| Back to RPG Index
© 1998-2001 Dru
All rights reserved.
Whether You Win or Lose
Some of my mundane acquaintances
know I roleplay, and when they hear that I spent a weekend gaming, they
"So, did you win?"
Not such a silly question,
when you think of games in general. A lot of people who don't know much
about RPGs might ask the same question. Newcomers to RPGs might also wonder
about it. When is the game over? When have I won the game?
There are even, alas,
a few experienced players who think of RPGs in terms of winning and losing.
You're waiting for me
to tell you that it's not a matter of winning or losing, but of how you
play the game. That's not quite right. There are ways to win and lose
At the simplest level
of analysis, "winning" means having your character survive the
adventure, and "losing" means having your character killed.
But that's really too simple. If your character completely flubbed the
adventure and hundreds of innocents are killed as a result, did you really
win the game? If your character heroically took a fatal gunshot meant
for another character or an innocent bystander, did you really lose the
game? If all of the characters kill each other in a bitter argument and
the whole gaming group collapses, did any player win the game?
The same critique goes
for the definition that "winning" is when your character achieves
a goal and "losing" is when your character fails to achieve
a goal. Again, too simple. Many characters set out to achieve goals that
are simply impossible in most games ... to become emporer, to cure cancer,
to bring about world peace. Not likely. And it wouldn't be fair to say
that a player lost just because his or her character fell short of global
dominance, if the character otherwise had a successful adventuring career.
At a more advanced level
of analysis, then, I'd suggest that players "win" an RPG whenever
their characters grow. Players "lose" an RPG whenever their
death the ultimate in stagnation? Well, first off, it depends on the game.
In some games, death is just a temporary setback (e.g., Dungeons and Dragons);
in others, it makes the character that much cooler (e.g., Deadlands);
in others, it's more or less the point of the game (Paranoia); and in
yet others, it's a prerequisite (e.g., Vampire: The Masquerade).
But even that's too
glib an answer. More seriously, a character heroic and brave enough to
take a gunshot for somebody else .... or who overcomes great cowardice
to step forward and take that gunshot ... is a character who grew, who
proved to be (or who became) a hero. The player can be proud of the character's
death and happy that the character went out in a blaze of glory. As long
as the campaign continues, the character will probably be remembered.
The same thing can be true for an evil character. A player whose character
has been a villain throughout shouldn't be too disappointed (or surprised)
if that character dies a well-deserved death. The player wins as long
as the character dies as villainously and cinematically as possible, preferably
laying a curse on the survivors or setting off one last heinous disaster
before succumbing. Again, as long as the campaign continues, the character
will probably be remembered!
Players win when their
characters grow in other ways, too. Sometimes this growth involves achieving
a goal, whether their own or their player's -- but achieving the goal
itself is not the winning event. Making a lot of money, becoming guildmaster,
getting promoted in the military, earning a father's respect, falling
in love, killing an old enemy ... all of these, if they affect the character's
personality and motivations, are ways of winning the game. Even hardships
can be wins ... if the character comes out the other side a changed person,
perhaps gaining new strengths or weaknesses, but growing, becoming more
complex and interesting to play and interact with.
It's when a character
never changes, no matter what the GM throws out, success or failure, then
that player has lost. That poor player might as well give up roleplaying
and go play a computer game, where the avatars' personalities, goals and
motivations never change no matter what happens to them. How do you lose
at roleplaying? You forget to roleplay.
See, how you play the
game DETERMINES whether you win or lose.
Players aren't the only
ones who win or lose at an RPG, though. The GM is the one who really must
grapple with the issue. As experienced RPG players know, a role-playing
game is all about telling an interactive story, a story that involves
not only the game master, who sets forth the basic plot framework, but
also all of the player characters, who move the plot along. What is a
winning story? A story that is fun to read or hear or watch. What is a
losing story? A story that is boring to read or hear or watch. And although
players are indispensable to a game, if the GM hasn't provided an interesting
plot that engages the players' imagination, then the game will fail—it
will lose. We've all seen movies with an outstanding all-star cast that
have been box-office flops because the screenwriting and direction were
hopeless. The same thing can happen to a roleplaying game.
And a game that loses
is the greatest loss of all.
originally written March 10, 2000
Back to top of page