RPG XRAY

002 Failure

October 06, 2023 The RPG XRAY Team Season 1 Episode 2
RPG XRAY
002 Failure
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, we discuss failure in role playing games. Unlike video or board games, tabletop RPG scenarios are rarely replayed, making failure more significant, final and problematic. Excessive failure can create an adversarial game, while too little tension can result in dull gameplay. Join us as we explore how to grab the tiger by the tail and use failure as a tool to enhance gameplay.

Appendix X References:

[ Silence ][ Silence ][ Silence ] Alright, today we're joined by Eric Saltwell, who you just heard, myself, Ethan Schoonover, and in the third chair today, our friend Brendan Power. Brendan, since you didn't get a chance to introduce yourself last week, maybe you want give us a little introduction to yourself and tell us what makes Bread and Power tick. Yeah, well I'm delighted to be here with you guys to talk about failure, which is a concept I'm definitely familiar with. But fundamentally, I grew up in California before making my way up to the Pacific Northwest. I have worked in software for most of my professional career and dabbled in GMing RPGs in the other 25 years of my existence up here. My first ever RPG was actually the Ghostbusters game by West End, which I found at a game store down the street from my home on Lakeshore Avenue in Oakland and attempted to rope all of my cousins into enduring. More recently I found myself playing games, you know, Free League games are my current faves, Alien, Blade Runner, etc. And yeah, I spent a lot of time, I'm sort of a dilettante in terms of systems. I have no real commitment to anything other than an interesting story and yeah, I'm happy to be here. Growing up, do you feel like you were more of a player, more of a GM, or a mix of both? Oh, I was a perma-GM because I was the only one willing to do the actual reading. Yeah, awesome. That's great. So, Brennan, this is funny to me that you started with an IP-based game, right? And so you started off with Ghostbusters. And today, you're saying, like, yeah, you like playing aliens. You like playing, what was the other one, Blade Runner? Blade Runner. Do you feel like there is a connection to that early positive experience with Ghostbusters? I mean, I think the reality is that I like, you know, I do like some of the IP-based games because I am so familiar with players not having done sort of the background reading on any kind of game world, that there is an instant connection for people who are perhaps not consistent common role players to be into an IP that they have already experienced through comics or movies or books.- All right, Brendan, that sounds great. Welcome to the team, and we're gonna move on to our next section, which is called Appendix X. Appendix X is the part of the show where all of us talk about the media we've been consuming that has been influencing our gameplay. So I'm going to get started today and talk a little bit about what I've been consuming and playing. Specifically, I want to call out two things. The first is I've been reading the making of the atomic bomb, and that's because of a game that I'm playing with all of you, well, with Ethan and Jason, that talks a little bit about that atomic era. In addition, I've also been playing through the "crack in the slab" level in Dishonored 2, which if you don't know, is a level about you try to infiltrate a house, and that house is now old and decrepit, but you get the opportunity to switch between two times, where you were both in the time period of the old decrepit house, that's the current day, or you go back in time to the night when the house was kind of destroyed, and you can, and it's the, the Interaction is all about switching between those two timeframes and using that as a mechanic in order to get through the level. And I've been actually planning out for one of the other tables I play at a game very much based on that. Brandon, why don't you go next? Yeah, well, the aforementioned conversation about IP is relevant in that I have been making my way through every Alien movie because, you know, having watched them a million times as a kid, the sort of ecosystem of aliens changed over time as early as Scott returned to the alien universe with Prometheus and then Alien Covenant and how things sort of fit together in the life cycle of the Xenomorph is a little bit bewildering and so I had to refresh my mind on how all the puzzle pieces fit together. Yeah, the fact that one throwaway line also resulted in it being the Xenomorph for the rest of the IP. I have big feelings about this. The entire thing is just a very long-term retcon that, you know. So just to ask, Brendan, are you a fan of the Prometheus Covenant segment of the Alien story or are you a hater? I actually, upon rewatch, and having now read, you know, a bunch of canonical source material that the RPG is introduced. I've warmed to them. I'm not sure that they would still rank in my top three Alien movies, but nonetheless, I do not hate them, I think is the praise I'll give them. Okay, okay, okay. Now we really gotta ask the hard questions, though. Okay? This is a true fan question. Have you read the screenplay by William Gibson? I have the alternate Alien 3. In fact, I own the audiobook of the screenplay. As do I. Yeah. Which was great. Lance Hendrickson is my Lance Hendrickson Hendrickson. Yeah No, it was it was fantastic and certainly a lot better than you know alien 3 the actual Actual movie Ethan how about you? What do you been boy? What am I consuming? I have been I've been reading the murder bot diaries series by Martha Wells, which is a They're very short at least some most of the most of the books are kind of like novellas They are science fiction about a kind of a basically robo cop in You know planetary, you know interplanetary future This kind of robo cop entity, which is controlled by a corporation and is a security bot with a very wry sense of humor and It refers to itself as murder bot just in its own head Doesn't like to have humans know that for obvious reasons, but it's really the killer with a heart of gold and Who's coming to grip with its like human components and human feelings which sounds I don't feel like I'm fixing this Well, but they are some of the funniest like just very ride deadpan humor Lots of action Martha Wells really has just an incredible gift for mixing that all up And the and every one of them is there these are they're like episodic TV shows, right? So every episode, Murderbot ends up with a different group of humans that it has to protect. And against it's better judgment often. So I really endorse those. There are a great ton of ideas about running sessions based on something like that or those dynamics. Are the humorous components sort of internal to Murderbot? Is it Murderbot's own thoughts that are funny or is it kind of a Hitchhiker's Guide style– No, it's not Hitchhiker's Guide style. It's not that absurdist. It's mostly that internal dialogue and just... And of course, the gag here is that Murderbot is all of us dealing with people that drive us crazy, right? In an office or a work environment. It's just that Murderbot's office and work environment involves mercenaries and planetary expeditions. So...- Ethan, can you give us an example of something you've read there that you think's gonna impact your play and how it would do so?- Boy, that's a tough one. There's a lot of little things. I think I've definitely thought about like how I might present groups of NPCs as The NPCs are very rich and vibrant NPCs murder bot is the PC and everybody else is an NPC, right? But how you present NPCs to characters in games is it's usually very like single personality driven but I love the complex dynamics that exist in the the groups of humans that murder bot is protecting or the adversarial humans and I'd love to bring some of that in to to RPG sessions I think it would make a great kind of tight two or three session run To cycle through a couple different scenarios like that. That's super interesting that I got to think about that so the the other thing that I have to pitch uh-huh is My wife was watching TV the other day and she was like I don't know She was looking for something to watch while she was folding laundry. So it was in that genre of What can I watch with half my brain or maybe 10% and we found this show that I love and it is called surreal estate Yes, you are like surreal. Yeah, and it is about a group of real estate Brokers brokers is that the right word real estate agents realtors realtors. What's the term?- Bakers, are they house bankers? What are we calling them now? So real estate agents, they run their, they have their little business and they specialize in haunted houses.- Nice.- And so their whole gig is that they have to go in and, you know, sell, fix, clean, dispel the ghosts from haunted houses so that they can flip them. And I'm telling you, this show is really just an office kind of action, not action, but like, you know, interpersonal drama series with a little bit of humor and the ghosts are totally secondary. But you know, you've got, you, you, you go in, you have to solve the mystery. You have to clear the ghosts out and then you have to make money on the deal. And I love this. This reminded me actually of us doing inspectors. This is totally feels like an inspector's campaign frame. Must watch this show. I will- So to be clear, this is not a reality television programming show.- No, not yet. But I'm writing my pitch now. And I'm simultaneous, I'm also reading a book called How to Sell a Haunted House by Grady Hendricks. And he wrote that one.- It's coincidental, obviously.- Coincidentally, yeah. So I'm having a lot of ideas about running scenarios that involve real estate agents that have to flip a haunted house.