(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?

While your soccer analogy does seem to serve its purpose, I would like to point out that I have played in a league which would have scarcely qualified as "amateur", but which in the younger age groups [the time I was in it], fully supported this paradigm of "fun". We held several practices a week, for a few hours each, and while the coach was there to enforce at least a half hour of drills before scrimmage, we were mainly there to have fun. Not fun chatting with each other [I'll get to that later], but fun playing the game. Soccer was important in our lives, precisely -because- we had so much fun with it.

Then, as I exited an age group, I noticed many attitudes change abruptly.

At practices, the people were concerned with making crude jokes and otherwise chatting with each other while waiting in line [to take their turn at head-butting the ball, or whatever]. Out on the field, even in cross-team scrimmages, -within the same league-, things were what I could only term as "playing rough". The referees passed without comment moves that would have invoked a penalty shot and possibly banishment of the offending player from the field [who might have gotten off with a stern warning once, but not twice]. Even with this laxity [which I could only presume came from having come to expect it], the players pushed the boundaries of what was, according to the rules, "legal". Half of them seemed to be treating it as more of a game of football, than anything else [tripping opponents, body-slamming them; not enough to be caught at it of course, but just... when you were near enough to the ball that, well, you might have gotten your feet tangled around it, you might discover that a foot had been inserted in between your legs for a crucial second; or you might not be knocked over, just shoved away from the ball for a moment because the other person was bigger and heavier than you, or knocked off course long enough to lose your momentum].

In the latter age group, the focus was on Winning. I elected to remove myself from the league before permanent injuries manifested. Oddly enough, they didn't seem to be having any "fun" playing the game. The playing was just a means to The end, and all worthless if it didn't get them what they wanted. The actual Winning, was the Fun. At practice, since Winning didn't matter, they sought their entertainment in baser ways - non-soccer-related chit-chat.

When's the last time you had fun with a few players turning the entire session into a running series of Monty Python jokes and other cheap OOC cracks, to the extent that the actual SESSION bogged down? How bored do you think you would get if they spent a few sessions that way?

And saved up their genuine effort for whenever they were finally swept along to the "final battle"?

-Coilean mac Caiside

Theoretically, one cannot win an RPG. It's supposed to be a zero-sum game. For the most part, I agree with that. There are some, few, limited situations where it can be said that one person or character has "won" over the others. That doesn't matter though.

Coilean, I have seen your soccer example in action and I agree with it. If the players are only going to be worried with the final outcome, the game itself will suffer. This means RPG's, soccer and any of the other athletic sports.

That being said, the final outcome needs to be kept in mind at all times. Not to the point of all-consuming obsession, but it needs to be "on the horizon". Some people have stated that a good RPG tells a story. The players take on the roles of the characters in the story and the DM the role of narator, blah, blah look it up in a White Wolf sourcebook to get the rest.

Fine, your "telling/creating" a story. That doesn't give characters/players license to muck about with the plot and rising action of the story. If a character of mine, or a group I'm running succeed in completing a plotline, I consider it a success. About the same as a win as far as how I feel about it.

Nice article, gamerchick.

I suppose what really mucks about with the RPG-as-win-or-lose-game idea is that there often isn't a finite ending as such.

In Clue, once the Murderer is ID'd, that's pretty much it. Game Over. No trial, no prison sentence, just pack up the pieces and go home.

On the other hand, in an RPG while there may be some smaller conclusions (as the characters complete scenarios) there often isn't a Game Over point to worry about.

I've not known many DMs who actually design a conclusion to their campaigns, (although there have been some), since most of them prefer to keep the game going for as long as possible. When campaigns do end, more often than not it's for external non-game-related reasons, like sudden lack of players or the end of the DM's university career. ;-)

Is it even possible to win a game when the game (in theory at least) never ends?

Winning at RPG's… well yeah why not.

Keeping to the comparison between any team sport and RPG.
1 - Each game is the equivalent of a game session.
2 – Each season would be the equivalent of a campaign.

How does one win? It depends on what the game's goal is.
Contrary to sports where points are the key determinant of victory, experience points aren't the only way one achieves victory in RPG's, or are they?
Aren't experience points (karma, force points and all those other rewards) an indicator of how well one "scored" during a game?
Aren't there bonus points for good role-play or extra heroïsm? So in a sense one can win at RPGs, each victory gives you points (be they experience, Karma, Force, quintescencem, destiny or reality).

But contrary to sports (and Kinball isn't a sport) the points in themselves aren't as important as how much fun one has earning them.

Contrary to sports, a game where you lost (ie achieved party death) can be just a great if not better than a game you won.
How often have you heard footballers say something like: "Remember that game last year against the (insert team name here), boy did we ever get creamed. But oh boy, was that ever a great game."

