"There are no winners or losers in role-playing games."
That's a bit of accepted wisdom that's been with us for a long time. It's been said so many times that it has been granted the status of truth by virtue of repetition. But is it really true?
Some people, at this point, will generally point out: "The goal of role-playing is to have fun, so everybody wins if you have fun!"
Well, sure. Having fun is one of the best reasons for why we get together to play games. But having fun is the goal of games like San Juan and Ticket to Ride and Settlers of Cattan too. And those games still have winners and losers.
But let's go back to that statement for a moment: "The goal of role-playing is to have fun..."
The word 'goal' is hanging up there like beautiful fruit, and I can't let it pass. For our purposes, Wikipedia has summarized some of the game definition ideas of Chris Crawford, noted video game developer, founder of The Journal of Computer Game Design, and author of The Art of Computer Game Design when he was manager of Atari's Games Research Group.
In his book, Chris Crawford on Game Design, Crawford defines the term game (p. 6) using a series of dichotomies:
1. Creative expression is art if made for its own beauty, and entertainment if made for money. (This is the least rigid of his definitions. Crawford acknowledges that he often chooses a creative path over conventional business wisdom, which is why he rarely produces sequels to his games.)
2. A piece of entertainment is a plaything if it is interactive. Movies and books are cited as examples of non-interactive entertainment.
3. If no goals are associated with a plaything, it is a toy. (Crawford notes that by his definition, (a) a toy can become a game element, if the player makes up rules, and (b) The Sims and SimCity are toys, not games.) If it has goals, a plaything is a challenge.
4. If a challenge has no “active agent against whom you compete,” it is a puzzle; if there is one, it is a conflict. (Crawford admits this is a subjective test. Some games with noticeably algorithmic AI can be played as puzzles; see, for example, Pac-Man#Ghosts.)
5. Finally, if the player can only outperform the opponent, but not attack them to interfere with their performance, the conflict is a competition. (Competitions include racing and figure skating.) However, if attacks are allowed, then the conflict qualifies as a game.
Crawford also notes (ibid.) these other definitions:
* “A form of play with goals and structure.” (Kevin Maroney)
* “A game is a form of art in which participants, termed players, make decisions in order to manage resources through game tokens in the pursuit of a goal.” (Greg Costikyan)
* “An activity with some rules engaged in for an outcome.” (Eric Zimmerman)
As we can see, Crawford, Maroney and Costikyan make 'goal' a central element of their definitions. We might also be able to argue that Zimmerman's 'outcome' is equivalent, but I think the point stands regardless.
So, for our purposes here, let's focus on item 3 in Crawford's series. However, if you're interested in discussing other items in the series and how they apply to role-playing games, I'll consider it on-topic in the comments section.
And the Goal Is?
Do role-playing games have goals associated with them? Largely, I think the answer is yes. Indeed, what I find particularly exciting about role-playing games is that groups and individual players have the ability to define these goals for themselves in many games, each and every time they play. However, and here's where this whole argument might get a little controversial, I think that creative agenda and GNS have an important role to play in this discussion. (If you are unfamiliar with these terms, I strongly suggest reading the articles Narrativism: Story Now, Gamism: Step On Up, and Simulationism: The Right to Dream. Also, the RPG Theory Glossary is always a useful tool.)
The definitions of goals can be many and varied. The goals could include: kill the dragon, defeat the dungeon, confront my brother, carve out a fief with my own hand, etc.
Old-school gamist play excels at this stuff. When groups shouldered their way into the pit of the slave lords or the web of the spider queen, they knew quite well who won and who lost, who made it out alive and who didn't, who "made it through" the Temple of Elemental Evil and who didn't.
In my view, protagonist (or narrativist) play is closely intertwined with gamist play. I would like to suggest that many of us who spend a lot of time focused on protagonist play have instinctively latched onto tools like kickers and flags because they are ways of explicitly expressing our goals. They are tools that create something for us to resolve through play, whether that resolution is concrete (like carving out a fief) or more intangible (resolving hatred for a brother).The 'win state' is resolving the flag with the player's desired outcome, and the 'lose state' is failing to achieve the desired outcome. But both are fun.
I want to tentatively suggest, with full acknowledgment that I am not an expert on the simulationist creative agenda, that 'goal' may be a core point of divergence between the simulationist creative agenda and the gamist and narrativist agendas. It seems to me that if simulationist creative agendas incorporate goals beyond exploration in the sense we're talking about here (and I want to reiterate that I am by no means stating categorically that they don't), those goals may be too impalpable for the purpose of determining a winner or loser. But I'd really like to see some discussion on this issue.
Here's what Crawford has to say, in The Art of Computer Game Design:
Games versus Simulations
"The distinction between objective representation and subjective representation is made clear by a consideration of the differences between simulations and games. A simulation is a serious attempt to accurately represent a real phenomenon in another, more malleable form. A game is an artistically simplified representation of a phenomenon. The simulations designer simplifies reluctantly and only as a concession to material and intellectual limitations. The game designer simplifies deliberately in order to focus the player's attention on those factors the designer judges to be important. The fundamental difference between the two lies in their purposes. A simulation is created for computational or evaluative purposes; a game is created for educational or entertainment purposes.(There is a middle ground where training simulations blend into educational games.) Accuracy is the sine qua non of simulations; clarity the sine qua non of games. A simulation bears the same relationship to a game that a technical drawing bears to a painting. A game is not merely a small simulation lacking the degree of detail that a simulation possesses; a game deliberately suppresses detail to accentuate the broader message that the designer wishes to present. Where a simulation is detailed a game is stylized.
"Consider, for example, the differences between a flight simulator program for a personal computer and the coin op game RED BARON. Both programs concern flying an airplane; both operate on microcomputer systems. The flight simulator demonstrates many of the technical aspects of flying: stalls, rolls, and spins, for example RED BARON has none of these. Indeed, the aircraft that the player files in RED BARON is quite unrealistic. It cannot be stalled, rolled, spun, or dived into the ground. When the stick is released it automatically rights itself. It is incorrect to conclude from these observations that RED BARON is inferior to the flight simulator. RED BARON is not a game about realistic flying; it is a game about flying and shooting and avoiding being shot. The inclusion of technical details of flying would distract most players from the other aspects of the game. The designers of RED BARON quite correctly stripped out technical details of flight to focus the player's attention on the combat aspects of the game. The absence of these technical details from RED BARON is not a liability but an asset, for it provides focus to the game. Their absence from a flight simulator would be a liability."
As game designers and as game players, I think we can benefit from ignoring the accepted wisdom about winning and losing in role-playing games. I think we can make our games better by spending some time focusing on win-lose conditions. Do our games have victory conditions? Should they? If they do have victory conditions, how narrowly or broadly should we define them? Is there an end state we can use to create tension with the victory condition? Can players measure their progress toward the victory condition and end state? How? Can that measurement be used as a tool in pursuit of a player's creative agenda? Are any special powers granted to a player or players upon achieving the victory condition? What about players that fall short of the victory condition?