How Important is "winning" to you in RPGs?

How important to you is it that you be able to “win” a game or RPG? I’ve been thinking about how my favorite games have downer endings (Bluebeard’s Bride) or end at the climax (For The Queen), and how some people really dislike not having a win or a resolution.

I created a twitter poll that I’d love you to answer, but also discussion here is great too.

I divided my poll into four options that I’ve been thinking about:

  • Need to win need closure
  • Win or lose need closure
  • OK can’t win need closure
  • OK can’t win no closure
  1. You need to always win a game and have closure of the story. Dungeon crawls, games that give the illusion of danger, but result in something that always feels like a victory. Good for people who just want to have a good time, do awesome things and not worry about heavy stuff.
  2. Should be able to win, but don’t need to; Still need closure of what happens. Basically any game where a character can lose or die. For instance, objective-driven games like D&D or Call of Cthulhu, or story games that grow to have objectives (you can do this in Monsterhearts).
  3. Okay if you can’t win, but need the closure. Bluebeard’s Bride is like this: you can’t “win” the game, but you definitely get closure. These games are often meant to evoke a specific emotional response, and are played for the experience.
  4. Okay if there’s no closure, and therefore no “winning”. For The Queen and The Quiet Year are like this. They end with the arrival of a threat and you don’t know what happens after that. There is no closure; it’s about making something together and living in it for a time.

Of course there’s a lot of nuance in between these options, but I’m just thinking about the ways I’ve seen these preferences manifest in my f2f group lately and it’s filling up my brain.

For me, I actually really prefer games that are about an experience, and I’m totally fine if they don’t have a way for me to “win” them (though winning is fun and I do like to win too). For The Queen is one of my favorite games and completely eschews any winning or closure in a way I find contrarily satisfying. I also tend to find myself annoyed in games that are pure dungeon crawl and centered on winning, regardless of whether it’s softball or deadly. I need the emotions.

13 Likes

As with anything, it’s dependent on what’s most fun for a group. If a group of people come together knowing it might have an unhappy ending, or might not have closure, then that’s fine!

I also feel like not having closure is not necessarily a bad thing, but I do prefer my games to have closure. One of the things that’s important about not having closure is to define: what is an acceptable state to leave? In my experience, for games with nebulous conditions for stopping, it’s not so much that you don’t get closure, but that you have to define what’s acceptable closure for yourself.

An end to any given story never necessarily means an end to any given character, village, event, or anything like that - it’s simply the final told tale.

As far as what’s popular? That’s a different thing entirely, and depends on what crowd you’re sampling. I guarantee that if you asked video gamers, they would shout that they need both a win condition and closure, whereas I feel that people who watch more TV shows likely want winning but not necessarily closure, and people who are more inclined to movies likely want more closure than winning- if you’ll allow my broad generalizations.

Is there a deeper reason you want to know? This is definitely something you could go super in depth with and come out with a game or article, or could simply just look at it and go “oh cool I’m among people who feel the same as me” :slight_smile:

5 Likes

I guess that I’d say I prefer closure in general, though a meaningful cliffhanger/questionmark can fit that bill. Beyond that, I’d say “any and all of the above, depending on what I signed up for.”

I know that’s a bit of a cop-out, but I think it’s more about expectations than anything else. If I sign up to play Trophy, I know that winning is basically out of the question, but I expect closure (grim, grim closure). If I sign up for an OSR dungeon-crawl, closure (short of death) is unlikely, but let’s hey, let’s play in the sandbox for a bit.

It does bug me if the game is presented as play-to-win but the only way to win is, basically, not to play (I’m looking at you, Lamentations).

Related, I’ll generally play “to win” even if I’ve no expectation of being able to. Like, that game of Trophy we played with @DavidMorrison… my creepy old woodcutter was definitely trying to win (for his definition of winning), and that added to the fun for me, but when I missed that last roll and got torn apart by the Wild Hunt… yup, that’s what I signed up for. All good.

9 Likes

I’m not sure how much I can add on the perspective of “winning” here. The distinction I see when people are talking about “play to lose” seemed to me less about winning but about concepts around “success” and even more “satisfying conclusion” in which satisfying somehow relates often to having a good (as in morally good) ending, a problem solved, a goal reached or a challenge overcome.

I haven’t heard of people walking this winning. But that might be a language thing in my case since I’m not a native speaker.