It's all a question of goals. Goals are either short term or long term ie: win the match or win the season. The means by wich one achieves victory vary alot. Is victory achieved in battle? on a philosophical or moral level? or does sacrificing yourself to save a third party constitude a victory?

I think that yes one can win at RPGs but unlike many other games RPGers play for its own sake and winning is secondary to the enjoyment of the game.

Cthulhu Matata and enjoy your game folks

Wooz, good point, but I find I *like* it when characters muck with the plot and the rising action. Part of what makes an RPG what it is is that players have free will and can thwart the way the GM thought things were going to go. I'm mostly concerned with finding a way to bring things to a logical conclusion that leaves everyone satisfied, not forcing the plot to go in a certain configuration that I think is best for the game. If I wanted that, I'd sit down and write a novel. When I want to tell a story *cooperatively,* with just as much input from the players as the GM, then I run a game.

Good points so far, all. And thanks for not making this into a repeat of the article that inspired it (the discussion of which I have admittedly stopped reading a long time ago *grin*).

"I suppose what really mucks about with the RPG-as-win-or-lose-game idea is that there often isn't a finite ending as such."

Nor a set ending; "rail-roading" the PC's is bad, why? Because it removes their illusion of choice, of free will. In a "scenario", where there -is- a defined end to everything, a little "benign rail-roading" may be necessary to get the PC's on track - this is, of course, -presuming-, they were going off-track with the scenario at all.

And the very idea of having a scenario, presumes the PC's are willing to set, as players, their PC's with very specific goals, outside of initial motivation.

Doesn't this qualify as "rail-roading" also, albeit on a larger scale?

What keeps the players playing is the idea that they can have some influence over the world. If the "scenario" is set up so that it does not force the players to intervene, say, so that events will proceed on their course and wind up at the same, final, inevitable conclusion, even if they actively try to stop it - isn't this removing their Free Will? Why should they bother with making a choice, when they know it won't have any effect?

A scenario, to allow this, should be nothing more than a collection of events which, if nothing interferes, will come to pass as follows - and motivations of all groups involved, why this is happening, what they are after, so on.

GM's should treat each group as having no more importance than the PC's - there is no "destiny", no guarantee that ANYONE's goals will be netted, desires fulfilled, or efforts otherwise met with success.

Cause and effect. An endless cycle of these forms a game, with effects often becoming another cause.

-Coilean mac Caiside

The "cause" can come out of "nowhere" as well, but it is when the last "effect" fails to immediately manifest as another "cause", that an "end" to the game can be found. Most of these "final effects" are hard-wired into the game system, or code for a computer game; after that, there simply isn't anything left to happen. But in a role-playing game, not only is there no automatic end, nor a readily-defined finish, but the "end" could be merely a pause point, after which another effect springs up out of "nowhere" and the next sessions starts :)

[Not to imply that everything finds it's resolution before the end of each session; just that the next "adventure" would probably be started with a new session.]

-Coilean mac Caiside

"Nor a set ending; "rail-roading" the PC's is bad, why? Because it removes their illusion of choice, of free will."

Oh no, that isn't where I was going.

My point was that in most games there is an Ultimate Goal. Find out who killed Mr Body, that kind of thing.

However, most campaigns are open-ended. Without an ultimate goal in theory they never end. The point being that if there is no ending can there ever be a definite 'win'?

That's not to say that a campaign can't be closed ended, and to be honest I don't see that as rail-roading. If the Ultimate Goal is to free the kingdom from tyranny then once Bad King Richard's head is on a spike and peace has been restored that's pretty much it. Game over. You could start a different campaign with the same characters maybe, but that's the only continuation I can think of.

I mean, would you defend a free-will scenario in which the characters played at being Heroic Rebels but secretly plotted to keep King Richard on the throne as long as possible? Just so they could maintain their status as the Heroes of the Story?

"Oh no, that isn't where I was going."

That's okay, I sprang off your point to make my own :)

"That's not to say that a campaign can't be closed ended, and to be honest I don't see that as rail-roading. If the Ultimate Goal is to free the kingdom from tyranny then once Bad King Richard's head is on a spike and peace has been restored that's pretty much it. Game over. You could start a different campaign with the same characters maybe, but that's the only continuation I can think of."

I consider there to be a difference between campaigns and scenarios. A campaign IS a long-running series of sessions in the same timeline [same characters / theme, throughout, is optional]. But the scenario is a self-contained adventure which the PC's might run in to on their way through campaigns. You can choose to play characters that would be motivated to remove the king from power; wandering across that plot line after character creation, and having the PC's chase after and get themselves involved for that reason, without even consideration of their own motivations or goals, is on the level of rail-roading. The PC's could have their own reasons to not get involved, or they could be drawn into auxiliary missions for their own reasons - but arbitrarily assigning motivations to them just to smooth the running of the scenario, is wrong.

