Thursday, February 8, 2018

You Can't 'Win' An RPG...Or Can You?

The Role Playing Game hobby is largely built on a false conceit, stemming from its earliest days and of course, the advent of Dungeons and Dragons.

The conceit goes that, 'You Can Not Win a Role Playing Game'. That is to say, there is no victory condition in which a single player wins the game and 'beats' the other players in the same way one does when playing board games such as Monopoly or Chess. 

At the same time, GMs give out Experience Points. Player Characters rise in Levels, get better at things, add new moves, and in that way we 'keep score'. If you, as a player in an RPG Campaign, manage to get your character to a level of power and prestige superior to the other PCs at the table by campaign's end, you may indeed see yourself as having won. You won the game. Your character beat out their characters. 

Looking at it from another angle, while it could certainly be argued that one can not truly win an RPG, one can certainly lose. Character death, and even failure to achieve a stated or personally held goal could absolutely be viewed as losing. It need not be viewed as such, but if you did view it that way I'd be hard pressed to tell you you're wrong. 

One of the reasons for this paradox is that the basic goals of old school games - and many of the games we play today are no different - boil down to:

Beat an opponent, or overcome an obstacle in order to get a reward. 

Simple enough, right? Kill monsters, take their treasure, gain experience, improve your character, become more powerful, rinse, repeat. 

If this were the formula of a computer or console game, surely one would reach a point where one could say they 'beat' the game, no? Well, video games of this nature were inspired by tabletop RPGs so...the mentality is very similar. 

What about games were you don't get treasure? Games focused on classic Golden to Bronze Age Superheroes don't usually feature the PCs getting wealthier, or adding more equipment to their hidden vaults of spoils. Sure there is the occasional souvenir placed in the Trophy Room next to the giant penny and the first steel girder you twisted like a pretzel, but who could blame you for wanting to keep a little memento? The important thing is keeping those items doesn't qualify as obtaining treasure, as they can't usually be used to help you defeat the next enemy or sold for some monetary value. 

Star Trek, and similar Space Adventure/Exploration games, are likewise RPGs without gaining wealth as their end all be all. In the post-scarcity society of Star Trek's 'Next Generation', wealth isn't even a thing for the most part (at least among the people of the United Federation of Planets). 

In either case, improving ones skills and abilities is still a factor. Well, at least that's true most of the time. Cam Banks' Marvel Heroic doesn't really have a system for improvement along linear lines (Milestones let you improve sideways, switching out your power set for an alternate one. See that game, it's interesting). Star Trek Adventures doesn't have a traditional improvement track either (kinda sorta).

What I am getting at here is that baked right into the games that can't be won is all the elements one could need or want in order to win them. The very idea of beating the game and/or the other players is an integral part of the RPG hobby, possibly placed there either consciously or unconsciously by the game designers. It's one we don't think about on its own, and many of us may not even be conscious of, but it is very much there.

This whole train of thought served as the catalyst for an idea that is not directly related to this observation, but was certainly inspired by it. 

Stay tuned...

Barking Alien


  1. If I may make a comment on your point...

    Yes, I do think one can 'win' an RPG - we managed to do so in Prof. Barker's campaign, over the years, even though Phil didn't hand out the classic XP. I think it's a difference in what the game is about, and the goals and expectations of the players and the GM.

  2. My version of winning is that I didn't die. 🙂