Monday, February 12, 2018

Beyond The Need to Succeed

My previous post, You Can't 'Win' An RPG...Or Can You?, seems to have generated little interest or response if one goes by pageviews and comments. This has made me less motivated to write the follow up, but here I am writing it nonetheless. 

I started with an idea, 'What if Role Playing Games, which are games with no clear 'Victory Conditions', had the concept of winning them built into them from the start'.

My next thought was, 'What if obtaining [the traditional concepts of] wealth and power were not a factor in those games'. I felt the need to clarify this for myself to get a better idea of where I was going with this, so I quantified it a little further. "What if there was a game in which the PCs start out reasonably powerful, with no need to gain wealth or power in the traditional sense. What would PCs in such a game be motivated by? What would they wish to achieve?'.

That's when I remembered this image by artist Alex 'Abiogenisis' Ries...

Contact by Alex Ries

According to the artist this painting depicts 'a Metahuman' meeting the Birrin on their home planet of Chriirah. 

The Birrin are Mr. Ries' original species of which he has made numerous incredibly beautiful and fascinating images, but it is not that particular creature design (as incredible as it is) that I want to focus on at this time. Rather, I would direct your attention to his so-called 'Metahuman'.

Ries describes this Metahuman as a post-Human being, something more than the mere Homo Sapiens of the present day. He says that the scene takes place many thousands of years in the future, with Humans coming in many different shapes and sizes. Baseline Humans still exist, largely because the individuals have chosen to exist in our current, more recognizable form, though even these people would have some modifications.

The number of ideas this generated in my head is essentially incalculable. . 

The key one though, the basis for this entire post and set up by the previous entry is this:

Picture a game where you play a Metahuman of this type. A being of vast knowledge, great power, and existing in a form of its own choosing. What is this game like? What does your character, and their companions (the other PCs) do? What are their goals?

Wealth? Ha! The very idea. What is wealth to this entity? What are material things at all? 

It is possible there is a material, or perhaps several materials, in the universe/multiverse that enable their massive physical forms to function. Perhaps many of their abilities requires the absorption or similar integration of resources. It could be that while treasure is not a thing, certain materials are still needed. However, it is equally possible that can simply change energy into matter with a thought. What then?

Does their power increase? Their skills? How would experience work?

Experience, as per the true meaning of the word and not so much the abstract points used as game mechanics, would [to my mind] be one of the few things truly valuable and worthwhile to such a being. Therefore, although they might not get new abilities at certain arbitrary 'levels' [a concept I always found sort of ridiculous], when they learn something new they might somehow get the power to incorporate what they've learned into their personage.  

For Example: A Metahuman observes an intelligent species at a primitive stage of development that nonetheless has harnessed static electricity and the electrical pulses from weather phenomena as a tool/power source. They have done so in a way that other species have not. By investigating this anomaly, the Metahuman understands how to perform the effect itself, thereby gaining the power to absorb and utilize electrical current. 

The concept I am focusing on is one I've toyed with before in a different form, but it boils down to, 'Imagine an RPG that skews the basic conceit that you start off average [or even lowly] and then amass power and treasure as you go forth'. In the game dynamic I describe above, you begin as a being of immense power when compared to most other RPG characters. Being more powerful for its own sake is barely a concern, and wealth is essentially meaningless. What then is the game about? What then are your PCs goals. What would these post-Human entities, several thousands years ahead of our present, want, need, and value?

Just ruminating on a possibly impossible game.

What do you think?

Barking Alien


  1. I've never played it but Amber has the players as more or less omnipotent beings, and I've always wondered how that works as a role-playing game. What's the incentive to play? What are the goals? It's popular enough that it must have answered these questions, but I have no idea how it does so.

    1. I am familiar with Amber (or Amber Diceless), the RPG based on Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber series. I was actually tempted to bring it up in the post, but thought better of it simply to allow the idea to stand on its own and see what people thought. Since it made you think of Amber, perhaps I was remiss in not including it above.

      These ideas revolving around 'non-standard' RPG goals largely stem from having never really been motivated by treasure and power in my time in the hobby. I have always been a player more interested in my character's story, the stories of my fellow PCs, and the nature of the world we were in.

      As noted before, the vast majority of games I've played and run don't involve the killing of opponents and the taking of loot. Star Trek, Star Wars, Superheroes, and most comedic games don't really have those goals as driving factors.