- All right, I think that's a great place wrap up Appendix X, let's move on to the next section. Today we're talking about failure in role-playing games. How does it hurt your game? How does it help you get your game? And how do we use it in order to make our play better? I think we're gonna start as we often do by defining our terms and talk a little bit about what do we mean by failure and what types of failure is interesting for us to talk about today. Brendan, let me start with you. What do you think of, like, when you think of the definition of failure? What do you think it means in the context of role-playing games? Well, I mean, there's sort of the classic micro-level skill failure in a role-playing game where you're attempting to, you know, kick a kobold or leap across a chasm and, you know, you roll against some ability or skill and succeed or fail based on those merits. But of course, there's also sort of the macro failure of, you know, you've got some narrative in mind or some campaign that you're aiming towards. And the classic total party kill in many role-playing games is obviously a failure for a campaign or narrative that can, depending on the game and the context, disrupt things. And then of course there's, you know, many -- there's failure in the context of people's sort of personal expectations for their character and whether those things are accomplished or dashed during the course of the game events.>> Yeah, those are good examples. And I think that -- so I would -- I think about failure in terms of two levels primarily. One is -- or two domains. The first domain is kind of the in-game failure in the game world, and the second failure is the at-the-table failure. And the in-game failures are things like skill failure, or you fail to find the big bad guy, or he kills all of you. All of those things are in-game failures. The at-the-table failure is somebody walks away feeling uncomfortable or doesn't want to play RPGs anymore. I mean, you know, we I think we've all heard those stories or seen those events and Those are two different types of failures And I just want to separate out right away from the top. So the meta game failures and the in-game failures Yeah, I've been thinking about that as that sometimes Failure is something that happens to the character and sometimes failure is something that happens to the player. And so for me I totally buy the distinction between micro failure and macro failure. I think that in game versus out of game I mean, those are great, but there are often times when the character fails, but the player succeeds, right? And so, like, somebody wants to have their Boromir moment, and they want to, like, really go out in a blaze of glory, and the character may fail. It may fail in horrific, not heroic ways even, but if it's what the player wanted, then that feels to me like it is not failure in the sense that we're talking about today. For sure. So let's let's split that hair right away, which is you know failure doesn't mean dying I don't I mean I don't think now today in modern role-playing gameplay I don't think failure is dying, but we carry a lot of baggage I think from early D&D in particular like 70s 80s D&D where You know to fail Matt your character died, and I think in let's put a pin in that for a moment But yeah, I think a lot of that comes from that early kind of D&D culture which was still kind of war gamey and was still a little adversarial between the GM and the players. So let's actually pick that up in just a second and talk about how failure has changed over, because I think that's a really interesting question, how was failure viewed in the early days when we didn't know what the hell we were doing up to now when we've had a few decades under our belt. But is it fair to say that we feel like some of these types of failure are more interesting to discuss here today and some are maybe less like my sense personally is that micro failure is like is the thing that we are best at right that people whiff and miss hitting the orc they fail to convince no I think we know I disagree I think we suck at it you know I'll tell you why all right a lot of what we do in role-playing games today yeah is paper over some really big gaps and mistakes in the early design of say D&D.- Yep.- Okay. Early, you know, I remember specifically having people roll three or four times to find a secret door because dang it, they need to find that secret door.- You cannot progress with that.- You cannot progress with that or you will miss like 25% of the dungeon with the coolest stuff in it.- Absolutely.- Okay. That kind of failure to find the clue is something that is specifically addressed in later systems, different designed systems like Gumshoe. I actually think character death is exactly the same case and what I mean by that is that it's the blocking thing that says I cannot move forward, especially when you talk about a total party kill. The things that make both failing to find the clue, that leads you further into the story, but also character death is that it stops the game. And if you think about that this is less for me this is less in the micro failure case but in the macro failure case there's this sense that failure has to mean something so big yeah that like that it blocks the story and and RPGs like like we had talked about earlier are so much about a narrative experience that outside of some edge cases people don't outside of some edge cases people don't really replay those scenarios over and over again. And so things that might be okay to do in other games, if that's like chess, where like really losing the whole game is fine because you're just gonna play another game and hopefully you learn something in the meantime. In video games you're like, "Oh yeah, I totally got crushed by this guy, but that's okay because I'm gonna restart and respawn and I'm gonna come back again." Right? And in role-playing games you almost never do that. I have actually done that. I've run a campaign where somewhere inside the campaign I give a player the ability to put an anchor in time. Oh yeah, that's so funny. I was just thinking about Edge of Tomorrow. Yeah, exactly. And it was very Edge of Tomorrow. But it's hard to do and it requires, like not every game can be Edge of Tomorrow. But I think what's interesting and what I want to get back to that you said, Ethan, is just these are all cases where we talk about the the problem of blocking. That if your failure results in blocking, then everything goes awry. There was, yeah, so no, please.- As a side here, I think a lot of this depends on the sort of expectations of the players at the table before you've actually sat down to place it or something.- I think that's key.- The context of whether the game is open-ended and sort of generative and if your character dies, you can roll up another one and head back to the dungeon. That is a very different set of expectations for players than a classic Call of Cthulhu scenario where there is a mystery and a ritual to be stopped. And if you just fail to find the tome you need halfway through, your progress is blocked, or a total body kill ends the adventure right there. And so player expectations are very different in those cases, assuming that the GM has done a good job sort of setting those expectations to begin with.- That is so key. I think that's the biggest mistake people make when they introduce D&D players to Call of Cthulhu, is you think the differences between the two games are like, oh, here, the character sheet, I have all these different skills, I have different stats, oh, there's this thing called sanity, but if you don't set that expectation that things are going to go downhill, you're gonna go into that funnel, then it's a bad experience, potentially. That's failure, right?- I mean, and I think that's actually the most consequential failure of any of the failures that we've touched on from my perspective is failing to set the expectations out of time because you're absolutely right Ethan that when you think about a D&D character, you know, the expectation is you're going to be gaining experience and gaining levels and gaining new skills, abilities, feats, whatever, and you know you are building up a character over time and that it naturally results in players having the sort of expectation that they'll continue to iterate and improve their character throughout time, whereas in Call of Cthulhu or Delta Green or any number of other games, with darker themes, you end up having the steady degradation of characters, right? They get less useful and more broken over time. In Delta Green, you lose your friends and family as you attempt to corral the mythos, and the end result is that your fate is at some point sort of assured, and the question is how does a player anticipate and get to own the outcome when it finally comes? So I would... I don't disagree with any of that. And I think, for me, I think about that very much in the sense of setting expectations is kind of the ability to say what is the player's definition of failure in this situation versus what is the character's. Like in Call of Cthulhu, if you're playing a long campaign, you know, you should have an expectation you're going to go insane. And that's... You're telling the player. The player should not be fighting against that. In fact, fighting against that makes a wholly unenjoyable Call of Cthulhu experience. I refuse to investigate. Yes. I think, and this is for me very interesting when we talk about horror games in an episode, but for me, the question is, okay, in a world where the player is not looking out for the best interests of the character, what is the player's goal and what is their definition of failure and what is their definition of success? But I think that's a discussion for another time. I think your point about expectations and how that makes clear what is the player's goal as differentiated from what is the character's goal is super spot on. Okay, so expectations is a big one, right? There's a big component in terms of like actual failure of... And let's clarify also, in terms of expectations not being met or having the wrong expectations, we're talking about a failure out of game as well as in game. Kind of like both levels, all levels at one time. Yeah, big failure, okay? Catastrophe. And I can think of another example of a failure that I just remembered. I probably had repressed it because I'm big into repressing bad memories. And I'm thinking of a con game that I played once. This was a play test. There was somebody at the table, so this was a dying earth kind of scenario. There was a guy at the table who was obviously like an experienced maybe D&D player or something like that And he was like dead set on playing his guy as sort of a paladin Who would not engage in sort of the nefarious activity that the GM obviously expected us to get up to that we had to engage in to Proceed with the story. Yeah, and the GM had actually laid out that expectation But like the this particular player and there's always that guy at the table and I'm not trying to drag him But it was a little bit of a drag on this game. I'll tell you You know, he just rejected the premise and I would say premise rejection is That would be a failure mode as well. Yes, right where a player as their character rejects the premise and you know This is something that I think about when I'm running games that I often will and I've you know, especially with kids I often experience premise rejection. They're good at premise rejection kids are they'll be like, oh, I don't want to do that at all My character wants to go shoot up the,"We're gonna burn this place down."We're gonna burn the library down." That's always a big problem. How do you deal with the,"We're gonna burn the town down" situation?