For my first article of the new year I decided to resurrect one of my old recurring themes; “Driftwood” was about taking a rule from one RPG and applying it to others. This time, though, I’m taking a concept from video games and seeing if I can apply it to tabletop RPGs.
This article was inspired by a videoÂ that was shared with me on Facebook. In it, the author argued thatÂ “bosses” in video games aren’t the same as similar adversaries in tabletopÂ RPGs because video games expectÂ you to fail multiple times beforeÂ you finally figure out how to defeat a boss monster. In tabletop,Â boss monsters have to be designed so that the PCs have a reasonable chance to overcome them, because they only get one shot at it. Put another way, video gamesÂ enable you to saveÂ your game up to a certain point, while tabletops don’t have that mechanic.
Well, why not?
What if it was possible to “save” a campaign at a certain point and allow the PCs to return to it if things go badly for them? I’ve seen and used similar mechanics in the past, usually using some type of bennie to rewrite a scene or pretend it was all just a psychic vision. What if we simply hard-wired saving games into a tabletop campaign? After all, we often speak of RPGs as if they were television series or movies – what’s wrong with retakes?
- A campaign doesn’t need to end just because of a poor encounter.
- Players can learn more quickly from their mistakes, as they have an opportunity to approach the same problem in a different and more effective way.
- Treasured PCs have an opportunity to be saved from dice rolls gone wrong.
- “Bad days” (when a player doesn’t have herÂ head in the game that session)Â have an opportunity to be corrected.
- GMs aren’t forced to scrap their hard work and start anew because a TPK or similar event just ended the campaign several sessions early.
- It adds to the longevity of enjoyable campaigns.
- Pulpish play – players are free to dream up wild and daring plans with the knowledge that they can try again if things go wrong.
- Hardening spines. GMs are less likely to fudge encounters if the playersÂ have opportunities toÂ self-correct their mistakes.
- Paperwork. Saving a video game is a simple push of the button. Saving a tabletop game often means remembering various conditions, resource addition or attrition, and other factors.
- Sloppy play. When decisions matter, players tend to be more careful about them.
- Meta-knowledge. Obviously, players don’t conveniently forget what they’ve learned the first time around – their PCs won’t make the same mistakes.
- Tedium. Ever get upset because you didn’t save a video game for several encounters and now you’re stuck replaying through them? Imagine 6 players grousing about it around a table.
- Setting the frequency. How many times should players be able to save games?
- Who gets to decide when a game is saved and when to roll back to it? Unanimous consent is easy with small groups, but with larger groups discussing that decision could slow the game to a crawl. Or should it be handled by GM fiat?
- Memory. GMs aren’t computers and rolling back too far may cause certain details to be changed simply because the GM forgot about them or inadvertently added new material.
While the idea of being able to save tabletop campaigns at certain points intrigues me, I’m not sure if it would work well in a tabletop setting. I could see things getting tedious fast if it’s relied on too often, and running the same combats 2-3 times really doesn’t excite me.
If I did decide to try this, then my gut instinct would be to autosave the start of the current session and grant the players one “save” during the session. They could always roll back toÂ the latest saveÂ during the session and, at the end of the session, they’d have a final opportunity to roll back toÂ the lastÂ save. All of these decisions would have to be made by unanimous consent.
For paperwork, I’d have anything changed on the sheet after a save to be recorded separately. These changes only become permanent when the players make a new save point or the session ends.
So how about you? Do you think you would adopt a “save game” mechanic in your campaigns? Have you ever tried something similar? Do you think it would be a nightmare?
I think the main deciding factor would be session length, it’s much less of a hassle for everyone to rewind to the start of a session if the average play time is around 2-3 hours than if you tend to run 7 hour long sessions on a weekend.
Even then I can see it being more a matter of tedium having to retread all that ground because of a bad set of dice rolls cost the party someones life. (it also would kill any real sense of intrigue in mystery/investigation adventures and be impractical for horror games given it would eliminate the atmosphere completely.)
One way I could see it working is if the game was “auto saved” right before a final boss encounter (or other hard fight,) to allow players a do over in the event their fight goes poorly.
Even then being able to replay the fight until the groups wins removes a lot of the challenge and tension from the game and would kill a lot of the excitement surrounding such challenging encounters when the players knew they could just keep retrying until they got it right.
