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Rethinking Success and Failure
This is what they demand our Respect for. They have played us for absolute fools.
This started as a couple of paragraphs establishing basic ideas for another already massive article, which has been further developed into its own. It is a tool that will be useful for us later.
Critical analysis of the ideas and concepts often represented as success or failure, even if they are one of the most ubiquitous idiosyncrasies of the art-form. It is no surprise then, that for the last ten years of TTRPGs, the most remarkable innovation has still been the concept of partial successes/failures12.
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Successes and failures come with a lot of assumptions to unpack. It is used everywhere, so it justifies itself as terminology just in base of usefulness/convenience; however, what is not so clear is what we lose by not examining where those ideas come from and rethinking the relationships implied by successes and failures — and how a critical eye can elevate the art-form in novel interesting ways.
The colloquial success and failure are been inherited rather than developed for TTRPGs, but as mentioned previously, have not suffered much mutation since they came to us from the days of wargaming — from military academy through boardgaming. “Success” and “failure” for most people are as clear cut concepts there as in this art-form: the landing of a shell, inflicting a causality or contesting a push of pike. This approach, however, has a top-down hierarchy view of what is happening; success and failure relate to the success of failure of implementing a tactical action on command by a higher power or superior officer — implied by rarely stated. When success and failure means this, you could use “hit” or “miss” and really, nothing significant would change; the framework would not even bulge an no assumptions would be shaken.
What do we gain with these? Language-wise, it is well established across the art-form and its other tabletop relatives; the benefits of sticking with it are self-evident. However, even if we stick to their usage, we would do well going a bit deeper into our critical thinking about them.
It is difficult to figure out the meaning of success or failure without positioning according to whom it is a success or failure. Without figuring out this, one may not progress far in critically analyzing these paired concepts3. This often goes unexamined, as it is dismissed as being “the game”, or “the table” or “the text”; that this success or failure comes from a neutral position, that it just looks at an action and determines the outcome as success, failure, or in-between.
But that does not feel right even thinking about it a few instants. An accounting of actions is not neutral, because actions and what their outcomes are given meaning not but some essential characteristic of it or its outcome but socially constructed; the same action with the same outcome can be deemed a success or failure. The most obvious case is the sheer number of games where success means the death of someone; under which messed up circumstances is the end of someone’s life a desired outcome? What kind of social reality one exists in which that is considered a success4? This becoming a success in many games is not a neutral or inherent stance; it is one constructed — by the text, and/or during play.
Assuming this neutrality also does not seem to benefit the art-form in any significant way; it is not neutral, so ignoring the social knowledge that gives meaning to success and failure is not serving any referee fairness or what not: it just risks rendering the meaning of success/failure arbitrary or useless/undesired5.
It is really easy to see how brilliant partial successes and failures, dropping into this environment. Partials problematize this assumption of neutrality, by making it impossible to ignore the social construction of knowledge involved: partial successes and partial failures need to be negotiated, and in the processed, what they mean must be agreed upon. Where it fails is that after problematizing the supposed neutrality of success and failure, it deems the problematization as enough by itself; it fails to follow-up on what playing with this problematization to say something in the art-form. Partials may have these more desirable and less arbitrary processes, but giving no novels perspectives to replace those it challenges, sometimes they come off as soul crushing and pointless.
Partials lays bare an important finding: success and failure do not pertain to actions. For us to continue with critical analysis, we need to find a working concept of what successes and failures mean and do: success, failure and all in between do not modify, decipher or execution actions — they set up game-states for the game-space of the art-form6.
This is a more encompassing view, that also distances itself from the assumptions of the military academy. An example may be a game where when you roll to swing a sword, success produces a game-state where damage is dealt and combat ends; when you fail, the game-state remains unchanged and combat continues. Similarly, it also can be used to describe a system process where, when interrogating someone, different outcomes can occur: success gives you accurate leads which creates a game-state where you act upon this lead; partial success gives you incomplete information and sets a game-state where you must fill the gaps; failure gives you incorrect information and creates a game-state where you pursue a red herring.
If we assume that failure and success pertains to the game-states created, we are able to get a better sense of what failure and success means for collaborative storytelling because we can see how it relates with the game-states produced and which we play through. However, this also highlights another dissonance: if we are talking about game-states, what distinguishes between failure or success? The kneejerk reaction is, well, dependent if the game-state generated is desired (success) or undesired (failure). This, of course, begs an obvious follow-up:
Desired to whom?
