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.