You Can’t Always Get What You Want

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,1, 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 luck2 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 over3, or have immediate, irrevocable negative consequences4. 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 ideas5. 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

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 icons6 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 head7, 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 Age8. 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 is9. The adventure still goes forward, but now there’s a new complication to deal with – pretty much the definition of a setback.

Leverage RPG

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 that10.

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 generates11. 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 game12.

Fate Core

Fate has always worked on the idea that something interesting should happen on a failed roll, otherwise why bother rolling13? The latest iteration, Fate Core14, 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 conflict15, a character can concede. This means that he or she loses the conflict, but gets to have some input on what losing means16, 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.

Drama System

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 petitioning17 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 desire18.

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.

Apocalypse World

As with Leverage RPG, above, I’m using Apocalypse World as a single example of the entire family of *World games19. 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 them20, 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 players21 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,  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

Fiasco is another game built around setbacks. With the black and white dice mechanic, half the scenes22 end in an unfavourable outcome – as setback – for the character.  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:

  1. Don’t get too attached to your character. Bad things are gonna happen to him or her.
  2. 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 fun23.
  • 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 victory24 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 over25. 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 horrible26 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.

 

  1. 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. []
  2. And sometimes poor tactics. []
  3. “I do exactly the same thing that didn’t work last time, but harder!” []
  4. “Natural one, huh? Well, I guess that medusa has a new fighter statue for her garden. What do you want to play next?” []
  5. Especially Fate Core and it’s derived games, and certain iterations of Cortex Plus. []
  6. 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. []
  7. Or heads, as the case may be. []
  8. 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. []
  9. 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.” []
  10. Again, the idea of failing forward – adding a new obstacle, but not dead-ending the game. []
  11. 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. []
  12. And from the TV show. []
  13. This is similar to Vincent D. Baker’s idea of “Say yes, or roll the dice.” []
  14. Which is available on a pay-what-you-like model in .pdf here. []
  15. Usually when things are going badly and defeat looks imminent. []
  16. Usually not dying. []
  17. Not in the formal sense, you understand. And often not directly. []
  18. And the game builds in reasons for the granter to not want to give that concession. []
  19. Including Dungeon World, Monster Hearts, Dungeon Planet, tremulus, and others that I probably haven’t heard of. []
  20. As hard and direct a move as the MC wants. Not as hard and direct a move as the MC can. This is a vital distinction in keeping the game flowing. And the characters alive. []
  21. Yes, the players. They choose their next moves, and, if they roll well, whatever they choose is the way forward. []
  22. Well, possibly a little more or a little less, if you use the default rule that the last die is wild. []
  23. Caveat: if you’re going to throw in the frustrating, you better throw in enough fun to compensate. Otherwise, you’re a jerk. []
  24. Assuming there is one, of course. But that’s a topic for another day. []
  25. Well, no I didn’t, but that could be one interpretation. []
  26. But very cool. []

13th Age Playtest – Actual Play

This is the second half of my report on our playtest of 13th Age from Pelgrane Press. You can see the first half here. I concentrated on character creation in the previous post; this time, I’m going to talk about the actual play of the game.

Our GM, Michael, ran two different adventures for us: the first was a simple investigation into goblin raiders, and the second was a longer quest chasing after a stolen sword. Between the two adventures, we wound up playing three sessions, and it gave us a pretty good view of the entire game. It was a good time.

The goblin raider adventure was designed specifically to showcase combat and give us players a chance to learn the ins and outs of fighting in this new system. It consisted of a simple hook and short trek to get us to the goblins, then a lengthy fight to defeat them and their hobgoblin allies. Along the way, we had the opportunity to try using our backgrounds a few times, but the focus was really on the fight at the end.

Combat is interesting. We ran into some strange math anomalies in some of the stats and a couple of odd corner-cases that the rules didn’t quite cover1, but overall things ran smoothly. There are some intriguing new mechanics to speed combat, including using a d6 – called the Escalation Die – to encourage heroic action by giving the PCs an attack bonus for consecutive rounds of pushing the assault.

The system doesn’t use a battlemap or grid for movement and positioning and, while it didn’t make much difference in our initial combat, we found that in later combats2, our tactics were a little lacking after our long conditioning to the combat grid. That is, we didn’t take care to state that our fighter-types were protecting our squishy wizard3, which led to some good opportunities to test out the dying and recovery rules.

