Heroic Failures

It struck me the other day – pondering about games as I do – that we don’t have many constructive ways to deal with failure. Games tend to be all or nothing, life or death, win or lose but, if you lose, the consequences tend to be dire. The character dies, the kingdom is lost, Sauron recovers the ring, the terrorists nuke New York or whatever the particular case may be. Players, characters, are used to winning, outright, all the time and much like the Old School bugbear of allowing character death it seems we’ve forgotten, or perhaps never really knew how, to allow people to lose.

Losing needn’t mean the deaths of the characters or the end of the world, although sometimes it can, of course. It can be more interesting for the villain to get away, even to triumph. The world to change for the worse, something bad to happen and for there to be knock-on effects for the players to counter or deal with.

You need an ongoing context for this kind of back and forth to take place in though, a campaign or at least a consistent world/planet/universe/reality in which things can move on, even if a character dies or even if there’s a total party-kill. It doesn’t work for one-off games then but as a structure or a context for a campaign or an ongoing world it’s great.

Not many games tackle this at all, those that do tend to only treat it in the role of a relentless positive advance or a legacy. The only game that I can think of that ever handled the contextual world in terms of success and failure was Underground.

Underground’s default campaign was centred around enacting social change in your environment. This was done by undertaking missions, pass or fail, that would shift the parameters that defined the area in which the characters operated. This wasn’t massively complicated or nuanced in Underground but it is a good place to start thinking about how we might structure a game where lasting change and a self-sustaining campaign might be created.

In Underground areas were defined by the following parameters:

  • Wealth
  • Safety
  • Government Purity
  • Quality of Life
  • Education
  • Necessities
  • Take Home Pay
It wouldn’t be hard, at all, to retool these to suit a fantasy or a science fiction domain by renaming them and considering their reinterpretation. In Underground they were rated 1-20 with 5 or below meaning something was seriously wrong and 15 or higher meaning things were really good.
These parameters interrelated in a fashion so that an increase in one thing would increase another and decrease another. Knock-on effects from the alterations that they’re making.
  • Increasing Wealth increased Safety and decreased Government Purity.
  • Increasing Safety increased Necessities and decreased Quality of Life.
  • Increasing Government Purity increased Take Home Pay and decreased Safety.
  • Increasing Quality of Life increased Government Purity and decreased Education.
  • Increasing Education increased Wealth and decreased Take Home Pay.
  • Increasing Necessities increased Quality of Life and decreased Wealth.
  • Increasing Take Home Pay increased Education and decreased Necessities.
These interrelationships were hard and fast and happened every time in Underground but this could be altered and randomised in a new approach and these things could be independently effected by outside forces in your campaign but it’s going to be my starting point for thinking about this as a framework in my own games and could easily do the same for you.
The trick is in interpreting how an increase, or a decrease, in the parameters of a society is reflected in the game itself. If Safety decreases, why does it decrease? Has a new gang arisen in the streets? Are bandits ranging into town? Has recruitment into the town guard gone down? A plague of assassinations? A change in a number can be an inspiration for a whole game.

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