So one could say that a satisfying ending can be much more than a happy ending or any other way of satisfaction described above. The story can have a sad but satisfying ending for example. A story has been told as in Bluebeard’s Bride.

Interestingly, I personally felt that I have learnt that I don’t even care that much anymore about a satisfying ending in that sense.

With open table, with a sharp ending after three hours, there often is maximum a 2 minutes epilogue left per player. And I don’t mind. The story arc is not important. The way we took, the experience I made on the way was.

7 Likes

For me, it depends not just on the game but on the campaign. The more time and effort I put into it, the more I care, the more I want closure and/or the possibility of a “win” ending. If it’s a one-shot I’m just playing out of curiosity, sure, bring on the doom and end it whenever you want.

2 Likes

I think the genre of game I play (and whether it is a campaign or a one-shot) affects my definition of winning. Broadly speaking, ‘winning’ is successfully engaging with the core conceit of the game.

For instance, in a one shot Cthulhu based game, ‘winning’ for me is going horribly insane. In a game of Monsterhearts ‘winning’ is getting into horribly messy relationship problems. In a D&D quest it is trying to foil the evil plan & rescue the token.

Does that make sense?

2 Likes

Largely for me it comes down to what is explicit before I start playing/sign up to play. If it’s not clear that a win is impossible and I’ll never have closure before then, I’ll be unsatisfied, because I haven’t “bought in” or really been given the opportunity to opt out. But if I know what I’m getting into, anything on that spectrum is fine.

2 Likes

I really respect storytelling games that just create a mood, even if things don’t fully resolve. Why are we so married to resolutions anyway?

Some of my favorite books and movies have odd endings that are not classic resolutions, for instance David Lynch’s movies and Hiruki Mirakami’s books. There have been some interesting forays into this space for tabletop games and larps, like “Something Is Wrong Here,” which specifically tries to emulate Lynch.

Bluebeard’s Bride does this too. Yes, we know it’s a “bad” end for the bride, but the horror itself is not really explained, it’s about the mood and the dread. For some reason horror lends itself well to this idea. That might be something else to unpack.

3 Likes

Generally speaking, I’m quite interested in closure, and not at all interested in winning. However, I like games with clear directions or goals, because they produce more consistently fun play: it’s nice to have a signpost which tells you “the party is over here”, when victory conditions can often do that for us.

It does depend a fair bit on how invested I am in the thing in the first place, though. I’ve noticed that I’ll be more itchy for closure when I’m GMing a game than if I’m just playing, for example.

And, of course, expectations matter almost more than anything else.

I have a question for Jeremy:

I think I know what you mean in principle, but the example of Lamentations confuses me a fair deal. Can you explain what you mean here? Are we talking about unwinnable games, or just those which aren’t fun when played to win, or what?

1 Like

I’m specifically referencing how Lamentations is generally considered a “challenged-based game” but the scenarios in the game often at least seem to involve unwinnable challenges. Like, Death Frost Doom… the “smart” play is to walk away. The possible rewards that you get from that dungeon are, IIRC, just Not Worth It vs. the lethality and and the potential doom you can inflict on the campaign setting.

I’m down for some gloomy, doomed shit, but whenever I look at Lamentations scenarios, I feel like the players are on the receiving end of a cruel joke. A promise of hard-won riches and glory, but a reality of releasing a swarm of mummified babies that eat you and overrun the countryside.

It’s almost certainly a matter of taste, and maybe I’m just missing the point on LotFP modules. But it sure seems like a consistent theme.

6 Likes

With scenarios like Death Frost Doom I indeed see the toxic tradition of a GM who shows their superiority in their position, too. It’s like whatever the characters are doing, the GM wins in the sense that they keep control. There are boundaries, like pre-defined dungeons, how traps and puzzles can be solved and fixed monster stats. But the leverage will always go beyond what is defined and in the end, the author of the module considers themselves as in complicity to the GM, not the players.

By the way, there is a related (even) older thread here about winning conditions in RPGs which might be of interest for people who posted here:

3 Likes

I see, Jeremy!

I see the game of LotFP as one which has clear guideposts for “winning”, so your comments were confusing to me. But if we look at the modules, that might be a different story. Makes sense!

