(Role)Playing To Win
If you've been spending any time at all at Gamegrene recently, you'd have to be blind not to notice the rather substantial discussion sparked by dwhoward's article "Roleplaying: Gig Or Game?" I have no desire to rehash the same old arguments yet again (nor do most of the participants have any desire to hear them again). What I really want to do here is use dwhoward's thought-provoking article as a jumping-off point to explore a related issue... the question of whether it is really possible to win a roleplaying game.
If you've been spending any time at all at Gamegrene recently, you'd have to be blind not to notice the rather substantial discussion sparked by dwhoward's article "Roleplaying: Gig Or Game?" As my own response to this article can be found buried somewhere in that discussion thread, I have no desire to rehash the same old arguments yet again (nor do most of the participants have any desire to hear them again). What I really want to do here is use dwhoward's thought-provoking article as a jumping-off point to explore a related issue brought up by "Gig Or Game" and the discussion that followed it. Although this issue forms an important part of the background to the article, it was only briefly touched upon in the discussion (at least, in comparison to the amount of words devoted to other parts of the argument). That is the question of whether it is really possible to win a roleplaying game.
dwhoward and many other posters often spoke of roleplaying in terms of a contest of some kind. The GM gives the players an objective and establishes the rules they must follow to achieve it, and the players "win" by overcoming the obstacles the GM puts in their path to accomplish their goal. (Whether the objective is the defeat of a monster, the achievement of good acting and complex inter-character relationships, or some combination of the two is irrelevant to this discussion. It's tantamount to holding an endless debate about the benefits of Monopoly versus Battleship, and just about as interesting.) At first glance, this seems like a perfectly reasonable assessment of RPGs - after all, who doesn't see their GM as the enemy from time to time?
But there's still something about the idea of winning at roleplaying that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. The simple fact that I feel it necessary to even discuss how one can win a roleplaying game puts the existence of that finish line in question. I can't think of any other game, be it Go Fish, Scrabble, or even RPGs' closely related strategy games, where a discussion about whether or not it's possible to win the game would have any point. In all games other than RPGs, the rules say you can win and tell you exactly how to do it. However, I've found that most game supplements are terribly vague about the whole winning vs. losing issue. As I scored my shelf full of gaming supplements, searching for any sort of official word on this issue, I discovered that most of my embarrassingly large number of sourcebooks scrupulously avoided the issue of how to win at an RPG - in fact, only two seemed to have official positions at all. According to my copy of the Trinity base rules, "There are no 'winners' or 'losers'...the idea is not to 'beat' the other players, as having everyone's character cooperate is often essential to your own character's survival. Nor is the goal to 'beat' the Storyteller, since the Storyteller and players work together to create the best story possible. In the end, the idea is to rise to the challenge, striving to overcome cosmic forces with your powers, wits, and courage." (My copy of Vampire said pretty much the same thing but felt compelled to add, "In fact, Vampire is a game in which you are likely to lose...the whole idea is to hang on as long as possible and eke out the most drama from the ongoing tragedy." Whatever, White Wolf.)
Though Trinity's take on the problem seemed reasonable to me, so did the other side of things. Finding little help from my sourcebooks, I hoped that a simple glance at the dictionary could settle everything (after all, my high school debate coach told me that definitions were what could make or break your case). Unfortunately, this was not the case. Webster's defines "game" in a multitude of different ways, which could be bent to suit both sides of this argument. Several definitions certainly support the GM vs. players assessment: "A procedure or strategy for gaining an end; tactic." "A physical or mental competition conducted according to rules with the players in direct opposition to each other."
These definitions seem perfectly valid to me, especially inasmuch as they establish the need for players to work toward a goal or accomplish an end. A recent plot line in the webcomic "Something Positive" illustrated this as it dealt with one character's introduction to D&D. An experienced player explained to her, "D&D isn't that kind of game. There's no real set way of winning. You're trying to build storylines and achieve many goals. There's no 'Pass go, collect $200' to it." To this, she responded, "For three years now, you've spent five to six hours every Wednesday in someone's living room, pretending to be a dwarf just for the sake of being a dwarf? Not for prizes?" In order for a game to be interesting to most people, there has to be some sort of "prize" at the end of it. Often that prize is something illusory and only meaningful to those involved in the game, such as victory over a villain or the diplomatic resolution of a tense situation, but it is a prize to achieve nonetheless. In this respect, it is entirely possible to win at an RPG by accomplishing what you set out to do.
But there's another definition of "game" that I think it's important not to forget: "Activity engaged in for diversion or amusement; play." So in the case of roleplaying, I think a more sophisticated model than players vs. GM is needed. Maybe the best game-related analogy we can compare it to is not a board game or a card game, but games of soccer played in an amateur league. Some teams take their moonlighting as athletes very seriously, holding extensive practices and coming up with elaborate strategies to advance in the competition. But other teams prefer not to make soccer that important in their lives, showing up only for the scheduled games and playing purely for love of the game. Both kinds of teams want to win and will do their best when they go out on the field; the only difference between them is what they really want to get out of their participation in the league. The first teams are most concerned with winning, whereas the second teams are most concerned with having a good time.
Just as there is no right or wrong way to play amateur soccer, there is no right or wrong way to roleplay. It's perfectly valid to be a goal-oriented roleplayer who does anything necessary to complete the adventure. But maybe we'd all be happier if every so often we took a step back and remembered why we started gaming in the first place - for love of the hobby. For me, the biggest benefits I've derived from roleplaying have not been the defeats of monsters and the completion of adventures. Getting involved in RPGs gave me much better things - an always interesting and entertaining hobby that engages my mind and my heart, the best friends I've ever made, and a self-made cure for the almost pathological shyness that had up until that point crippled all of my social interactions. Finishing the module means nothing in comparison to that. Sure, I enjoy achieving those goals when it happens, but I'm also perfectly happy to play in sessions with little or no combat, where the characters shoot the breeze and wander around their world and actually accomplish relatively little (though I'll admit that I do get antsy if we have too many of those in a row). I go away happy knowing that I just spent six hours doing one of my favorite things with some of my favorite people, and the specifics are almost never important. After all, games are supposed to be fun. That's why we play them, isn't it?