- Absolutely. - And I find that the way I deal with that kind of failure mode is by just telling them, actually, your character is committed to preserving this town or preserving the library. You tell me why your character's not choosing to burn it down. Why are they choosing to protect it? And you flip that script so that you you create inherent premise acceptance.- So I think that makes a lot of sense when you think about characters are devised by their players with their own set of unique character motivations and character goals and capacities. And you need those players to also figure out how to fit that character into the overarching premise of the ordinary of the game, right? And challenging them to, not to come up with a reason not to do something, but instead come up with a reason to do something. why is it that you, your character, is involved and willing to do this is a Seems like a useful starting point to you, you know, prevent the kinds of sort of systemic values you're talking about. All right, so we're gonna talk more about kind of old systems here in a second. I'm assuming. That's right. But, yeah, maybe we jump into that now, I don't know. But I really want to talk about where this all comes from and the original sins as I consider them of Gary Gygax. I would like, I would like to talk for a second about what you just said, Brendan, and It made me think of drives in Gumshoe and the trail of Cthulhu campaign that we actually all three of us play We're gonna have a whole episode on how Eric pronounces Cthulhu by the way I think there's like three main ways you pronounce that yeah, and it now just to make you super self-conscious about it Yeah, okay It's just you're degrading sanity that makes it seem like he's saying it Yeah, I hear I hear like three voices when he says it for some reason and an echo I feel a dark presence wait till I say nair Roto tab. Oh my gosh come at me Lovecraft fans Yes. So, sorry. Please send an email to Eric at Gmail. So in Trail of Cthulhu, they have this concept of drives. And one of the things that I think is that I've noticed over time is that no matter how much work you do as a GM to set expectations at the beginning of the game, even if people think they are super bought in, they very often revert back to either their default set of expectations or their history of what they have done in games. And what I like about drives is, especially, and I think one of you two just talked about this as well, is the opportunity to say, even before they take that weird action that is off-premise, to say like, "Oh, let's take a moment and let's sit back and I'm just going to walk through each of you and tell me how your drive is making you feel right now, just to come bring them back to that premise of the game because without it I find that it really wanders."- Yeah, no, that's a good point. So we're now full on into the territory of not just failure, but how we're preventing failure. Right? So let me just think though for a second, are there any other modes of failure? We talked about, let's see, we talked about failure, kind of micro level skill failure, fail to hit the guy with the ax, right?- Yeah. - Yeah.- Okay, but that's fine, that's just texture, right?- And you were gonna relate that back to the, this is the prior conversation, I think, right?- Yeah, I will come back to this. We've talked about kind of the failure to find fundamental information, which I think is one of the original sins. Failure in sense of you hit a blocker. Is that what you called it? A blocker? Yeah. Right? Blocker failures. Right? And that's like the TV show gets canceled basically. Right? That's no fun. You want more episodes. Narrative ended. Yeah. Narrative ended. The only way to win is not to play. What else do we have? Design failures, I guess? failures, I've been thinking about this as unintentional failures, which is nobody, neither the game design nor any of the players, wanted this thing to be a failure, but it was anyway. And there was a video game article about this where they talk about how if you don't have, there are two processes that you do inside of any game loop, and I'm gonna say any game loop, but whatever. One is how you encode inputs coming in about what is the state of the game and how well do you understand the state of the game and then the other is about like your ability to execute and know what actions you can take to affect and have agency in the game and that those two places are really places where people can fail for unintentional reasons. I think the secret door is an example of this right or I would often say oh and there's that desk in the corner and they'd be like oh well I go search the dead body and I'm like great you don't find anything. Remember, here's the things that are in the room, including that desk in the corner, and I'm like, in my head, I am screaming. Go check that desk in the corner, but people don't pick up on it, right? Or you fill a room full of, this is a more combat scenario, you fill the room full of old creaky beams that you want the characters to know that they can interact with. But if they don't understand the environment and the situation in the way the GM understands it, then that is a cause of failure that is just totally bad.- Isn't that ultimately a GM failure? I mean, if you're a GM and you've designed this perfect engine with a secret door that you want your players ideally to find because it leads to all sorts of exciting scenario choices, why are you making it a dice roll to begin with, right? Why are you forcing players to succeed?- That's a great point. This is a great point. I wanna both agree and disagree with you here. Like on the one hand, I think yes, there are so many situations where either it's the rules is written or it's in a module or it seems like it's in it. I don't think through the consequences of the role right away and I let people roll something and it goes south. This has definitely happened to me personally, repeatedly on an ongoing basis, probably still today. All right. So yes, I think that is a big GM failure. The introduction of chance when it should be exploration, right? Or when they should just get the result. But I do think that there are definitely scenarios, and this happens I think with us when we play as a group very regularly, depending on the game system that we're playing, maybe it's desired. That is like the emergent world phenomenon where we're all creating this world together. No, I'll give you a better example. the unimportant NPC that becomes the main character. This happens all the time. I have so many times rewritten games on the fly because players latched onto one guy or one shopkeeper or that one weird woman on the edge of town. And you, great! What a gift your players have just given you. the inverse of that is that they latch onto the wrong thing that totally derails the game and that can happen. Yeah. Yeah, well, and I think, you know, you are starting to describe, you know, sort of an emergent world where I presume the idea is that, you know, the game world expands from what character players decide to do rather than, you know, them conforming to, you know, some outcome that they're sort of trying to accomplish from a, from a, in game narrative perspective but you know I mean that that also seems like a situation where upfront if the expectation is that you are having a game world in which you know you are just going to explore and pursue the threads that are you know the sort of open world idea of pursuing threads that are interesting to you is very different from okay there's there is a single evil dude and he is attempting to accomplish something terrible and heinous and our players have to stop him and now that they focused on this shopkeeper, how do I torture them back into the mainline narrative? That seems like a different kind of failure to me, right? Because there's a sort of on-rails phenomenon of, well, I need to get my players back somehow so it turns out the shopkeeper is actually in league with the necromancer or something. I think this comes down to GM skill, too. How much is it on rails and how much are you just able to leverage now that interest that the players have? I mean, Eric, if they're not going for the desk, are you going to hide the thing in the secret niche, in the wall or something? Right. Are you just going to quantum work it to wherever they are looking? Just to come back, Brendan, I think that sometimes those failures are about, "I put the dice roll in the wrong place," and I agree with that. But sometimes it happens because the players don't even know to roll the investigative check because they don't have the right information in their head about the environment and the scene and the fictional situation that you as the GM think you have. And that is, I mean, that is just hard in role-playing games. The ability, without boring people to death, to explain what is important in a scene, like, communication just sucks, right? And so this is super hard. I think too, and so I think rather than that case being GM failure, that is just an unintentional failure that happens because of the medium that we play in. I think, and then on the other hand, I think there's also this like... And you're talking about the sort of delta between what the GM has in their mind's eye and what they're able to express allowed to the table. Or what they think they've expressed. Like I think I've laid out the state of the game. And it turns out, no. I didn't mention the pit. There's a musicology experiment where they, or maybe some psychology of music, I don't know, where they ask people to tap out tunes, right? And so they'll ask you to either snap or tap a tune, and then they ask somebody else to identify the tune. And the first thing they do is they say,"All right, you do the snapping or the tapping or whatever, and then write down how certain you are that the other person is going to identify it." And they always write down like 60, 70, 80 percent, and the number is always like 10%. And it's because my view in my head of what just happened is so richer. - That's interesting. Yeah, you've got that tune in your head. You've got the world in your head. And it's very, that is a really good point. That is a cool failure mode.