Playing RPGs to win

“‘Winning’ and ‘losing,’ things important to most games, do not apply to D&D games!” declares Tom Moldvay in the especially influential Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rulebook. The concept of “winning” doesn’t appear at all in the original “little brown books” released years before. And so we’ve told ourselves in the years since that you can’t really win at roleplaying at all, with rare exception. (Seriously, how many games congratulate you for “frightening the other players into quitting”?)

Personally, though? I think you can win at an RPG. I think it may even be the default model of games that intend to tell stories (in contrast to “old school” games that are more focused on problem solving). Saying you can’t win at RPGs, that the goal is just to have fun, makes it harder to identify what the object of any given game is. That lack of clarity about why we’re playing, what the goals are, is a big part of why it’s so common for ostensibly ongoing “campaigns” to just fizzle out when people can’t commit to scheduling sessions regularly. But by the same token, I understand why saying it’s possible to “win” is so potentially problematic.

Most RPGs are a cooperative activity. Saying that anyone can win makes it sound like you’re playing to win, rather than playing for the experience of play, playing to spend time with friends, playing to find out what happens in the story, etc. It’s great to emphasize these other kinds of fun in contrast to playing to win, a term which evokes connotations of social dominance. This can be an especially touchy subject in communities with a high proportion of socially uncomfortable geeks and nerds, and can also be unwelcoming to newcomers, which in turn can be dangerous to a hobby with a very small player base (or an industry with a very small customer base—take your pick).

All of that said, however, just like you can play a board game with a clear win condition and have goals that supersede winning—an excuse to have fun with friends being a prominent frontrunner—I think we should be able to recognize that RPGs can and do allow for this too. If by “win” we just mean either “end the game when someone achieves a predetermined goal,” or, “play for a set period of time, number of turns, or number of sessions, and then assess who best met predetermined goals,” we do that quite a lot.

One of my favorite campaigns of all was a Cold Ruins of Lastlife game on Gauntlet Hangouts. That game is a soulslike variant of Dungeon World, including special advancement tracks for when your amnesiac PC either reclaims the lost knowledge of a dead world, or inspires hope for a bright new world. After you advance along one track or the other a certain number of times, the game text advises you that you should start wrapping up the game. The way we discussed it in play, though, was definitely in terms of “winning”—but maybe we were more comfortable with this because it was more like when you win a cooperative game than when you win a competitive game. (And the fact that it was inspired by a video game series that is very much about winning may have something to do with it, but I got the impression most players didn’t have much experience with that series.) When we achieved that final advancement, we took turns narrating an epilogue of how we changed the world.

Moreover, Dungeons & Dragons more generally has arguably moved toward a model of being “winnable” in later editions, especially the 4th edition that’s clearly inspired by World of Warcraft and tactical minis games. Every adventure/module that sees you facing (even if not fighting!) a “final boss” is one that can be won—or lost. And I might even go so far as to say that RPGs do win/loss games better than board games. Ever played a cooperative game like Shadows Over Camelot (without a Traitor) or Arkham Horror, and then lost after a couple hours, without even reaching any kind of climax? While it doesn’t undo the fun you had along the way, it can feel pretty deflating.

When you “lose” in an RPG, though, it can be just as exciting or affecting as when you win. In one D&D 4th edition campaign I played in, for instance, a failed skill challenge in the climactic battle led to a tragic variant of the published setting we played. What should have been a “town hub” with a grateful populace embracing us as their champions instead ended up as a struggling tent city surrounding a massive sinkhole to an underworld full of monsters. Our failure left us with plenty of work for future sessions, and created some interesting (if occasionally uncomfortable) drama with the folks we let down. And if you’ve ever played John Harper’s Blades in the Dark or Ghost Lines, you may have heard that their entire setting similarly “came about because our World of Dungeons world was destroyed in an apocalypse when the Gates of Death were broken and we decided to advance the timeline by 1,000 years.” And effective and purposeful failure isn’t limited to fantasy adventure games, or even games that let you keep playing after you lose: Ten Candles is a horror game in which everybody loses at the end of a single session, every time. It’s sad and affecting, and very much reminds me of critically acclaimed video games that force you to fail for dramatic effect, as I’ve written about elsewhere. (Spoiler warning for several pre-2008 games at that link!)

Perhaps I’m being too loose with terminology, but I think if we can think charitably about what “winning” means, and not necessarily think of it as connected to social dominance (and all the toxic masculinity stuff that comes with it), we can probably think of a lot more examples of RPGs we’ve enjoyed winning at. And in doing so, I think we might be able to design games to be even clearer, more approachable, and more rewarding.

This post originally appeared as a response to a conversation on the newly-opened Gauntlet Forums, but it was so long that I figured I might as well clean it up and throw it here on the blog.

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