up with narrative.

  20. I think that there is more to it than what’s been said (written actually) by Angry: we GMs play the game too, and when do we actually win? We don’t actually play the game (that what players are for) we make it, does that mean that we can’t win? Or can we win at GMing? A few (generally unsuccessful) GM get their kick by killing their players. I feel defeat when that happens. That doesn’t mean that I try to save them whenever possible (I don’t) but it means that probably I messed up somewhere, maybe I should have let Tubalcain bless the player’s weapons to make up for my own luck (or maybe they should prepare more grr). I feel that I have won when all my players are happy at the end, when they tell me they loved the game and then submerge me with mails about rules (which I change a lot because self made rules can always be improved) and their character. I know it’s not my blog but I would like to know how other GM feel that they’ve won their games, there’s a different MOST to be defined here as well I think and I’ve got a feeling that those people who don’t belong to this MOSt are also not the MOST people that Angry talked about.
    And that could help to redirect them to FIASCO and his ilk.
    But now I want to read that article about villains as NPC please. I’ve got my own wrong ideas about it but I’d like to see how much they match yours and I’m sure there’ll be some interesting bits to gather from your rants, as there always is.

    • I’m sorry if it sounds tubalcain, but just because you can win or lose at GMing doesn’t make it a game. It’s like painting. If you were an amateur artist, you could do a good painting or a bad painting. There’s an uncertain outcome and you’re making decisions to achieve a goal, and you’re doing it for the intrinsic pleasure of painting. But painting isn’t a game either, it’s a hobby. I think the difference might be how well-defined the goal is. In a D&D game, it’s easy to tell if you’ve won or lost. All the challenge goes into making the right decisions to reach that defined goal. When you’re DMing, part of the challenge is defining the goal, as well as making the decisions to get there. Even in a game like Fiasco, there is a well-defined objective like there isn’t in painting. The objective is to simulate a caper-gone-wrong story. It’s on the Kirby end of the scale of KEY and CoC, but it’s a goal that the players could fail at if they got all their characters killed in Act 1, or if they can’t think of a way for their story to go spectacularly wrong. I think that’s a distinction we should keep in mind when we talk about games vs non-games.

  21. +1 for Calvinball, Tubalcain.

    Firstly want to say I love these articles for great design philosophy. I don’t have the opportunity to play (or consequently design and run) tabletop RPGs, but I do meddle with videogame design. More blogs like this need to exist because they are seriously useful and help sort out the maelstrom of people screeching about what they think is and isn’t correct.

    I think a good example of players creating their own goals and achieving their own victories is Minecraft. Aside from playing on Hardcore mode, survival isn’t even a real goal passed on by the system. At worst it’s just inconvenient. If you just start playing without any sort of personal goal or idea of victory, the whole game just sort of becomes aimless existence. Without those goals its not even fun. Even defeating the bosses is completely optional.

    On winning, I think its accurate to say that MOST people assume “to win” also means “to end.” So if they think that RPGs are supposed to last forever, you can’t win an RPG. The people that say you can’t win an RPG mean you can’t win a sandbox. In Minecraft, there is no hard win condition and that’s why its fun for a time but inevitably grows boring. Even defeating the “End Boss” (pun intended) is completely optional and not very satisfying unless that’s the reason you’re actually playing. You win when you feel like it; whenever your personal goal is satisfied and you feel victorious. At that point you either keep playing or restart with a new goal (or the same goal through different means). The important bit there being that you CAN just keep playing with a new goal to win at again.

    Can you win a game that really never ends, or do you just get bored and wander away from it after a while?

    If you get bored and wander away from an RPG, tabletop or not, then someone is doing something wrong. If there’s no end (win or loss), there’s no role-playing game. There’s a role-playing sandbox.

    Looking forward to reading more of these articles for a long time to come.

