To Fail

Once upon a time, I summarised the difference between most theatre-sports/improvisational games/performances and RPGs thusly: “In improv, everything you say is true, but there are strict rules about who can say what, and when, whereas in gaming, everyone can talk whenever, but there are strict rules about whether anything is true.” I really like that. It’s not 100% true but the places where it isn’t are interesting enough to make it useful. I hope somebody someone quotes me on it.

It’s certainly a definition that gets to the heart of what RPGs do: mostly the game mechanics centre around answering a question of “did that happen?”. It’s been reworded in some interesting ways such as Wushu saying “it definitely happened, but it did it produce narrative scene closure”, or Hillfolk making it “do you get what you want by saying it” or Gumshoe making it “did that kind of success help or not?”. I once wrote a game where you always failed (it was a comedy game) but you rolled to see what character trait caused you to fail. It never quite worked though.

Shifting this question is hard because it’s a question so fundamental to RPGs. But on the other hand, it’s a question that is alien to the kind of narratives we want to create. Indeed, I’ve often been in the position as a writer where I’ve spent so long as a GM I have no idea whether the character I’m writing will succeed or not in the story because I’m waiting for a die roll to tell me, and when you get to that point, you have not written a good story at all, because you’re not making the right choices. Likewise, we all know at times we try too hard to make a story work and ignore successes or failures – or sometimes we accept successes and failures so much engagement or suspension of belief collapses, and it’s the fine art of GMing to negotiate those areas.

But I’m not here today to mess with failure, but to ask what failure means. It’s one thing a lot of RPGs forgot to define until recently. Does the system always determine the difference between no-and-things-get-worse and no-but-things-aren’t-so-bad, and do you have the narrative instincts to make sure you don’t accidentally set up situations where a no-and automatically happens even if you roll a no-but? For example, if the monster is reaching out to grab you and you fail to dodge, does that mean you are grabbed or you are grabbed and pulled towards its mouth? And does that happen if you fail to attack? ie does not succeeding at an attack also (as in things like Apocalypse World) mean the bad guy gets a shot in, or is that two separate narrative beats? And when you fail, do you lose a resource? Are you now tangled in the tentacle and in need of rolling to escape or is it HARDER to escape now you are tangled? If you fail to escape this time can you just keep rolling until you do, or are you bound to suffer? How much has the situation changed? How much agency remains for you?

It may read like I’m splitting hairs but these kinds of questions are the atoms of RPGs. They are the fundamental building blocks. And the reason we keep reverting back to games which measure strict simulation-esque blocks of time and actions available in that time is to answer these questions simply and easily. Because even breaking things down into no-ands vs no-buts is not simple and clear because it’s hard to get everyone at the table to see what those things are in every situation unless you end up breaking things down anyway into “if this action happens or does not, in this time frame, then this or this”.

I’m thinking about these questions because I’m finishing up an RPG which is all based around a simple mechanic of success/failure at a scene level, which means this is vague. As written, if you succeed on a random test (modified by simulated characteristics), you succeed at what you were trying to do, typically an atomic action broken down by the GM (eg escape a tentacle). If you fail, you fail, but you can acquire “damage” to succeed. Every time you take damage, though, you risk being taken out of the game. Thus, everything in this game tilts, I now realise, on what “failure” means. Is it being grabbed by the tentacle, or being pulled into the screaming chomping maw? I’ve left that hard decision to the GM.

I’m also trying to decide if I also have a hit point mechanic. Obviously, I kind of already DO have one, where you take damage to get successes. Adding a hit point mechanic allows a concrete measure of what failure looks like. In some situations, failure will mean damage. That provides the GM with a great resource. In situations where there doesn’t seem to be a logical way to make failure particularly meaningful or threatening, damage can be such a thing. But I also realise it reveals how there is no support for any other such failures. When the characters try to pick a lock, what does failure mean there? Does it mean try again immediately, but other things in other scenes become worse as time passes? Does it mean get caught by the guards and put in prison with much stronger locks? Does it mean you can never try again, find another door (or if there were fumbles, your lock picks break, never try picking locks) and is that kind of “buffet of story pathways” actually fun? Does it matter if the rogue picks the lock or the fighter smashes through the wall if the goal was to get into the room – did the rogue’s failure mean anything significant? Significant enough to take damage? Or was it just randomly choosing the style of victory?