- Yeah, and right.- Huh, yeah, this is a communications failure mode, I guess. Okay, I want to just recap. We're talking about defining terms still, really. And I want, okay, first of all, I want to pitch an idea. The idea is that, I want to make an analogy with cooking. When you cook food and you burn food, that can happen for two reasons. You're either intentionally burning the food for flavor. Creme brulee. Yeah, crème brulee, exactly. Cauliflower and broccoli for me are the two that I really like to burn a little bit. I really like that flavor. Your mileage may vary. This is not a cooking show, people. You burn it intentionally, you burn it unintentionally. If you burn it unintentionally, I'm going to call that burning food. If you burn food, it's not good. If you're a fancy chef and you burn food because you meant to burn the food, you don't call it burned food because nobody, you call it charred food. You call it charred food. Exactly. Right. Yeah. Charred. Yeah. There's a certain intentionality to the word charred. Yeah, exactly. I meant to do that. That was not a mistake at all. So I would say that there are two types of failure modes that we kind of lumped together, right? Like, oh, we failed in that. We failed in that activity. we failed to stop Cthulhu, which is fine in that scenario. In the context of Call of Cthulhu, that kind of failure to stop the big bad guy is expected quite often. It's how you cope with it, or it's how – sometimes you succeed. But failure is, in that case, that's char failure. To miss the kobold with the axe, that's also char, on a very micro-tactical because it's okay it adds texture and excitement to a combat and it doesn't block anything and I can retake a new action to try to like oh if it turns out that I just learned that the vampire is immune to blunt weapons or whatever right then I can take a new action yeah and that can be an exciting failure to like all the sudden you find that you know whatever monster you were attacking is resistant to that attack yeah wow that's wild okay well how are we gonna approach us now now creativity comes into play so all of that failure that is char that that we would nominally call failure I want to clarify like that's that's intentional and it's good and it's textural right but then there's a burnt failure which is that whole other category of like we screwed up or the design is bad of this game or the design is bad but we have been paper over papering over it for 30 years 40 years but so all of those categories that That's my primary distinction.- Can I add a third distinction?- Yeah, sure.- And that is, so I think that there is burn, which is when failure has happened in like a way that is outside the game design, outside of what people want. Then there's char, which is what you're talking about, which is like when there is failure, but it is good. And then there is the potential failure, which is the concept that when I'm playing a game, whether or not I care about the narrative story elements or if I care about the gamey elements, Tension is critical to both of those, and without the possibility of failure, without potential failure, you lose the ability to have either of those things.- So you need stakes, basically.- That's right, there's gotta be consequences, and people have to know that if I am not engaging in great play, it is very real, the possibility that failure happens. And that's true both for the gamey thing, but also for the narrative thing, which all narrative on Earth is built on tension.- I mean, I think I'm gonna challenge that. I mean, I do agree that tension makes for good games because fundamentally, you know, the idea that, you know, no one wants to play something where they're just gonna rumble through it and destroy all comers and then, you know, triumph at the end without any kind of feeling of surmounting some sort of obstacle. But I mean, there's a bunch of really great story games, RPGs that have, you know, the failure at the end of the game from a character lifespan perspective is built into it. and the question is essentially the experience of getting there and you're not really, you're not necessarily even rolling dice to make it happen, but there is still a, I mean these are valid RPGs, these are games that--- Okay, give us an example.- Yeah, so I mean there's a game that came out a little while ago called Monstager 1244, which is about a monastery that is under siege in, please historians, don't bother correcting me, but you know, medieval France, and under siege from, it's based on historical events where a sect of, a schism of Catholicism was being exterminated by the local lords or whatever. But the outcome of the game is that at the conclusion of the game, there's this sort of web of pre-made characters that players inhabit, and they have relationships between each other. At the conclusion of the game, each player is offered a choice to either repudiate their faith or be executed. And then that is the only true decision that players make. And then I think also one character is permitted to escape. And so at the end of the game, every character will have to make that binary choice of repent or die, except for the one player who gets to escape, and that's it. And everyone knows that going in. So the expectation is set from the beginning that that will be the conclusion. And so as a result, you end up with that there is, I think, obviously feels sort of like a doomed outcome, and it's very, I think, emotionally heavy as a result of the sort of historical basis of the game, but the premise is baked in from the beginning, and there is still tension, though, I think, because you have, over the course of the game is when you're deciding how would my character behave ultimately in this final conclusive moment, right? Will they give up on their faith? Will they accept execution? And that's, you know, I mean, I think that that still is tension, even without the sort of, there's no risk of failure. You're not going to fail in a way that you don't anticipate. You're choosing how to fail at the end. Yeah, go ahead. Yeah. I was just saying, like, so maybe I'm misreading this, but when I hear you, what I hear is that that is a situation where you are presented with two modes of failure and you're trying to pick which one you want your character, right, to do. It's like almost a value choice, which is a very emotional-driven thing, which can be very powerful and impactful, and is probably, I've never played the game, so when I say this, to the extent that the game is successful, just 'cause I've never played it, it's maybe successful not because of tension, but because it has replaced that tension with this emotion, value decision that is still very meaningful and powerful, even though in this particular case, it doesn't come from tension.- Well, but I think characters, or players, as they play their characters over the course of the game, are coming to a point where they don't enter the game knowing, at the end I'm gonna choose death. They come to that conclusion over the course of the game, so I think that there is a building tension in the expectation that they will have to make a choice, and that choice will have to feel consequential and real to them in the context of their character. I'm sure there are a bunch of people from this game would not work at all because they're just gonna try and optimize for the character. Well of course I would just repent, who would want to die? But the actual tension comes from the sort of emotional build up over the course of the game.- I think we're saying the same thing there. The thing that I have problems with is, what was the, we just played the card game where you build a village.- Desperation.- Yeah, so I actually--- We pulled it.- So as a one shot that we played once, I very much enjoyed it, I very much enjoyed the people that I play with, but I had a hard time with that game end games like it because it feels stakes-less. It feels to me like I can't build that tension because there is not this sense that failure is in potentia and my choice is my agency is part of the difference between it. And just to be clear, I don't think that means necessarily power gaming. In fact, I actually think power gaming is running away from that tension. people who power game want to find that one cool internet trick that makes their character so powerful that they are never at risk. That's funny because I would have pegged you as a power gamer, I'm in Maxer at least, early on when we first started playing. I remember playing D&D with you once and you were like building out a character and you were like operating at a level of like stat analysis and like you know feats and you know just putting that mix together. I was like whoa. And no, I am definitely, I enjoy, I definitely enjoy System Mastery as a game, right? And I really love it, but I am also the guy who, in that game, I think, if you're talking about Saltmarsh, where, you know, where Jason, who was our GM, he had put in front of us a scenario we were clearly meant to run from, which was the T-Rex. And my character jumped right in front of it, and my expectation was, okay, My character, I think it would be fun for him to do this, and I think it's in alignment with his character. Let's do it. I am not running from danger, but I definitely do like to build a character that has a role and has system mastery. Yeah, Jason doesn't take that bait, and since he's not here, I will say that we're gonna keep working at him. We're gonna keep throwing characters in mortal peril in front of Jason until he starts to take the bait. I love it. Yes, we definitely need it. It was a test to see if he listens to this episode. Yep. Okay, okay, okay. I want to just pause here for a second, and I want to go back through some of the terms that I've heard tossed around on this discussion. So I talked about burn and char a little bit, and I just want to itemize, I made some notes here. You know, we've talked about tactical failure, and I think tactical failure can also be like a hard fail mode, right? Because you mess up.