  22. You’re gonna delete this comment, cause I can’t figure out how to discretely mention tubalcain in it, but I just wanted to point out at typo – Fiasco is a game about telling an engaging story on a narrative level, not an engaging level on a narrative level.

  23. Tubalcain.

    Angry, not sure if you’ve read this but it begins with a great section on trying to define what a game is, and looking at different definitions. Obviously, there’s no neat or single answer, but it sets out some useful language for defining different aspects of games. There’s a really useful concept of a “ludic activity” – a fun activity, like rock climbing, that doesn’t quite fit with most definitions of a game.

    Has anyone else seen this? I loved it, mainly because it touches on a lot of the same ideas that angry tackles.

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rules_of_Play

    • Hi Stapleton, thanks for the book tip!

      If you’re interested in the concept of the ludic activity, I’d recommend the following books:

      – B. Suits, The Grasshopper
      – J. Huizinga, Homo Ludens
      – Tubelcain, An in-depth analysis of card games

      And yes, defining games is difficult… It’s hard to talk about them in-depth, just because people have such varying ideas about what a game is. And because it and because I feel it’s a fairly young phenomenon to talk/write about the subject (in a meaningful way) in an academic context.

  24. Tubalcain.

    I guess the follow up question would be what’s the GM’s goal in an RPG? I’ve heard that a GM’s goal is to make sure his players had fun. If the players had fun, then the GM ran a successful game. If the players didn’t, the game was a failure. Thoughts?

  25. This unwise blathering and losers contradicting Angry is nonsense. Most people won’t check the first letter before calling this rules violating post, let alone read almost everything he’s written and turn it into Cornell notes.

    • There is something I’d like to see discussed a bit more; allowing players to set their own goals.
      Upon starting out with games like D&D, it’s easy to just throw a goal at players.
      But as players get more comfortable setting their own goals, I like to drop campaign goals.
      As I think about new games, I tend to create grand settings and conflicts,
      Leaving simple things like what is the actual story up to the characters.
      Commonly, this works well, and players get into the role and explore the world.
      As they explore the world, they have short, goal oriented adventures as normal.
      I’m not sure, however, if this works in a broader sense.
      Now I’m wondering if I should be more explicit with my characters about a win state for the campaign.

  26. I tend to agree with you – mostly. But as you said, definitions can be tricky because they are often left up to interpretation.

    When I think of what MOST people think of when they think of ‘Winning’, it is often associated with some sort of finality. That, for me, is where attributing a ‘win-condition’ to an RPG is tough. Your very valid argument about achieving goals, however true it is, lacks that finality in all but a few situations in an RPG. Goals are more like checkpoints on a very long, possibly endless road to glory.

    I think a good analogy is the whole “You may have won the battle, but you haven’t won the war.” quote. An RPG is speckled with ‘wins’ of various sizes, but rarely is there a true “I WIN” Moment.

    All that said, I get your point of view, and pretty much agree with it…. mostly semantics. However… and I’m sure you have gotten this from non-gamer acquaintances… answering the age old question, “Well how do you win…?” remains a tough question to answer, and as good as your arguments are, they won’t satisfy Uncle Tubalcain at the diner table who sees ‘winning’ as a final and absolute condition to be met.

  27. Dang Im so late to this discussion about tubulus canines or whatever.

    And others have touched on it but what really struck me was “What is the goal of the GM then?” Can we have an article about that sometime? I thought of writing this as an ask ?angry question, but maybe there isnt much of an answer. I dont know. Maybe I just literally dont know how to have fun.
    But really, what is the Goal of the GM? The books and blogs usually only ever talk about the Tasks of a GM. And usually talk about them poorly. But I am of the opinion, that for all practical purpose the GM is a (literally) “player” of the game. Though the simile is clever that DnD is a gaming console and not a game, the GM however is not a lifeless machine. The GM does it for the FUN too. And we know that “just have fun” is bullshit advice. Okay maybe the goal of the GM is to “ensure everyone has fun” or “provide a fun gaming experience” which is just as equally empty.
    Okay so maybe the GMs goal can be something like “make a well structured narrative” or “devise challenging battles”. But that is all to nebulous. Tho maybe that is the nature of the beast?

