One thing that we learn in real life, both from our own experiences and from the stories we are told, there are times when you just don’t have a way to win. In both literary and game terms Cthulhu is an example of this when done well as discussed in this video by Extra Credits, since as the video shows, it is meant to play on our smallness compared to it and how our trying to fight back is like a mosquito trying to kill a brontosaurus. Another example is the well known in geekdom Kobayashi Maru scenario from Star Trek, a scenario where the person (or persons) get to understand there is essentially no good answer because if you go to the source of the distress call you are now attempting rescue of someone on the wrong side of the border who is currently under attack while trying not to start a war with this enemy and keep your own crew safe. A task that you will fail in one way or another, but it does show the sort of character the person taking the test has in what they do and how they justify it. A more visual example of this is seen in the psychological game from Ender’s Game, where you choose between one chalice or another that could be poisoned. Sure, this sounds a lot like the Princess Bride scene and as expected of heroic literature, both of these scenarios have a solution as they want to show the heroicness of these characters. Just look at the quote from Ender, ‘That’s what they want from us. Follow the rules and you lose, choose violence and you win’.
I bring up these examples as Role Playing Games tend to instill in its players the idea that the Gamemaster will not send them against a battle that they cannot win. After all, you will find a variation of the sentence ‘The Gamemaster is not working against the players, instead working with them in telling a collaborative story”. So, players assume there is some way for them to beat every challenge or that the GM will Deus Ex Machina a solution for the players to keep them from dying and thus ruining the story. However, as you will see in blog posts like this one at Dungeon’s Master, some times players will encounter scenarios where there is no way to win in a physical confrontation. They may assume that there is some trick to the situation, as you will sometimes see in storytelling, especially in tv and movies where it doesn’t sell if the bad guy wins in the end as referenced in the opening to Swordfish. The players expect that maybe the sudden appearance of a new ally to help beat this monster, perhaps there was some puzzle like the Ozzie fights in Chrono Trigger, or maybe it is as simple as figuring out you just were supposed to be non-violent in the first place as these few Foxtrot strips (up to Feb 6th) show.
That Dungeon’s Master post shows a few options of how to show the NPC’s strength before you face them. A lot of this is borrowed from standard storytelling, like having a known strong NPC getting defeated by the creature referred as The Worf Effect in TvTropes. Another is showing the effects of all the damage that the creature has done, like dead and wounded NPCs around and various destroyed terrain. Of course, then you have players who will take these warnings as a challenge, wanting to prove themselves against these creatures and there always will be in the real world.
One trick I will recommend to help with the idea of not all fights being winnable is start with the idea of not all quests being winnable. This trick is especially handy if, like video games, you drop plot threads all the time. Make some time sensitive and be willing to go into territory that the outcome is clearly not good and there is nothing the party can do to save it. It shows your world may be dark and cruel, but it also shows that you are not pulling punches, and if you are doing it on something small, might you not do it on something bigger? Shakespearean tragedies are a good example of this, but to give some in-game examples, here are some quests with dark failure states.
- Hire the party to find some children who got lost in the woods around town, but the players stumble upon various remains with animal bites and tears showing they were victim of animal attacks. If you want to be really cruel, have one child survive seeing this happen and being in shock. Great character for further elements.
- Have the heroes hear of a monster causing problems to a village in the distance, and at the same time they get a couple of simple tasks in town like asked to attend a party that evening by a close NPC, and asked to help the blacksmith get some ore from the nearby mine for the special weapon they want (that’ll be ready a few days later), and so forth. Then as they decide to go check out the village, they find it destroyed in a large battle and some of the people taken as slaves. Even if they save the slaves, have some argue where they were to save their village, their family. You could even have some with no clue what to do with their freedom as their purpose for living was taken.
- The party is in town when a murder occurs. They could try to find the killer or just do other things as other bodies turn up dead. Maybe, being strangers in town, they are accused of the murders and thus have a good reason to find the true killer. If you can give a few good red herrings and try not to smile as they lynch the wrong person, it can even be the sweeter.
