Gaming My Way

14 Apr

Victory in Roleplaying Games!

Sometimes, as a game master, it’s tough trying to figure out the sweet spot where a combat will be dangerous for the players while granting that they have a chance of victory. Go too far into challenging territory, and the party will die. Go too far towards a chance of victory and the battle won’t be a challenge.

This is important, because you want the players to feel like they’re accomplishing something significant, which means it has to be a challenge, but they also need to be able to gain some sort of a victory, whether that be defeat of their opponents, driving their opponents off, or some other goal that could be considered an accomplishment.

That’s not to say they should win all the time of course. If they win all the time, they think they’re unbeatable, and there’s no suspense as to whether or not they’ll prevail. It becomes set in stone they will always win, at least in their minds. Losing is humbling. But it’s frustrating to lose all the time, so it shouldn’t be common. Not only that, but when they lose, they should always be able to understand why they were not victorious. No bending the rules for your uber enemy, no matter how cool you think he is, because your players will likely feel cheated if there isn’t a solid basis in the rules for why they lost.

Now, sometimes your players may earn victory after victory. As long as everyone’s having fun, that’s cool, but if excitement is waning, it’s time to give them something challenging. Put some tension back in the game. Assuming you thought that they could barely handle each of the challenges you sent at them (or they uncovered) before, make something twice as powerful as you think they can handle. They might just surprise you and come through and defeat it, but if they do, it’ll likely be by the skin of their teeth. If this isn’t the case, repeat until this is the case or they do in fact lose the combat, via being captured, running away, or some other means that preferably isn’t death the first time they lose.

This sets the precedent that they can in fact lose. This will help put dramatic tension back in the game. Not only that, it gives you an idea of what your players are capable of, so you can fine-tune combat to the sweet spot that makes it fun. This will help keep dramatic tension in the game. You’ve probably also just come up with your first recurring villain, who you can now flesh out if you haven’t already. Perhaps even advance his power along with player power, so he remains a challenge, though ultimately still defeatable, if only they could figure out how. Now you have a motivation for the party to stick together, and the common goal for them to defeat, harass, or just plain survive against this new, powerful foe.

After this battle, your players will also hopefully begin to think about ways to play and fight smart. Eventually, they may figure out how to deal with this villain, and this could signal the end of the campaign, a lull before a new villain comes in, or lead directly into another plot arc, among other options. Either way, once they’ve dealt with the villain, they’ll feel a lot cooler knowing he legitimately beat them the first time they faced him.

Sometimes, character death is ok too though. For instance, if they go up against something obviously too powerful for them, they should die if they don’t try to escape. Perhaps even if they stay too long before trying to escape. However, it might be nice to warn them they’re likely to die if they stay the course they’re on first. They may not understand how outmatched they are. After a few warnings of this nature in different encounters, you might then tell them they’re on their own, with no more warning from you, just so they know and aren’t surprised when you no longer tell them they’re outmatched.

Of course, I say this assuming they really are outmatched. If it turns out that going by the book they emerge victorious, let them celebrate. But if they die by the book, let it happen so they know it’s possible. They’ll be far less likely to make that mistake again.

Another case character death may be appropriate is if someone is looking to make a heroic last stand. Heroic last stands are stuff legends are made of, after all. Just look at the movie 300. Even if a character isn’t attempting this, if he does die, try to play it off as heroic. It’ll hopefully make the player feel better about losing a character he most likely has grown attached to.

Of course, it’s also possible that a dead character could be resurrected, depending on the power of the party and the game system you are using. A couple points here though. First of all, resurrection cheapens a heroic death, so if the player was going this route, it might be a good time to retire the character and let the player introduce a new one. Second of all, if a player is being resurrected, make sure there is still some kind of penalty for death. It shouldn’t be harsh enough to cripple the player, but it should be harsh enough so that the players don’t want to die.

I personally like temporary things, such as the loss of magic items (but not basic equipment), to make a character less effective, but not useless. Not only that, but with the loss of magic items, it’s something that will fix itself over time as the party gains more treasure through their adventures.

I very much dislike permanent gimping, such as a loss of experience or general character ability. Anything that puts a player permanently behind the others seems too harsh to me, even though it seems to be fairly standard in many games. The point is to make them want to avoid letting their characters die, not to make them permanently less powerful than everyone else.

However, in the end, these are all suggestions. Some groups may really like coasting through to victory. Others will like situations in which death really hurts over the long term, rather than just a couple sessions. Some will even like death being permanent. So it will depend heavily on the group you have. These are just some ideas to deal with making sure the players feel like they are accomplishing something significant, not just coasting along on certain victory, and to make sure that they won’t feel too bad about making a significant mistake once in awhile.

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