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Success is Assumed

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!

28 Comments (Open | Close)

28 Comments To "Success is Assumed"

#1 Comment By Sunwolfe On June 13, 2014 @ 7:23 am


What a great question you’ve raised…provocative enough to encourage me to register with the ‘Stew and actually post rather than lurk as is my want.

Two points came to mind as I mused over your article: the system and the self.

From a certain perspective, game mechanics play a role in this. Some RPGs favor the player. I don’t want to speak out of turn, but in my experience, these tend to afford the player a plethora of safety cushions in the form of strategic adjustments, PC favoring buffs and saving mechanics all aimed at player success. Other systems’ mechanics can be much less favorable. For example, the system I happen to play is very simulationist and combat is fairly lethal. PCs tend to avoid combat or approach it very carefully when they can. When they cannot, characters have and do fail, sometimes rather spectacularly. We have a Hall of the Dead tradition in our group and it is full of ghosts I assure you 🙂

On the other hand, I believe more than the rules and the mechanic of application, it is I myself who arranges for the players to win. Subconsciously I want them to succeed. I hate watching their hard-developed characters die or irrevocably fail. The look on my players’ faces when their characters go down, even though tempered with understanding that it is simply the nature of the game, still bothers me. Though I’m not a pushover GM, frankly, I get no joy from adding denizens to the Hall of the Dead. This makes me to wonder, if it is not really the nature of the game necessarily that assumes success or failure, but my own nature and therefore, I adjust the game (however minutely) in favor of the players. Hmmm…

Further, I am a heavy prep GM. I work up serious amounts of background, highly developed PCs and a rhyme and reason for almost everything as well as contingency plans for PCs who want to take the “road less traveled by” or simply decide to go home. As such, I have a sneaking suspicion that I don’t like seeing my scenarios fail either. I don’t want my hard work to go up in the flames of PC melt down.

Over the next few sessions, I’m going to watch myself closely concerning this. If I am tipping the scales too much, I’ll need to work on that. While I would never consent to becoming a PC-killing GM, I don’t like the idea of players losing respect for my game. That being said, I have no problems with the “…good guys…” winning–this world is filled with enough true ugliness that a handful of dice rollers pretending to save the day won’t threaten its malignant nature–but I want them to truly win it. It is so much more satisfying on both sides of the table. And this is after all, escapist entertainment. Who am I to deny a little nudge here and there to insure a victory, even an imaginary one, when in the real world they seem to come so few and far between?

#2 Comment By Martin Ralya On June 16, 2014 @ 9:33 pm

If you have time, I’d love to hear how this turns out!

#3 Comment By Razjah On June 13, 2014 @ 7:29 am

I think overall success is almost guaranteed because it most games because it is more fun. The games feature set backs but not something that completely stops the PCs from being able to complete their goals.

Of course there are exceptions. Burning Wheel has a lot of failure, but often this is a fail forward mechanic. Sure you fail the resource roll, you can afford ship passage over the sea but now replacing your lost horse will be harder. Or failing a circles test means you find someone with a grievance against you from your past.

I tend to view the success and failure stuff similar to Dresden Files books. The party is going to succeed, overall, but at what cost? And how beat up will the be at the end? How do their setbacks and sacrifices impact them?

The assumption of victory is a newer thing, from what I have heard. Older games had less of an assumption of success, so running away or just straight avoiding the fight would be a good thing. More recent trends align more with action and thriller genres, rather than survival horror. Does that make sense?

#4 Comment By Martin Ralya On June 16, 2014 @ 9:34 pm

I’m reading the Dresden series right now, and your point really resonates with me. I could see taking a similar approach to lots of games, notably the Star Trek campaign I mentioned in the article.

Thanks for an excellent tip!

#5 Comment By Trace On June 13, 2014 @ 7:50 am

This exact realization is why, over the years, I’ve moved to more rules-light systems like FATE. If all the crunch really just adds up to “Well, it will be cooler if they win, so…” then why take the play time with all the crunch? Why spend hours of math make and level characters? If you want a cinematic, narrative game, just play one.

