I want to talk about winning, win conditions, and whether RPGs can accommodate them. And perhaps more importantly, whether RPGs should incorporate win conditions.
The idea of “winning” and “win conditions” came up in my work on a Fate Codex quickstart for an upcoming issue. And then I read John Wick’s piece on how chess is not an RPG. The entire thing is worth reading, and his large point is more about how RPGs don’t need balance because their goal isn’t fairness but storytelling. I want to focus on just some stuff about winning. In his piece, John Wick says this:
You can play board games such as Rex and Battlestar Galactica and even Settlers of Catan without roleplaying… but roleplaying seems to make them more enjoyable. Talking in character, making (apparent) choices based on character motives… but if you go too far in that direction, you’ll lose. And the goal of those games is to win. Roleplaying, in the end, sabotages the goal of the game.
He argues that the goal of a true roleplaying game, in contrast to the goal of a board game, is to create a good story. So all the rules of the RPG need to be conducive to that goal.
What I want to do is focus on the idea of winning, what that really entails, and whether or not winning is something you can have in an RPG. Because I think that there is something to be gained by having “win conditions” in an RPG, by making the goal of playing “to win.”
Defining “winning” (without tigerblood)
I posit the (hopefully uncontroversial) position that the point of all games, board, role-playing, or otherwise, is to be enjoyable, to have a good time. The form of “a good time” can be highly variable depending on the game – sometimes “a good time” is exploring tragedy and horrible themes – but still, the experience justifies its worth to you. You feel like you have not wasted your time in playing this game. While you are playing a board game, your immediate goal may be to win…but the overall goal that frames your play is to have a worthwhile experience.
So, attached to that idea is the following point: if the only way that playing a game is worthwhile is if you win the game, then that is not a good game. This is not the same as saying that “the only way that playing a game is worthwhile is if you TRY to win the game,” which is generally something I think is true with regard to board games. But a good game is one that you can TRY to win, but still have a worthwhile experience with even if you lose.
Saying “win condition” has a certain connotation to it, which is that one person (or a team, maybe) wins, and everybody else loses. And if you lose, you did not have as good a time as the people who won. And in most RPGs, that idea is anathema. We are all in an RPG together, and while our characters might win over each other, we as players all win or lose together. It’s a lot closer to a co-operative board game than to the majority of board games, in that respect.
But the point is that this just isn’t true of a good game. If a game successfully provides a worthwhile experience for everyone regardless of whether or not they win or lose, then insofar as the actual goal of playing goes, (this is so cheesy) everybody wins.
Why have win conditions?
Win conditions have two basic uses: to end the game, and to produce action. Most often, once one player “wins,” the game is over, so win conditions ensure games do ultimately end. Win conditions are also important for how they give players something to drive at, to provoke them to action within the game, to make sure that the mechanisms of the game are engaged.
To take an example of a board game that seemingly has an incredibly weak win condition, the board game Tales of the Arabian Nights affords barely any control at all over whether or not you win that game. (Briefly: you need a certain number of story points and destiny points, each chosen by you at the start of play, to win. You generate those points by encountering random events. There is no way you can specifically ensure you get any particular amount of points, because you only find out how many points you get AFTER you have made your decisions.) But the game still requires that win condition as a driver to get the action going. Even though I cannot imagine playing that game with someone who really cared deeply about winning, all players are driven to action to at least try to win the game. So the win condition there marks those two key elements of winning: the end state of the game, at which play is over; and the reason that anybody is taking any action within the game.
Winning in RPGs
So, a win condition in an RPG could easily provide those two functions. What if, as we were playing a game of D&D, the win condition is “to strike the last blow against the dragon and absorb its soul.” Whoever does that, wins. The game will end after that win condition is achieved (or more likely, after a short epilogue following that achievement), and now all players (and PCs) have a drive to take action.
To John Wick’s point, does adding this win condition actually help to tell a better story? You have to look closely at the system and the win condition you add to make sure they work together, but I think the answer can certainly be yes. The example win condition gives PCs a reason to act on their own, to plan and to scheme, and such actions can contribute to an enjoyable story. It gives them a reason to contend with one another, to fight with each other for the right to slay the dragon. And it will give us a moment that we know is the end of the story, which is often helpful to story-telling. (How many stories have been ruined by going just too long?)
A win condition wouldn’t work in every RPG around. For example, many RPGs are driven by the desire to “play to find out,” and having a pre-set win condition means that, to some extent, you aren’t playing to find out. Someone will kill the dragon – it’s a question of ‘who?’, not ‘if’. But win conditions still seem like a valuable tool for some RPGs.
As examples of RPGs that already sort of have win conditions, Burning Wheel and its offspring like Mouse Guard have players choose Beliefs (and for Mouse Guard, straight up Goals) for their characters. Looking at an example character for the Burning Wheel scenario “The Sword,” we see that the Beliefs are often goals the PC is angling to achieve. Brechtanz’s Belief of “This sword was a treasure of my clan for generations, stolen by foul Roden and abandoned here; I’ ll restore it to its rightful place among my people,” is all about having an actual goal, a drive to action. Which is great, and shows how the “drive to action” side of win conditions can work in RPGs. But Beliefs lack the “end game” element of win conditions, as once a Belief is resolved you are rewarded, but play continues. They aren’t pure “win conditions,” as I’ve been defining them.
Furthermore, it’s worth noting here that there is another element of win conditions as they are commonly implemented that I haven’t talked about up until now: that you don’t get to pick your own win condition. You might have your own individual win condition different from anybody else’s, but chances are you drew it randomly from a deck or something similar, instead of creating it entirely on your own. Beliefs are generated by the players, which ensures that they always have beliefs they are interested in, but also removes that element of challenge and randomness that random or predetermined win conditions can provide. Pre-generated characters, of course, have pre-written beliefs, much like most win conditions are pre-written. The lesson to learn here is that choosing your own goal may be important in certain types of game, particularly games that run over multiple sessions, so you aren’t saddled with a goal you don’t care about. But for a one-shot or short campaign game, win conditions determined randomly or in advance are the way to go.
What should it look like?
To wrap up, here’s why I’m thinking about win conditions in RPGs right now: because there are some board games doing things with win conditions that I think would be perfect for RPGs. Look at the board game Dead of Winter. In that game, players have secret win conditions of their own that drive them to take actions. Everybody is driven by their own individual goal or desire. Another player might be on the same team as you, not be a traitor at all, but look like a traitor just because they have their own win condition that doesn’t quite jive with yours, or that disrupts their ability to help the group. Which is amazing! It drives tension and action, suspicion and conversation.
So if players in an RPG each had their own win condition modeled after Dead of Winter, where they aren’t necessarily opposed but might possibly be orthogonal, then that could work fantastically to create story fodder. If I have the secret win condition, “Escape with the Dragonkiller blade and bring it home,” and you have the secret win condition, “Be the only survivor of the battle with the dragon so the tale will only survive as you desire it to,” and a third player has the secret win condition, “Make a deal with the dragon to obtain a portion of its power,” then that’s going to drive some interesting conflict and storytelling. And with interesting win conditions that are viable within the game’s framework, they should help to produce b0th good stories and worthwhile experiences that are enjoyable no matter whether or not you win.