"I mean, would you defend a free-will scenario in which the characters played at being Heroic Rebels but secretly plotted to keep King Richard on the throne as long as possible? Just so they could maintain their status as the Heroes of the Story?"

Yes. It sounds like a very interesting campaign.

-Coilean mac Caiside

After trying it several ways, my players firmly stated that they preferred to have shorter "episodes" usually running two or 3 games.

They liked semi-contained stories that had a specific objective to attain with some sense of closure when complete. This is a reasonable definition of winning (or losing, as the case may be).

In this way, the ongoing story was the story of each character's lives (as well as the 'tween game background). They liked the idea of some continuity between "episodes" but they also distinctly enjoyed the feeling of closure and "a job well done" that came from achieving the objectives of a small adventure.

Looking back, I recall that the same players eventually abandoned at least 4 distinct long-running campaigns and characters with another DM because there appeared to be no closure in sight.

Interesting points, Coilean.

From your point of view, where does that leave games like Star Wars, or Call of Cthulhu? Both of those assume that regardless of individual character likes/dislikes/whatever there are going to be certain uniform characteristics to the game. You Fight the Empire. You try to Prevent the Stars Coming Right. Heck, even Star Trek assumes that everyone's going to be following the Prime Directive. There are other examples I guess, (I'm fond of the idea behind Weird War, if not the execution), but those are the ones I can think of off the top of my head.

Winning and continuity…

Trying to keep into Gamerchick's intended discussion, or what I think she intended.

Nephandus made good points, each scenario should bring a sense of accomplishment but not necessarily tie up all the loose ends (that's for the end of the campaign). So you can win or lose every scenario according to the goals you set for yourself.

But what about continuity… well it's the same as in every game right? The out of game fun, running gags and habits of your playing buddies are part of what brings you back.
In a tight knit campaign, the main plot is what gives you the most continuity, the end goal is the focus of the game. "Will we ever find out who's been smugling all that spice off Kessel? Will the ranger ever find the orc shamman who slew her father? etc."

In a loose campaign where each scenario is more or less related to one another, the characters become the main source of continuity. The sub-plots are the link between games; "How do I get back at the Decker for that prank he pulled on the last run? Will the sorceress reciprocate my feelings? Will I manage to bloodbind the other pc's?"

All these are ways to interpret the end result of a campaign and determine if one won or not. All these things go on at the same time during a game.

ex: The first D&D campaign I DMed took 7 years to run. The two wizards and the paladin kept focussing on the main plot, the kender, the gnome jester and the halfling had their own slapstick thing going. When we recall the game The Big Guys remember the epic adventures, the combats and the clever traps, The Little Guys remember all the pranks, the trivial puns and the laughter. Keeping both groups hooked on was a tough job but we managed. Both groups determined victories and defeats from different perspectives and came up with different evaluations.

Diversity folks! Ain't it grand?

PS merci Greg, Guillaume, Tony, Etienne, Simon, Sylvain et Marie-Eve pour une des plus cool campagne de ma vie : )

"From your point of view, where does that leave games like Star Wars, or Call of Cthulhu? Both of those assume that regardless of individual character likes/dislikes/whatever there are going to be certain uniform characteristics to the game. You Fight the Empire. You try to Prevent the Stars Coming Right."

As I said earlier: "You can choose to play characters that would be motivated to remove the king from power; wandering across that plot line after character creation," I have no problem with the creation of a character who is, say, bipedal in a historical genre. Choosing to play a type of character that fits in, seems normal to me. It is the portrayal of that character type, without reference to the actual type of character you are playing, which I am objecting to. They could turn out to be the same; but this doesn't alter the arbitrary nature of the decision.

-Coilean mac Caiside

Not really related, but something that crossed my mind recently: I've come to realize that when I am a player, I often think of my job in an "us vs. them" capacity. That is, the GM is trying to screw my character over in some way, I need to prevent it...and if I emerge from whatever evil thing he has planned unscathed, then I have won, because the character survived to be played another day. However, when I am GMing, I find that I *NEVER* see myself in direct opposition to the players. Sure, I complicate their plans and put substantial obstacles in their way, but that's not because I'm trying to win the game for myself. I am simply providing the story with motivation and a way to get from point A to point B, and making the campaign more interesting than an unopposed drive to the goal ever would be (even if players may curse my name for doing so). I almost always want the PCs to succeed, I just want them to have to fight for it rather than giving them all their hearts' desires. (Hmm, maybe I need to remember this when I am a player...it would make me less pissed off at my GMs most of the time!) Anyone else look at roleplaying in this way, or am I just crazy? (c;

I tend to think of DMing in the same way as you. I get a distinct pleasure from seeing my group resolve the challenges they're faced with. The players and their choices complete the story for me. Games like 1st edition StarWars I found less fun, because the plots and their resolutions were largely fixed beforehand. The only variables were the degrees of failure until the final act.