#6 Comment By Martin Ralya On June 16, 2014 @ 9:36 pm

I hadn’t considered this. I’ve gravitated towards games with lighter rules for all sorts of reasons, and I’m not sure this exact thing is a factor for me. But “play to see what happens,” which is often a big part of lighter games, is a big factor.

#7 Comment By KennytheCabbage On June 13, 2014 @ 7:59 am

I believe that characters should win.

It should not be easy but it should be interesting.

Sometimes the win should be at a cost.

#8 Comment By Martin Ralya On June 16, 2014 @ 9:37 pm

Circling back to Dresden, this is a succinct way to sum up that ethos. It’s a solid approach!

#9 Comment By shawnhcorey On June 13, 2014 @ 8:02 am

I think one of the problems of many RPGs is success or die. How about a partial victory and retreat?

For he who fights and runs away
May live to fight another day;
But he who is in battle slain
Can never rise and fight again.

#10 Comment By Scott Martin On June 13, 2014 @ 9:38 am

This was my thought too. So many games and groups are in the habit of “both sides fight to the death” that it’s hard to imagine defeat that is survivable. It takes a lot of conscious effort on the GM’s part to model a world where conflict is about achieving goals instead of body count.

The same issue comes up in wargames too. It can be hard to craft a good objective game, if players default to “If I wipe out my opponent, he has no forces left to score points”.

#11 Comment By Razjah On June 13, 2014 @ 1:08 pm

I think concession mechanics go a long way to helping this. In the Dresden Files game my group recently finished, there were a few story arcs where we got close to killing a hated enemy (who was a mild threat in the scheme of things), but she was smart and always conceded to flee. We couldn’t pursue her because of our objective and the cost of the fight. But when we finally got to take her out, it was glorious.

Well made social conflict mechanics are also good for this, since you really can’t argue someone to death. But you can certainly fail to convince the king to take his knights to the field, making a later challenge more threatening (or perhaps more peasants are slain because the PCs couldn’t be everywhere). Burning Wheel and Mouse Guard do this very well. FATE can also, but it a little more difficult.

#12 Comment By Martin Ralya On June 16, 2014 @ 9:39 pm

Yeah, the concession thing in Fate clicks for me.

The more comments I read, the more I’m thinking it might be best to put “You can’t be killed unless you want to” (a la Primetime Adventures) on the table in games where success is assumed. Or at least some of them.

The only thing that bugs me about that approach is that games with a lot of rules for interesting things that can potentially kill PCs lose some of their punch, mechanically, when that stuff goes away.

#13 Comment By Courtney13 On June 13, 2014 @ 8:28 am

I run a couple of Pathfinder games and I like the approach that success is never presumed. My players have clearly stated that if there is no chance they may die then the game is not enjoyable. It is great that we are on the same page.

I tend to run the game as if I am actually the other side in an encounter, hostile or friendly. If the characters really anger a red dragon that has been terrorizing an area, and the dragon has a history of toasting adventurers, then I am going to play the dragon as if it wants to kill the party. The key to this approach, for me, is that I do not get to the point that I personally want to kill the party. But I am going to do my utmost to play that red dragon to the hilt, come what may. My players know they have truly won if they beat the dragon.

I do however always have an out, such as a clear way to run away from the dragon and historical information that reveals the dragon had a previous injury to the right wing and could possibly be landed by a new injury there.

I am not a party killer GM,I do not want them to die, I am rooting for them to win. But it is not presumed. I guess I feel that if the players are assumed to win it is more of a screenplay than an adventure!

#14 Comment By Martin Ralya On June 16, 2014 @ 9:40 pm

This is why I’ve been so hot to run a hexcrawl for a while now: no story, play to see what happens, let the dice fall where they may. It sounds like a lot of fun!

#15 Comment By black campbell On June 13, 2014 @ 8:49 am

I plot hoping they’ll win, I’ll occasionally tweak to help them, but no — I don’t assume they’ll win. My experience has been the big bad adventuree you think might take them down they plan and execute well enough to overcome, but the freakin’ molk run filler adventures they get stomped loke a narc at a biker rally.