While I’m no LotFP fan - Death Frost Doom is notable as an early “Negadungeon” - you’re right that the smart move is to walk away, but this is the intent (and there’s several clear warnings about walking away in the adventure). The Negadungeon (unlike its setting equivalent the “Miserycrawl”) isn’t meant to be won in the traditional fantasy adventure story way - it’s not an adventure story at all… it’s horror. Using it as an example of challenge/puzzle based play is perhaps putting the commentary before the subject.

In a more specific sense it’s commentary on the implied genre of fantasy table top games - the heroic narrative that at its core is tomb robbing and murder. When these play elements are moved from fantasy adventure into a horror setting they look very different, monsters look different, and player survival looks different.

In my experience negadungeons are effective teaching tools about classic play in that they emphasize the lethal nature of the setting and playstyle. Because they quickly and obviously become horror they do this well by shifting player expectations.

Death Frost Doom is interesting because barring a few fairly classic traps in the beginning it’s quite a low lethality scenario - it simply doesn’t have much dangerous combat unless the players are recklessly foolish. It also absolutely hits the ideas that the setting is deadly, that character actions and moral choices have consequences, that sometimes you need to run or negotiate, and that survival itself is a form of winning … both valuable lessons for classic play.

2 Likes

Thank you so much, with your explanation, @Gus.L, this all makes more sense. I really like the classification of dungeon crawls. I hadn’t heard of that before but if offers a much better understanding.

I also find the re interpretation of exactly the same set of rules and procedures through the module fascinating. That by dramatizing certain elements in the fiction, certain rule elements currently emphasize horror while before they were rather harmless. That’s actually a lesson to be learnt in how modules and rules are more interlinked and exchange information in both directions than I thought.

I’m currently preparing a classic Dark Eye module for some Gauntlet sessions, hacking World of Dungeons for that purpose, so this came right in time.

1 Like

Glad to be of help - I think it’s worth noting that Negadungeon/Misery Crawl adventures don’t need to be Dungeon Crawls (at least in the very specific way I use the term to denote a spatial puzzle solving, resource base risk management game). Deep Carbon Observatory - often lumped in with DFD because of its bleak tone (though it has fairly standard adventure fantasy rewards) uses scene based mechanics for its well know beginning, a short Point Crawl and dungeon exploration with a hunting mega-monster. Black Sun Death Crawl which is also very bleak and survival based is a pure Scene Based adventure. It’s even somewhat unclear if DFD is a Dungeon Crawl in a meaningful way, one of its chief conceits is a lack of time pressure (a lack of wandering monsters).

Still yes, you can do a lot of different things with simple mechanics and a system that relies on mutual GM/Player trust. I think one of the key defining features of older systems is that they attempt to provide for the simulation of a world rather then creating mechanics for a specific sort of scenario/narrative/genre. How well they succeed is open to debate, and there’s certainly problems with deep deep delves into simulation (they generallydon’t work in a fun way), but they really do try. I always think of the (bad really) rules in the 1st edition AD&D DMG for conversion to and from Boothill & Gamma World.

4 Likes

I think we need to look at the question from a much higher vantage point, because to me there is an obvious interpretation of what “winning” means in the context of a game, but this definition gets very muddled in the context of an RPG. to explain myself…

IMO, going by the most commonly accepted amorphous definition of a game (I’ll know it when I see it), roleplaying games aren’t games. I don’t think it worth redefining the name, RPG is too far ingrained, and collaborative storytelling experience is not the kind of punchy title that gets people excited.

Why do I not think RPGs are real games? We could spend hours defining “game” but the gist of it is: an event in which one or more participants are using their skills to achieve victory, known as “winning”. For 99% of the RPGs I’ve played, read, and heard about, the players (I include GM as a player) are not trying to “win”.

Now, there may be challenges presented by the game, either structured by the rules or defined by the GM, but even when a player consciously says it, I don’t think the goal is merely to beat these challenges. The challenges are there because the we enjoying experiencing them. In a Role-Playing game, we are playing a role, a thing that is not exactly us. We do this because when we act as something else, we get to experience the things that other entity would experience, presumably because we don’t get to experience these things in our real life. After all, if you were using an RPG to do things you can already do, why wouldn’t you just do the thing for real?Trying not to keep running away with my tangets. The point being, in our role-playing, that role does not always involve winning. In the same way that not every movie, book, song, etc. tells the same story, not every role we play should be expected to “win”.

