Last week I wrote about some struggles of game masters in tabletop roleplaying games, and after a few online conversations related to that subject, I thought a followup as related to rpg players was worthy
If I had any one piece of advice to players, it would be this: You don’t always have to win.
Right away, I’m sure plenty of folks would object to this, perhaps even take offense. Some will say that a tabletop rpg can’t really be “won,” and there’s truth to this. But characters in such a game are often facing obstacles and confrontations, and they work to overcome those, thus they can indeed win over those particular obstacles and in those confrontations.
Others might scoff at my words, suggesting that characters in an rpg should be all about winning, that having a character fail or even worse, die or be killed, takes all the fun out of the game. I understand that viewpoint, but I have to disagree with it to some extent for one simple reason: If there is no real threat to the characters, then this isn’t a game, but nothing more than fantasy wish fulfillment.
Obviously to some extent tabletop rpgs are all about wish fulfillment, because to a degree that’s why many of us play the game. But roleplaying games aren’t strictly about winning. They are about playing a character, and they are about trying to overcome strife. Yes, winning feels great and losing can feel bad, but losing occasionally can make winning feel all that much better because we know we’ve actually accomplished something, that we weren’t simply handed a trophy, so to speak.
Admittedly there are game masters out there who take things too far the other way. They regularly make potential threats overpowering for characters, and this can lead to player frustration. I’m sure there are even game masters who bully their players, but I would suggest to those players they leave the game sooner rather than later.
But all too often I see players who only want to win. It’s somewhat understandable to be hurt when a favorite character dies, especially when the player has put much time and thought into the character, but there are always other games and other characters. One can even rebuild a favorite character, or someone similar, for a new game.
To be fair, to some extent we game masters are at fault. Generally speaking, despite everything we throw at our gaming parties, we want players and characters to succeed, and we don’t enjoy killing off characters or even whole parties. It can ruin everyone’s fun if their characters are dying all the time. But if there’s not at least the potential for disaster, then the game master isn’t doing their job, and the players are ultimately being robbed of fun.
Because the thrill of danger can be fun, especially if it’s done from the safety of our gaming tables or across computer screens. It can be like riding a roller coaster or watching a horror movie, one that leaves you breathless and maybe a little shaky, but you still go to bed at night feeling relatively safe and perhaps happy with that safety.
I repeat, rpgs aren’t always about winning. If winning is the only option, then the games become stale. Players should always strive and game masters should always present challenges, but they need to be fair but dangerous challenges.
That’s where the real fun is.
About the author
Ty Johnston is vice president of the Rogue Blades Foundation, a non-profit organization focused upon bringing heroic literature to all readers. A former newspaper editor, he is the author of several fantasy trilogies and individual novels.
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