“If you can’t die then how can winning a combat mean anything?”
Failure and death. Missing blows, losing, running away…. all things that we’re told you must have in tabletop games so that combat is “meaningful.” I used to assume that when people said “meaningful” they meant “engaging and fun” or “like you were a significant part of something difficult and cool” and by that measure most of the games I’ve played have failed miserably at failure.
I have vivid memories of sitting on a couch in a friend’s basement, waiting thirty to fifty minutes between each round of combat. Often my character would attack and miss. We were playing D&D 3.5 and the GM wasn’t great at combat narration, so missing meant nothing happened. Not slightly boring things or confusing things or even bad things… just nothing. I left those games with the overwhelming feeling that I might as well have stayed home.
I would write that experience off as just being just 3.5 or just that GM, but I’ve had similar issues with other systems that present tactical combat for tabetop. Often a miss mechanically means “nothing.” A good GM will give you some narrative fluff, but functionally, you’ve still got “nothing happens.”
I suspect the designers of many of these tactical games see nothing as a neutral result. As a player who suffered from social isolation as a kid, I see “nothing” as the worst punishment I can receive. I want to be a part of what’s happening, and “nothing” cuts me off, erasing me from the scene while others fill the narrative space.
I’ve slowly come to understand that when most people say “meaningful” they don’t mean “engaging and fun.” Most people mean “mechanically challenging.” I think this assumption that games must focus on “mechanical challenge” to be fun or at the expense of fun is damaging to our overall tabletop experience.
Robin Laws (at least as of February, 2012) would have you believe that we need to be miserable to be challenged because our choices are very limited: pure success, pure failure, or partial success of the action we attempted. How we succeed and fail is measured in resource depletion (hit points, healing, etc.) and we can only have fun when we’re succeeding at the appropriate dramatic time after playing a banal resource management game.
The problem with this is that 1) not everyone likes resource management games and 2) most modern tabletop games include a lot of randomness, so players sometimes contribute highly unequally to a resource management task because of random chance that’s beyond their control. For a player the loss of agency in the face of the “power of the dice” can be very frustrating.
A game built to give people spotlight only when they succeed and to let them succeed only when randomness allows encourages powergaming and penalizes players who don’t powergame as much or as well. Powergaming is not my favorite part of gaming.* I like smashing things as much as the next gamer, but I prefer cooperating with other player characters, not getting the spotlight at the expense of others after extensive rules-mongering.
Accepting that success and failure are a pure dichotomy and resource management is the only available challenge implies that the traditional way tactical games were made challenging is the only way games can be designed. Accepting those restrictions seems like a trap. It limits how you can potentially build systems in tabletop games immensely.
The world in a tabletop RPG is very open ended. I’m not saying we need to ditch counting resources for pure narration. But managing resources doesn’t need to be the sole focus of our tactical challenge. Interesting tactics are made up of all sorts of things like planning, environmental factors, and teamwork that aren’t related to counting hit points. That’s without getting into creative use of non-realistic forces like magic.
I’m not saying we should hand out success on a golden platter with extra fluff to dress it up. The real world is messy and often the best way to learn is to work through failures. We build up solutions to climb over lots of little hurdles until we finally solve the bigger problems. That’s far more compelling than instant success!
I read an article about emergency treatment that totally changed how I look at failure from a narrative point of view. Serious complications are unavoidable in a hospital situation, but some hospitals keep more patients alive despite this. The key to their success is in how they quickly rescue patents when things go wrong. As the author put it the only failure is a failure to rescue.
This concept is great for gaming because it allows for bad things that aren’t direct “action failure” (ie. nullifying what you were trying to do), and brings a “raising the stakes” mentality to the table. Things are going to go wrong. If they don’t, the story we’re telling will sound like a boring Mary Sue fan fiction about how our awesome characters are all awesome and waltz in and win while everything is perfect.
When things go wrong, they’re not always predictable, preventable, or even directly related to what you were attempting. You may have stabbed the dire lion exactly how you wanted to, but in the process you also stumbled on her den so now she’s enraged because you’re between her and her cubs!
Acknowledging that tactical complications can be tangential means a “bad” result doesn’t need to block your original actions. This gives you more interesting ways to interact and engage with the in-game world, while leaving the system free to make more nuanced decisions about how success and failure work.
Another thing that’s huge for me at the gaming table is player agency. I want some level of control over my own destiny, even when that destiny is sliding downhill very quickly in a handcart with no brakes. I’m perfectly willing to be the person who stumbles into the lion’s den, if I either came up with the idea myself or have some choice in the matter (like I agree that trading off the stabbing for the stumbling is worth it). Then it feels like a hilarious and deadly comedy of errors, rather than the GM punishing me for something outside my control like a dice roll.
I started writing this post over a year ago and at that point I hadn’t worked out how to solve these problems. I had thoughts, but thoughts do not a full fledged game system make. Between then and now, Dungeon World (built on the Apocaylpse World engine) beat me to the punch.
Which is pretty awesome; I’d rather play and build on what they made than start from scratch! 🙂
Dungeon World has very quickly become my favorite game system and I think it deserves a bit of a love letter to talk about how it solves some of the problems I’ve talked about and makes gaming fun and engaging. It also addressses some of the shared-narrative-reality issues I’ve mentioned before.
