(Guest post by Mik)
There are a lot of differences between (most) video games and tabletop RPGs. One of the biggest differences is that, in most video games, if your character and your entire party get wiped out, you can go back and try again. Get a better ending. In (most) TTRPGs, if your character and your entire party get wiped out… that could be the end. Excluding games like Eclipse Phase that have built-in save points. Sure, a kindly GM might bend or break reality to keep that from happening. But sometimes, a final boss fight is really, really final.
This is kind of a contentious issue in the TTRPG circles. Some GMs believe that a total party wipeout should not happen. That relying on the dice can create an antagonistic relationship between the GM and players. Or that the reliance on random number generation can result in bad storytelling. But even a “bad ending” can be literary or cinematic – plenty of books and films get downer endings.
Devon’s mentioned before on this blog that we were finishing up the Psionics playtest – which, as previously stated, was amazing. But it ended a little sooner, and a little differently, than we had anticipated. We knew the opposition in this session would be tough – really tough! – and our team went in a bit stupid, a lot underprepared, and pretty cocky too. But we were already at the end of the road, so when things didn’t shake out our way, that was how it ended.
The gig – our small terrorist cell doing their part for the big Easter event – started out well. With no guidance, we found our way to London and into the home of an important board member for an evil pharmaceutical company. We carried him out, obliterating bobbies on our way. We got him to take us to a boarding school in the country that was really a front for capturing and testing psionic children. Our plan was to liberate the kids and flee the country.
But we were coming from the US of A, and hadn’t found a way to smuggle our firearms or our body armor through the airport. And when we arrived at the boarding school, my character took the big-pharma bigwig inside as a hostage, while the others waited outside. What should have been an op with no shots fired went distinctly downhill when we found ourselves surrounded by the SAS, not to mention a special field operative from MI5, as well as a team of psionic badasses from the pharmaceutical company. We put up a good fight, but we were disorganized. I let my hostage escape into a saferoom. Our hardest-hitting team member took a sniper bullet to the face after taking out an armored vehicle full of SAS in the first few rounds of combat. The rest of the combat was reminiscent of headless chickens. Every team member was knocked out or bleeding out or dead by the end of the lengthy scuffle.
Playing through the “bad end” to our team of psychic terrorists, I didn’t feel upset. In fact, I found the ending to be pretty powerful. And fair. So it made me wonder what can make a “bad end” into a good ending? What makes a total party wipeout feel like an anticlimactic and stupid screwup, and what makes it feel like a justified and literary finale?
Part of it, I suppose, must be the timing. A PC cast getting obliterated halfway through a campaign is disruptive. It interferes with the total narrative. So the GM may have to pull a few storytelling strings to keep things moving forward, and put the game back on track. Or maybe the campaign just ends. Players and GM move on to a different game. But if a team of PCs lose, unequivocally, at the tail end of the campaign – going up against the main opposition as a climax to the narrative – it’s no longer a disruption.
It could also be the tenor of the characters. If you’re a heroic paladin-type trying to save the world from something that is absolutely evil, a failure could be devastating. It would mean that good lost and evil triumphed. But our Psionics characters weren’t exactly sterling people. We cared about them, we thought hard about our actions and motivations, and we tried to be “good.” But we killed a lot of human beings. Sometimes innocent ones. Sometimes a lot of them. By accident, or because we felt we had to. In out of game discussions, I mentioned to my fellows that violence had become a crutch for our characters. That we would need to move away from it, before it consumed us as a party. Sure, the folks we were going up against were doing evil things too. But we’d passed a moral event horizon a while back. We might have found redemption, one day, but then again, we might not have.
But a big factor in what makes the “bad end” good, is the dynamic of the group. We were sitting down to play a game together, to tell a story together. Maybe we wanted to win, but we all knew that the chance of “losing” was out there. We accepted it together. We understood that the odds were steep, and no one at the table wanted a Deus Ex Machina to save us. We were going to rise or fall on our own merits. I do think of TTRPGs the same way I think of other games – sports, board games, poker, whatever; the chance for success means something more special to me when there is a chance for loss.
It kind of made me think of Super Bowl XLVII. I’m a longtime Broncos fan, and my mother was always a Colts fan – so in February of 2014, I was watching Peyton Manning screw the pooch with a big frowny face. But my Psionics fail reminded me of him – I wasn’t mad at the game, or the opposition. I was disappointed in myself, but ready to get back in there and do better next time. Why play at all if a win is guaranteed, anyway?
And we were fortunate to have Devon as our GM, who – in spite of my teasing him for his George R. R. Martin-esque propensity for PC death – had never had an ending like the one we got for Psionics. In spite of his talk to the contrary, he does kind of go in for the victorious ending. With heavy losses, maybe, but an uplifting denouement and a chance for hope or a feeling of success. The Psionics campaign ending didn’t really provide that. But what he did do was make it cinematic. Once everyone was down and out and surrounded by SAS, he didn’t just say, “alright, that’s it, the end.” We got a denouement. Not, perhaps, one that left us all with a feeling of hope. But it did give us all closure. I think, when players see their characters defeated, that’s what we’re looking for.
Each character that still had any breath or life left in them got a scene. The first two were offered a chance to work for the pharmaceutical company, which was unwilling to let good Espers go to waste. One accepted the offer. One declined. One ended up on the payroll; the other was executed. Then, the only character who had survived through the campaign from its beginning got his turn. He had a particular beef against this company, since they’d killed his entire family. My character was locked up in a different room, readied for “extremes testing” and death, and my friend’s PC was confronted with a choice – he could beg the man who murdered his family for my character’s life, or he could keep his pride and let me die. He swallowed his pride. He was shot in the head. My character was spared and given a hefty paycheck in exchange for working for these monsters. All loose ends were tied up, for good or for ill, and at least one person was given a shot at redemption (and isn’t that what we all want?).
We don’t get closure in real life. We lose people all the time. To accidents, illness. Sometimes people walk out of our lives forever, or drift away unceremoniously. It’s left open and hanging. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, to have something just end, with no glimpse into the why or the what-happens-next. When we read a book or see a movie where the main character dies, it’s tempered by the afterword. We get closure on that ending, a closure we don’t often see in the real world. Which makes it a story, and not an accident.