Because “win or die” is boring

Yesterday I read a post by Robert Hans on the Fate google+ community, and it was a quite enlightening read. I’m sharing it here, because I think there’s some pretty awesome stuff in it. The thread can be seen here.

Warning, extremely lengthy, but well worthwhile post ahead!

Robert Hanz:

Fate Core Thought of the Day: Failure

So, before getting into this, I’d like to say again that these posts are about my experiences coming from a traditional game background. They’re also about how I play Fate, and in many ways about how I’ve figured out how to play Fate in a way that has little friction in the system, not by modifying it or changing in when I found friction, but rather by abandoning my preconceptions that were causing friction with Fate Core As Written.

So, again, don’t take what I write as any kind of authoritative source. Take it more as my revelations and me going “wow! It makes sense now!” rather than anything else. (This is also why I’m probably a bit more critical towards Fate hacks than many others – I’ve found in many cases that the ‘need’ for hacks is more about the preconceptions I’ve brought into the game than anything else, and that it’s easier to either abandon those preconceptions, or play something that’s better aligned with them if I really want that experience).

Also, keep in mind that if I say something about traditional games, or people that play them, I’m not being critical. I like traditional games! And most of the things that I portray as ‘things traditional gamers say’ are things that I’ve said myself at various points. So, again, nothing that I’m going to say in this is really intended as a value judgement at all.

Anyway. Failure.

One of the things that I’ve said here a bunch is that Fate is a game that encourages players to fail. I’ve also argued that just about any player-created plan should have a chance of working (which seems contradictory, I know). Recent posters have said that their players want a risk of death. In the past, I myself have argued that games without death were weak, and that allowing players to always have a chance of success was crazy.

These seem like a whole ton of unrelated topics, but they’re not. They all come down to a key concept: Failure, and what it means in the game. (At a slightly deeper level, it’s about game structure, and we’ll get to that).

So in a typical RPG session, you’ve got some goal. The GM probably has some kind of quest path planned out. Princess Perky has been cursed! You have to go into the Clammy Caves to retrieve the Dewdrop of Decursing! And, once you do, unknown to you, Princess Perky will tell you the name of the Wiley Wizard that cursed her!

Okay, great. Heck, you could even set up a Fate game like that if you wanted. Sure, it’s a deliberately cliché-ridden example, but the major elements are there.

So the characters go into the Clammy Caverns, and encounter a room with bad guys and traps and whatnot. Awesome. They get into a fight.

Okay, here’s the real thing. In most traditional games, you’re going to win that fight. Flat-out. Because the other real option is TPK, and that’s not fun.

The trick is that players want the impression that they may lose. And so a lot of the GM’s job in these types of games is to make the opposition hard enough that the players feel at risk, but weak enough that they will win.

Even players that say things like ‘I want death to be a possibility’ are kind of being vague and missing the point. They want the feeling of danger. They probably don’t want their characters to die (or, at worst, they want death to be an inconvenience). They surely don’t want a game so lethal that they have a character dying every session.

Here’s an experiment: The next time that a player says ‘they want a game where death is a real possibility’, ask them what percentage of games that they think the game should include their character dying, and whether they think that resurrection should be freely available.

BTW, I don’t blame players for this. When games are often about going through a series of challenges (whether they’re puzzles, exploration issues, non-combat challenges, combat, or whatever), and they’re gated by the solution, it becomes pretty obvious that they’re very likely to actually succeed, and that the ‘risk’ is mostly imaginary. They just want to believe it’s not.

There’s two fundamental reasons for this:

1) the number of games (‘Adventure Paths’, I’m looking at you!) that utterly remove player agency in terms of the overall story structure
2) the number of games that don’t provide for meaningful failures that aren’t death. If you lose combat, the orcs kill you. If you fail your jump, you fall into the deathy-death pit of death. Or, you lose hit points, which will either eventually result in death, or effectively has no consequence.

Okay, so let’s get back to Fate again, and more ‘narrative’ styles of games in general.

In Fate, death is a rare occurrence. By the rules. To kill someone, you have to Take Them Out before they can concede, and even then you have to explicitly choose that they die. There’s no automatic death condition, and Taking Someone Out before they get a chance to react or concede is virtually impossible.