#16 Comment By Scott Martin On June 13, 2014 @ 10:06 am

I have played with people who can’t lose a scene, who get frustrated when they have to expend even minor resources to win a fight. For a group like that, your fears are spot on; the dice rolling is just to determine who killed the most orcs–everyone goes in knowing that the story is going to be victory, so we’re playing for the flavor of the victory and characterization along the way. It’s not my favorite mode, but it’s a style I’ve played in and run before.

A lot of the time, though, there’s more at stake than “who kills the most orcs”, even if the shape of the adventure is well understood. In many cases, your Klingon assassin won’t be stopped–you tried, you failed, and now there are consequences. In fact, failing to protect an NPC is a type of failure that almost every group I’ve played with understands–and expects serious repercussions. That failure just creates a new set of opportunities to be heroic—-maybe now in a wartime setting instead of the original intrigue game.

I suspect the heart of my response to “Why game if we all know that we’re going to win?” is that we don’t know what we’ll win or how. Even if the party (or even all of the characters individually) are guaranteed to live, what they accomplish is still unknown. If the PCs have to drop the ring in a volcano, finding out what sacrifices they make along the way can be engaging.

None of which is to say that embracing the alternative—-not assuming victory, but responding to the player’s actions organically, win, lose, or banana—-isn’t a great solution. An open question can feel more realistic, and is almost always grittier. If you’re not the destined hero, we still want you to beat the Witch King… but we know how unlikely that is. As players, we might retroactively declare victory if your PC died inciting the rebellion that freed the first city from that villain’s rule… that’s still an impressive feat, even if it’s not the two year campaign that first inspired the GM to begin prepping. Making progress but getting cut down in your prime makes martyrs and heroes. Their tales are told around campfires at night.

#17 Comment By BishopOfBattle On June 13, 2014 @ 12:05 pm

As mentioned, the “good guys always win” theme is pretty ingrained in most RPGs, books, movies and video games and tends to inform my groups play pretty heavily. I’m totally ok with that. While there are definitely groups, players and GMs that are the exception, that want their games to smack them down 9 times out of 10 so that victory in the 10th is ever sweeter, I think (as main stream video games are showing) the average player will stomach a few setbacks but generally enjoys winning more than losing. Note, “winning” does not mean “without challenge” or “without possibility of failure”, certainly, skating through with no challenges doesn’t automatically equal fun.

From a purely practical point of view, facilitating that for the group provides the best payoff. If you assume an average group of 4-6 players plus a GM, if the average gamer enjoys success more than repeated failure, then the enjoyment 4-6 people generally trumps the enjoyment of the GM that wants a challenging 50/50 shot at failure.

As Martin points out, I think the rules are more about “how” it plays out rather than trying to force an overall failure state for the heroes. Its also not to say that you can’t embrace failure when it comes up from time to time, because that can certainly be interesting as well.

For me personally, when I’ve dabbled in these kinds of ideas with my players, its been less about trying to include failure as a likely outcome, but more about introducing degrees of success. Free-form RPGs like Fiasco have shown that when you can’t stop someone from getting what they want, you can make them hate themselves for it. Letting the players succeed at their set goals doesn’t mean they have to be happy with the result. Its all well and good if Mario saves the princess, but if King Koopa led a war of destruction on Toadstool kingdom and enslaved the population in the meantime, he’s not likely to be happy with his “victory”.

#18 Comment By Martin Ralya On June 16, 2014 @ 9:41 pm

“we don’t know what we’ll win or how”

I’d love to read an article just about that approach, Scott — that’s fantastic.

