I’ve been thinking about character arcs in fiction and in roleplaying games. While I contend that RPGs don’t necessarily generate stories, characters still have a lot of the same qualities and requirements for us to enjoy them. In both fiction and RPGs, the basic formula for story is that the characters face obstacles and try to overcome them. And this is where one of the biggest differences between the two forms appears, because in fiction, characters can fail, but in RPGs, they can’t.
Now, I’m not saying that it is mechanically impossible for the characters in RPGs to fail. But, in the long history of RPGs-as-written, ((I’m going to be focusing on D&D in these examples, because it is the most universal touchstone that gamers have, and also really illustrates my point. )), the basic assumption is that, if they fail, they die. This is because so many of the obstacles a character faces in an RPG are combats, and the general expectation is that the combat will be balanced to allow the heroes to overcome their foes, so it is only bad dice luck ((And sometimes poor tactics.)) that kills PCs.
That mindset translates into other tasks in the games. Fail picking the lock? Well, try again. And again. And again, until either you open the lock or a trap kills you. Is that a disintegrate spell? Save or die. Tasks either can be repeated over and over ((“I do exactly the same thing that didn’t work last time, but harder!”)), or have immediate, irrevocable negative consequences ((“Natural one, huh? Well, I guess that medusa has a new fighter statue for her garden. What do you want to play next?”)). Combat encounters that turn out to be too difficult are viewed as mistakes in balance on the part of the GM, or as the result of bad dice luck.
What this leaves out of the mix is a staple of fiction: heroes suffering a setback.
Setbacks are what happen when you don’t succeed at what you were trying to do, but don’t die. They are complications – new obstacles that show up because of your failure. They make things harder, or may close off an avenue of approach to your goal, but don’t completely prevent you from achieving the goal.
Classic RPGs, like D&D or RuneQuest, don’t handle setbacks very well. Fail and you either die, or can just try again. More modern games, like 13th Age and Fate, talk about using setbacks and the concept of failing forward, and provide some mechanical support for the ideas ((Especially Fate Core and it’s derived games, and certain iterations of Cortex Plus.)). And there are a few games, like Drama System or the *World games or Fiasco, that live for the setback. The setback is the key to their success.
So, let’s talk about how different games handle setbacks.
13th Age is described by its authors as a love letter to D&D. It has a bit of an old-school feel, coupled with some more modern elements of narrative games. It deals with setbacks in two different ways: negative icon relationships and the “fail forward” concept.
Negative icon relationships are sources for setbacks. By default, the GM rolls some dice at the start of a game to see which icons ((For those unfamiliar with 13th Age, icons are the powerful NPCs and their factions that control the setting, like the Dragon Emperor, the Diabolist, the Elf Queen, and the Archmage. They all have their own agendas, and PCs frequently get involved in those agendas, for better or worse.)) are important in this session and, if it comes up with an icon that one of the characters has a negative relationship with, that’s going to cause problems. It doesn’t quite fit the definition of a setback that I proposed above, but it does introduce new obstacles to the game based on player choices. If the characters are already in the middle of an adventure when a negative icon relationship rears its ugly head ((Or heads, as the case may be.)), the new complication feels very much like the setbacks I’m talking about. So, all of a sudden, in the middle of a quest to recover an ancient sword for the Crusader, a character’s negative relationship with the Archmage comes up, and our heroes discover another group digging through the same ruins for the same sword, but they want to give it to the Archmage instead of the Crusader.
The “fail forward” idea is not exclusive to 13th Age ((I’m pretty sure the phrase originated elsewhere – I want to say in Sorcerer, but that’s just because a lot of new language that we use to discuss games originated there.)). It’s an idea and a viewpoint more than a mechanic, so it’s a little slippery sometimes to implement. On the other hand, because it doesn’t really have a mechanical component to it, it’s super portable to other game systems. The basic concept is that no failure on the part of the characters should dead-end an adventure. Failure should just complicate things. So, if you fail to pick the lock on the back door to the guildhall, instead of just not being able to go in that way, maybe you get the door open, but a guard spots you. Or you can’t work the lock, but a guard opens the door from the inside to see what all the noise is ((Or, if you’ve got the right kind of group who will accept a heavy narrative hand from the GM, “Everything goes black. You wake up in a cell, chained to the wall. There’s just enough play in the manacles that your fingers can reach the big bump on the back of your head. You never even heard your assailant sneaking up behind you, you were so focused on the lock.”)). The adventure still goes forward, but now there’s a new complication to deal with – pretty much the definition of a setback.
What I’m going to talk about here is broadly applicable to all the Cortex Plus games. The Leverage RPG, though, gives the best and clearest example of setbacks in play. This is because pretty much the whole game is based on the assumption of competency on the characters’ part and the mechanic of the complication.