- Since not everything needs to be about death, the players are hired to recover a family heirloom that was stolen by thieves. A great city based adventure for PCs of lower levels, tracking the thieves to their hideout where you find them melting down all the items they stole, putting in the heirloom as the players arrive. To be really cruel, if they manage to recover it, upon their way to return it, someone accuses the family of having stolen treasures from their family or culture and want it returned like modern day Holocaust claims of looted items. This puts the players in a sticky spot of who is the rightful owner, especially if something happened generations past.
Another tip, though more of a metagame tip, would be to give your players some exposure to other games where they can experience different scenarios than the good heroes charging into save the say. For example, I am a big fan of the Mafia/Werewolf party games as they require people to not have all the information and try to figure out if what they know about people is really true. Those games have been recreated online as Town of Salem if you were interested in trying to it and is completely free to play in your browser, no download required. You could also work at this angle with games like The Resistance, Battlestar Galactica and Shadows over Camelot. These games expose your players to the ideas of questioning the information they have been given, build on some critical thinking and might make them wonder about true motives of things.
The second set of games you might want to try them on is cooperative games where there is no traitor roles seeking to undermine the players progress from the beginning like Pandemic, Scotland Yard and Betrayal at House on the Hill as this will help demonstrate that there are times where you will just be unable to win, no matter if you do the right things. There is one game I found while looking up games for this list that I have no personal experience with, Legends of Andor is a cooperative game set that is unique in that, although there is combat, stopping and fighting every baddie will result in a loss due to the time wasted fighting instead of completing the objective. This allows to show players that just because something is there does not mean it needs to be fought to complete the game.
From a storytelling perspective, with a lot of people’s exposure to fantasy these days being things like Game Of Thrones, we may be able to tell deeper and meaningful stories, as they can understand the ideas of loss and emotional turmoil. Luke Skywalker lost his mentor in his first fight with Darth Vader and his hand in the second, both times having to run away because fighting him was a death sentence. You just need to find the hooks in a character’s story and what the character’s motivation is and then you can push them in the direction you want.
In the end, you have to decide what type of story you want to tell. Is your story about the heroes overcoming every challenge put in front of them, or is it about characters who fail from time to time and then get stronger. You can see this sort of attitude from the comment by the designer of Hoard of the Dragon Queen as they discuss how they feel that D&D, and thus any RPG, would be able to tell stories like any other storytelling medium.
A mistake (from my perspective) that many people seem to be making is assuming that every situation in D&D should be “fun.” If my ambition is to have nonstop “fun,” I’d be better off playing Lego Star Wars or Whack-a-Mole. D&D can also be thrilling, frightening, inspiring, maddening, depressing, frustrating, immensely gratifying — name a reaction on the human emotional scale and there’s probably a place for it in D&D. The match against Cyanwrath was never meant to be “fun.” It was meant to trigger an emotional response — anger, even hate, and a desire for revenge against the Cult of the Dragon. I haven’t seen much to indicate that it isn’t doing that. – Steve Winter, designer of Hoard of the Dragon Queen, on EN World.
I personally like stories that try to invoke emotional responses, which is one reason I like the idea of Cyberpunk and its inspirations from Noir. These were stories that were not afraid to push the boundaries and have darker subject matter in their stories, such as stories where he can question what it means to be good or evil, or if we look at Cyberpunk, what exactly is it to be ‘human’ in a world of designer genes like Gattaca or cybernetic enhancements like in Deus Ex.
My love of great stories applies to games too. Their interactive medium allows you to do things that simple movies could not. Horror games like Alien: Isolation and Amnesia: Dark Descent or even Dead by Daylight and the new Friday the 13th game bring out the feelings of fear and worry, thrilling to experience in the safety of your own home. Other times, you will experience a power fantasy through games like in your typical FPS, RTS or even RPG as you plow your way through various enemies to reach your objectives. Occasionally, a game will even be put together so well that you will find characters you connect with and could even forget it was a game, like Clementine in the Walking Dead first game had so many people thinking what is best for her in situations.
All of this can be beautifully done at a tabletop game where you have people working together to weave a story with its ups and downs and various story elements. You just all need to know what you are trying to tell, and if your group is okay with the fact that sometimes they will lose, they just need to learn to see it coming.