It is pretty strange to continue to talk about success and failure when we are talking about game-states and them being desired. After all, a lot of what is colloquially called “failure” produces highly desired game-states, a narrative that everyone collaborating wants to happen — which perhaps is the only measure of success that it matters? And sometimes even success can feel empty, because they end or move the narrative away from a game-state that is desired. Unfortunately, that is a thing that partials often suffer for: called success or failure, these are often easy to make two desired game-states outcomes, while partials can often fall in the trap on creating game-states that satisfies neither of those desires.
If one was to think in terms of player character’s desired game-states, it would be an interesting dramatic exercise but unlikely to produce additional insight; after all, that is just not how we actually play our games. It is just not that much a consideration, otherwise we would not have the popularity of the previously mentioned state of so often success being defined by the death of someone. Under which circumstances would it be ending someone’s life be a desirable game-state for a player character? Under which circumstances would that death improve someone’s existance7? Success and failure according to character’s perspective on game-states would be a nice thing to explore, but is just not well-developed design in the art-form, such as it is.
From the perspective of players, this analysis is more useful. Success and failure creating states desired or undesired to the players is how most games are played, either they acknowledge that or not. Well, not quite, because they are a bit more tangled as they solve a tension in this idea: what purpose failures that create undesired states serve in games?
The concept of Intrigue may be useful to understand the purpose of player-facing failure game-states and address this apparent dissonance8. The narratives of TTRPGs are not driven by plot, or by the database-narrative of Lore; as collaborative storytelling, it draws more from intrigue narratives. Intrigue, to oversimply, an ongoing storytelling process in which collaborators conspire to subject a victim to the constructed narrative.
This creates a balance of different forms of intrigue, as game-states are created that always succeed from either a perspective of a player and from the perspective of a player-character. The two types of intrigue are dramatic intrigue — the intrigue of players at the table collaborating with designers and other asynchronous contributors to the art-form to make victims of the characters — or ergodic intrigue — the intrigue of players and/or player characters to make themselves willing victims to the designs of other players and/or designers and other asynchronous collaborators. So, the games we play are able to be played and reproduce the art-form by proceeding through successful game-states of dramatic or ergodic intrigue.
A game-state should be something that foster intrigue, by creating game-states that are either desired or not by the collaborators involved in the art-form. This means it is not that useful to consider failure and success from the perspective of characters and players.
So, where can success and failure to game-states be useful?
Well, game design mostly.
We do not need to rest on laurels, pat ourselves on our back, praise how brilliant intrigue is and end there. The asynchronous elements and collaborators may find very useful to look at their contribution from the lenses of potential game-states.
Game design participation in the art-form, systemic reproduction and mechanics, session zeros, game mastering and player prep, etc. if we apply this question to this kind of artistic processes, we go “is what I am making something that is successful at creating desired game-states or it fails?” If it is a success, good. Do not overthink, overdesign or overprepare. However, if some of the possible outcomes of something are undesired game-states, this can be called an abject failure of design. As such, these may be benefit from being regarded as stress points where you may communicate better through the art-form by thinking a bit more about this contribution.
Let’s look at the art-form, see what it is like in the wild. Because I am a hack, I could not get better names for this success or failure than FeelGood or FeelBad design, so I will be using it as short-hand placeholder: what is like when, within a game-space, you interact with its mechanics and the game-state they generate? Does it feel right? Feels like something is off? You end up doing things that make you question “why are we doing this? There has to be a better way.”?
For example, let’s consider an example we already mentioned before: a game-space where combat is supposed to be a highly undesirable, failure-state. Any mechanics of the system that funnel play towards combat should be considered as part of that failed-state, and designed as so. Furthermore, the game-states created during combat that create more and more combat and/or extending the spend the time one spends in the undesired game-state of combat. We mentioned before, when one rolls to hit in combat: if one outcome creates the desired game-state of ending the combat, and the other holds you hostage until someone gets enough hits to end the combat, this is without a doubt a failure. This FeelBad design reproduces spending more time in the undesired game-state. As such, it would benefit the artistic potential of this game-space if it reconsidered the position of this game-space towards combat and/or treating it as a failure-state and move quickly through the consequences of this failed-state and on to the actually desired play-states. Certainly, is an angle worth exploring?
