Apparently I’m posting every couple of months now. That is… not great. Especially as I actually have quite a lot I could be writing about; my gaming life has been booming. I’m now regularly DMing a sandbox campaign of ACKS for seven players. I’m also a player in a 5e game, and have even managed to squeeze in several sessions of Delta Green.
I’ve also been digging into the history of tabletop gaming a bit more, including its literary influences (I now have copies of Jack Vance and Michael Moorcock on my shelf next to H.P. Lovecraft and Thomas Ligotti). I even managed to get my hands on a second-hand copy of the 1st edition AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide from 1979 (albeit the orange-spine reprint), and it’s a veritable treasure trove of esoteric little rules, tips, and tricks for the budding DM. It’s also a hot mess in terms of organisation and (I would guess) actual use at the table.
Yet what prompted me to finally write this was a discussion about failure. The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, a most excellent podcast focusing on Call of Cthulhu and horror-related roleplaying games, recently released an episode about “embracing” the “joy of failure”.
That’s something I can really get behind. Personally, I don’t care if a game has a coherent narrative. I don’t care if the game corresponds to genre tropes. I don’t care if a game is dramatic or “fun” (see James Raggi’s “I hate fun” rant for what I mean by this). I don’t care if player characters “make it to the end of the story” (when a character dies or retires that IS the “end of the story”). Failure is assumed. Failure is the default state, and success is the exception, and the PCs are assumed to be incompetent (at least at low levels – i.e. the best part of the game). Failure is to be celebrated and glorified, not minimised and managed. And failure is everywhere; not just failure of the characters, but failure of the narrative to correspond to genre beats.
Events are deliciously random (though they should all have real and tangible consequences); one thing leading to another leading to another (“tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow”). The “heroes” are essentially all Baldrick from Blackadder. Narratively anticlimactic failures are baked in by design, and are to be cherished. A bunch of stinking peasants go down into a dungeon, fall into a pit trap in the first room, fail their climb rolls to get out; their torches burn out, they die of exhaustion and starvation in the dark. TPK. Roll up new characters. That’s glorious.
I admit it’s an acquired taste. However, it’s not just me: David McGrogan has written about the “Bathos” of old-school tabletop RPGs on his blog; Andy Bartlett also talked about the “pathetic aesthetic” in old-school games, and Joseph Manola has written about how it ties into the “aesthetics of ruin” that OSR titles seem obsessed with.
Now, I believe this style of play only really works if rolling up a new character is quick and relatively painless (or if you have a stack of pre-generated characters to draw from). It also requires (I think) a focus on resource-management, so that failure always has tangible consequences (you waste time, your torches burn down, you eat rations, you lose health, etc.). Even failing to open a door becomes important in a resource-management game (in 1e AD&D there are “Open Doors” checks for EVERY door in the dungeon!) because it drains resources.
Also, I think a pro-failure approach needs a sandbox-style world to work properly. If you get bored of dying in the swamp, you can go and explore the mountains or the desert to try a different flavour of meaningless death and failure. It’s a bit like the “roguelike” genre of computer games, which use procedural generation to keep the content fresh and new after every death.
If the players are being railroaded down a particular path, then failure is of course going to feel incredibly frustrating because it will be slowing down their progress down the railroad. But if there is a large world with plenty of exciting stuff to do, then failure is just an opportunity to go and try something else. Also, success is so, so much sweeter when it is vanishingly rare.