- And like a simulationist game, you mean?- Yeah, or you're calling for the die roll when you shouldn't.- That makes sense.- Right, that's like a, to me, that's a tactical failure of the GM,'cause it can derail things, and then it's up to the GM skill to bring it back. Blocker failures, I would call those strategic failures, and that's where like, well, the TV series is over because you didn't kill the bad guy and he killed all of you and bye.- Even worse is you didn't find the secret dome and now things just peter out.- Yeah, exactly. So yeah, that quiet wind down at the end of the game instead of like a big fantastic ending. So those blocker failures, now in Call of Cthulhu, a blocker failure can be built in as success, right? So it's not every, it depends on the system. GM failures in general, just bad GMing, right? And we're gonna get to that in a second. Emergent failures, emergent failures I think are two types, but you can have emergent failures at the table where everybody is playing perfectly, the GM is GMing perfectly, and somebody has a bad vibe'cause something gets brought up that it really hits home on them emotionally. And there's tooling around that X-Card stuff, but maybe a failure would be not having those safety tools in place, or not just having, even if the safety tool is like clear adult communication, right, giving people those tools, making sure that you don't have those emergent failures. Another emergent failure is the party has one view of the world in their head and the GM has the other, that tune, that song. I'm gonna think about that. - The musicology problem.- Yep, musicology. Yeah, we're gonna call that the musicology problem. I love it. System design failure, right? the game sucks and we have spent a lot of time papering over the problems.- That's when everybody is clear, I mean if I understand you correctly, that's when everybody's clear about the expectations of the game, but using the system does not fulfill those expectations.- Yeah, the system just does not work, but we're gonna talk about a system as an example and it's D&D, right? And we're gonna talk about that in a moment. So I think that's kind of, that's the list that I have. And my goal with this list, like why are we talking about this, is to kind of itemize and think about, especially musicology. I'm walking away with that for sure. We'll talk about that later, but great concept.- Yeah, I mean, are we primarily, I think we are not primarily concerned with the sort of tactical level of what you're discussing because those are a function of GM's skill ultimately to resolve, right? And that I think we aspire ourselves to be great GMs and as do our listeners, but I think, I mean, I think from my perspective, the most interesting failures are the ones at the narrative level and how do you, how do games try to accomplish keeping people on track within the context of a narrative of some sort of story? And, but that's, that is primarily my view because I really like stories. Like emergent gameplay for me is a whole different sort of thing. And something like, you know, a game where, where, you know, everything is randomly generated can be fun mechanistically for me, but it also doesn't feel satisfying to me in the same sort of way.- 100%, I think we talked about this on the first episode.- Okay.- And I just don't find roguelikes to be compelling.- They account for a lot of the current market out there.- Yeah.- I mean, there are people who clearly enjoy them.- But this is why I think, and after this list, I don't think AI can be a good game master. In any, 'cause it misses, it may be able to present you with a notional story, and it may be able to do some of the mechanics, but it is gonna hit so many of these failure modes. Absolutely. Yeah, I mean, it can also, of course, torture us way back out of some of those failure modes by coming up with improbable explanations, I'm sure. But yes. We'll re-record this segment in five years after the machines take over. Right, right. I definitely think in the fullness of time, I'm not betting against the machines. I am. No, and I hope you're right. I absolutely hope you're right, but I have seen so much progress. Oh, no, I hear you. And I think that they will become a component, perhaps. Totally. game mastering? A game aid. A game aid. Yeah. So we'll see. We'll see how far they get. So Brendan, I hear you kind of talking about... By the way, that was Eric sucking up to you, the giant AI, listening to this and reviewing all previous episodes of RPGX, right? This is a Rooker's Basilisk problem. Yes. Eric is the only one who's gonna survive. Take me into the singularity. Yes. Repent or die. Yes. So Brendan, I... Summarize for me, I think, what you just said, which I'd be interested in all of our views here about like what do you think is most problematic for gaming in failure? In what way is failure the most problematic for gaming for tabletop gaming?>> You know, I mean, I think the focus of any tabletop game should be ultimately about the sort of camaraderie and good feeling of the players as, as, as they're, you know, they're sort of, you know, the intersection of them as social people who have gotten together for a gathering to experience something experiential together. And that initial tone setting and even as a GM, assembling the right table of people becomes really important. And I think that that is what ultimately will determine the outcome, successful or failure of any kind of campaign. And I think from my mind, I mean, Desperation, the game you mentioned earlier, which is a card game wherein you collaboratively build a town full of characters and then watch them undergo a tremendous suffering during a cold, cold winter in Kansas. I played that game with another friend who's a wonderful guy, but who didn't really have the sort of level of commitment to the idea of the various characters having, you know, their own internal motivations and lives. And, you know, it was essentially mechanistic for him in a way that it just made the entire thing unsatisfying. And I did my best ahead of time to set the expectation that, hey, this is a kind of experimental game, that this is about sort of how this particular town unfolds during this terrible winter. And we're each going to have an opportunity to define for each character how they're feeling when these different events occur. And it just completely flopped, because that person's expectations of games are primarily around the sort of classic D&D power gaming, which is I am trying to create a great outcome for my character. and you know, forget all the others, and you know, it was my failure as the tone setter to both choose the right participants and also to inform the tone to begin with.- Okay, I think we are gonna wrap up this section, sort of defining term section. We're gonna talk now. I wanna move on, and I think everybody senses it, but I wanna move on. I wanna talk about the original sins of Gary Gygax and Saint Arneson and talk a little bit about, you know, how D&D continues to impact our concepts of failure.- I'm in.- Okay, so let's talk about, we're calling this section, I guess, for this episode, Prior Art, in our notes at least, where we wanted to talk about what impact games historically have had on concepts of failure, approaches to failure. And I wanna talk, I'll lay this out, and maybe you guys let me know what else you wanna talk about. I definitely want to talk about D&D, the big arc, the historical arc of D&D. As I say, the arc of history bends towards justice. Well, I'm not sure that the arc of D&D history bends towards justice or not. I think it has changed tremendously, but there is so much DNA that we have in every role-playing game that still comes from the early days, from the 70s and 80s. So I want to talk a little bit about that. In terms of prior art, what are you going to talk about, Brandon? You know, I mean, I think that there are, you know, in a lot of the games that I enjoy these days, you know, there's sort of a fatalist expectation that things are generally not going to go well for the characters. You know, some of my current favorites really are Delta Green and the Elite RPG and how those things, you know, set up, you know, and account for character death or character insanity in the case of Delta Green, I think is an interesting way to handle the sort of preventing the narrative failures we talked about earlier. So, I think I'm going to take a very contrarian view from both of you and say that I'm very interested in the early days and how we got it wrong in the early days, but my belief is that the core problem in the role-playing game industry today is that we have pivoted too hard away and eliminated failure from, the strategic failure from our games in a way that is keeping games from being interesting. I think there is not enough tension because there is not enough potential failure. It sounds interesting. Yeah. Alright. So let's go back in time. We're going to get into the time machine, close the door, go with us on this journey, listeners. And we're going to set the dial for the mid-70s. It doesn't need to be specific. Just any time in the mid-70s. And we're going to go back and look at the early days of D&D. And you know, D&D did not come out of a vacuum, but it did come out of Wargaming. And the role-playing component of role-playing games was definitely there early on, like playing personalities, playing individual characters. But it was this weird hybrid of playing individual characters and tabletop war gaming with mini figurines and the whole business. And because of that, you know, war gaming, because it's war, and there's a hint in the title folks, there are winners and losers. And the