    As a player you can Expect the goals, at least some of them, to be provided by the module or the GM. But I guess as a GM you have to come up with your own goals?

    Am I silly? Maybe this just shows I wouldnt be a very good GM and probabl wouldnt enjoy it?

    Any imput on this?

    • Oh yeah and I know Angry often jokes about how the GM “wins” when the PCs die, but I know that is just a joke (at least for the most part). We are past the age of “adversarial GMing”. So making the PCs lose isnt and cannot be the goal of the GM, because as Angry has also pointed it out on numerous occassion, the victory of the PCs is a core assumption of the game (and the game system)

      • I’m big on clarifying the types of fun and how to appeal to them. I’ve encountered enough Tubalcains in the @$$ who think the world revolves around their specific preferences.

        My preferred forms of fun are fantasy and expression when I play an RPG. Discovery is another part.

        I’m GMing because I have a world in my head I want to share with my players. I want to see what kinds of characters they make to interact with it and let them walk in their characters’ shoes. I want to see how they work out solutions (or fail to) to the problems I throw at them. I want steadily reveal what’s really going on behind the scenes and see how they and their characters react once they pull back the curtain.

  28. Tubalcain

    It is my personal belief that most people argue against you sir, not because they disagree with you, but because of an inconsistent usage of terms.

    My personal view is that role-playing game is like a genus. In the taxonomic classification of games d&d might be “games muliplayer cooperative role-playing fantasy table-top d20 d&d” While fiasco would be “games muliplayer cooperative storytelling genre-neutral table-top dice fiasco” Its a game but as close to an rpg as a cat is from a dog.

  29. “…All those moments will be lost in time, like Tubalcain…”

    I’ve found that one particularly reliable victory condition for me as a GM was for the players to return for the next session.

    If people were willing to make the time to attend and participate in a game, week in and week out over the course of months, I figured I was probably doing something right.

    • I have had this debate in many forms, mostly with the same handful of people. Your stance is completely wrong, Tubelcain.

      Whether people return to your game does not necessarily have any relation to the quality of your game. Succeeding to create a fun environment is not the same as succeeding at D&D.

      If your goal is truly to “have fun,” then host a “fun night.” If your goal is to host a D&D night, then host a D&D night. You can succeed at having fun without playing D&D, and you can succeed at playing D&D without having fun.

      What makes D&D (and all competitions, really) rewarding (even addictive) is the uncertainty or variance in the level of fun achieved. That itself is exciting.

      Similarly (but admittedly not very related) is the type of fun you get from being a season’s ticket holder for a sports team. Some of the games are not fun. Some of the games make you angry. Sometimes they’re just bad. Sometimes they make you so angry that you swear you’ll stop watching. But there’s always the allure that the next game might be great.

      It’s a game. The outcome is uncertain and that is part of the allure. But if you shift your focus away from the game to something like “having fun,” then you’re no longer focused on playing the game well. Worse, in the hands of the ill-informed, the idea that “having fun” is the goal morphs into the ludicrous idea that every session must be fun or it is not a success. Nonsense. The fact that some sessions are not fun only amplifies the experience of the fun sessions. If your team hasn’t won a championship in 35 years, then the championship is much sweeter than if you’ve won it the last 7 years straight.

      Sometimes you whiff every roll, and your ideas cause problems that nearly result in TPKs, or you waste spell slots on enemies that are resistant or immune. It sucks. Sometimes it pisses you off and you more-or-less hate the experience. This is part of the experience, just as is the opposite.

      • “By Tubalcain’s Hammer… what a savings”

        I didn’t say anything about having fun.

        I didn’t even imply it.

        You inferred it, so that’s on you.