The truth is a LOT of rpgs dodge these questions, really. Or they do like I do and provide different types of situations, ones where sometimes failures can be re-rolled (like swinging a sword at an enemy) and ones where it can’t (picking the lock), or ones where some rolls (or some results) can result in worsening situations or reduced resources and some can’t. Botches and crits fill some of this void as well, and I’ve got those in place. But without anything to lose except story, will people sacrifice themselves to avoid bad outcomes, since – and this is the lynchpin of this whole piece – MOST OF THE TIME YOU CAN JUST OUTTHINK A BAD OUTCOME?

Does failure mean something if you don’t lose hit points, since you can always roll again or find another way around? Some of it is undeniably psychological, even if every orc misses every time, players who miss five swings in a row will kill to hit the sixth time. Maybe if lockpicks fail and smashing down the door fails and digging under the door fails, then yes, tapping people out of their creative buffet of solutions is a price they would grow weary of and spend points to get success. And yes, maybe I need to just keep road-testing my mechanics. I know THAT. Don’t say that.

But DO say what do you think about the question. How do you feel about failure and what it means? How does your favourite game do it? What are some interesting examples you’ve run into, particularly ones where failure didn’t seem to slow anything down at all, or failure derailed everything, or failure was poorly defined. This is a “not sure what to do with my game” question AND a game philosophy question. Of course, the former almost always tend to be the latter, if you’re doing it right…

And if you’re interested in the game in question, you can get it be signing up to my new patreon account.



Iron Game Designer: Rum Rebellion Challenge

At the wonderful LFG convention this month we got to try out the wonderful world of Iron Game Designer, this time with semi-professional and soon-to-be-semi-professional game designers rather than a wider crowd. With such well-heeled designery types I gave them a much more specific theme: to remake the classic (as in old, not as in good) Australia board game Rum Rebellion, which is named for an important event in Australia’s colonial past, where the military was used by a local merchant called Macarthur to conduct a military coup on the head of state, Governor Bligh (yes the Mutiny on the Bounty guy). As one of very few mass-produced Australian board games, almost everyone had a copy of this along with Squatter (Monopoly but with sheep). But I digress. Their challenge: make a better game about the Rum Rebellion, in only two hours. Five teams squared off, and OH MY GOD Martin Wallace was there to help with playtesting and game advice, for their current games and design in general!

The pairs paired up, grabbed their implements and started brainstorming. I noticed that with more experienced hands, there was a lot more brainstorming and idea-work before prototyping began. Interesting. I wonder if previously though I’ve stressed the need to grab items too much lest the good stuff be taken.

The old hands were also quicker in general. These guys were very quick off the mark with and almost everyone had developed, playtestable stuff before the first hour. It was exciting to watch things literally develop before your eyes, from basic to polished.

And no, I wasn’t kidding about Martin Wallace stopping by and providing insight. That was GREAT.

2016-07-10 19.35.14

Our final games were:

Macarthur’s Sheep had players taking the role of the Marine Corps troops trying to decide if they should follow Macarthur and betray Bligh, or stay loyal. This was a card drafting bluffing game where each round you were passing cards to your fellow players. The goals being aimed for were like high-low poker. If you threw out low, people would know you were going for high, allowing them to go low and score the low “pot” alone with perhaps the high pot being split. Hedge your bets or try to double bluff too much and you would be left in the middle with nothing. The basic mechanic worked and I think if the cards had powers as well, or suits, this has potential for something very clever.

Wharves and Sheep was also a card game (card games are simple and easy so tend to be common) where players took turns drafting from a central deck like canasta then passing cards around as well (I didn’t get as good a look as I wanted, sorry guys), aiming to get sets of dockside wharves and farms of barley or wheat or sheep, which they could then trade in for rum (victory points). As so often happens at IGD, this was probably the most complex game with the least testing done on it, but it felt nicely complex, with lots of cards forcing players to weigh up different returns.