A Love Letter to Dungeon World
Dungeon World explicitly defines the purpose of it’s mechanics, individually called “moves”, as being to bring everyone to the edge of their seat. One of the first things the rules book says about moves is, “Tension and excitement are always the result, no matter how the dice land.” Wow, does the design deliver on that promise.
The mechanical system of success and failure has been built with that “tension and excitement” in mind and it’s a stark contrast from systems that are designed with the goal of “simulating reality” or “introducing randomness.” It’s like they took a short circuit past all the things we thought we wanted to the things we needed to have fun, action packed game sessions.
In Dungeon World there are three basic outcomes of almost all rolls. Rolls are generally 2d6 with some modifiers, usually in the -2 to +3 range, and the general outcomes as described by the book are:
The Basic Outcomes
- 10+: You do it with little trouble
- 7–9: You do it, but with complications or trouble
- 6-: The GM says what happens and you mark XP
This system is surprisingly nuanced, because each individual move, be it hacking and slashing through your enemies or trying to talk NPCs into doing things for you, has specific trade offs for those levels. Some of the complications and trouble explicitly include the player making choices and trade offs, giving them agency in how things go wrong or what dangers they expose themselves to in order to get additional advantages.
Some of the moves that relate to understanding and perceiving the world around you have absolutely fascinating trade offs in that they allow you to ask the GM a certain number of questions from a pre-existing list and the GM must give you an honest and helpful answer. Making a call about whether it’s more important to learn “What happened here recently?” or “Who’s really in control here?” can be tough in a very fun way!
I also want to note that the 6- result tends to be amusing and the fact that you “learn” when you fail is more of a consolation than you might think. We often laugh about “learning about failure” when we roll 6- and the GMing rules behind the moves mean that something happens to change and complicate the situation each time one of these failures is rolled. It’s up to the GM to decide exactly what happens, but it’s not a “nothing.” Often the world shifts under our feet in interesting and unexpected ways in these cases.
Dungeon World also makes a point of the fact that the game isn’t about one person at the table dictating to the others. One of my favorite paragraphs in the introduction describes the game as a conversation.
There are no turns or rounds in Dungeon World, no rules to say whose turn it is to talk. Instead players take turns in the natural flow of the conversation, which always has some back-and-forth. The GM says something, the players respond. The players ask questions or make statements, the GM tells them what happens next. Dungeon World is never a monologue; it’s always a conversation.
While moves are triggered on specific player character actions like “attacking someone with a melee weapon” in character, it’s the job of the table as a whole to agree if people aren’t sure when a move is taking place. It’s not the job of the GM to decide and dictate. Dungeon World recommends that the whole table discusses in-game reality until everyone understands and agrees on what’s happening and if a move should be used. I can’t tell you how giddy I was when I read that because it so perfectly matched my mental model of how shared realities are constructed in tabletop games.
As a Dungeon World player, you take a big part in the conversation that determines the in-game reality of the world. The GM is encouraged to ask players questions which define the background facts and history of the world and everyone works together to stay within the existing established facts about the world. The GM is also encouraged to ask players questions about their characters and there are some moves that specifically require you to justify how your character knows what they know. This may sound tedious, but it somehow turns into an awesome organic backstory generator for PCs that accretes over time. Along with the fact that making a starting PC takes like 5 minutes, Dungeon World characters are some of the most dynamic and fun characters I’ve ever seen. They’re simple to make, become deep, multi-dimensional people with surprising speed, and are easy to get attached to.
I especially love the alignment system in Dungeon World. Every character gets a choice of alignments based on their class (different classes have access to different sets) and each alignment comes with an alignment move that reflects something your character is rewarded for doing. An example of my favorite chaotic move from the Thief class is “leap into danger without a plan”. Most of the alignment moves are similarly active and they make the act of being your alignment less being and more doing. There are XP rewards for performing your alignment move, which encourages players to portray alignments in interesting ways.
Dungeon World has an explicit set of three reasons why you play the game: to see the characters do amazing things, to see them struggle together, and because the world still has so many places to explore. It codifies these goals by giving PCs overt bonds with each other that provide mechanical advantages when they work together and grant XP as the bonds evolve over time. PCs also get experience when they learn new and important things about the world, overcome notable monsters and enemies, and loot memorable treasure. At the end of each session you do an “End of Session” move where you get experience for these things and for performing your alignment move during the session. This is a very powerful motivator to keep plots moving, to continue exploring, and to actively portraying alignments.
None of this has even touched on the innovation behind the GM mechanics in Dungeon World and how they encourage putting the player characters and their actions center stage. That’s probably a love letter for another time!
Dungeon World definitely has it’s issues (let’s not talk about the Bard class… *sigh*) but on the whole it deserves the acclaim it’s currently getting. It’s a very different take on fantasy tabletop gaming, focused much more directly on having an exciting, fun adventure that includes and engages all the players. I can honestly say the Dungeon World games I played are among the most meaningful I’ve taken part in… and that’s no mean feat given the number of systems I’ve played.
* If it is yours that’s fine: go powergame with friends who also like powergaming and have fun. It’s not my thing. I don’t think I’m alone in preferring other styles of play.