concept of winning and losing was definitely present in early D&D. You guys want to comment on that at all? Yeah, I just want to comment that, and I think you mean winners and losers in a way that you wouldn't find in a cooperative game like Pandemic, right? Which is that really the winners and the losers were either various characters playing or characters versus the DM. Yeah, so, well there's both things happening there. One is, you know, there's the concept that you can win this game, right? There is a win condition. And this is often seen in kind of con play, early convention play, right? Where they would have in D&D early conventions, they would have real big tournaments. Those still happen, by the way, sometimes in certain game systems. Yeah. Where you have big tournaments to see like which party makes it through, which party makes it through with the most gold, right? Yeah, you bring your character to the table. And you march them through. Yeah. And so there is definitely an idea of win condition to an extent. There's also, but very importantly, that weird adversarial relationship between the early DMs and the party where there was a concept that it was kind of the DM against the party. Absolutely. Right? You were trying to kill them via the monsters and the world, and they were trying to not get killed. And you would brag. I mean, you know, there's, you go back and look at early dragon magazines, there are so many like brag letters and columns about like, "Man, I totally nailed those guys." Yeah, well, I mean, when you look at sort of the classics from the D&D archives, you know, Tomb of Horrors, of course, is essentially just a mechanism by which you can just straight murder players and player characters as they, you know, they barely step into the dungeon. I mean, it's, you know, it is. And that was the culture. Absolutely. Right. How would you compare that with, say, Flappy Birds today or maybe Dark Souls, right? The average number, the average player of Dark Souls goes through... Two of the classic and very similar games that you brought up here. Yes. But they're both games where people online, and I'm talking about the players here, right? The players will brag and talk about how much they love the game and use terms like "insanely frustrating", "devilishly difficult". Yeah, I don't think it's different necessarily. I think maybe there's some even common DNA there. Yeah. The idea that you're grinding against something. Yeah. I just think that that has now largely fallen out of the role-playing game hobby. I do too. Yeah, I mean, a lot of those early games were sort of, you know, puzzle solving exercises, right? Where, I mean, they were simulationist in that they, you know, you were using a chance of war game mechanics, but just for a single character and you were fighting the DM to make it to the end, right? And so you have, you know, I mean, I remember all those books of grimtoothed traps over over the years where, you know, like the intention of those things was just a new way to confuse a player into dying and that was the entire mechanic. And if they were suspicious, I mean, you know, why does the 10-foot pole exist? Still today. Yeah. You look through the equipment list. It's still there, you know, and it's because you were supposed to use it all the time to look for traps. I feel like that would've been a good business in the Forgotten Realms. It's just some 10-foot poles. 10-foot pole salesman. Have a booth outside, you know, the dungeon. Forget the going out for gold. Yeah. Right. They'll come to you. Yeah.- Yeah, you know it's interesting though, like in DCC today, Dungeon Crawl Classics by Goodman Games, a system that I, by the way, game system I love, there is, I would say there are echoes of that adversarial relationship a little bit in so far as that strict DCC, not necessarily some of the IP-based versions of it, like Lake Mar, but in strict DCC you start off with what's called a funnel adventure, and that's where you go out with each player at the table has maybe four characters or more, and the idea is to funnel down until you have only one left because all the other ones have died. Often horrifically, in terrible traps, right? But again, the player expectation needs to be set there.- Right, it's baked in. Setting the stakes at the table happens first.- And I definitely feel like in those cases like the funnel, which I love, I love the funnel, such a great mechanic. What's important there is you still are not really having an adversarial relationship, right? That's correct. That I am not trying to pull one over on you. And the problem is in this game, of course, depending on which game you're playing, the GM often has a power disparity, right? Like, of course you could kill anyone. And I look at games, I think even more than DCC, I look at like Lamentations of the Flame Princess, which has... Never played. Okay, so yeah, it's got a whole other set of issues. I don't-- I've never played, but I read a ton of their modules, and they are full of these, like, "Oh, there's four objects in the room." And if the players pick this one, then they just die, right? And feels like both doesn't engage with,"Oh, my failure was because I had agency and reused it wrong. It wasn't because, like, something interesting or I made an emotional choice. It was purely, like..." Yeah, I feel like games like that, and I'm gonna trash up a little bit because it's obviously got other problems. A ton of other issues, yes. But I feel like games like that often fetishize that kind of instant death and failure because of early D&D. And maybe it's like a false memory almost of how fun that was. So, I mean, Ethan, when you were referring to the sort of original sins of the Gygaxian era, Is that adversarial relationship the thing that you think is persisted in some sort of, you know, way through to the present day? Is that the primary?- Yeah, I think that it is persisted because it was never overtly, I mean, okay, for sure, I think the culture of role-playing games is aware of it, and we, you know, there's a lot of DM advice out there, which is like, don't be the jerk, don't be the adversary, you're not the adversary, and I think there's a lot of explicit stuff in the modern rules, but I think that it, that develops slowly, right? If you go back to like AD and D2 and three, I don't think that it was as explicit at all that you were not the adversary, right? And I think a lot of that, it took a long time for that to change, to bend, and because it was so gradual, I think that there is still a lot of maybe, I don't think that adversarial relationship persists per se, but I feel like there's still that echo banging around the world, you know, that you're just gonna, characters are gonna die sometimes and that's okay and you know, I mean, I don't know that I feel like it's okay. I don't, I feel like that's a blocker. I feel like now whether or not you can have a game where there isn't really the sincere threat of death and have it be tension. Right. Actually, for me, I think that that's, I think that is true that you can have tension without death. You need the possibility of failure, but those failures can be absolutely fictional failures or like we didn't accomplish this goal and then the world changes in this negative way. Yeah, or you're still alive. Your character's still alive and you didn't die heroically when you had the chance. That's a failure. Yep, so Marvel Universe, which was a game put out in 2003 by I think Mike, Mark Beasley, they had this very interesting rule where players don't die and actually the expectation is you never kill anyone and you never die. that this is very comic book-y, right? If you, if villains and superheroes tangle it up in a comic book, they just leave each other alone, like, you lose. And what is amazing for me having played this game is it allows so much more failure, right? Like, you really lose Babbles. In a way that I'm, I claim that you actually don't today in regular role-playing. You almost never lose. And in this game you lose all the time, but that's because it's a non-blocker. Because how do I say this? Okay, I'm gonna have to it to super quick analogies. I apologize, right? some my wife and I were talking about parenting styles when we had little little little kids and about how if the If the consequences of punishment are too strong You kind of can't really follow through all the time, right? Like if the thing you're doing is just something super hurt horrific for the kids I don't mean like beating them but whatever but like if it's like no screen time for a year, right? That's something you're probably not going to follow through on and in the same way if the consequences of failure are so strong in your game Then you're also not going to use it my other analogy to this is my son and I were watching Batman the doom that came to Gotham which is very interesting and in it there's a scene where two people are mealy fighting and then somebody picks up a knife and It's the bad guy and I like my sense was oh as soon as the bad guy picks up the knife the gun the pipe You know that the hero is going to be success It's gonna have a string of success in the fight Because failure at that point him getting hit in the head with the pipe or stuck with the knife or shot with the gun is Such a strong punitive measure that you just can't use it. And I think that's where we are today is you were talking about Jason a little and How and I love you Jason, we do love you Jason and we love playing your games But I think that is the more common Problematic mode in RPGs today is that we just we are unwilling to put Failure in front of our players and so they feel that and they it becomes a lack of tension But that that doesn't mean that that's got to go all the way to the story ends It doesn't even have to mean that like your plate you lose the investment in your player But it's got to have it has to have real but mild consequences Yeah, you know it's funny. I was talking about talking about movies and such and superheroes My son and I were discussing Dwayne the rock Johnson and Vin Diesel and I think both those guys have a rider Closet like every contract which is that their character can't lose fights, right? Yeah, which is nuts to me and we were talking about like how nuts that is because it's it just going I