#19 Comment By Nate On June 13, 2014 @ 10:48 pm

“There’s no One True Way to game.” Truer words were never spoken, and I think the comments illustrate why. If the group is having fun, nothing needs to change. Me, I’ll do just about anything to avoid a TPK, and I hate character deaths: I think they’re a terribly frustrating and unsatisfying end to the story of a character or group. I’ve tried to set up situations where the characters are forced to retreat, but I seem to remember two outcomes. First, they take me up on the offer but are annoyed and frustrated. Second, they don’t take the hint, and I have to end up nerfing the enemy to avoid killing them all. Nowadays, I don’t know that I’d say I assume success, but I try to make sure there’s a way (or several) for the players to get there. Graduated rewards for various levels of success is my usual approach.

#20 Comment By Silveressa On June 13, 2014 @ 11:51 pm

I’ve always approached the concept of victory being a foregone conclusion as heavily depending on the setting.

In survival horror, or grim/gritty games, (Void Core, Dead Reign, Supernatural, Darwins World,) victory is heavily dependant upon preparation and fighting smart (and measured by continued survival) with death for some (or all) PC’s a very real possibility at any given moment, depending on the conflict and setting,

In other genres like supers games, (or heroic fantasy) the expectation is eventual victory (as per the heroic nature of the settings) in most conflicts, although that victory is often tempered with varying costs depending on the luck and choices of the PC’s.

In other games (Shadowrun, Star Wars, Rogue Trader,) while failure of a given mission is a definite possibility that does occasionally occur, complete failure (I.E a TPK) is very rare given the nature of the settings, and I generally leave a potential (if costly or unpleasant) escape route for characters to take should they find the fight going poorly for them.

While it’s never really discussed I usually shape the expectations to the game to keep the over all theme true to the source material and deliver the greatest level of fun and immersion in my game.

One small exception is one shot adventures. In those I generally pull out all the stops and don’t worry overmuch about complete failure given player investment in the story and their chars are minimal, and a complete failure can always turn into an opportunity for a one shot sequel at some point down the road.

#21 Comment By Martin Ralya On June 16, 2014 @ 9:45 pm

I dig this.

It seems like, mechanically, Fate’s “taken out” rules would provide a meaty layer that could be drifted into lots of other games. That allows retention of all the fun stuff PCs can do in combat, but the consequence of zero HP (or its analog in other systems) is being taken out, not killed. A simple but meaningful switch.

#22 Comment By SnarkKnight On June 14, 2014 @ 3:41 am

Its the mark of a mature game/table when they can incorporate failure into the game. When the table is ready to deal with things outside the usual rousting bandits and clearing out goblins. Failure is a powerful theme in the context of an adventure, not just a single fight. Ask yourself, what happens if the players fail this adventure? I would guess 99% of organized play can’t answer that question. The success is assumed because the world isn’t really meant to exist outside that adventure. The world isn’t fleshed out enough for the players and DM to work with the realistic consequences of their actions or inactions. The maturity of the table isn’t good or bad, its just a quality of of the table.

#23 Comment By Darkechilde On June 15, 2014 @ 10:11 am

There’s a couple of aspects here that I’d like to add to this:

1) Years ago, I started telling my players that I want to run games for Heroes; they can be Dark, Flawed, Gritty, and (please) genre-appropriate, but I have no real interest in running games featuring cruelty at best, evil at worst. We tested this recently with a Sons-of-Anarchy inspired cyberpunk FATE game, and it folded pretty quickly – I took no pleasure from participating in that story, and as the story master, I kept inflicting realistic but overwhelming consequences for the players doing what they were, according to the genre and setting, supposed to do.

2) Unlike my mother, I cannot stand Lifetime-channel-esque truelife/tearjerkers. My life and the lives of my friends and family have enough depressingly realistic drama and suffering, that I don’t want to watch somebody else endure the same, no matter how uplifting the story may be.

So, combine these two, and I understand myself well enough to accept that these games pre-suppose the stars of the story, the PCs, are going to win in the end. But, like the Lifetime Tearjerker stories I won’t watch, the story is about what the PCs have to go through, risk, sacrifice, and suffer in order to get to the win at the end. Some accomplishments may not be what they wanted, but hopefully it is an ending.