Unless the DM deliberately and recurrantly sets up ridiculously unfair challenges, or changes rules on the fly to make things harder, I give the DM the benefit of the doubt and see her as a partner in action. Nothing gets me more deliciously tense as a player than seeing our DM look genuinely concerned for us, that she thinks we may not survive the encounter.

"Anyone else look at roleplaying in this way, or am I just crazy? (c;"

Oh, I've no doubt you're crazy, but that doesn't mean that you don't have a point. ;-)

I've seen the us-v-them bit most often in number-cruncher games (D&D, or AD&D as I knew it when I played regularly, was notorious for it) and less so in storyteller variants like Ars Magica.

I think it has something to do with the fact that when you number crunch it's all down to dice in the end, and somehow that 'feels' more like a traditional I-win-you-lose game. All those Monopoly sessions from Christmases past rise up to haunt you. ;-)

Which is not to say that Storyteller doesn't use dice. Just that ST is less likely to let dice be the final arbiter of success, and that seems to take the pressure off.

In my experience, the worst us vs them tendencies occurred in Vampire and Mage, where the group forced the GM to seal his bad guy's strategies in an envelope before the combat started (as if they would not be able to adapt to PC strategies). These, of course, are Storyteller games, and both used the same group of players.

From this, I'd speculate that these tendencies have more to do with the players than they have to do with the system.

"where the group forced the GM to seal his bad guy's strategies in an envelope before the combat started (as if they would not be able to adapt to PC strategies). "

I'm confused. Why wouldn't a bad guy alter his strategy in combat? I mean, he can see what the characters are doing. Carrying on robot-fashion with his predetermined strategy sounds daft under the circs. I can only think that there was some kind of initiative issue involved. Could you explain?

No problem.

The players knew they were about to assault the bad guys' stronghold. They told the GM to get out of the room and then planned the assault ad nauseum for 2 hours. They told the GM to seal his own planned defence tactics in an envelope.

I believe the players' motivation, however misguided, was that they didn't want the GM's out-of-game knowledge of their location and tactics to be used against their PCs. They did not trust the GM to resist metagaming, or to play fairly. They expected, incorrectly, that they had anticipated all variables within the stronghold, and that the only remaining variable was the GM's strategy.

Of course, after the opening round, the entire plan came apart because the players had no map of the stronghold. The intricate planning and sealed-envelope security was moot. A lot of work yielded very little benefit.

None of the strategies really had much to do with number crunching. This kind of thing regularly occurred within our Storytelling games Vamp, and Werewolf, though I expect that other groups would have much different experiences. It happened again when I GMd Mage - they tried everything they could to escape danger, rather than trying to achieve the objective.

My point being only that I think the us vs them complex is mitigated by the trust of the players, and the ability and willingness of the GM to offer a fair challenge. If players such as these define winning only as surviving, then it will seem reasonable to them to avoid danger. In so doing, they avoid playing. Sensing this, I stopped the campaign to discuss this with them, and suggested a tactical combat game for them - Battletech. They confessed to me that they had planned on "moving their characters to Africa" to "outsmart" me, by taking their characters right out of the story. How exciting! I didn't play anything with them after than point.


What a bunch of dingbats. I'm not surprised you stopped playing with them. I've never heard of anything so absurd as moving to a different continent to 'outsmart' the DM. That's like burning your apartment building to the ground to outsmart your landlord!

My personal bugbear on the us-v-them was a DM I used to have. Great guy, but a tried & true wargamer who'd come to D&D. Everything was a skirmish game. Everything. There was no point in talking to the NPCs. It was only a matter of time before they went psycho/revealed themselves to be liches/whatever and tried to kill us all. Any beautiful maiden was bound to be a vampire in disguise. And dice rolling. Lotsa lotsa dice rolling, because that's what skirmish games live on.

The problem was the opposite in this case. The DM believed in his heart of hearts that the players were out to get him. Anything, in game or out, could be a symptom of this, and he was constantly re-interpreting the data (he had at least half-a-dozen folders worth of tables & minutiae) to make sure that the skirmish game was on a solid footing.

OK, part of this probably sprang from his wargaming past, which was definitely an us-v-them situation. Even so, I've seen an awful lot of other wargamer types gravitate to much the same games - D&D seems to be a big fave - because of the dice, and the tables, and the adversarial element. You can get a clear-cut '20! critical hit! hoody hoo!' victory with those systems, which I think can be a powerful attraction.

However, I take your point. A lot of it does come down to personality in the end.

