Over the weekend a game released on the XBox One, PlayStation 4, and for the PC. The game is "Friday the 13th" and is based off the horror franchise of the same name. In the game players control either Jason or one of the counselors that Jason wants to kill. The game then becomes something of an extreme "Hide and Seek" game as the counselors hide from Jason while seeking the means to escape the area, and Jason, well, he's just looking to kill people. What's unique about the game though is that it's one of the few games I've played where losing can genuinely be fun. It got me thinking about RPGs. Could they be fun to lose to? If so, is there a trick to pulling that off?
Why Is It Fun To Lose?
Losing in real life is rarely fun. The disappointment of failing at the task is more powerful than the sense of joy of a match well played. While we're learning just playing can be fun, but as we get better at a game or thing it becomes more disappointing and that can be a bad thing.
So why is Friday the 13th fun? Well, my current theory is because it captures the feel and look of an old slasher movie that even as people are playing to escape, they're also playing to watch teens get murdered in gory fashions by a monster. The game also does a good job of divorcing you from the counselor you play. The counselors have their own voices, stats, strengths, and weaknesses. You always see them in 3rd person unless you're hiding, and when hiding there's no room for third person so it's not like you go first person either. All of this works together to make it so that either you escape, and win (yay) or you don't but still win as you get something you want (gory death. yay!)
Now, what about games?
The Best TPK I Ever Had
The Best TPK I ever had was not a TPK but an all but one character TPK. It was an L5R game where everyone played Lion characters in the Lion Clan military. They ended up in a war with the Dragon and everyone died. Why did they die? Well, because they chose to attack a unit of Dragon Clan samurai bigger than them and more capable to buy time while one player ran back to warn the main army of the comic attack.
In the end all the PCs were thrilled with how it worked out. They also loved that the only PC to survive was the one with the background of trying to redeem his ancestor that had fled from battle. So everyone died except the one PC who had dying gloriously in battle as his life goal.
The PCs loved this because even though they lost they got what they all wanted in character: a glorious death in combat as the heroes who sacrificed their lives to get word back to the Lion.
What About Other Games
L5R feels like kind of a cheat for this. What Samurai doesn't want to die gloriously in combat? And, in the example I cited, what story player isn't going to be thrilled by the prospect of the heroic sacrifice? I have two characters in play right now that I'd be giddy with joy if I could get them a bridge or doorway to hold and die doing so so the rest of the group could live or escape.
Choice, Acceptance, and Execution
What it boils down to is three things to make the loss as fun as it can be.
First, the loss has to be something that the players chose for themselves. Sometimes fights go wrong, and that sucks, but the fight has to have been the players choice to engage in. Dying in an ambush on the road sucks. Dying because you chose to ambush someone on the road? Well, at least you made the choice. This is key. It Has To Be The Player's Choice.
Second, the Player has to accept the reason for the death. By this I mean the player has to be on board with the death and how it happens. This can take some time for the Player to divorce themselves from the character, but it needs to be there. Remember what I said about the heroic sacrifices above? Those are ones players opt into knowingly, and thus are often the easiest deaths.
Third, and most important, is execution. You need to play the drama up during the cncounter. You need to keep the action moving fast. You can't let the player sit there and feel the dread of it coming, but keep things fast and frantic. Most of all, you need to try and make the death meaningful. Give the player a win, something they trade their life (lives) for.
Is Death Losing?
This post so far has largely equated loss with death. That's because this is the most common type of "loss" players experience in RPGs. Other losses can happen as well. If the loss is for a story reason, than just get through it and fast. Don't linger. Fast and frantic is better than slow and painful.