There are a number of possible themes that would make sense for today. Taxes – did that last year. Passover – I finally read Testament (the RPG supplement) more closely a while back and there’s a lot of inspiration for gaming, but there should be a better time.
But, how about the NBA playoffs? For those following the first round, it’s been a lot less unbalanced than what was expected at the beginning of the season. What is the draw of sports? Sports are predicated on the idea that on any given day anyone can win and anyone can lose. The Lady Huskies lost in the NCAA Women’s Tournament to someone who was neither Baylor nor Stanford. Memphis won their first playoff game in franchise history against the #1 seed (admittedly, with a star out). Buster Douglas. Miracle on Ice. Etc.
A game has to have that same level of unpredictability, otherwise why bother playing it? Even games that can be reduced to math, like chess, a handicap can make the game sufficiently close to create an unknown result.
But, what of a role-playing game?
I see RPGs as being a way to model fiction, usually fantasy fiction but whatever genre appeals. There’s always been a dissonance between the two, however, in that (typical) RPGs really haven’t been designed to model fiction; they’ve been designed as … games! D&D stole a lot from Tolkien, but it didn’t steal a predetermined narrative. One could try to make the case that fiction doesn’t have to be predetermined and can be modeled with RPG mechanics. Sure, things work out in dramatic ways, but there’s no requirement that RPGs be less dramatic.
The typical RPG has a random resolution mechanic to show success, failure, and frequently levels of success or failure. Most use dice, as dice are easily grokable and attainable producers of random results. There’s also infinite variation on how to use dice. Deck of cards is a more visceral randomizer to me but has a different aesthetic than dice, where some folks just love dice, and has less straightforward math to make a coherent and/or balanced system.
So, you get to the end of the quest and everyone is down except you, the wizard, and you got one spell left with which to fell the tyrannical dragon and save your party’s reputations as adventurers. Roll the dice, need whatever result on the die roll (casting roll in some systems, damage roll in others) and you blow it. Total party kill. Start back off at zero XP. Back to being a goblinkiller rather than something cool. A great story ruined by bad luck. Perhaps.
One of my favorite categories of abilities in RPGs is the category of controlling luck or just controlling results. I don’t mind failure, in and of itself. Failing at things is often funny and makes a character more interesting – there’s a reason fiction isn’t written where the protagonists always succeed. I do find certain types of failure aggravating, however. I don’t like failing at things my character is supposed to be better at than anyone else; that sounds kind of ridiculous, but I don’t design characters to be good at the usual things or even things that are actually all that useful. If I design a character who is the acknowledged expert on dessert toppings, I don’t want my one roll in a campaign that actually involves making dessert toppings to fail. Obviously, from a game balance perspective, can’t expect to succeed at important things all of the time just because that’s one’s forte.
Of more relevance to the idea of whether a RPG should model fiction or not is how aggravating it can be to fail a roll when at a climactic moment in a session. Or, sometimes in not so climactic moments. While plenty of things have bothered me about playing Conan – archery sucking, barbarian being the only fighter worth playing, low Strength character without spells or a bunch of Sneak Attack is useless in combat, etc. – the most discouraging element of play (rather than theory) has been how many times my character has failed Terror checks. Oooh, it’s scary. I run away. Have fun guys during this scene that I’m not a part of because I can’t make a coin flip. Beyond the fact that it’s absurdly unheroic, it’s brutal to the party to have a member run away at the onset of combat. So, I did things to improve my save vs. Terror. Still failed them. It’s just the nature of the game that characters built a certain way have an unusually high chance of running away. Not fight kind of badly, like … well, I’m not sure what since failing a Fear check in L5R is brutal even if you don’t run away and rolling on the Fear Table in Solomon Kane has seen PCs get three heart attacks … but flat out take yourself out of a combat for at least a couple of rounds.
So, I’m into rerolls. I’m into result substitution. I’m into luck points/fate points/whatever that can manipulate results. I’m a huge fan of Honor Rolls in L5R, which is why the 4e rules bother me so. I don’t think of it as a bonus to high Honor characters. I think of it as a right that every PC has to greatly increase the odds of making a roll in a session. But, that’s me.
What of drama?
In fiction, drama is created by challenge and by the writer making things seem important. In a RPG, the players don’t have the same level of control over what’s important. Arguably, the GM shouldn’t have control over what’s important, either.
And, that’s the crux of it. Should drama be planned or be unexpected. I’ve long been of the mindset of planned drama. I create scenes in my mind and provide my players with the tools to enact the results I expect. And, then, they screw it up. As a player, the story unfolds in my mind, I can see where the script is taking us; our short term ineptness and stupidity will only make the awesomeness we will unleash against antagonists all the more bodacious.
Should we be allowed to screw that up?
Random results produce drama. A TPK is going to be fairly dramatic for me since it’s so rare in my experiences. One-shotting a big bad, throwing the expected challenge level of a session completely off, can be far more interesting than an expected struggle against a worthy foe. Of course, a GM needs to be adaptable. But, how much should a GM be adaptable while adjusting things to produce the planned result or be adaptable by saying “wow, that was unexpected, roll up new characters guys” or “wow, that was unexpected, good job ole chaps, babes and booze for everyone”.
If we look at oD&D, we see a game predicated more on the idea that the story comes from the results of the die rolls. Sure, there’s Raise Dead, et al. There’s rolling up a new character. There’s plenty of ways to punish parties that are unexpectedly successful. “Oh, what great wealth you adventurers bring back, only 80% taxes on treasure.” But, like other games, the results aren’t scripted. Virginia Commonwealth slays Smaug.
Should fiction be limited to fiction? Or, should fiction be reinterpreted to be less scripted than, well, it is. Maybe the writer uses a randomizer to determine what will happen. I’ve rolled out combats in fictions I’ve written for RPGs, though it was more for the elements during the combat and less about the result.
I’m increasingly of the mind that I should be less rigid in my perspective of story. Many people I enjoy the idea that luck affects their characters’ stories. I may continue to believe that a lot of wasted opportunities for really good dramatic situations occur when you leave things up to chance. On the other hand, chance can easily develop a character or story in ways that scripting won’t. My main Conan character has always been more animal-friendly than the others. That only happened because I kept rolling 20’s on Handle Animal early on. I’m not sure if there’s an optimal point of balance between telling a particular story and leaving it up to chance, nevermind where that point would be, but it’s certainly reasonable to stop carping about how RPGs fail to deliver like fiction does. Sometimes they deliver something else that’s just as good. And, sometimes they do deliver just like fiction.