        What I implied is that players place value on their time, and that their choice to repeatedly spend time participating in my game suggests that I succeeded in persuading them that my game was worth that time.

        It might be possible to, as you put it, “succeed at D&D without having fun”. But I submit that it isn’t possible to succeed at D&D without having players. (Perhaps that stance is completely wrong, too.)

        Each consistently occupied seat at my game table was a victory.

        Each consistently empty seat at my game table was a defeat.

        The ability to get the same three or four asses to fill seats at a game table over the course of weeks and months might not be winning… but it is an achievement that does have a standing invitation to the Victory Condition Family Picnic.

        I can’t cause my players to “have fun”.

        I can’t even cause my players to be happy.

        What I can do is cause my players to expect that they will find something worth their time at my game table.

        Rules help me achieve that. In part, because rules establish expectations. And the better the rules are written, the easier it becomes to establish those expectations.

        Use D&D rules and a certain set of expectations attach to those rules.

        Use Call of Cthulhu and an entirely different set of expectations attaches to those rules.

        Different as they are, both rule sets set me up to succeed in my goal in getting asses into the seats and keeping them in the seats.

        That is my stance.

        • Point to you: you never specifically said “fun.” I concede defeat on that point.

          Regardless, my point remains. If you want to measure the success of a D&D game, then the metric should be related to D&D. The number of filled seats at your table is not directly related to D&D.

          I could host a D&D night with a celebrity. I could fill 6 seats (with the same asses) every week for four years straight. What would this tell me about the quality of D&D st the table? Absolutely nothing.

          Seats are filled because of a bajillion reasons, none of which is necessarily tied to D&D.

          Measuring success in this way is one of the biggest faults of contemporary Western society.

          As an obvious example: The “success” (high viewer ratings) of the Jerry Springer show in the 90s does not translate into: the Jerry Springer Show is a high-quality television program. If you’re interested in high-quality television, viewer ratings is a bad metric.

          Likewise, if you are interested in a high- quality game of D&D, filled seats is a bad metric, tubelcain.

          • “Never go against a Sicilian when Tubalcain is on the line!”

            I can employ any number of gimmicks to attract a player for one or two sessions. But the best way to keep the same people coming to my game, in my opinion, is to provide those players with a game worth playing. And rules are an integral component of such a game.

            Suppose you have two GMs making two different pitches to you to attract you to their game. There is a schedule conflict so you can only pick one game.

            GM #1 says, “I will be starting a role-playing campaign. The theme shall be Game of Thrones meets Curb Your Enthusiasm meets Pirates of the Caribbean meets Weekend at Bernie’s. The rule-set shall be a home-brew mish-mash which is loosely inspired by D&D, GURPS, Paranoia, Risk, and Hungry Hungry Hippos. I call it Fungeons and Hurray-gons. Don’t worry about rules. We’re not going to get bogged down with rules. I’ll probably just pull some arbitrary and random decision straight out from between my butt-cheeks, or as I call it– my fun-hole. I haven’t decided on a genre, either. All character concepts are allowed. Play a Jedi, or a Hogwart’s-trained wizard, or a vampire cop, or a Dune worm, or a brooding dark elf ranger named Drizzly A’nus, or the animatronic gopher from Caddyshack. Whatever you want. I will make it work with the power of– my fun-hole. The goal shall be to have fun-coated fun with a rich creamy fun center pulled out of– my fun-hole. There will be free pizza, a minstrel shall be busking for shekels by playing his didgeridoo next to my collection of painted miniatures, and there is a scheduled appearance by movie star, and life-long D&D fan, Vin Diesel. (Talent is not guaranteed to appear as scheduled.) Fun-hole!”