Thanks, and to be fair to D&D, there are equivalents to the critical hits in the Whitewolf games - at least there used to be when I played them. And because the tactical portions of the Whitewolf games were not very well balanced, our players tended to create Death-Star Superlaser characters by exploiting weaknesses and obvious oversights in the rules (ie Riddle Fantastique on a megaphone). I've seen just as many a munchkin playing ST games as any other.

Personally, I have love a *well-paced* and fair tactical portion of a role-playing game. We have fewer arguments about HOW to play, and more time playing, whatever our style.

The 3e rules work well and curb obvious munchkinism. Min/max all you want - the character will still be relatively balanced with its opponents and with the other players.

"I've seen just as many a munchkin playing ST games as any other."

I suppose you could start a whole new thread right there.

Are munchkins necessarily adversarial? After all, ultimately they have to work with the DM to get what they want. All rules & their interpretations have to be mutually agreed. There can be a lot of plea bargaining & so forth, but ultimately I suppose it could be said that the munchkin is no more or less likely to be adversarial than anyone else.

"Personally, I have love a *well-paced* and fair tactical portion "

My sediments exaxctiplie. ;-)

Pace is key. One thing I always hated about that D&D game I mentioned earlier (apart from the constant presence of undead - by all rights the hordes of darkness ought to have taken over the world in that game) was the slow speed of the combats. Every single freakin time someone wanted to do a called shot or throw a grenade-like missile (AAARGGGHH whoever designed that table has my most potent death-by-rabid-weasels curse) or do anything that wasn't vaguely orthodox, out came the tables and the dice. Another 10-15 minutes of wrangling later, and we had a result. Just in time for the next rules crisis!

Agreed with everything you said AM.

1st and 2nd Edition D&D always had problems with pace. The more exciting the combat promised to be, the more it bogged. A friend told me of a combat that lasted for an entire summer. He got knocked out early for a few rounds and so had to sit out for a month. And they played every week!

3e is MUCH better with the pace, from its better initiative rules, to the streamlined combats. Our games MOVE now. We trashed called shots too. We decide on the relative success of a shot based on the dice, not based on the intention of a particular person. Of COURSE the player wants to shoot the orc in the eye. And if he rolls a 20 and kills the orc, I'll describe the hit that way.

Can you "win" at playing an RPG? The comments I have read seem to converge with my own thoughts in that they seem to approach the question from one of two directions: Can you win in theory? & Can you win in practice?

My own thoughts are as follows:
**Disclaimer: My ideas reflect my personal gaming experience only! I am not making any generalized statements about anyone!**

In Theory:

While I did not read all 300+ comments made in response to the rant that inspired Gamerchick to pose her question, I did read the last few and the general solution offered within those final comments. Briefly, it was suggested that both players and game masters discuss what kind of game they wanted to experience or run, before the game ever started. I consider this to be a good idea that also applies to the present discussion. When an expectation/goal has been established, then in my opinion, both a "win" and "lose" scenario have been created. I say this not with the idea that it is original or insightful, but rather because I (unfortunately) have hardly ever seen it done. My own game would benefit greatly from such a discussion.

In Practice:

I have had the sometimes bad, but mostly good fortune to roleplay with a core group of friends for over 15 years. As you might imagine, friendships go through changes over such a time span and what I have noticed within my group (myself included) is a growing tendency for us to react to the player as opposed to the character. I understand that this is part of human nature, and to some degree unavoidable. However, I think it has become the norm for my particular group, to the point that adventure specific success is the secondary goal. In essence, we have begun to play against each other, with the GM as referee. While I believe our overall gaming experience has been hampered by our competitive nature, within the context of Gamerchick's question, we have created a "win" scenario: Do better than the other players.

A game being winnable means that some outcomes in the game are preferable to others. For example, the PCs being alive at the end of a session is preferable to them being dead, all other things being equal. (Though I am sure somebody will post a game where the only goal was for the party to die and everybody was happy when that happened. Similarly, sacrificing a PC to save others is not saying that death is preferable to living; only that death was preferable to a grimmer fate.)

Saying "win" seems to imply to a lot of people the idea of smashing other people's faces into the dirt. Some players yearn for a kinder place of RPGs where no distinctions are made and the PCs just exist without any judgements about preferable or unpreferable outcomes. But the poor behavior of winners of games does not imply that making distinctions about winning is bad.

RPGs are unusual that all the players can have preferable outcomes without anybody having an unpreferable one. That is, a game can be run where everybody is a winner. (Similarly, in usually unhappy games, everybody can be a loser. And, of course, some people might win while others lose.)

Now, I agree that games can be structured where the players compete against each other, forcing somebody to win and another to lose. Also, games can be structured so there is no judgement on what a PC does. Most games, though, benefit from having distinctions for the player group since winning (i.e. finding preferable outcomes) is very enjoyable.