  2. So I read the last blog entry but didn't comment because I figured there would be a followup and I wanted to see where you were going with it. As far as winning goes in RPGs, yes, you can win. You can also lose too. The difference, however, between most RPGs and most other games, is that winning isn't the end of the game and it doesn't require you to start over to continue playing. You can just keep playing.

    As far as the ideas above, I definitely think there is an appetite for this kind of game. I think if you look at games like Burning Empires, MicroScope, Ten Candles, and even Tales from the Loop you'll see that winning the game can mean different things. In Microscope it is about creating worlds and histories. Ten Candles describes itself as such, "In the final scene of the game, when only one candle remains, all of the characters will die. In this, Ten Candles is not a game about "winning" or beating the monsters. Instead, it is a game about what happens in the dark, and about those who try to survive within it."

    So there is definitely an interest for games where winning doesn't include more power, more skills, or more money. It might just be a different crowd.

  3. Another thought came to mind. Looking at the example above, wouldn't gaining new powers or experiences be a form of winning? If not winning then perhaps advancement at least.

    1. I was thinking about this too, just before I saw your comment.

      In a fashion, that example is a good example of play in the game setting I describe, but a bad example of the kind of thing of philosophy I am trying to get across.

      I will have to give this more thought if only to better convey the type of game I envision.

  4. Most World of Darkness games work best (IMO) with an "end game" in mind. Several are suggested in each rule book...for example, seeking to regain mortality or "Galconda" (a Nirvana-like stat of being) are given as possibilities for Vampire the Masquerade.

    Yes, it is possible to design, run, and play RPGs with concrete objectives. Many indie RPGs (such as Sorcerer, Dust Devils, My Life With Master, and the original Polaris) were created with end concepts in mind.

    1. I am not certain an 'end game' is exactly what I am going for as such, much more of a goal.

      The difference? I don't think the players or GM should start the game with a clear vision of how it should end. That leads GMs to railroad and take away player agency. It also makes players upset when things do go exactly as they expect.

      Instead, he an idea of what you'd like to accomplish, and maybe some ways you can get it done. You might imagine an 'end game', the culmination of a goal, but be sure to leave room for other things mentally.

      That said, I do think World of Darkness is a good example. Goals like:

      I want to unite the warring clans of my city
      I want to achieve Arcane enlightenment and pass it on to others
      I want to end the reign of the Corporation destroying my ancestral home.

      ...and the like.

      Many indie games do feature this sort of thing. I am envisioning a blockbuster, over-the-top universe with this outlook, instead of the art films we usually see it in.

  5. How about the way we are currently playing our Kapow! game? The characters are super powered individuals, and there is none of the classic "get more powerful or get more stuff" going on. Just beat the bad guy.

    1. This is hard to respond to, since I'd rather discuss such things just between you and me, but our game is really just a series of fights against various opponents. Those opponents seem to get tougher, but we the PCs do not. That's a bit annoying.

      Superheroes is one genre in which not getting more powerful or getting new abilities is actually kind of frustrating.

      It means that there is a sameness to the characters over time. One of the reasons I change from character to character so often is because they don't improve, and therefore I get bored of using the same moves again and again.

      Supers isn't a genre where getting more powerful or more skilled is a goal, a driving force behind playing, but it is something I enjoy. This is why Marvel Heroic is fun for a one-shot or short series, but it would never be my choice for a long term campaign.

  6. You're venturing into philosophical territory here: how do you 'succeed' in life?

    In the games I've played, there's certainly been a sense of winning or losing. Did the character achieve the goals they set for themself? Did the character remain alive and sane (marginal success), while eliminating the mystical threat (major success)?

    Did the character perish, but save the world? Did the character rise in levels? Achieve immortality? Acquire the artifact? Gain enough points to fully realize the character concept envisioned by the player?

    1. I am with you, and indeed that is exactly the line of questioning and the ideas I am exploring with these two posts. What is success? Must it be wealth, power, the ability to kill more enemies, etc.? Can it be something more philosophical? Something deeper and more meaningful?

      I am not saying it should always be as such, and I do love a good rip-roaring adventure every now and again. I am asking, if you removed the expected draw of the adventurer and the typical victory condition we as gamers hold on to for our PCs, what would be our motivation? What else could we, they the PCs, achieve?