            GM #2 says, “I will be starting a Dungeons and Dragons campaign using the 5e rule set. The rule set shall inform my decisions, but I shall adjudicate how the rules affect play as necessary. The theme shall be Dungeons meet Dragons. And orcs. There will be orcs, too. Spoiler alert: there will be more orcs than dragons. If you want to be political, you can talk to the orcs. If you don’t want to be political, you can stab the orcs. Bring your own food. I will probably eat some of your food. Unless there are raisins in it. Raisins are yucky.”

            That first game sounds like a lot more fun than that second game. For one session, anyway.

            Game One can work, provided that the GM is a genius and the players are cast-members of Who’s Line Is It Anyway?

            Game Two can work, if the GM is reasonably prepared and the players are more emotionally mature than Joffrey Baratheon.

            So both games are at high risk of collapse.

            But which game is more likely to still be running six months down the line?

            I would bet on Game Two on the grounds that the D&D rule-set makes that game easier for the GM to sustain the game over time. The D&D rule-set also establishes a clearer expectation on the part of the players.

            There was marketing term older than Mad Men itself. “Sell the sizzle, not the steak,” went the saying. This saying passed for clever because real ad agencies were run by alcoholic jackasses that were even worse than those portrayed on Mad Men. The unspoken corollary to this alleged marketing wisdom was “Customers don’t eat sizzle, they eat steak– you drunken secretary-groping jackass.”

            Game One is has better sizzle than Game Two, but when players discover that there’s really no steak at the table, they will stop attending.

            Game Two has significantly less sizzle than Game One, but players with any experience with table-top role-playing know that there will be steak at that table.

            Because D&D is steak.

            Game Two might not serve up tenderloin. Might not serve up filet mignon. It might be flank-steak. It might have veins of gristle running through it. But it will be steak.

            A gimmick will get asses in the seats, but there needs to be steak on the table to keep the asses in the seats. And, again, D&D is steak.

            That is my stance.

  30. Tubalcain, sempai

    Dear Angry, if RPGs have many goals, and if I’m right I thinking that the skill of most games is in the ability the win the game, how can I be a better role-player or be better at role-playing games? (is that even the same question!?)

    I don’t just want to be the best GM I can, I want to be the best player too.

    So should I always make sure my characters have clear motives, should I ask the GM what the goal of the adventure is if it isn’t clear? Should I focus more on thinking about what my character would do, based on their motivations, or on the goals the GM appears to have set?

    And how do I encourage my own players to be better at winning the game?

    Help me Angriwan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.

    Also, you ruined YouTube actual plays for me, now I can only see their mistakes, particularly in scene purpose!

  31. “A game is a diversion. A pastime. A distraction.”

    Is it?

    I mean, yes, a game CAN be a diversion. The way a game works, especially RPG’s, allow it to be that very well…

    Hell, just put (nearly) any “definition” of a game next to Tubalcain’s, I mean, Sartre’s concept of Divertissement, and you’ll find striking similarities between the two concepts…

    But I don’t think that any game, is by default, a distraction. Or rather, games aren’t necessarily distractions. They can be, but they also can not be diversions, they can be more than that.

    A game, in my opinion, isn’t necessarily an activity, it’s an abstract structure, a very versatile structure that can be actualised (that’s when it becomes an activity) in many different forms. But not all those forms have to be of a diverting nature I think…

  32. Like Mickey Rourke’s character Tubalcain in the Noah movie, I believe that GMing counts as roleplaying. When I’m GMing, I’m playing. The narrative process isn’t as cleanly defined as the player agency part as “playing towards a goal” but I’m sure we can find ways to shoehorn it in.

    Like Hannibal says in The A-Team, “I love it when a plan comes together.” That for me is playing as a GM.

    Fiasco invites all the participants to do a bit of micro-GMing in each scene. So it qualifies as an RPG for me, in the same way that I think a budgie qualifies as a dinosaur. 🙂

    The way I look at “winning” in Call of Cthulhu, Delta Green, Trail of Cthulhu and their ilk is like a game of Pac-Man or those other endless arcade games. You can be clearing levels and scoring points, and you’re *winning* – winning at the moment, that is. Eventually, you run out of lives (or SAN) and you lose. But while you’re still clearing those levels, you’re still “winning.”

