Sunday 22 September 2013

Responsibility for Failure

The more a game is player led, the more the players are responsible for 'failure'. This includes 'failure by dice' - the players are making the decisions re: action and risk.

The more a game is referee led, the more the referee is responsible for 'failure'. This includes 'failure by dice' - the referee has set the obstacles in the path of the players.

I've been thinking about this for a while, running the Crown of Kings - a referee directed 'quest' - reading around the edges of a prospective Traveller sandbox campaign (hence, 'referee') - with Book 0 An Introduction to Traveller [get Classic Traveller free here] being a fine introduction to roleplaying games in general - which has included re-reading the advice of running and playing a sandbox game in Stars Without Number. I've also been playing LA Noire, an absolutely rubbish game, in that it is almost entirely linear, with success almost guaranteed, and the only penalty for failure is to play the exact same component of the case again.

And all this got me thinking about the reaction to the my self-mocking rant on lauding the Pathetic Aesthetic. In some places, it was discussed as if I was advocating dick-refereeing - placing characters in unwinnable situations by fiat, or delighting in killing them off. If you are responsible for the failure of your character, in the process of making meaningful decisions on the part of your character, then failure has been part of play. It is the consequence of your characters interaction with the 'world'. However, if the majority of your play has been largely referee led, then it is likely at least some of the times your characters' failures were the responsibility of the referee, which is likely to leave a far more sour taste in the mouth. It will feel like play undone, or play unrealized. 

*Note, when I write 'player led', I'm not talking about collaborative storytelling, or anything like that - I'm talking about players having a significant degree of freedom in determining the actions of their characters. 


  1. Very good points. I tend to inflict the consequences of players' actions on them but with the important caveat that, being kids, they are likely not to come back if their beloved character dies. Therefore, unless it is truly unavoidable, they suffer but do not generally die permanently. Otherwise, I'd find myself without a group quick sharp.

    1. What I'm very keen to do is avoid falling into having 'consequences' for failure as they are found in video games.

      For video games, permadeath would be a game killer. You either go back to a saved game, or respawn (at a hospital, at the entrance to an area, at the start of the last plot section, etc.). As a result, for video games the consequence of failure often ends up being 'work' - replay the failed section (over and over and...), grind out the lost levels and loot, etc. These aren't meaningful consequences for the character, as, with a 'dead' referee, the game must proceed along the determined path/s. Instead, these are consequences for the players.

      When I wrote about my rant about the Pathetic Aesthetic, many people interpreted it as me saying that it is about making the players suffer consequences. No; it is about having the characters suffer the consequences of their (player directed) actions. Characters suffering the consequences* (which need not always be, or even often be, death) is part of play.

      *Not as plot points, whether chosen by the referee or the players, but as a result of PC interaction with the world and its mechanics.

    2. Also, it'll be interesting to see whether my daughters will be interested in gaming, and, if they are, how I end up refereeing games for them. But that is a few years down the line.