FeelGood design is found in XII: Inner Demons, specially in the Stress and Fear Tests mechanics. All the possible game-states created by these mechanics are desirable: all of them accomplish the goals of raising the stakes, pushing the twelve-days timer further, empowering players and their characters — human or demon,— and generate the trauma-confronting themes of the story. Some FeelBad may occur if one plays an all-human group and Fear Tests, but that is, alas, a decision taken beyond the text that would benefit from further considerations to turn it back into FeelGood design.
FeelGood also applies to less “mechanical” elements, or even elements with a wider reach beyond immediate scenes: in the best roleplaying game under defunct’s Fantasy Flight stewardship of the Warhammer license, Rogue Trader, Endeavours represent the grand designs and plots of your dynasty. Endeavours stand out among FeelGood design because they are self-calibrating, being able to adapt to evolving desired game-states. All Endeavours create the desired game-state: accumulation of wealth and profit-seeking. Each Endeavor is broken down into smaller part, each of them creating different game states, loosely grouped by categories such as Exploration, Criminal, Religious, Trade, Military, etc. These are then broken down into more precise game-states you can immediately pursue. Ship upgrades, equipment and character choices can give bonuses to certain types of game-states within an Endeavour; it would be very easy to slip into FeelBad design and have upgrades in the game-states you wish to pursue force you to spend more time on those you do not wish. However, if you get a ship for Exploration and Criminal, the bonuses make it so that you can accomplish Endeavors without dealing with the Religious or Trade elements of it. By changing your ship, your equipment and the type of Endeavours you seek to accomplish, this self-corrects itself, making Endeavours a prime example of FeelsGood design.
It is unfortunate that partials, such a welcomed addition to success and failures are such a common source of FeelBad design. After all, you need to have partials, right? What, would you want a binary outcome, gross. Problem is, a lot of times no consideration is given if said partials created desired game-states; and few things hit as FeelBad as when a partial success somehow creates a less desired state than a failure. Imagine a game where there is a mechanic designed to problematize acquisition. In a success, you get the thing and pay for it. In a failure, you are not able to get the thing or things are complicated. But then in a partial success, the acquisition is for something different, more expensive, you cannot buy it now. These game-states are mostly undesirable and very likely to FeelBad:. You don’t want something different, if you wanted something different, you would have tried to acquire that, so more often than not it ends up being a failure that does not let you retry until that narrative changes. Being more expensive, for anything worth rolling for acquiring, means you probably also don’t get it. Being something you can acquire later or somewhere else was a given before you even rolled, so makes it even more frustrating than if you just failed.
Mechanics like that could have benefited from design that asked “what are the game-states this generates and are they desired”; partials may be good, but sometimes, it is okay to just have success or failure — or abandon the paradigm of success or failure altogether.
Success and failure are legacy language that are not very useful for the art-form, not the way people engage with it in play. However, success and failure are very useful if one keeps thinking about that in relation to the game-states created by design to the game-spaces we create for roleplaying games.
Perhaps this paradigm needs to be abandoned altogether. Why do we cling to it? What do we lose my sticking to it? Are really many things we can reduce to “success” or “failure”? Are we putting these blinders on? Are we always returning to the military academy and wargaming? As usual, I have no prescriptions, but I know one thing:
We only benefit by thinking about what success and failure mean in whatever we are trying to communicate with this art-form.
Considering how many still struggle with non-binaries beyond the art-form and the mainstream monopolies of the art-form have just now started with non-binary successes and failures, it is easy to see how this concept still comes as revolutionary one decade later.
It is not even a innovation of this century, however. It was a thing in Talislanta in 1986. This is older than I am. So this article is an attempt to figure out why we have been lodged in place for forty years.
At least, until we still remain attached by an umbilical cord to that legacy military framework.
This is why even when there is loss of life, success is measure by harm-reduction and preservation of life by ending a fascist; or, in the more grim way, to make the end of person’s life seem like a success, a lot of work is put first to depersonalize and un-make the person way before ending them.
When that is the case, no wonder we have schools in this art-form that while still assuming success and failure as crucial elements of the art-form, advocate that social construction and interacting with mechanics and other frameworks that care for failure or success to be undesired “fail-state”. When this is the limit of the imaginary, one can see how one can get tot he conclusion that you should have success or failure, but should avoid having to interact with success or failure.
Wark, M (2007), “Gamer Theory”.
No matter what necropolitical dark messianism may want you to believe.
Aarseth, EJ (1997). “Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature.”