    I find it hilarious how common that “Comment removed” thing is in this thread.

  33. I agree with you on 90% of the things you said.

    But also i love to argue, i love to be a fucking devi’s lawyer and i have a shitty english grammar.

    And god damn i finally can say something to argue with you. nevermind i got late and you probablly wont read this, but whatever, i can try.

    I think there is a problem on how we define “Role-Playing”. I mean, Tubalcain is not that different from those “Chat Role-Play” or “Role-Play Forums” that existed (do they still exist?) Where you create a character, and you usually tiped situations and things that happened and (mostly) dramatic outcomes. ¿Were you playing as the character? Yes, you still were trying to put yourself in the danger spotlight, but you also tried to react to those dangers in the same way your character did. if the knight is being cocky and headcharges the ogre , only to get mauled, because his character is hot-headed and belives himself superior, is he roleplaying? I would say yes, so, why when you do it in Fiasco suddenly is not a roleplaying game? only because you knew he was going to get mauled? In D&D, if the ogre is CR 8 and your knight is level 2, you also know it, so then in that example is D&D not a roleplaying game? [Yes, i know, specific question, not the whole level yadda yadda]

    On the subject of Fiasco, there is a player goal: Tell a dramatic story, and a character goal: (Whatever the need is). And in D&D, and Other roleplaying games, the same happens, the player has a goal (” i want to be a god damn inmortal wall in every combat”) and the character another (“i will take revenge on the cult that killed my father”). They do not necesarily are in Sinchrony. Repeat after me. THEY DO NOT NECESARELY ARE IN SINCHRONY. Picture the tanky wall, with his party, agains the cult, and they are losing. So the rest of the party surrenders, raises their hands and say “ok, we yield”. 80% the player will go with the party and surrender aswell, because he wants to keep playing, to be the inmortal wall for the party. So he yields, in contrast of the goal of his characters. The other 15% he might feel compeled to fight, doing a last stand, because “thats what my character would do”. Even when their goal as a player is/was another, ¿why? because suddenly, the story matters more.

    I think im mostly rambling right now, and my point like…disappeared, but what i wanted to say is that since you still are playing the role of the character, it still is a role-playing game. (it kinda says on the title). You still play according to the needs, loves, fears, of the character.

    • The thing is, your example actually illustrates exactly why Tubalcain is not a role-playing game.
      As Angry has tried to emphasise multiple times, the key distinction is “the G in RPG”.

      Those role-playing forums are a fine example of role-playing, but they’re not really “games”.
      They’re a group activity, sure, but they don’t really fit a strict definition of games.
      Fiasco more resembles those forums than it does a game.

      Again, as Angry has said, not being games doesn’t make them inherently bad, but it is our understanding of words and their definitions that enable academic discussions and explore new boundaries.

      This was actually one of the first lessons we had when I studied Game Design at University.
      We all sat around discussing the question “What is a game?” and every time someone attempted a definition, the lecturer would give a counter-example of either a game that didn’t fit our definition or a non-game that did.
      It was an enlightening experience.

  34. Funny thing is, I actually won CoC. Twice, in the same game.

    The first victory was by what one might call the “Tubal-Cain” method. Due to some level of inexperience with CoC fluff, I had elected to play what can only be described as a PC cultist, the last scion of an ancient sorcerous dynasty seeking to unravel the mystery of his parent’s disappearance. After assorted adventures rather too complicated to explain here, my character ascended to godhood. Of course, that meant that he left the game and I had to make a new character, but still, I can’t think of any descriptor for that other than “winning”.

    The second victory was the more conventional route. My third character, along with assorted other heroes, successfully snuck into the cultist’s base and sabotaged their Evil Plan. We were then rescued, and apparently lived happily ever after.

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