Rum Runners was mostly random but it came together quick, was super engaging and only took ten minutes to play so might be the fan favourite of the night. Random dice rolls put rum on boats one to four boats, with 5s and 6s bringing Governor Bligh closer and closer to the colony to end your boondoggling. Players then could choose between collecting rum from one of the four boats, or going back to their warehouse to safely move the goods to their hidden cache. Getting stuck with rum un-hidden when Bligh arrives means negative points, so pushing your luck could easily get you burned!

Control the Rum was even more like gin rummy – a two player game of set building, where players had to build sets of four different suits of colony needs, with rum as the wild card, drawing from the top of the deck or the discard pile. Twist was, like Takenoko, you could instead draw from the deck of goal cards, hoping to get an “order” you could more easily fulfill. Completing an order would get you a one off bonus as well as VPs. This group was running out of time so got the least playtesting – but more than one contestant lamented not being able to try this. I think this might be the most publishable of the five.

The Rum Districts was a riffing off of controlling-base games like Smash Up! and Brawl! and Lost Cities, except unlike Lost Cities cards are played face down, unless special cards forced reveals. Powerful cards (high colonial influence) would be more likely to win a base (districts of the colony) but lower cards had special powers to force said reveals or assassinate higher opponent cards. Although derivative and still a bit too luck based, this was strong and well developed and a derivative game has a pre-made audience, and was making people really think about card placement.

All of the games survived multiple play throughs by their designers, and not just because they had to – they were fun. Without time for judging, I declared everyone a winner for getting to that point, and we broke for real rum rations. Even for pros, two hours is a very limited time frame, and everything we saw was interesting and amazingly creative, as always.



Our Girls

The following is a true story.

In the late 1990s my parents decided to sell their by-then-ancient television, a TV so old it still gave a metallic clunk and static fritz when you changed channels and came in fake wood paneling lacquer. After putting an ad in the paper, one rainy Saturday night we got a call, and five minutes later a whole family was at our door. I was downstairs watching said television because, well, Aliens was on again, and you have to watch Aliens. Mum, Dad and three kids come in and start looking at the TV. They try a few channels, coming back to Aliens. There’s that kind of nodding that indicates sure, they like the TV. But they don’t move the conversation towards purchase. Mostly, they keep talking about Aliens. Then we realise there was a lightning strike during the storm and half the city is in blackout.

These people aren’t here to buy a TV, I realise. They’re here to watch Aliens.

And as they start to explain to my mother why Aliens is so great, because of the importance of a female protagonist in an action movie and a sci-fi movie, I realise these guys may be crazy, but at least they’re nerds. And I also think, well of course Aliens is ahead of the curve. Of course it’s enlightened. It’s nerd media. We’ve got this. Sigourney – that’s our girl.

And she was our girl. She still is, thank god, but she really was back then. She was ‘one of us’ at a time when we still didn’t know what that meant, before geek had really cemented into a media-controlled subculture and far before it had taken over the world. She was up there, though, with Linda Hamilton and Carrie Fisher and Nichelle Nichols. They were nerd girls. Kicking ass and taking names. We knew they were often in the back seat of the spaceship but we gave them equal place in our hearts. It wasn’t just about the gold bikini, it was about the guns and the high-kicks and the battle cries. We had pre-teen boners for Princess but we also expected her to Battle the Planets just as hard as the rest of her team.

So I saw Ghostbusters (2016) today.

Ghostbusters (1984) was a pretty important film for me. Not so much because I wanted to be a Ghostbuster but because it felt really well-written. It introduced me to the wonders of carefully built characterisation and team building, of wit and sharp dialogue, and of well structured film-making. When Winston Zeddemere yelled out “I LOVE THIS TOWN” something fundamental shifted inside of me. It wasn’t just that it was the perfect feel good ending of a perfect blending of sci-fi silliness, action and comedy. It was also because it combined those elements I adored in other media I was watching at the same time – the big-concept monster-punching action of cartoons and action movies and genre films – with something that felt adult. It wasn’t Shakespeare but it was a far more “adult” product than Transformers seemed to be.