I never quite understood the "us vs. them" mentality, at least, when it related to players versus GMs. Can't the GM always win? "A million beholders attack you. You look at them and your brains leak out all over the floor. You're dead." I can kind of understand "the GM has some devilish scheme and maybe I can outwit him" but, in the end, don't you still just know that the GM can blow you away anytime he likes by throwing some super powerful opponent at you? I'm not sure how players can believe or control a GM who is truly dedicated to beating them.

Well I now think my group doesn't play to win.


1 - They spend no time on tactics, none whatsoever, except when I try to implant a strategy which they all bash while not suggesting anything in return except charging blindly into the fray.

Here is the best example: We follow a bunch of Storm Troopers in a field and avoid detection. They set camp. It takes me 20 minutes of real life arguing to convince my clueless friends that if we wait for most of the stormtroopers to take off their armour and go to sleep, our ambush is almost foolproof.

2 - They spend no time on clues, puzzles and intrigue (most of them). Why try to figure out what is going on outside the combats?

Example: humanoîds in the region have been equiped with high quality weapons. Only one seems puzzled by that. None will try to investigate.

3 - They have no concept of character alignment and most play chaotic neutral characters. In a game without alignments their personna is always lawless and rarely aims higher than personnal profit.

4 - They fail to see the necessity of sparing people's lives whatever the game. I must admit though that GM's in general don't step down hard enough on cold blooded murder once combat has been initiated.

5 - I have the feeling there is very little synergy in our group (and I think I prevent it)

Am I too demanding? Should I expect more from a table RPG than what I get from playing networked videogames?

The last two months have seemed to me like it's me against the other players AND the oponents the GM sends our way.

So I've decided to play a comletely calous and chaotic character who's sole motivition is personnal gain. I'll be selfish, ruthless and will generally not give a damn about the other members beyond what they can give my character back. I'll hang back and will offer as litle tactical advice as possible. I'll see where it goes from there, but I'm seriously considering leaving the table.

regarding point 3 i should say they all play like they are Chaotic Neutral whatever their actual alignment is.

Sorry for that mistake.

Sounds like it is time for your group to take a time-out and talk about what you enjoy about playing. If it works for you, then cool, but if it doesn't, why waste your time. What kind of game do you want to play? It sounds like in your current game, nothing really matters.

Hi Sam,

I can see why you don't enjoy the game you're playing. Are you a recent recruit to that gaming table? It sounds as though you're almost completely out of step with them.

The answers to most of your points may be DM reward. If the DM doesn't reward tactics or clever thinking, then the player's won't make an effort. On the flip side, if the DM doesn't punish bad decisions, (eg. if the character is under an obligation to protect the innocent and defend the weak, but then murders every living thing he sees including widows and orphans), then the player has no incentive to avoid them.

Case in point. I used to run a 2nd ed D&D game directly after another DM finished his daily stint. Our DMing styles were very different. His game was mostly combat, with little or no tactics. I prefer more tactics and clever combat.

So I set up a situation where the party is on a merchant ship and ambushed by pirates. The pirates have a simple strategy. They prepare fire arrows and threaten their target with them, the idea being that if the pirates face resistance they open fire and destroy their target. It loses them their current victim but increases their reputation for bloodthirstiness, which helps them get future victims.

The party's response to being threatened was to take command of their ship, (a slow merchantman), and imediately charge the pirates. Cue fire arrows, and the PC ship quickly burns to the waterline.

Now, that situation was clearly a call for clever tactics. Ambush would have worked well, particularly since there were spellcasters among their group who could have used Hypnotic Pattern or Sleep to good effect. If they'd pretended to surrender and then attacked the pirates when they boarded, they would have won.

However, because the only tactic they used in the previous game was Charge and Kill, (it was the only tactic that the other DM rewarded), it was the only tactic that they knew how to use. They didn't even discuss other options.

I'd agree with Nephandus. Take a time out. Maybe even leave the table. After all, if you're the only one who's having a serious problem with the way the game is played, it's better to let them get on with what they like doing and find something else that you enjoy.

Thanks for the input and feedback guys, that is what I am considering (leaving). Because as you pointed out I am/was the biggest part of the problem.

But I have to clarify Adam, the other options were discussed they were always rejected or when a plan was drawn, nobody respected it... and no punishment was ever given. My party would also have been wiped out had your Pirate situation happened to us.

I must admit though that a large part of my rant was to vent some steam.

To answer some questions, no I'm not a new member of the group, I'm actually the game's original DM and one of the original 3 of 6 members (which is soooooo much a part of the problem since I'm not used to my role as a player on this table).

But, the table seems to be running more smoothly since we went back to D&D and are playing an Evil Campaign. Having a triger happy superior seems to have instilled a good level of fear and "tactical necessity" into the group's dynamics.

