When you run an adventure, do you assume the PCs will succeed?
All experience is anecdotal, but my experience is that this is a common — possibly approaching default, for some groups — mode of play. It’s certainly one I find myself employing often as a GM, and I’m not sure I’m happy with it. These days, I get more enjoyment as a GM (and, increasingly, as a player) when I know that success isn’t assumed.
The good guys win at the end
For example, the best campaign I’ve ever run — a season of Decipher’s Star Trek RPG — was based on this assumption. That assumption, in turn, was based on the show. Shows, in this case: Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
I haven’t seen every episode of either show, but I’ve seen several seasons of both of them, and the episodes I’ve seen virtually always end with the main cast succeeding at overcoming the challenges presented to them. Sometimes their victories are Pyrrhic, but they’re still victories. Often their ultimate success is preceded by dramatic failures along the way, but the outcome is the same: success.
And that’s a feature, not a bug. I don’t watch Star Trek expecting the bridge crew to fuck everything up, and I don’t watch it to wonder if they’re all going to die in a Game of Thrones-style gotcha scene — I expect them to succeed. A large part of the fun is in finding out how they succeed. And that holds true for me with respect to a Star Trek game, too: If it’s going to feel like TNG and DS9, then the PCs will succeed at virtually every major challenge.
This is far from unique to Star Trek, either: Do you watch a James Bond movie wondering if Bond will die at the end? Likely not. It’s interesting to see what price Bond will have to pay to succeed, and the specifics of how he gets there are fantastic, but I know he’ll win. For me, the assumption of success in gaming is closely tied to the assumption of success in other media that I enjoy.
(It’s sort of ancillary to what I’m talking about here, but I’ll say it anyway: I love media, and games, where success isn’t assumed. There’s no One True Way to game.)
…and sometimes it bugs me
What weirds me out about it is that it seems like all of the rules of the game are just window dressing if the assumption of ultimate success is baked into play. Sure, a PC might slip while climbing and let the Klingon assassin get away, but if we all know that the crew will stop the assassin in the end then does it matter if we roll dice along the way?
Why have rules at all if the outcome of the story, if not its precise form, is already known?
And why is this (for me, at least) a somewhat uncomfortable topic? Is it because if that truth — that the PCs will succeed, ultimately — is acknowledged and spoken aloud before the start of the campaign, everyone will have less fun?
I don’t have good answers to any of those questions, and in fact it’s entirely likely that just asking them reveals huge blind spots in my understanding of both my own enjoyment of gaming and in my own knowledge of RPG theory, but there they are anyway.
If you’re interested in talking about these questions, or what might lurk beneath and behind them, let’s talk about them!