Victory Conditions

Photo by Alperen Yazgı on Unsplash

This morning, as an index of just how much time I’ve squandered over this long weekend, I’ve begun doing math.

It started out as a bit of innocent mischief, as I wondered how a blood loss mechanic might work in a horror game, a TTRPG. I could think of some simple ways to simulate the effect (deductions from dice rolls, or the use of dice pools from which dice might be removed over time), but I was wondering about a means of making the experience more intense, more vivid, and more visceral. I settled on a potentially lopsided yet simple opposed roll mechanic (e.g. a wounded player rolling 1d6, for instance, vs. a machete-wielding narwhal rolling 1d12), hence my tumble down the rabbit hole of variance and probability.

Because way leads on to way, as the kids say, I’m now neck-deep in thoughts about victory conditions. I was thinking about what it means to “win” a horror game, which tends to be a problematic concept if there’s no ulterior goal to be realized. Over Halloween, for example, I ran a summer camp game in which the players learn that there are one or more murder-monsters hanging out in a (problematically) nearby asylum. Session A involved all sorts of backstory building, in which the players discovered a bit about the spoopy history of the milieu and the threats they might face if they dared to enter the abandoned facility. At the start of Session B, they discovered that a) the vague threats were almost certainly real, and b) that there were artifacts on the grounds of the asylum potentially worth bajillions (one of the players found a Gustav Klimt original long thought lost in an early scene). What did the PCs do when faced with such a bepicklement? They Noped the heck out of there tout de suite, which is an eminently reasonable choice. In that kind of context–and, to be frank, most any context–not getting murdered counts as a win.

In the gaming space we tend to be fairly pragmatic, after all. We calculate risks and rewards a little differently, but we also tend to avoid self-immolating behavior, even when we might be involved in the serious business of saving kingdoms or civilizations. At the same time, we dive into games for scads of reasons–for the vicarious experience, for imaginative self-actualization, for collaboration, and (one rather hopes) for fun. If you’ve ever seen some of the wholesome variations on the “Are Ya Winning, Son?” meme, you know that there are a few thousand ways to win.

Life tends to be like that, too, though I reckon we reflect on both wins and losses in equal measure. Yesterday I sent off a novella to a publisher about a week ahead of schedule, which feels like a significant win, but I also decided that there’s not much point trying to actively maintain a connection with an auld friend, which feels like an abstract kind of loss. There’s a tension we all have to navigate, a network of pushing and pulling that we can only tweak to a modest degree if we’re playing fair.

The catches, of course, are that a) not everyone agrees on what it means to win, and b) not everyone is interested in playing fairly. Not terribly long ago, for example, I attended a gaming session that was ultimately (and responsibly, and thoughtfully) scrubbed. The folk who were running the game realized that a guest player sitting in on the session wasn’t particularly interested in any of the collaborative or interactive ends of a game; that player really just wanted to break stuff–which is a play style, of course, but one that doesn’t lend itself especially well to a collective social diversion. And one sees discrepancies more routinely on social media, where any given day will see people playing at politics (or law, or economics, etc.) in cases that for them are thought experiments but for others might be matters of subsistence or survival. That’s the essence of most forms of trolling–trivializing the thinking and feeling of other participants (not players) in discourse concerning real experience and deeply-held beliefs. It becomes an easily winnable game, a little splash of the right neurotransmitters, but it comes from an experience in which there was never any real risk of losing.

Right now, for example, I’m looking at the residue of a social media scrum that started last night, in which a person suffering from the symptoms of a long-term illness was confronted by a person who sought to undermine and/or minimize their claims. It’s sort of a Greatest Hits version of unsportsmanlike conduct, featuring bad-faith reasoning, purposeful efforts to provoke and harm the opposition, and a few classic tactics (such as the troll deleting a post that effectively undermined their own argument), all for the sake of enjoying the pleasures that come from scoring points. That the troll was obliged to change the rules of engagement more than once to score those points is immaterial–they realized something like a victory, and they can point to any number of public instances of similar victories to validate the feeling.

And in all the ways that matter, at least to me, my overarching sense of what’s involved in play–social, interactive, collaborative play–makes the math, odds, and probabilities more or less incidental. What’s important are mechanics that allow good-faith players to explore and experiment, to have meaningful experiences and earn significant victories in the terms they choose, both as individuals and as a group.

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