And all of that combined to make young Steve feel something important. It made me feel-good so much I felt like I could change the world. And I recognised that it was doing that in a way nothing else had before. It made me feel something potent about stories and how they were told. About heroes and villains and struggle and victory and how all of that could be combined and shaped to make people feel like gods.

And I said to myself “I want to do that. I want to write stories that make people feel the way I feel now”

Twenty five years later, I’d forgotten that goal until today. (I’ve got some ways towards it, I hope.) And I wasn’t reminded just because of nostalgic invocations of the past, from seeing songs and signs I once held sacred. Because I’m less about symbols and more about stories and structures. And what sang to me in Ghostbusters, what carried it across the weak points and story gaps and weird bits, is the things it did right. And the thing it did right most of all is it got what those nerd stories were all about for young Steve.

A team of people. With cool names, cool powers and cool toys. Who get together, suit up, and kick all kinds of ass in the coolest ways imaginable. It felt – in the best, most sacred way – like a cartoon. Like a Saturday Morning Cartoon. And like nerd media. Right in the big-concept monster-punching wheelhouse.

If this world wasn’t insane, this should be the best news ever. Here they are, front and centre: our girls. Four new girls as bad-ass as Ripley and as tough as Leia and as sassy as Buffy and as unstoppable as River Tam. McCarthy, Wiig, McKinnon, Jones, these are our girls. Sure, their movie is a bit uneven but we didn’t stop liking Jean Claude Van Damme just because his movies constantly sucked. This is four Sigourney Weavers. Four Linda Hamiltons. Do you know what twelve year old me would have done for four Linda Hamiltons?

This should be the greatest news ever. Four new ladies in our wheelhouse. Four new geek girls walking over to us, sitting down at the nerd table and joining our fandom. We should be pretty damn happy. Most of us are. And some of us are trying to stop the film from existing or cripple its finances, to ignore it in the hope it vanishes because it is unworthy of ours sight. Others are trying to destroy its stars. To lynch them. And I do not use that word lightly. To string them up and beat them to death.

I mention River Tam in there to point out this is actually an extremely recent phenomenon. Eleven years ago River Tam mary-sued the big screen and nobody tried to murder her. Something changed. The sharp rise of neo-fascism and anti-feminism and their targeted recruiting of young men, for example. And the world of hyper-marketing that let this fester in dark parts of the fandom. The causes can be discussed elsewhere. The point is, things are wrong. Things are broken. The world is backwards. It needs to be fixed.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying everything was fine in the halls of geekdom in 2005 or in 1985. Like I said, we knew women were sitting in the back seat of the spaceship far too often. We were working on turning that around. We still are. But there was a time when, I think, when there was something more important than the gender of our heroes. I’m not saying we didn’t see gender, but we were united by a theme and a structure. Everyone was on the team, and they teamed up and punched monsters with cool powers, and nobody gave a damn that two of the Power Rangers were women because they were goddamn Power Rangers first. They were nerds first.

We were nerds first.

Now, it seems, we have to be men first, and nerds a long way down the list.

And that makes me ache not just at the injust politics, but at what nerdiness has become.

To put it in terms we can really understand, there’s always that bit in the 80s nerd movie where the nerds find out the girl they like is a nerd too. And at first they’re stand-offish. They make her step back. Then there’s the tilt where they realise she’s just as bad-ass as they are. And then she’s like “Move over, buddy. I’m driving.” Because she’s better at it.

And at that point, the nerd-who-doesn’t-get-it-yet or maybe even the douchebag jock goes “what’s with the girl?”

And the nerd-who-gets it says “No, guys. She’s got this.”

And she does. She always had. We just couldn’t see it because we were wrapped up in our own bullshit.

This is that moment. Right now. You can be the nerd who gets it, or you can be the douche who gets left behind. Because you WILL be left behind. Where we’re going, we have no need of you.

We’re going to suit up, team up, kick ass and take names. We’re going to kill bad guys and then make out over a Kenny Loggins song. And it’ll be glorious. And team douchebag is not invited.