Some of my non-gamer friends know I roleplay, and when they hear that I spent a weekend gaming, they immediately ask, “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 an RPG.
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 innocent nonplayer characters were killed as a result, did you really win the game? If your character heroically took a fatal gunshot meant for another player 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 characters stagnate.
But wait—isn’t death the ultimate in stagnation? Well, 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 …. who perhaps 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 video game. How do you lose at roleplaying? You forget to roleplay.
See, how you play the game determines whether you win or lose the game.
Players aren’t the only ones who win or lose at an RPG, though. The gamemaster 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 GM, 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
Image Source: Atalanta Fugiens, Emblem 24, 1617