Gaming and Storytelling: Failure

If you didn’t already know, I’m a geek.  I know I’m pretty good at hiding it and all. What you may not know is that I help to run one of the largest LARPs in the Northwest.  We have a break over the summer due to conflicts with the campground we use. To fill up some of the time over the summer our players were asked to write short articles on our game, LARPing, or gaming in general.  What follows is my submission:

Embracing Failure:

Character Story Development Through Adversity

A Preface

Role playing games in general do not have an objective victory condition; there is no “Winning” to be had. So why do we play them? Why do we spend our time, energy, and resources to make them happen? For me, the answer is that I want to see the interesting stories of the characters develop. While there is no absolute “Winning” there are plenty of opportunities for characters to be successful or to fail in the context of their stories. Oftentimes, failure actually makes for the better story. With that in mind:

What Makes for an Interesting Character Story?

Let’s start with a counter-example:

The Story of Prince Whocares:
There once was a prince, heir to the throne. As he grew up he was successful at everything he put his mind to. When his father died there was a smooth succession and he was crowned king. For the rest of his years he reigned over peaceful times. Eventually, age took him, as it will all people, and he passed on surrounded by his loving family and beloved by his people.

I’m sure this was a lovely life for our fine prince. All the same, do you know why no one ever writes stories about characters that are like that? Because they’re boring, deadly boring, that’s why. There is no challenge; there is no opportunity for failure. There is no risk of something going horribly wrong only to be righted (or not) by some magnificent scheme. There are no Pyrrhic victories where even success brings the character to ruin.

So back to our question; what does make an interesting story? To create an interesting story you need conflict, adversity, challenge, struggle, failure, and the like. Sure, we each want our characters to be successful. However, interesting stories come from characters that don’t get everything they want. Interesting characters are created by their flaws and inadequacies which lead to failure or at least the risk of failure.

Characters do not have perfect knowledge nor are they the best at everything they do. It is limitations like these that make characters more interesting and believable. Limitations introduce risk and an opportunity for failure.

Without Risk There is No Reward

No matter how much we want our characters to be successful if there is no fear of failure then success is meaningless. If there is no risk, no challenge, then any victory becomes hollow. Sure, your character might collect a giant pile of coin or items and have a character sheet filled with every power in the game. However, without an interesting story surrounding it all merely collecting stuff seems to be missing the point of a game driven by character stories. Truth be told, even games with minimal story would be pointless without a possibility of losing. We as role-players just have an opportunity to create an interesting story out of defeat unlike the person who gets trounced at chess.

Try to Succeed (Knowing You Won’t)

All of this is not to say that that you should go in with the goal of failing. Even when faced with insurmountable odds a character should likely try to be successful, find a way of avoiding the conflict, or change the conflict to their advantage. Just know that things won’t always work out the way you hope. Even if it looks like your character is in a situation where success is impossible your character still has goals. Decide how far your character is willing to go to get what they want. Will they search for a treacherous way to victory or will they embrace a noble defeat.

In a game where failure (and even success) can be lethal, knowing how far your character is willing to go and for what is an important piece of player knowledge. Again, it is these struggles, conflicts and adversity that make for a compelling story.

Death and Dying

Character survival is great as long as there is a story to go along with it. But seriously, if your character goal is to have a long life they should take up farming or retire to their country estate and stay away from dangerous places. Characters in interesting stories are in peril. In role-playing games, unlike writing a story, you don’t have ultimate control over what happens to them. Short of the character throwing up his hands and saying, “I’ve had enough,” and then getting quickly out of town to some place safe you’re pretty limited on picking the ending.

Because there are so many interesting ways for a character to die I’m not a huge fan of random, meaningless death. I’d much rather a character’s death become a plot point in someone else’s story than it simply having no meaning. That said, knowing that at any moment a character might fail to survive makes everything he accomplishes so much better.

Final Thoughts

Failure isn’t bad. In fact, it is a critical element for making an interesting character story.

Go fail at something and make it awesome!

Discussion Items

  • Relate a time where you had a great story come out of something not going according to plan.
  • Describe how a character’s limitations have positively impacted role-play.
  • Talk about how your character has grown through failure.

I might also add, “How far is your character willing to go?” But that could be too telling and I like surprises.

About SleepDepZombie

Geeky technical writer living in the Pacific Northwest.
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