Those work pretty well, thankfully.

I want to stress that this is not a fault in the system; it’s just something you need to keep in mind when you play the game. It’s easy to make this mistake, if you’ve played a lot of D&D; the game feels enough like D&D that you can get tripped up by the little differences. You don’t get the visual cues from the minis to see what lines of assault are open, and who’s exposed to attack, so you need to think about that when you describe your action. There’s a discussion in the playtest document about using minis to show loose, relative positioning, and I think that might have helped alleviate this issue, but we didn’t try it out.

The first adventure went pretty well – we located the goblins’ hideout in a ghost town, managed to not be surprised by the hobgoblins, and even tried to negotiate with them4. When the fight broke out, we managed to tip things in our favour pretty early, though the fight was still pretty tough.

The second adventure was more involved, and featured more non-combat elements of play. It saw us trekking through the Empire to a magical site in order to see a magical sword get enchanted5, then chasing the thief of that sword to a ruined city and finally wresting the blade from him. We ran this adventure over one short evening and one longer evening, mostly because we kept breaking to discuss our impressions of the system and how it was working at any given time. I’m pretty certain we could have crammed the whole thing into a single longer session.

The system showed to pretty good effect overall. It handled us remembering information, making friends6, spotting dangers, navigating, negotiating, figuring stuff out, threatening, working magical rituals, running up and down7 a two-hundred foot tower, standing off a dragon, and fighting assassins, wolves, dragon-men, and the end boss8. There are mechanics in place to encourage pushing on in an adventure rather than falling back to rest and recover, and they work pretty well to keep things active and interesting. Combat can be very suddenly deadly9, but the rules for death saves allows for some heroic and cinematic recoveries, so that’s okay. We even tried the leveling up mechanics, and found them to be surprisingly quick and simple, even for multi-class characters.

There’s a lot of stuff in the game that’s left to GM adjudication. That’s not a complaint, because mostly10 the rules provide enough support with examples and simple general rules that it didn’t seem to slow our GM down much. It allowed more freedom for the players to try interesting stuff, while giving the GM the tools needed to handle it.

The main things I was looking for were a cinematic feel to the action in the game, and for combat not to dominate all the play time. The game delivered on both of these things, in spades, so I count it as a success. Now, there were still some rough edges to the system – including the aforementioned weird math anomalies in combat – but as this is the first round playtest, I fully expect those things to be worked out by the time the game is actually released.

All in all, I’m looking forward to the final version of the game.

  1. All of which has been dutifully reported to the good folks at Pelgrane Press. []
  2. That is, in the next adventure. []
  3. Also known as ME! []
  4. That didn’t work. Goblins are dicks. []
  5. Quick digression here: Apparently, the sword was the standard hook written up in the adventure, which is fine. What’s awesome is that, as my character’s One Unique Feature, I had him receive a sword from a mysterious stranger at his birth, so the GM used that as the sword in question. This is just one example of the ways that the interesting features from character creation that I talked about last time come back to inform and enrich the adventures during play. []
  6. One thing we didn’t wind up trying was using the Icon relationships we had established in character creation. They just didn’t really come up, as I recall. []
  7. And, in two cases, jumping off. []
  8. Not gonna tell you what that was. []
  9. As I found out. Twice. []
  10. It’s still just a playtest draft. []

13th Age Playtest – Character Creation

Over the past few weeks, my friend Michael has been running us through the first-round playtest for 13th Age, a new fantasy game from Pelgrane Press. Now that the playtest is over and we’ve submitted our feedback, the NDA allows me to talk1 about the experience. And you know me; I hate to have an unexpressed thought or opinion.

The game is billed as:

13th Age is a love letter to D&D: a rules-light, story-oriented RPG that honors old school values while advancing the OGL art. Players create unique heroes using flexible interpretations of familiar D20 character classes. New indie-style rules connect each character’s story to the Gamemaster’s customized version of the campaign setting.

I think it meets those goals admirably, and has some very nice little bits incorporated into the rules and the character creation that just shine. I’m really looking forward to the final version of the game.

This post is just going to be about the character creation portion. In a few days2, I’ll have another post about the rest of the rules, and the actual play experience.

Character creation looks pretty standard on the face of it, a sort-of mash-up of various versions of D&D to get your stats and pick your class and race. Once you get through picking the normal components of your character, however, you run into a couple of very indie-inspired elements that turn your numbers into something special: Backgrounds, Relationships, and One Unique Feature.