This is gonna seem like I’ve veering off but stick with me. Why are role-playing games different than other games? We instinctively know they are different even though we lump them together in the same media conglomeration of games. Role-playing games are different because in a role-playing game, you are intentionally performing non-optimal strategies to inhabit your role. In a board game, the ideal strategy would be to perform actions that cause you to win, regardless of how they align with your own ethics, morals, beliefs, etc. We call a board game “immersive” when the ideal strategy also matches with the story the game is telling us. When I use spies to infiltrate a location and assassinate my friend’s forces in Tyrants of the Underdark, even though I just told them I wouldn’t if they took out one of my enemies, that is contiguous with the game which has told me I’m playing a power hungry, backstabbing Drow. When I do the same thing in a game of Risk, I’m an a-hole because the game hasn’t presented itself as a dismal political thriller of secret deals and betrayals.

But in an RPG? I’ll do whatever represents the character I’m playing, regardless of its bearing on “winning”. For many RPGs, they try to steer your towards making characters whose motivation is identical to “winning”, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s also only the great RPGs that make sure to prime the player by telling them their goals are not to win, but to be their character. When I play the chivalrous paladin I expect to resist temptation and slay evil just as much as I expect to sell out my friends and escape with the loot when I play a backstabbing thief. For a game like Dungeons and Dragons, that thief isn’t a great character to play, because the game isn’t about that sort of thing. But for say, Shadowrun? Did I “win” when my runner betrayed his teammates to megacorp and then in turn was shot in the back by Mr. Johnson? It doesn’t look like I did, I died after all! But I also signed up to do that very thing.

So I think “winning” is not important to RPGs. In fact, I think there’s is so much baggage attached to the word “win” that it isn’t ever really the goal. A movie can be good when the hero stops the villain and saves the day or when the hero fails and the world is ended. A song can be good if it’s about space pirates fighting an evil empire or just about a person moving on from a bad breakup. The exact same thing can be said about RPGs. They are a different beast than other games, even though they’ve been forced to swim in the same pool, so I hope we can acknowledge they don’t need to play by the same rules.

That was long, I hope I got my point across and didn’t ramble too much.

I don’t need to win, but I do need to feel like I’m at least as effective/successful as other players at times where that is important. It’s all well and good to play to lose in Fiasco, but Vampire is a different story. I’ve been soured on a lot of WW and DnD games because I came in as a reasonable starting PC only to play with min/maxed beasts. I hate it and I nope out very quickly because nothing I do matters or makes a difference no matter how hard I try to leverage my role playing.

So I don’t need to win, but I do need to feel equal to my fellow PCs whether I am winning or losing. If I feel like I’m losing all the time due to mechanical disadvantage it just sucks.

1 Like

If I understand you right the real winning is the friends you make along the way … as long as you aren’t playing something like D&D?

I have sympathy with the idea that using the term “winning” in association with TTRPG is somewhat baffling, and even the idea that resolving player generated goals and the process of collective story telling is where the fun of TTRPGs usually rests. I don’t know that this is best or only achieved through roleplaying a stereotypical archetype ‘properly’ though. I think that people play TTRPGs to be surprised by the stories they tell, to solve complex puzzles and make momentous fictional decisions.

These possibilities don’t just reside in a specific kind of roleplay - acting a predetermined character well. Collecting X amount of wealth, defeating Y villain or various other goals can equally feel like victory. In one of the longest running campaigns I’ve played (0E D&D) the victory was unraveling long running setting secrets and aiding a chosen sandbox faction in achieving dominance. It felt enormously satisfying, but my avaricious backstabbing thief’s fundamental character had changed through years of play to become that of a strange popular revolutionary mystic. This playing to discover where a relatively shallow character concept would go in the fictional world (and a shallow concept is good when you start 1 hit from death) was itself some of the best TTRPG fun I’ve had.

I did not mean to imply that characters should only be limited to archetypes, the best kind of characters are ones that grow and change.

I think the most focused way to experience what RPGs are capable of apart from more standard games is to have your character confront a direct challenge to their beliefs. The response to this challenge is “winning” to me, regardless if they remain steadfast or change in response to it.

But yes, many RPGs, like DnD, are on the “board game” end of the spectrum. They are light on characterization and heavy on mechanical achievement, in which case we can lean much heavier on the traditional definiton of “winning” when we talk about them, and I would say when considering those games, winning is a bigger priority than narrative.