To my traditional game eyes, when I snap back to that mode, that makes it seem like you can’t fail in Fate. So, why bother playing?

A similar issue occurs when you get to things like ‘if a player wants there to be a hidden passage, give it a chance to exist.’ My traditional gamer brain hears this and says ‘what? That fortress is a challenge, designed to test the players’ abilities. If you just let any old thing possibly succeed, then what’s the point?’

And here we get to the crux of the matter, truly.

I’ve described this kind of ‘gated event’ structure a bit before, I think. And you know what, it can be a lot of fun in the right game. There’s nothing wrong with puzzles that are meant to be solved – you can buy jigsaw puzzles all over, and they’re clearly meant to be solved, and the challenge of the jigsaw is figuring out how to do it. That’s a lot of fun!

But other things exist that let you make pictures. Like crayons. And crayons let you make any picture you want. That’s crazy! Where’s the challenge! How do you know you’ve done it right?

Here’s the thing. I adore Fate. Truly. It’s one amazingly elegant system. And I find it incredibly poor at producing the types of challenges I find in traditional games. It’s a weak tactical skirmish game, at best. The rules don’t have a lot of support for ‘puzzle-solving’ type activities, either. The existence of Fate Points essentially means that players can ‘buy’ success at just about anything.

And with a weak challenge system, the whole idea of ‘gated challenges’ utterly fails.

So when traditional game players say things like ‘what’s the point, you’ll always win!’ they kind of have a point. Fate is a pretty bad system to run traditional (gated challenge) adventures in.

So let’s not try. Let’s rethink what these ‘encounters’ are. And let’s use the rules to guide us.

Let’s look at an incredibly simple situation. A locked door.

In a traditional game, you’ll have a chance to get past this door. If you fail, you fail. If you really need to get past that door, you’re SOL. But nothing else will likely happen, just the door doesn’t open.

But if you really need to get past that door, other options will be available, somewhere – this is often called “The Rule of Three”. And while it seems like it’s not the “gated challenge” structure, it really is – there’s just multiple ‘solutions’ to the challenge.

But… what about in Fate?

Fate Core, pg. 187: If you can’t imagine an interesting outcome from both results, then don’t call for that roll.

Whoa. That’s weird. Does that mean if you can’t think of how to make opening the door interesting, then it just opens? Where’s the challenge in that???

But there’s a hidden gem in there that’s the key to understanding ‘failure’ in Fate. If you have an interesting outcome for both results, then opening the door isn’t a “gated challenge”. It’s a fork in the road. It’s a place where the story can go one of two places, and you don’t know which one will happen. So the roll becomes less about ‘do we pass the challenge?’ and more about ‘how does the story progress?’

So with the door, we want to break it down. Great. We now need to come up with an interesting failure, another way that the story can go. “It just doesn’t open” isn’t a story, it’s a stall in the story. It kills momentum, and doesn’t progress anything. But… trying to break down the door is probably pretty noisy – so if you keep trying it, maybe someone will hear you… Now you’ve got an interesting branch! You can either get through the door, or be found by the guards! Either of them will keep the action going, and either of them can make an interesting story.

I’ve suggested the idea of ‘Fractal Challenges’ before (the idea that a single roll can be expanded into a Conflict, Challenge, or Contest, and that the inverse is true as well). So let’s look at Princess Perky from the same view.

In the original version, if you don’t make it through the Clammy Caves, you don’t save Princess Perky, and she doesn’t tell you who the Wiley Wizard is. And, due to how traditional systems generally work, the available choices will probably be ‘you get the Dewdrop of Decursing’ or ‘TPK’.

In Fate, the same ‘interesting result’ rule for a single roll applies to a Conflict as a whole. If there’s not an interesting result if you fail the conflict, don’t have one. So what does failure mean? Well… it could mean you’re captured. It could just mean you don’t get the Dewdrop… which could mean that Princess Perky doesn’t get cured. What happens then? Maybe Princess Perky turns into some kind of demonic vessel? Maybe the curse spreads across the town over time, cursing NPCs that the players either have relationships with, or that are useful assets. Maybe Baron Boring even gets cursed, and declares the PCs to be outlaws, and causes them to be hunted! By viewing the Conflict as a decision point, as a branch in the story, rather than a challenge to be overcome, we allow for ‘failure’, where in the traditional game failure tends to be rather game-ending.