My players only ask that their decisions matter. And, sometimes, we have a ‘meta-game timeout’ when we discuss my perception, as the gamemaster/story facilitator, that the decision they’re about to make will somehow eliminate their ability to succeed, win, be heroes, save the day, or whatever – sometimes that means they decide differently, sometimes it means they accept that consequence for some other goal or victory, and sometimes they show me that what I thought was the logical sequence of consequences and events isn’t logical, or the only path, that could happen.

#24 Comment By Gamerprinter On June 15, 2014 @ 11:25 am

While it does sting when PCs die, I have absolutely no problem setting up deadly scenarios – I don’t mean simple challenges, but opportunities for PCs to die, if they aren’t too careful. Nothing is as deadly as it was back 1e days, but I have come to expect my players to think out of the box and come up with solutions that still win when the odds are against them. Still some PCs do die due to bad die rolls.

As an aside, I helped create Up from Darkness, a one-shot adventure for the Kaidan setting of Japanese horror (PFRPG) which is even more of a deadly dungeon than my typical scenarios. Of course the adventure is a study on Kaidan’s reincarnation system. Really every character can expect to die at least once during that module – its expected. However, upon reincarnation they all suffer amnesia making it just a bit more difficult to survive.

#25 Comment By 77IM On June 16, 2014 @ 5:59 am

Why have rules at all if the outcome of the story, if not its precise form, is already known?
Because finding out what victory will cost the PCs is the interesting part. For this to work you need there to be something the PCs care about more than just winning. Games like Dogs in the Vineyard make this an explicit part of the game mechanics.

FWIW, I gave up my assumption of victory long ago. I stack the deck against the PCs and throw everything I have at them. They still win. But because they have to work for it, think for it, sacrifice for it — it’s a lot more fun.

#26 Comment By Martin Ralya On June 16, 2014 @ 9:46 pm

I need to read Dogs again. It’s been too long!

#27 Comment By Omnus On June 16, 2014 @ 9:49 am

I have two approaches to running my games where the possibility for failure exists. The first one, which involves the most work, is the “sandbox” approach. I make up a starting world-hub, pack it with ideas, NPCs, scenic description, and lots and lots of hooks to adventure ideas and rewards for playing inside the game. Then I sit back and let the players decide what they will do in the world, while I keep a timer running on certain events. If the party misses all the clues, if they choose to ignore the larger plot in favor of smaller ones that hold their interest, then Bad Things happen, which may not even affect the player characters directly. They do, however, hear about the events they missed.

The second way I run my games is pretty much in a flowchart style. If they do certain things, it takes them on one path or another. Oftentimes, there will be pre-programmed setbacks that seem like failures, which are necessary to make the successes seem more heroic. Think along the lines of “your Princess in is another castle.” One or two of those from a canny villain and my players will kick it into overdrive working to outsmart the BBEG or to beat the clock on the impending disaster. And if the players really foul things up, you (rarely) may be willing to have a Crummy Ending for a campaign. This can work especially well if you run a second game where a fresh set of heroes gets another crack at the goal in the shadow of the first’s failure.

#28 Comment By Blackjack On June 16, 2014 @ 10:23 pm

The question of “Is success assumed?” is a matter of game style. For the past many years I’ve preferred to run games in the style, “Success is a likely outcome for the prepared, failure is a likely consequence for the foolish.” Meaning, my game world contains challenges great and small. A party should not assume that just because they hear about a challenge in their area– say, a dragon attacking a nearby village– that it’s wise or suitable for them to run off right away to attack said dragon. It might be well beyond their power level. My game style emphasizes the importance of investigating and practicing judgment.

Unfortunately this game style is not for all players. Some get impatient with investigation, complain that planning is overkill, and deride it as “chickening out” when other members of the party vote to avoid a challenge that seems too risky. Some players err on the opposite side, doing truly too much investigation (there’s always one more question that can be answered first), letting analysis turn into paralysis, and routinely avoiding risks until overwhelming resources can be marshaled against them. I’ve even seen the same individuals swing both ways at different times.