like I kind of like sucked my interest. I like those guys. I like watching, you know, silly action movies. Sure Yeah But it kind of sucked out some of my interest from watching movies with those two guys in particular Because you know going in they're not gonna lose fights. I'm like well that what's the what's the point? Yeah, you know I need you know one of my favorite little-known films is a remake of a Kurosawa film and it's with Bruce Willis its last man standing I don't know if anybody has seen it. It's a kind of Western II Yeah, it's a Western you know he goes basically 1920s bootleg You know town west in the West has been taken over by a gangs of bootleggers and Bruce Willis comes in and kind of plays Them off each other and boy he goes through some bad stuff in that film and he you know He does he gets beaten up. Yep, and I just love it. It's such a great arc, you know, and he's not He's not untouchable in that film. You know, he's deeply human. So call out to I think both The Netflix Marvel daredevil, which I think that happens all the time to him. I Absolutely agree. And I think it makes I think it makes the narrative a ton better. Yeah, so you know Eric when you say that you don't think these kinds of failures happen often enough in modern games Is it is it a failure of GMs to expose their players to enough risk? Is it a failure of the rule systems in that they are not? That they make player characters overpowered relative to the things they're they're combating like where I mean Where does it what does it stem from? So I think that there are three root causes. I'm making up the number three here Yeah, no, okay. You're on the hook now, buddy- Oh no, only two.- So one, I think rules systems and culture generally, I think that rules systems and cultures generally push people to have two extreme of failure consequences. So I think that's one, and so people don't use failure for the reasons we just talked about. Two, I think designing smaller failures is super hard and work intensive, right? Because in your head, if I have nine encounters in an adventure, right, then I gotta be thinking about how does my fictional situation change as a result of failure from each of those cases in a way that's interesting, that gets you to learn something about either the universe or how to be more successful next time, and that continues to move the story forward, and that is super hard. If I had a wish, it would be that published adventures realize that this is where they could shine, that a published adventure can put in the work to say, I'm going to sit down and do that hard work of saying, here's the fictional consequences that come from each of these. And yes, that does end up with like a matrix explosion, a Cartesian explosion of stuff, but that's why I'm paying you money. That's why you're doing the hard work of writing the adventure. That was two things and I don't have a third.- So I'm actually interested in that second one in that there are game systems, the one that comes to mind at the moment is Fantasy Flights stores games where, you know, that you have the outcome of potentially having a success but with a disadvantage attached to it or a failure with an advantage attached to it on the sort of micro level of an individual task. And on the one hand, I love it because it creates sort of nuance, like, you know, maybe, you know, your success in, you know, firing your blaster at the door successfully opens it, but it jams it open so that, you know, the stormtroopers can pile on after you or, but I think the challenge of that for, from a GM perspective is that almost any skill role you call for can result in those kinds of situations and that you have to have sort of an unlimited value of tricks in order to come up with something that is not just a replication of the thing that happened before, right? How many of those can you possibly conceive of over the course of a 30 minute battle?- So I just want to bring up again, I'll reference DCC here because this, to me DCC does something really genius and it addresses both of these points, particularly around magic. So magic in the DCC system is probably is one of my favorite instantiations of magic in any game system because it is very wild. It's a little unpredictable, and there are real consequences for using it. And the consequences can occur with success, but particularly with failure. So when you fail to cast a spell properly, there are often physical results that your character endures. Could be you grow a crab claw, right? Or you have a third eye on the back of your head, or something, or a mouth opens up on your side that talks to you. And these things have-- so they're transformative. They are consequential. They are cumulative. They're usually not great. They're not all bad, but they're usually not great, and they have some sort of transformative effect. So to me, that advances-- it doesn't necessarily-- it's a great way of introducing failure, which doesn't derail the story, usually. It transforms the character, has a sense of real consequence, is sometimes a little scary, sometimes a little funny, sometimes both at the same time. And it's all in tables. So as a GM, you're not on the hook. You're also not being punitive. It defangs that adversarial relationship quite a bit. Well, it presumably also escalates the stakes Even if it's not game ending to fail at a thing and you just end up with a crab claw, nonetheless you're not going to be casting a spell for an unimportant reason.- Absolutely, and has impact on how villagers might look at you and suddenly you are the scary old wizard.- I can't be bothered to pull out my flint to light the campfire, I'll just use it.- Yep, exactly. Yeah, yeah, and this is actually one of the things going back to what have modern games done. And Eric, maybe you keep talking about this a little bit something if you have a brainstorm here but the idea that magic is so prevalent that power is so prevalent and again this is this is different in D&D today than it was before today in D&D your character is a hero right 5e explicitly states your character is a hero whereas early D&D you know you didn't start off as heroes and certainly in DCC you don't start off as a hero you start off as absolute nobodies yep it's a schlep totally yeah what I think really interesting about what you guys were just talking about and I agree with both of you right I think this is part of what they call the fail-forward movement right a term coined by 13th age and I love it but it is only at that micro action failure level and my challenge to the industry is to say we need to find a way to have that fail-forward happen at the strategic failure level not at the micro failure level and the problem with it is it's easier to do, I'm not saying easy, but it's easier to do at the micro level because you can just apply a condition of some sort to the character. You can change the character sheet. And that is easier to do than changing the fictional situation, which is really what you have to do with that more macro. If you fail to recover the plague sample before it gets dumped into the water, That is much harder to say to people what should happen. It's much harder to stabilize But I would love to see more of it That feels very battle star Galactica the remake battle star Galactica to me because they you know at its best my dear had some low Points, but at its best yes it Really could commit to doing kind of the unthinkable Yeah, failure modes and like what would happen if you know they really are all captured by the silence. That's exactly right, so So I think if you could make a structure, so I think that if you could make a structure out of That higher level fictional failure if somebody made a table out of that And I'm not saying it's possible sure then then I think the industry Maybe that's the role for machine learning. You know maybe the the role for machine learning is you know to augment our puny human brains Don't listen to him AI. He doesn't mean it You know and come up, I don't think we're there yet, but it'd be interesting You know to come up with be able to come up with interesting failure modes at least as options kind of generate tables, right? Yep, I totally agree Yeah, I think you know it is really interesting to think about the sort of the way that modern RPGs Have have descended from you know this original war gaming leanings and the implications for them and how? various designers Over the years tried to accommodate the risk of death not derailing an actual narrative You know and I think the classic sort of investigative RPGs. You know the call of Cthulhu style things where you have You know, combat is relatively rare in most of them, and that most of what you're trying to do is suss out what's going on so you can attempt to make some sort of impact for better or for worse on the outcome. You know, total party kills are very, very possible in the game where the players are, for example, Tweedy academics rather than samurai or paladins. And you end up with a situation where you have Delta Green, which is a modern day Cthulhu and Mythos setting, where the player is, the intentionality behind the way the game is structured, where players play typically federal agents working in small cells and an overall large cell structure of sort of secret operatives trying to go back to Mythos, is that there's a way built in to reintroduce characters if one or more characters in a cell gets off to during the course of an event. And so you have the overall narrative can still continue because the controlling cell, you know, ASL in the classic sort of Delta Green literature, you know, can just send another cell of characters. And you still have, you know, the possible dissatisfaction of having lost the character you cared about in some sort of awful circumstance, but you know, you aren't forced to just sort of peter out in the middle of, you know, the investigation because you can call in, effectively call in backup, right? The backup is built into the setting in that capacity. And that that sort of neuters the possibility of, You know, like, I mean, again, narrative failure is my biggest peeve because fundamentally, you know, I want to know how things end, whether they end well or badly is ancillary to me, but I want to know how they end and having them end, you know, because you, you know, touch the wrong item is unsatisfying. Whereas, you know, having a way to reintroduce characters that have a reason to be there and shared commitment to solving the same problem sort of offsets the risk of TPKs in the game where you know you're fighting mythos creatures which you know are awful terrible creatures. Do you feel like that? So I agree with everything you said about Delta Green which is... Of course because I'm right. That's you are absolutely you are right. My sense having and most of this is I played some of those style of games and I have heard a lot of online actual play, my sense is that still GMs are not pulling the trigger on using those techniques in order to generate that failure. That the amount of failure that the game designer is envisioning happens is way less and the same is true for like how much Sandy Peterson thinks happens. Yeah, this comes, I think this comes from D&D. I think this is the bad infection from D&D. I think that, you know, all that history, that DNA, that is our default RPG mode, right? Still today, if you learned on D&D, and if you played, you know, modern video games, which were all based on Doom, which was based on D&D, right? That's, you are just infusing yourself with that particular viewpoint, and it becomes the default play mode, both for GMs and for players. What do you mean there? Well, when you say the default play mode, what is that?