For the third example, finding a secret passageway – again, the roll indicates less ‘we overcame the challenge’ than it indicates ‘how will the story progress?’ Finding a hidden passageway doesn’t mean that the challenge is defeated. It just means that the story progresses a different way – it becomes a story about trudging through the dark, forgotten passages underneath the castle, and the horrors that lurk there. Maybe you figured that the game would be more about being sneaky and stealthy. Or heroically fighting into the castle. Or some masterful bluff. But a scary hidden passageway story is just as good, and can be just as tense. And you might still get your way – after all, if the attempt to find the passageway fails, then something bad is likely to happen as a result of the characters poking around!

And here’s the thing – since ‘failure’ will generally mean that things get worse for the heroes, it can be a real threat in every single encounter. You can run the game so that no encounter is guaranteed. Your failure rate can be 50%. PCs can go into every encounter knowing that something is on the line, even if it’s not usually their lives. Instead of winning 99% of the time, losing will be a real threat.

*I’ll go so far as to say that every die roll in Fate should be tense. That’s where the system works best. This isn’t a game where the goal is to stack your bonuses so high that you never fail. This is a game where failure should always be a possibility, where things getting worse can always happen.

Because here’s the thing – Fate Points and the concession mechanics also combine to ensure that, in almost any situation, players can get their way if they choose to dedicate enough resources, in terms of Fate Points and consequences. I’ve seen it said here that the initial die roll isn’t about whether you succeed or fail, it’s about the cost of success. And that seems pretty accurate.

So, when I see questions like “how do I make sure a fight is challenging, without having the players lose”, my answer is “who cares?” Make it tough. Let them buy their way out of it and carry those consequences. Or let them lose, and let the story go that way.

Fate isn’t easier because of these things. It’s harder. A Fate game, run as Fate can be far more brutal than any D&D game I’ve ever played. Embrace this. Embrace failure in your games. Embrace not knowing what will happen. Embrace rolls, Contests, Challenges, and Conflicts as decision points. Embrace Concessions, and don’t think of them as a cop-out.

Failure is a core part of Fate “as Fate”. Embrace it.

In Fate, your character will never die as a result of die rolls. It happens as a choice by the guy taking you out, and in that regard it’s very different from Dungeon World. I’m not saying either is bad, they’re just very different.

I agree that “Success / Failure” should be a story branching mechanic, not a “story stops or story continues” mechanic. A lot of systems use the latter though, which I find to be extremely annoying. It’s not a design choice per se, but a lot of systems has a “TPK versus victory” approach to dangerous challenges.

I dislike playing D&D for exactly this reason; if you are fighting monsters, they murder some or all of your party if you don’t win, or the players all get away. Personally, I’ve never experienced the latter, usually, they all just die. That’s it, end of campaign.

The DMG2 for D&D 4th Edition gave the sage advice that outcomes of encounters should always be interesting; you lost the encounter against the kraken? It destroys your ship and the party is washed ashore on a nearby island. Great advice, but one problem; if you lose a combat, most likely the entire party is dead, which is ultimately the most boring ending. That is why I think the concession option is so damn brilliant.

The thing that spoke to me so much was the notion of story branching; a failure is not meant to punish the players, but taking the story in a direction unwanted by the characters. This creates drama, action and memorable enemies, enemies your players will thoroughly hate in the game, but love outside of it.

There are outcomes that are worse than death in the game, but there’s rarely a greater turn down outside the game, if it is handled poorly. Death is integral to the theme of Dungeon World, and I wouldn’t give it up for anything. I would much rather make it meaningful, and give that player one last chance to show everyone how awesome his character is, giving the character a proper “burial”.

I want success and failure to be about the direction of the story, not the advancement of it. The latter shouldn’t even be a choice, it should just happen. I think Robert Hanz has given us some sage advice here. I suggest thinking about it, especially as the GM.

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About Undreren

I'm a university student from Denmark, currently taking my candidate degree in Mathematical-Economics. I have played pen & paper RPG's since 2004, but my interest for the phenomenon sparked about 3 years prior to that. I'm an amateur programmer and knows Java and Haskell as well as some rudimentary HTML, CSS, PHP and Javascript.

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