The basic assumption of the Leverage RPG is that your characters are not just good at what they do, they are among the best in the world. This is an important mindset for the game, because it makes it clear that a failed roll does not necessarily mean the character screwed up. It means something unexpected interrupted what would otherwise be the perfect plan. Trying to con someone out of the painting you need for the job? A fail doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t buy the pitch – it means that the painting is out for restoration work, or has been sold to someone else, or something like that ((Again, the idea of failing forward – adding a new obstacle, but not dead-ending the game.)).
A lot of the time, failed rolls generate complications. In fact, you can run a whole Leverage RPG session by building the story and the opposition out of complications that play generates ((I know this because I’ve done it. All you need is a basic idea of the job – the mark, the client, the basic situation. Stat out the mark with a couple of dice, as described in the rulebook, and you’re ready to run. Just make sure you have plenty of index cards or sticky notes to track the complications as they arise.)). Complications can be added any time a player rolls a one on one or more of the dice in a roll. You take that die, give the player a plot point, and either add a new complication, or step up a current one. So, as the game goes along, more complications – Mob Interest d6, Heightened Security d10, Broken Toe d8 – arise and make the job more, well, complicated. And interesting. It builds the twists and turns you expect from a heist game ((And from the TV show.)).
Fate has always worked on the idea that something interesting should happen on a failed roll, otherwise why bother rolling ((This is similar to Vincent D. Baker’s idea of “Say yes, or roll the dice.”))? The latest iteration, Fate Core ((Which is available on a pay-what-you-like model in .pdf here.)), standardizes that idea, and gives some more mechanical guidelines, starting with the idea of the four outcomes.
The four outcomes are Fail, Tie, Succeed, and Succeed with Style, but the idea of setbacks only really comes in on the first two outcomes. If you fail, you might still get what you want, but at a serious cost. Serious costs make the current situation worse – it brings in new opposition, or grants a benefit to the current opposition, or maybe puts a consequence on the player. If you tie, you get what you want, but at a minor cost – adding a detail to the story that is problematic for the PC, or possibly giving the opposition a minor benefit. These are perfect examples of setbacks.
The ultimate setback in Fate Core, though, is the concession. At any point during a conflict ((Usually when things are going badly and defeat looks imminent.)), a character can concede. This means that he or she loses the conflict, but gets to have some input on what losing means ((Usually not dying.)), and earns some fate points in the bargain. So, to steal the example from the book, if you’re in a fight, and you’ve taken a couple of consequences already, and the bad guy is still big and strong and unhurt, you might want to concede. You get to say, “Okay, he doesn’t kill me or take me captive,” and the GM says, “Okay, he knocks you out, spits on you, takes your sword as a trophy, and leaves you for dead.” And then you get three fate points.
Robin D. Laws’s new game system, Drama System, powers his Hillfolk game, and it has an interesting take on setbacks. The core of the game is dramatic interaction, where your character is alternately petitioning ((Not in the formal sense, you understand. And often not directly.)) and being petitioned. The petition is one character seeking some sort of emotional concession from another character – I want him to respect me, I want her to love me, I want them to be proud of me, whatever. The other character can decide to grant or withhold that emotional concession, as they desire ((And the game builds in reasons for the granter to not want to give that concession.)).
What keeps this from getting bogged down in the standard I-will-not-lose, dig-in-the-heels argument stalemate that is so common in RPGs is that there is a drama point at stake, and you really want drama points in the game. They are a plot currency that gives you certain power over the narrative, and are incredibly useful and fun.
And you only get drama points if you don’t get what you want in the scene.
So, if you are the petitioner, you only get a drama point if the granter doesn’t give you that emotional concession. And, if you are the granter, you only get the drama point if you DO give the petitioner that emotional concession. The idea is that you will get what you want about half the time, and the other half, you get a setback and a drama point.
As with Leverage RPG, above, I’m using Apocalypse World as a single example of the entire family of *World games ((Including Dungeon World, Monster Hearts, Dungeon Planet, tremulus, and others that I probably haven’t heard of.)). Setbacks are really the core of the system, and they are what drives the narrative and even forms the structure of the story. Whenever the PCs fail at a roll, the MC makes a move against them ((As hard and direct a move as the MC wants. Not as hard and direct a move as the MCÂ can. This is a vital distinction in keeping the game flowing. And the characters alive.)), and then asks, “What do you do?”
“Well, you fire at old Scrub, but the bullet goes wide, and everyone hears the shot. Scrub dives for cover, and suddenly, Sheriff is on the scene, and she’s yelling at you to come out with your hands up. What do you do?”
“You can’t get the old door in the rock to open. The random codes you punched on the keypad didn’t make the light go from red to green, like it was supposed to. Something happens, though: sparks start to crackle all over the surface of the door, with little arcs of lighting grounding themselves in the surrounding cave wall. What do you do?”