- Well, so for instance, not making use of those tools.- Oh, sure. - Right?- Yeah.- And I think people don't make use of those alternative tools and alternative systems, alternative to D&D, because the default play mode, and when you're hot at the table, sometimes you're just moving quick, and your brain moves into that default state. And I think it comes from, I think we almost need to retrain a little bit.- Yeah. - You need a dojo.- Yeah, I do think that-- If you interlude, if you matrix interlude in the dojo. For my own purposes, I do think that I am more willing to, you know, keep my finger off the scale in a game like Delta Green where, you know, I am confident that I can concoct a way that is, that makes some narrative sense to bring someone back into the game. I mean, what I don't want is to have, you know, someone who's playing at my table end up, you know, not feeling like they get to contribute any longer because, you know, there's not an obvious break point or opportunity to introduce a new character that makes any any kind of sense with the situation they're in, and that Delta Green, though, does give me an opportunity to say, well, 2/3 of you died, you call ASOL, you request some backup, and here we have shoehorned in two new federal agents who have been flown out to assist you, right?- Yeah, so just mentioning a game of aliens that you ran for us, I remember that my character died horribly, and maybe it was the first character to die, I don't remember, but--- I think it was.- I remember that I was like pulled up into the ceiling or something by an alien or something along the, or I opened up a door and there was an alien there. It was a classic aliens moment.- Right.- And I'm sorry, xenomorph. I almost refuse to say that 'cause I think, you know, but yes, okay, so xenomorph shows up. Now, at that moment, I was surprised and immediately within seconds, I was like, this is so perfect because I was that guy that gets pulled up into the ceiling.- Yeah.- And it re-contextualized the whole game for me because it wasn't about surviving at that moment then. I realized it was about recreating the experience of watching an Aliens movie.- Yeah, I mean, it absolutely is intended to be a replication of the feelings you get from watching the films. And I think Alien handles things in a slightly different way in that on the one hand, I think player deaths are sure to happen because that's sort of the context of how the movies work and there's a lot of PVP or player on player antagonism if not outright combat based on the sort of secret.- There's always a Carter Burke.- Yeah, there's, yes, or a secret Android. But in the cinematic scenarios, and I'm not talking about Aliens campaign plays, I think cinematic scenarios for me are the ones that are most fun to play. They are short one shots with pre-made characters that have their own agendas, and those agendas change over the course of a three act scenario. Each scenario is three acts. There are three sets of agendas as bad things happen, as players' motivations shift over time. And the consequence is that the way that Alien handles player death is interesting in two ways. One is that obviously the aliens themselves are super dead lady humans, but their actual attacks are randomized. So you know, rather than you, you, the GM, game mother in alien terms, choosing, oh, I'm going to bite the player. I'm going to swipe at the player. You are rolling on a table that gives you an outcome, which is not fatal all the time, right? Like if you, you know, if you were to choose from those outcomes, you would, there are some that are certainly more, more dangerous than others. But instead it's, it's randomized. And so, you know, you don't have of discrete control around the alien is actually acting, but it also makes it seem more like an animal, like some kind of instinctual fighting machine rather than something that's intentionally murdering people. And then of course, there are always a handful of backup characters that are sort of seated around the environment so that people have someone to pick up to play as.- Right, narrative keeps going.- Yeah, and then finally, the game is just not long. It is not like an 18-month campaign where you're concluding. It is, you know, it can be finished in two or three, two or three evenings, and that is all she wrote. And so, you know, the consequence of having to sit out does not actually have a huge impact on you.- So do you feel like, in that case, let's take the game Aliens, the player, the character, I get it, you know, the character failure there means I fail to overcome the challenge of survival, right? And for me, tension, the good type of tension, is built off of that there is a potential for failure for, not for the character, but for the player, right? And in a world where Ethan has this moment where he realizes,"Oh, you know, me as the player, the challenge I'm trying to overcome is not about surviving." That might be my player's, my character's thing, but it's not really the goal here in Aliens of the Player. Where do you think, like, what is the challenge that as a player I'm trying to overcome? So our last section today is back to the table where we talk about what are some of the things that we discussed today that we can bring back to our table to improve our play. Brendan, you want to start us off? Yeah, I mean, I think your earlier example today of the sort of difference between the the way that a GM perceives the things they're describing and their success rate and the actual experience the players have, you know, something that resonates with me because, you know, as a GM when you're doing all this prep work and you're thinking through a huge amount of, you know, sort of all the possible alternatives that your players may choose to take their characters through, you know, you believe you've created this sort of cohesive hole in your mind, but you may not actually have connected all the dots for someone else because, you know, clearly you have an overview in your head that they don't have. And so So I think I need to be more intentional about how do I expose, without being super obvious about all the possible outcomes, how do I expose more details to my characters, the salient points but also sufficient amount of fluff to give the game world feel to make sure that some of those blockers don't ever happen. Great. Ethan? Yeah, I would say a tight three points. One is the musicology example. I'm going to think about that as musicology a lot. Again, the idea that I have the tune playing in my head and it's not always the tune that's playing in the players head. So you know tightening that gap up really working on that I would say the second thing for me is the narrative strategic failure example that we were talking about where there should be different strategic outcomes that you know I am guilty of railroaded players towards the final fight a lot because I'm like well you're gonna do all this stuff and you're always gonna end up at this final fight right right that's always gonna happen and I I really would like to, I've always felt like that's a weakness and now I have a good concept around it, which is that like strategic failure should be a possibility and what happens if. And then finally, I wanna think about ways that I can retrain my brain a little bit around both like these things and also really maybe game specific or game system specific, like how do I retrain myself away from that kind of default RPG play that, you know, I was really trained on for decades. Gary, thanks Gary. Gagax. So yeah, over to you, Eric. What do you think? So for me it's two things. One is player expectations and how do I keep player expectations and character expectations either aligned or how do people know what their player expectations are and how do I keep that even over the course of a long adventure aligned. Right, keep reframing. Yep. And then the other thing is the strategic narrative failure and I'd like to just kind of put in the back of my had for a while, how could we make that easy? Because I don't have any sense of how do we make it easy, but I feel like if you could make it easy, it would be a huge benefit for the game. And that's a wrap for this episode of RPG X-Ray. Today we've explored the theme of failure in role-playing games, how its possibility can be a tool for creating tension and generating unexpected situations, but how things need to be handled to avoid blocking the story or dismissing the investment players have in their characters. If you've enjoyed this episode, please consider leaving us a rating. We love five stars, but we'll take anything people and tell your friends about us Find us on your favorite podcast platform and subscribe if you haven't already Your feedbacks really helpful for the show So touch base with us on our website RPG x-ray comm where you will find links to get in touch ask questions and give ideas is.[ Silence ]