Continuing on the theme from Responsibilities for Failure.
As we played more of the Crown of Kings, which is heavily referee directed (not just me, but Steve Jackson and Graham Bottley too!) it dawned on me that the differences between failure in a player directed game (sandbox) and a referee directed game ('railroad') are not just about where responsibility for failure lie. There are differences in the consequences of failure.
- The more a game is player directed, the more likely it is that failure is part of the play, and that the consequences are suffered by the characters (and the rest of the game world).
- The more a game is referee directed, the more likely it is that failure is play ending, and that the consequences are suffered by the players (including the referee).
These thoughts occurred to me as I saved the PCs from a TPK at the hands of the EARTH SERPENT. Each Serpent has a weakness which, if not exploited, would require the party to make a very lucky series of dice rolls if they are to triumph. The players knew that each serpent had a weakness, but had inadvertently managed to bypass all opportunities to learn these secrets as they marched across the Baklands. Nevertheless, they plunged headlong into an encounter with the Earth Serpent, and experimented with water, other stones, MUD, etc. as they sought its weakness in the midst of the chaos of combat. However, an early fumble on the part of the Serpent saw it lose contact with the ground, squealing in agony as it's underbelly crumbled away. The party also saw that the Serpent left a shallow trench as it slithered towards them, the stones and earth absorbed into its body. A (Cramer) said something along the lines of, 'maybe we need to pick it up', but even after D (Ho Lee) cast YOB, all the party thought to do with the GIANT was have it attack the Serpent. Without a (strong) reminder, the party were heading for a death spiral.
So why did I save them with such an insistent reminder, when I condemn characters and whole parties to their doom in our D&D games? Why didn't I let them die, as they should have?
Because the game is largely referee directed. Not only do the PCs have a mission, it is the mission. There is no game outside the 'adventure path' - this is not a sandbox. Not only that, but the 'adventure path' is narrowly defined, with a limited course of action. Or, at least, though there might be a wide range of action within an 'episode', the success criteria are very specific. The game is a quest, with progress in a 'direction', and in 'travelling' in that direction there are a series of encounters. To fail to survive one of those encounters is game ending - the quest has failed. Sure, they could retreat, but only to press on for Mampang severely weakened. To choose to do otherwise is to fail in the quest, and is therefore game ending.
If I had invested the time in this to make it my own personal Titanic sandbox, and was running a player directed game, this would have been a TPK. Why? Because then, faced with the Archmage stealing the Crown of Kings, the players could react and then act, and in doing so direct the game, rather than being directed by Jackson, Bottley and Bartlett. They could ignore the threat. They could flee from it, and catch the next boat for Khul. They could try to unite the Lendleland barbarians into a Great Horde that would sweep the Archmage's armies from the Old World. They could conduct diplomatic missions to Brice, Gallantria, etc. to try to unite the forces of Good. They could quest for magical artefacts or lost magics that could defend Analand against the coming invasion. They could make the dangerous journey to Mampang in order to present themselves as champions willing to fight for the inevitable ruler of the Old World - the Archmage. OR they could take 'the quest'. And they could fail in any one of these, and I would let them, because those were the fates chosen by the players and their characters, and we could all enjoy the consequences as they would be the consequences of play.