character sheets and choice and success

I recently read a definition of OSR (and I do not want to talk about defining the OSR) that included the idea that players are expected to use the content of their character sheet to find an optimum path to success. That is two things: the character’s skill set defines the shape of the narrative (the character happens to the world) and players are seeking success as a priority. I do not doubt that this is at the heart of OSR because this is very consistent with its wargaming roots.

So I now withdraw my old proposition that my games belong in some niche of the OSR. Unless this is a new axis I can be far to the left on, this isn’t what I want from a game at all.

example-char-sheetNow the first I’ve probably over-implied my distaste for. I do want the character sheet to impel the narrative, to sculpt it in terms the player has indicated. But I don’t want any part of the sheet to be irrelevant. I want characters to deal with complex problems that push them out of their expertise. I like it when Fighter is desperately trying to sneak into the castle. When Wizard gets in a knife fight. When Thief has tries to solve a problem with a half-learned spell. The real world rarely hits you head on — it hits you from the side. It forces you to learn things you would never choose for yourself.

So, systemically, that has to be fun to work. And that’s tied to the next thing.

Okay so, about success-seeking. In a role-playing game specifically, I really dislike this but I understand it — I think it derives from combat-centricity and the threat of character death. That is, we have become trained to seek success by games that punish us (the player) for failure. You’re knocked out of Gloomhaven. You go broke in Monopoly. Your bard dies. And so we seek to optimize both preparation and play for success to avoid punishment. We try to win.

moodBut the opportunity for something else is front and centre in role-playing games. We have no victory conditions. We don’t need to put death on the table as a risk if we don’t want to. And so we can explore failure safely, or at least partial failure. And I think this is necessary for an interesting narrative — a string of successes would indicate to me a lack of struggle. It doesn’t sound like interesting — or surprising, and I like surprising — space. We have to deal with reality, though, and reality says losing is bad. I used to cry when I lost a game. Flat out wail. That’s training we need to confront and overcome to get somewhere else.

Fortunately language has enormous power.

The system I’m refining to use for Diaspora Anabasis┬áscales results as automatic failure, failure, success with complication, and success. The rarest is a success. Sadly players read this as “I am always going to fail” and the memory of losing Park Place to a slightly drunk and very performative Auntie Jean looms. We flinch. We don’t want to be put in that space. I’ve already given the game away here though — the word complication.

See, it didn’t used to be that. It used to be “realized risk“. This really triggers that reflex: the stage is set, the risk is declared, you roll the dice and the risk is realized. The bad thing happens. You failed.

Except you didn’t! You succeed, and the risk was realized. You got what you wanted, it’s just that there’s a twist. The negative reaction is largely a function of the language, though also partly because it is unavoidable. So two things are in order: a repair of language and a choice that you probably won’t take but that needs to be there to give you some security when you face the ghost of Auntie Jean. Hence “complication” instead of “risk realization” (which flows better anyway). And stress. Don’t want to eat that complication even though it’s a change in the narrative direction? Take some stress and add a FACT to your character sheet that has only fictional weight (which sounds like it’s weak but fictional weight is very strong indeed — consider your 10′ pole for a moment and all of the rules associated with it compared with all it will do in your game) and avoid the complication.

So mostly what’s going to happen is you’re going to succeed, even if you’re not great at something, but something unanticipated is also going to happen. You’re going to learn something that makes things more complicated (interesting). You might get injured (but not dead). Someone else might get injured. You might lose something. You might get delayed. You might get lost. But these things are at the heart of stories!

These, then, are critical ways my games will deviate from the OSR. In many other ways they align elegantly. But you won’t really have a character that lets you optimize all scenes for success, in part because there is no Fighter/Thief/Wizard role provision and combat is not privileged, so there are few contexts in which each broad skill category has a contributing role — the artificial tank, dps, healer cooperative role does not have a scene unless there is a complex positional combat system. And there isn’t. You will certainly look to your character sheet for ideas, but you won’t always pick your best skill and try to make it work.

And you won’t be confronted by Auntie Jean. Things will go south, get complicated, feel desperate, but you won’t feel like a loser. You will, I hope, feel beset with woes and emerge out of every strange twist of fate in a more interesting space.