Also my attitude has changed, I must admit to having been overbearing in the last campaign which never works out. I'm still a loudmouth (an intrinsic part of my personnality flaws) but I try to gravitate (as best as I can) away from the leadership of the group. Which has actually given me more influence (oh how paradoxal injunctions never sease to amaze me).

The group's dynamics are also quite different: all members but me are part of a :Lawful Evil church which means the party's other cleric is the official leader of the group so he HAS to be proactive. The fact that all party members but me are L E means they HAVE to be more methodical in their actions.
I'm part of an allied Chaotic Evil church which means I'm branded as the outsider from the begining (which doesn't change the already established dynamic that whatever I say doesn't go) but now it's supposed to be that way so I live with it better. Being chaotic I HAVE to care less about group strategy, so when THEY revert to their usual chaos I'm actually happy, especially since I don't bail them out now they get to pay for their lack of planning,

Being the highest level cleric also has its advantages:
Having stablelized and saved 3 party members (including the second cleric) last game means some of them owe me, wich is always good when playing evil characters.

Also last game was one of the most enjoyable games we've had in a while. We laughed alot and most of the players were more alert than usual. So I have a good feeling.

Tonight is our second game, I'll see how it goes.

May the Stormlord spare you all fellow gamers (sorry already in character for tonight)

I've never played an 'evil' campaign that was fun. It is a game of heroic fantasy after all. After the millionth innocent villiage plundered, where's the joy and sense of accomplishment, from a story perspective?

If I was in your shoes, I'd quit the group now, or at least start again at level 1 with new characters. Nothing like getting your butt handed to you by a few smart thinking goblins to make you think twice about what tactics you want to use.

Actually Nephandus, evil can be quite entertaining.

Most of us have played Vampire, Shadowrun or cyberpunk.

Most of these games have you play a dark character that would definitely register on a paladin's detect evil ability.

I've played in 5 evil campaigns so far. 3 of them were fun because most of the players didn't play sickos.

I'm mean there are plenty of ways to be evil:

the Boba Fet / Artemis Entreri / Black Knight way: ruthless and somewhat honourable, in it for the money/ power/ reputation.

the Darth Vader / Al Capone: amass power for its own sake.

the Dr. Doom / Palpatine / Lex Luthor way: let's scheme and amass power to take over the world in a Hitlerian way or destroy it if you can't have it.

the Joker / Jason / Michael Myers way: senseless homicidal mania (quite boring after a while).

the Thanos / Bringer of doom: let's destroy the world for the sake of destruction (not my cup of tea).

Our campaign also has the added bonus of being a race against time: our DM has two tables on opposite quests. The good guys and us. So that makes it quite interesting.

My character believes that you only deserve what you are strong enough to hold on to. That conflict is the crucible by which the weak are weeded out. That might makes right and that the end justifies any means. Meaningless destruction is a waste of energy and will eventually attract the attention of powerfull heroes who will keep you from achieving meaningfull goals.

When you think about it, unless you are a necromancer or a truely demonic cleric, you would not be considered so bad in other roleplaying games (especially in Vampire, Shadowrun or Cyberpunk)

Most of the party, so far, isn't truely evil. They are cruel, petty, greedy, ruthless, scheeming or domineering. Of course, they will give us the opportunity to act out our darkest sides and poison, burn to the ground or reanimate entire villages, but I know it won't turn into a gore/sex fest.

Anyhow, under D&D alignments many heroic characters would be considered evil: the Punisher and the second Ghost Rider (from Marvel), Azrael and Terminator (from DC Comics), the Romulans, the Klingons, the Kardasians and the Ferengui (from Star Trek), Han Solo and Lando Calrissian are clearly not good at first in Star Wars (originaly Han shot Greedo without warning in the Cantina).

Cthulhu Matata

I'm in agreement on the lack of fun in evil campaigns. I played in an evil game once, and by the seventh session or so, I hated my character so much that I was rooting for opponents. I've played an anti-hero type before, and I generally felt like smacking him around while I was planning.

As for Vampire, Cyberpunk, and Shadowrun, I wouldn't touch any of those games with a ten foot pole.

And for the examples of heroic characters who'd be evil by DnD standards...most of the Star Trek examples are villains or at least antagonists, the comic book characters are anti-heroes, not heroes, and Han and Lando weren't in any way heroic until they both changed their ways. So I'm not sure what point you're trying to make by listing these as 'heroic' characters, as they clearly aren't.

Agreed Yonjuuni. Sam, evil depends on context. I've played all three of those games - and done some 'edgy' characters who were ruthless, callous, murdering etc. But in the context of those gritty worlds, they were just shades of grey. Alignment doesn't work the same way. All the characters in those games are played a bit more like individual personalities, rather than conforming to some wide philosophical view.