Another way to handle it would be giving the campaign a limited number or “reloads” to help off set the endless “try until they die” approach to combat and keep the group from being cavalier about taking on threats they would normally avoid or put a lot of planning into boosting the odds in their favor.
If the entire campaign only allowed for 2 reloads (or perhaps more reasonably 1 reload every 4-6 months of real time?) it would give the players a bit of a safety net and prevent a long running campaign from dying out due to a bad series of dice rolls at a pivotal moment.
Still the idea feels “flawed” somehow to my Gming instincts, in that it would cheapen the story and make those narrow victories and heroic self sacrifices far less meaningful to the group, and depending on the mentality of the players, lead to the group using the first run against a boss as a disposable preview to get a better idea of the enemies tactics and threat level so they can more or less “cheat” to tip the scales in their favor for the retake
(I.e pack more antidotes to neutralize a poison attack, or load down on armor piercing ammo to overcome heavy body armor, or area effect weapons/spells to clean out the unexpected army of mooks that show up so the challenge factor is largely nullifed.)
The one caveat to this would be GMing for a group of players completely new to table top rpgs. (or comprised of children 12 or younger.) For such groups a “auto save game” safety net could be a helpful initial teaching tool and save them from a lot of frustrations when they under estimate the challenge of enemies, or get overwhelmed in a fight and make bad decisions that cause them to lose the encounter. (e.x forgetting to have the cleric memorize healing spells.)
I don’t think I like this idea. It’s a lot of paperwork, requires a LOT of separation of IC and OOC knowledge on the part of the players, and can really serve to cheapen the thrills and the story (as mentioned above).
I also have to say that if you think you only want to allow this kind of thing once or maybe twice a campaign, don’t bother putting rules around it. When the fecal matter strikes the rotating oscillator, just have a discussion about it. Something that happens that infrequently doesn’t really need rules.
If you wanted to do it more frequently, though, it would be very interesting to make it an explicit ability/spell of a diviner type. Rather than being able to rewind the clock, you are able to view the future events in detail, and then respond appropriately.
Step I) The diviner does their thing to declare this moment a save point.
Step II) Play through the next X period of time as normal.
Step III) When the period of time is complete, the diviner can choose whether to keep that version (effectively meaning that the group then acts exactly as the diviner foretold) or share the vision with the party to effectively get a “redo”.
This solves several issues. It enables the “save point” to have an in-character justification. Which also means that any bleed through of information from the first run to the second is justified. It has the same resource cost as any other high-level ability. The players all know when the save point begins, so it becomes relatively easy to split the record-keeping from that point forward.
(Watch the Nicholas Cage movie Next for ideas on how this would look in character. Okay, it’s a really terrible movie, but it’s the right concept.)
We have done this kind of savegame in our group. My wizard had some kind of destiny points, with which he could forsee the future (well, more like a “flash” taking no more than a second in the game world). If all went well and I didn’t want to change the future, we could just ignore our “savegame”, else wecould rewind the action to a specific time and try again.
A very important part here: I was not allowed to tell the other players, when I used my divination magic (I just texted my gm)! This was to prevent the group to do all kind of fishy stuff (e. g. running into the dragons lair, just to see if there are any traps, or doing other crazy stuff to find out anything about the most secret secrets of some NPCs). Doing it like this we had a kind of savegame for extremly dangerous situations.
Just be aware, that these kinds of destiny points should be used very sparingly. I had just about one for a year of weekly gaming and thus, could not use it for every task. Otherwise I can highly recommend this method for every group, if you want to have a “savegame” mechanic in your game.
I suspect that save points are a good inconvenience for a single player, which is why they work in video games. As you mention, the debate about when to use (or restore) to communal save points is much trickier as a group.
If we win a total victory, but Bert was slain in the process, do we restore to the save point? The jawboning about it at the table seems likely to go wrong… Actually, instead of hypothesizing, I have a specific instance where we did use a restore point–because a PC died whose player was absent. We rewound to let them play their character during the confrontation… and wound up killing multiple PCs instead!
With grumbling, we stuck with the results of the second play through, but there was some bitterness between the people who accepted the penalties of the raise dead and those who escaped via the rewind.