It’s the “What do you do?” that you always end your moves with that make this setbacks. You’ve made things harder, added more obstacles, and generally defeated the characters, but the fact that you have to leave things open for the “What do you do?” means that you cannot dead-end the game. There must be a way forward – all the players ((Yes, the players. They choose their next moves, and, if they roll well, whatever they choose is the way forward.)) have to do is decide what it is.
But good as the hard moves on a miss are, the really perfect example of the setback happens with a roll of 7-9. With that roll, the characters succeed at what they’re attempting,Â but at a cost. Giving the characters a mixed success is good, but even better is making the characters choose between getting what they want and losing something else. This hard bargain creates some of the best setbacks in the game.
“Okay, you dive for cover, and roll up behind a burned-out car. As you fly through the air, you feel a tug at your clothing and, when you land and get your breath back, you see that a bullet went right through one of the ties on your pack. Half the contents, including your flashlight and the handkerchief full of bullets, are strewn on the ground out there, where the bullets are falling like rain. You’re safe where you are, but your gear is exposed and won’t last long under this fire. What do you do?”
Those are some fun setbacks.
Fiasco is another game built around setbacks. With the black and white dice mechanic, half the scenes ((Well, possibly a little more or a little less, if you use the default rule that the last die is wild.)) end in an unfavourable outcome – as setback – for the character.Â And it’s the rest of the group who gets to decide that. Oh, the player can influence what kind of ending he or she is getting through roleplaying, but really, if there’s no more white dice, it doesn’t matter how good the play or the argument, things will end bad.
Of course, bad endings are part of the fun of Fiasco. The first two pieces of advice I always give to new Fiasco players – especially if they’re experienced roleplayers – are:
- Don’t get too attached to your character. Bad things are gonna happen to him or her.
- Don’t try to “win.” Instead, embrace failure and self-destruction, and revel in them.
Fiasco players, like Drama System players, are incentivized to accept setbacks, because they are such a core part of the game. And they’re a core part of the game because they’re a core part of the inspiring media. Remember that Coen Brothers movie where everything went smooth for the characters and it all worked out great? Yeah, me neither.
So, Why Setbacks?
Okay, so we know what setbacks are, and how different games handle them. Why should we care?
- Setbacks give the opportunity for character development, showing how characters deal with frustration, loss, and things other than success. That gives us more insight into the characters, the world, and the story.
- Setbacks also vary the pacing and shape of the narrative. If events are just a single string of successes leading to a climax, we tend to get bored. Periodic failures keep us interested by building in suspense – if we know the character can’t fail, we can zone out, but if it’s in question, then we focus in. It’s just more interesting to us.
- We know that, in life, nothing is ever perfectly smooth. There’s always a few hiccups along the way, and sometimes we need to take a step back before we can take a step forward. And, if our games have the same sorts of things, we can more closely identify with the characters we’re playing. It feels more real to us.
- It gives us the opportunity to do fun things in a game. Have the heroes captured by pirates, or chased away from the rich treasure by a fearsome beast, or get caught in the stolen car with the twelve sticks of dynamite and open bottle of bourbon. You can throw in the weird and unexpected, the frustrating and the fun ((Caveat: if you’re going to throw in the frustrating, you better throw in enough fun to compensate. Otherwise, you’re a jerk.)).
- Setbacks provide a greater sense of accomplishment at the end of the adventure. Characters had more obstacles to overcome to reach the end, and had to work harder for their reward. It makes the eventual victory ((Assuming there is one, of course. But that’s a topic for another day.)) that much sweeter.
And that’s why you should care about setbacks in your game.
For the Players
Okay, gang, I’ve just spent close to 3000 words telling GMs that they should screw their players over ((Well, no I didn’t, but that could be one interpretation.)). Now I’m going to claim that I did it all for you.
As a player, I suggest you embrace any setbacks that come your way. They are another chance to show off how awesome your character is, in victory and in defeat. James Bond gets captured by the villain all the time, just so he can show off how cool he is when he escapes. Han Solo gets frozen in carbonite so that he can have his emotional moments with Leia and so that the rest of the gang can come and rescue him. The Fellowship of the Ring has to turn back from the mountain pass, and they get to confront horrible ((But very cool.)) evils from the dawn of time in the Mines of Moria.
Setbacks are just another way to let your character be cool. It’s an opportunity to add a twist to the story, and to reveal something interesting about the characters, and to earn a sweeter victory at the end. Of course, this depends on both the GM and the players accepting this idea, and then implementing it in game. The chance to add further problems to the characters’ lives is probably incentive enough to get GMs on board with this, but it requires players to jump in just as eagerly, and to reward the GMs with good play and good moments when encountering a setback.
If both GMs and players are enthusiastic about the way setbacks can enrich a game, then setbacks will happen and will be awesome, even if you’re using an old-style game like RuneQuest or D&D.