The D&D world is different. Alignment defines how you act and what spells you get. Some things are just bad. Most of the anti-heroes you mention are really chaotic good characters - people who break the rules for the greater good, or neutral good - people who are good, but self-interested.

On Evil

Wow what an interesting turn of events!

Yonjuuni, You are soooo right when you say you hated your character so much you rooted for the good guys. We plan (half the group at least) on becoming the kind of vilains the good party will remember for the rest of their gaming lives. Heroes are defined by the obstacle they overcome, so we will become the "faire valoir" of the good guys and the darkness they will stand out from. I sincerely hope we get them to hate us and that IF they win against us, they get a kick out of it.

You are half right about Star Trek but, remember the klingons and romulans and how they changed from the original series to the next generation. They originally were "space orcs" and "dark eldars", plain evil (except one episode with the psychedelic emotion eating creature). In Next Gen they were just culturally different and prone to being at odds with North American er… Federation society. The same happended with the Ferengi and Cardassians when DS9 came along.

What I'm saying is that you don't have to be sick, twisted, psychopathic or dishonourable to be considered evil.

As for Han not being heroic… He freed a wookie from imperial slavery for no good reason except kindness or a sense of morality, but he did shoot Greedo first and under the table.

Ghost Rider and the Punisher were clearly heroes because they battled greater evil than themselves and didn't prey on the innocents. In a sense so were Tim Burton's Batman, or the Crow. But ask yourself this question, how come we classify these guys as heroes while they are clearly commiting acts of evil? I mean they are ruthless and even cruel. And not just once in a while but on a regular basis. The evil of the heroes depends on what side of the story you are on. Just as your knights in shining armour seem very evil to the orc children and females when they learn you killed the hunters and protectors of their tribe.

But that is more a question of right and wrong than Good versus Evil.

You guys ever play In Nomine? That is the best RPG material to come out of France. You can play angels or devils caught in the heveanly battle. One of the best adventure revolves around a party of devils trying to save Christ while the angels try to get him crucified, because without his sacrifice all of human kind eventually falls to darkness and hatred.

This game is filled with moral dilemas and paradoxes (be you angel or devil) and sometimes even the devil must do what is right and good and the angel is never completly good.

Even if D&D alignment defines what magic you get and how you react to it, there is more than one way to play a Black Guard, a Cyricist or a Talossite. Also who's to say some of us won't go Darth Vader in the end?

To be continued...

Back to the original subject of winning vs losing the group is clearly more set on winning now that I don't ask them to. By leaving a more or less big empty spot to fill they've been sucked in by the vacuum and have no choice now but to try it.

Knowing that I purposefully try to make combat and the rest of the game as chaotic as possible has cornered them into a position where THEY are responsible for keeping order. They are the one who have to come up with group strategies and stick to them.

Hey they are even suggesting we have simple group formations and combat manœuvres that will facilitate and "organize" combat. Oh my god! And to think 3 months ago having them wait till the bad guys slept to attack took 20 minutes worth of arguing? What do you know.

I was an unwanted leader because I came on too strong and the group felt like they didn't need one, I slowed down the group and by trying to bring order brought more chaos. By imposing MY morality I made them immoral. It's funny now I think the whole group is more moral than before (and they're evil now).

But most important: we are playing to win because our characters and the way we play them makes the game much more fun for all of us and allows us to tell a much better story than the last two games. Being chaotic also means that my character believes in "to each his or her own" as long as I get to do what I want. Not caring about the group's efficiency has made it more efficient (at least to my eyes).

On a side note:

Not feeling responsible for the group's survival AND bailing them out of the trouble THEY put themselves in is soooooooo much fun, I love it.

Next heroic campaign I am soo playing a true neutral druid or chaotic good cleric… so long paladins, lawfull clerics and scheeming wizards.

I truly enjoyed 90% of the game last Monday and am really looking forward to next week's game.

There went another week!

This game is so much fun and yes we are all playin to win, and on 3 levels:

Level 1) Tactics. We all put our heads together (most of the time) or at least we don't intentionnally impede others who are trying to do it. Our main goal, defeat the evil creature that hides behind the DM screen and keeps getting in the way of our quest.

Level 2) Fun. These characters are very enjoyable, to play, watch and listen to. Laughter, snickering and sighs of dispair are all too common around the table for us not to win on that level.

Level 3) Character development. Man is it fun. The power strugles, the quest to find one's niche, the ever shifting politics of intra party powerplays all add up to create tasty characters (or so the ogres told us last monday)

All in all this game is turning out to be one of the best I've had in years.

I would like to extend my thanks to the party as a whole, the DM and to all the wonderful people who make RPG's and allow me to conquer my DM's imaginary world!

Bwa ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ! (with my pinky near my mouth like Dr Evil)