I think this idea’s great! BUT only if used sparingly as more of a storytelling trick. I think I would apply it ‘Rashomon’stylie (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rashomon) as a storytelling kind of device. So start a session where you know it’s going to be touch and go whether the party survive or not with a ‘once upon a time’ scene, or a witness account, or even the PCs sat in the tavern in an imagined aftermath. When everything goes wrong (TPK) just allow a player to say, ‘no, no, no, that’s not how I remember it’ or have another NPC storyteller do the same. You could even give each player a single interrupt card to limit the number of re-spawns.
Even as an ongoing permanent fixture I think it’s an interesting idea. I wonder if it applies more to the video game simulating versions of D&D, hence the fretting about book keeping. For something like FATE or Active Exploits a simple photo on the GMs phone is enough to mark where everyone’s at.
Ooh, Rashomon style is a cool idea. Though it does kind of rely on no one dying (unless one of your characters is a REALLY bad story teller).
A photo is easy to mark positions in FATE, but how do you remember fragile aspects, consequences, current fate point totals, etc. That stuff is easy if you reset to, say, the beginning of the session. It’s trickier if you are intentionally putting a save point in mid-session.
For deaths I reckon you make a big thing of how bad the storytelling has to be… “Well we obviously didn’t die did we because we’re still hear…”, or, if you wanted to go full on Evil GM Award you make it all a bit more ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ – now that would be cruel.
And yep – I reckon it probably wouldn’t work for total video game save replication. It would have to be an adaptation of that idea for tabletop. How about a re-spawn adaptation instead?
There’s a storyteller RPG set in a therapy session that uses this sort of idea to build each player’s story. Can’t remember the name though.
So, Walt, when do you start playing your Paranoia campaign?
I like what Lukas said. Or should I call him “Nicholas Cage”?
I’ve used a similar approach to Rashomon in mini one-on-one Dreamlands interludes with Call of Cthulhu players over dinner or lunch, where they can roleplay encounters but there’s no dice and no pens’n’paper allowed. Makes for some classic mis-remembered stuff, just as dreams should be, and what the player remembers is never contradicted (though it can be proved wrong later).
Interesting idea. I don’t think I’d want it in a regular game, but I could see incorporating the idea into a game themed around the idea. Like the PCs are actually characters in a video game and they have the power to call for a reset, or some other mystical/metaphysical variation on it.
Savegames exist in video games to compensate for their rigidity. Video games can’t afford to build a whole new plot on a defeat, whereas in tabletop RPGs we can do just that. A defeat doesn’t have to be an ending because a GM isn’t limited to a pre-written script.
Cancelling out events defeats the whole purpose of story creation, and devalues all the effort that has gone into it. Instead, it’s better to offer another exit from the predicament.
What I’d use is a player-managed deus ex machina mechanic. Players or the group as a whole would have a given number of Rescues in the Nick of Time. By using one the PCs are saved from utter catastrophe. This could take the form of divine intervention, the cavalry, or unexpected mercy from the enemy. The exact form it would take would be a matter of negotiation, and ultimately down to the GM. The PCs can then re-evaluate the situation, and perhaps tackle the enemy again, both sides having dealt with the change in circumstances.
That’s certainly a new idea, we’re basically talking about a specialized plot/fate point, but it saves the PCs without eradicating any of the story.
In the wuxia RPG I’m working on we have a seer skill. This skill at it’s highest function allows a “save point” as discussed in the article above. We have lots of play testing to do yet but so far it is used very infrequently because it has a personal cost to the seer using it. But when used can be invaluable, specifically when facing a “boss” villain. I’ll share more as it develops.
This is essentially going back in time and then doing things differently. I suppose you could work this device into a game as a magic item, spell, or some sort of futuristic effect. I could imagine the party finding a scroll that lets them go back to the moment the scroll is invoked if the caster speaks a certain word. This could be very useful in a death trap dungeon like Tomb of Horrors. Beyond that it doesn’t seem workable in any tabletop game that I’ve been involved in. Generally speaking, importing computer game mechanics to a tabletop rpg is usually a bad idea. 4e comes to mind. I think the interesting challenge is bringing more tabletop concepts to MMOs.