Flashlight dropping

“flashlight dropping” also known as “playing to lose” is when a character will do something sub-optimal because “that’s who they are”. So much good drama is lost due to aversion to loss, and even more time lost on toe dipping maneuvers, I had to find a simple rule for my simple game. So I took @Paul_T frontal advice from an old (may 2019) discussion on SG and tried to make it even simpler :
IDIOT BALL RULE : When a player gets your character into trouble or otherwise worsens their situation, gain 1 die.
You can make it +1 forward or whatever consolation prize you feel is right. It doesn’t have to be commensurate with the loss at all.
This can be extended to all those time when you want to point out something to the GM that is not in favour of a character : forgotten bit of rules, or fiction improbability. It is a bit of a skinner box rule, but it’s for the greater good, right ?

I think there are two approaches to encourage it. For one, you need to teach players that character failures are not player failures. If the game explicitly describes the goal of “how to play” as creating drama and not “winning”.

Or you can reinforce it mechanically. Mouse guard (and its parent Burning Wheel) give characters XP when they follow their instincts, which do not have to be good or helpful.


I think figuring out how to handle “flashlight dropping” is really important for all kinds of game design. I’ve found Skinnerian rewards like you’re suggesting here works really well in a variety of games, to signal to the players that this is a thing which is acceptable and that we should be doing.

However, even more importantly:

  1. The reward/consolation feeds meaningfully back into play, giving somewhere to move forward. Then it gets really good. (For example, Monsterhearts often gives characters Strings on other characters as this kind of “consolation prize”, which we can now use to create more drama.)

  2. MOST importantly, we have to support and reinforce this kind of action and moment by making it fun. The most important aspect of reward is social appreciation and creating exciting moments in play. So, if we, as a group, make sure to reward and celebrate these moments, instead of punishing them, that is incredibly important. Over time, we can all see the fun in making such moments happen, and we start to associate those two things together.

However, there can also be games where balancing the flashlight dropping and the mechanical benefit is important to “winning”. That’s a pretty different dynamic: “you have to lose this thing now, so you can have a better chance to succeed later.” That can also work in some designs, and in that case, we apply the opposite principle: we shouldn’t be afraid to make those moments of loss matter, to really stick them hard, so they are meaningful losses.


I am on board with both 1 and 2. And yet.

  1. Anything that “feeds meaningfully back into play” is good, right ? This is a cherry on top, grain for later, what I want is to have a rule that eases me into losing some (it seems I have high loss aversion) that is not pure sadistic choice or intimidation.
  2. Fear can be extremely fun (which is why I want to play with loss) but loss ? How could it be ? Loss aversion is ten times worst is my problem.
    It’s a bit like a relaxing technique to use before the needle stings. It doesn’t make me “like” the sting.
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If you derive fun primarily from the fictional drama itself and secondarily from the fate or competence of your personal PC, then (in my experience) loss can be quite enjoyable. We all get invested in characters—I often feel, as GM, more worried about the fate of the PCs than my players do—but when they lose things (love, a friend, an eye, their life), the drama and everyone’s investment in that drama is usually heightened. A cheap loss doesn’t have that payoff, but that’s another conversation.


I would also consider how the game’s other mechanics frame the moment of flashlight dropping.

I think about how Dream Askew creates a dramatic situation that invites characters to take non-optimal but emotionally resonant action, and actually gives everyone the tools to respond to the messy situations that come up. There aren’t any mechanical punishments for wandering into the Earth Itself without supplies or a map (which in a game like Mutant: Year Zero is sheer foolhardiness)…you’d just better be ready for it to get weeiiirrrdd. Non-optimal play is less a question of a single mechanic and rather a design ethos that surrounds each choice made in play.

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I am running a PbF game of Trophy Gold and I find the mechanics to be a very clever way to get buy in to “flashlight dropping” by use of the press your luck mechanics. The press your luck mechanics in this game allow for flashlight dropping BECAUSE of player risk aversion, rather than fighting against risk aversion. This is especially true of the Risk roll (aka saving throw). We have only just begun but I am really enjoying it so far.

Only one roll in and players have already decided to accept failed rolls to keep down the chance of gaining Ruin / trauma and avoiding the Devil’s bargain. It works SO well so far with new players to the game.


I gather from your messages thay loss is where you find yourself having slowly crunched your way deep in the fiction. Maybe without realizing totally you were giving up control, always because you felt at the time that there was something more important to win or lose.
It’s true some games don’t give you ways of crunching your way into the abyss.
I guess there must be a redemption simulator mechanism, a slightly tinkered version of Heroic points (not a real name) ?

I agree that these two things are important for design, but I’d like to add one thing that I think really helped me to embrace playing the role: In addittion to it simply being fun, as Paul_T says, I think it’s important to praise players doing it.

In sports coaching it’s said that your (young) players won’t neccesarily care what you say, but they’ll eat up praise in front of their peers. Now, rarely will a teammate question wether you passed the ball to the other team on purpose, but in roleplaying I’ve come across people who can’t, or rather won’t, seperate the player from the character.

Even if I’m accused of being a play-to-lose-player, I enjoy Mouse Guard’s incentives to work against yourself. I also find that games that are difficult and costly, like BitD, I’ll be more inclined to play competent, clever scoundrels, though character’s still take on a life on their own.

There is another thing to be wary of though. If you drop the flashlight and it hurts others, that might be a table-thing rather than a design thing. If you drop the flashlight and your character is the only characer with infravision, well that might not sit so well with every table.

Thanks for teaching me a new frase, DeReel. :slight_smile:


It’s notable that having a mechanic for rewarding or marking “losing” or “flashlight dropping” can be a very useful thing, even if it doesn’t do much in the game.

Simply including a rule for such situations is a powerful signal: it tells everyone at the table that such actions, situations, or outcomes are welcome, and a part of the game to come. Don’t overlook how effective this kind of thing is for framing expectations for play, much like how hit points tell us that your character will get hurt and may die in this game, or a Sanity track tells us to expect our characters to lose their minds in the process of the adventure.

This is an important aspect of such rules: signaling to the group and the players what to expect in play.


I will link to the “affordance marker” discussion on StoryGames (deceased).

haven’t finished the whole thread, but it is very enlightening and helped me organize my thoughts.

I really like the mechanical approach because when you mechanize this philosophy it doesn’t merely encourage it, it points to it and says this is a game option. For example, take the use of yellow/red cards in soccer. The cards formalize what actions are and are not cheating, and exactly what punishment you receive for performing these actions. Formalizing these rules means the “punishment” is now actually a cost.

Should you tackle an opponent? Depending on the penalty (cost) you will weigh tackling the opponent against the cost of not tackling them as oppose to filing it away in the “cheating” section of your mind and not doing it.

Should you betray your friends in Trophy? The game tells you exactly how and what happens when you do. Now it’s a game option.

I also recognize that there are many people who do not agree with this philosophy. The idea of being rewarded for doing something that is assumed part of play can feel manipulative or extraneous. I don’t need to be rewarded for betraying my friends in Trophy, that’s the point of the game! I think this also has the danger of running into the weeds of “what parts of a rulebook are actually rules?” If Trophy said it’s a game of corruption and betrayal, and then had no “rules” for betraying people, does that count?