Backgrounds substitute for skills in this system, and are broad categories of experience that show where your character came from and what he or she can do. There isn’t a list of backgrounds to choose from – you are encouraged to create your own. This not only fleshes out your character history and abilities, it also fills in detail about the world. For example, in our little playtest group, our character backgrounds wound up adding the following elements to the setting:

  • A service of Imperial Couriers that rode gryphons to deliver high-priority goods and messages.
  • A rich noble who employed rangers to assist with the maintenance and record keeping in her menagerie.
  • A network of ex-slave gladiators spread throughout the Imperial military.
  • A loose association of arcane scholars called the Fellowship of the Lost Book, dedicated to ferreting out forgotten magical lore.

All these things gave the GM good, solid hooks to draw us into adventures, and provide information. It made the world feel more complete, and it made our characters feel more a part of it. It gave them a place in the grand scheme of things.

This is enhanced by the Relationships. The world of 13th Age has some very powerful – mythically powerful – beings in it called Icons. These Icons are sort of archetypes that different people may fill from time to time3 and represent the powers of the world. These are things like the Archmage, the Elf Queen, the Dwarf King, the Dragon Emperor, the High Druid, and so forth. Each character gets some points to define a few Relationships with these Icons – not necessarily with the Icon itself, but with the Icon’s organization. For example, having a weak, positive relationship with the Elf Queen doesn’t mean she knows you by sight, but means that you’re in good standing with the Court of Stars in general, and can hope to be well-received there should you need a favour. Again, this does a lot to tie you into the world, and give your character a sense of history and place.

While these two elements do a lot to tie your character into the world, One Unique Feature is there to make sure your character stands out. This is something that lets you create something, well, unique for your character. Examples included in the playtest document run the gamut from weird little abilities (a half-orc with a supernaturally compelling voice) to odd bits of character history (a monk who started life as a bear before being transformed into a human) and everything in between. There are no mechanics attached to what you come up with here, so giving your character the Unique Feature of being able to kill with a touch is pretty much off the table, but being able to use your Unique Feature for bonuses or to be able to attempt things that other people wouldn’t seems firmly within scope. But the real advantage of the Unique Feature is that it turns your character from The Wizard4 into the wizard who wields the sword Bitter Understanding.

Together, these three elements really bring the character to life, and make it so that, when you start play at 1st level, your character feels like a hero.

I glossed over race and class, above, to get to the bits of character creation I think are neatest, but you get a standard mix of races  – human, dwarf, half-orc, halfling, three flavours of elf, half-elf, and gnome, plus their version of dragonborn, tieflings, aasimar, and warforged – and classes – barbarian, bard, cleric, druid5, fighter, monk, paladin, ranger, rogue, sorcerer, and wizard, along with a system for multiclassing. Each race gets a neat little mechanical benefit, and each class gets an array of features and abilities to choose from.

One nice touch with the classes is that the playtest document has a short section that rates each class according to how difficult/complex it is to play, with barbarian at the low end of complexity and wizard at the high end. There is a note that multiclass characters are going to be more complex than any single class character, and that seemed borne out in our test.

Overall, I think the character creation section of 13th Age is wonderful. There are a few little quirks of math that made me raise my eyebrows, but finding those things is what a playtest is about, and I’ve passed my concerns on to the folks who can do something about it. The only other complaint I had was with the organization of the document, which made it necessary to do a lot of paging back and forth to create a character. This is, again, a product of the fact that this is a playtest – I know the final version of the game is going to be cleaned up and reorganized once it’s complete.

In short, in 13th Age, you wind up with a character that has depth, history, competence, and feels like a hero right out of the gate. That’s a big win for any fantasy game like this. We also managed to create four characters in under two hours, so that’s pretty good considering we’re all just learning the game.

In a few days, I’ll post about the actual play. Watch for it.

  1. Well, write in this case. []
  2. Hopefully. I’ve been pretty lax with my posts here, and am playing catch-up. []
  3. Well, some of them. Some, such as the Three, the Lich King, and the Great Gold Wyrm are more permanent. []
  4. Or even worse, The Other Wizard. []
  5. The druid is listed in the playtest doc, but the actual class was not ready to be distributed for playtest this round. []