Freewrite: More on Losing Gracefully, or Loss = ?

A continuation of last post’s maunderings on the idea of the GM’s need to lose gracefully.

“You don’t have to lose gracefully,” I tell him.

It’s been at least a year since our first conversation on the subject. Back then, we mostly played Exalted and D&D. We’d had a few close calls, one game we played in in which death was just odd (the count: one dramatic heroic sacrifice, one death-by-plot-sort-of that managed equal drama, one person who died in an act of silly defiance, and then a couple who got roasted by a dragon before they even got to use the cool new powers they’d been given), and I had that obnoxious history with two games running in which I’d tend to spend half the average game with an incapacitated character, which gave me an ample paranoia about character loss.

But there was a game. In which dying was, for various reasons, not always on the table. We met the enemy, and he might not have been us but a lot of time he was close, which meant surrender was on the table (and one time practically mandated), or fleeing, or various things that weren’t watching one of the PCs bleed out and hoping for that one lucky die roll to get away. Heck, by the time it was over, there was an incident involving one of my PCs on her own that went in two parts, the first portion nearly promising her defeat, and by the time we met again I had several contingency plans that ended up not being necessary because the cavalry came charging in.

One that changed the equation. Before, loss = death, full stop, standard video game logic only without the do-over from the safe spot, go squeeze yourself through chargen again, curse the numbers that won’t line up and add ‘how do I avoid that happening again’?. Now, loss = ?. What happens when you fall? Loss = losing an ally, or a MacGuffin; loss = being captured (and maybe learning something interesting, and having to come up with a clever way of getting out of where one’s in); loss = coming back changed somehow, traps in the mind, loyalty twisted or questionable; loss = a blizzard of beautiful counterfactuals, a storm of what-if, a sea of curiosity.

And then winning doesn’t matter as much, because it’s not the end. Sure, you still want to win, but you don’t have to—there’s no need to milk every roll for every bonus save pride. Less reason to avoid the particular challenges, because the answer to ‘and what happens if I lose?’ is not set in stone—the fear is IC and IC alone, and who knows, sometimes it might be worth throwing a fight or two, or just not fighting entirely up to snuff, just to see what will happen. The boring heroes who always win exist as much because of what will happen if they lose as because of their own skills, do they not?

Loss = ?

Loss = What if?

I want this thing. I have ways to implement this thing in some of the spaces where I play. It will be fun.


  1. UZ says:

    Old Paranoia had a weird death mechanic – every player had a certain number of clones, and when one clone died they started with the next one.

    Sounds simple but it wasn’t entirely; Paranoia took place in a world run by an insane computer where every player was a mutant cultist, even though mutancy and cultism were both summary-execution-type offenses. Clones were considered above suspicion after they started, even if every previous clone in the same line had been a Green Sun Acolyte who could bend iron bars with their mind. So, even if you’d been accused of high treason and being a mutant cultist, your execution for said would wipe the slate clean so you could continue with the game.

    Now, Paranoia gave you six tries because it was basically a game of party sabotage, brinksmanship and cutting one’s losses, you usually went through all six clones pretty fast when everyone accused everyone else of high treason and Binkley the Justice Robot sliced all their heads off with a laser for making false accusations. The whole game was a celebration of failure modes.

    But, consider using this mechanic in a game where
    1) Heroic sacrifice is actually meaningful, or
    2) You are a religious avatar and actually level up by dying, or
    3) The whole purpose of the game is to transmigrate through various contexts, or
    4) You have genetic memory and function at the level of an entire population rather than an individual, or
    5) You keep coming back because the ordained purpose of your meta-life is to return to the same person in different guises so that you can ultimately drive them crazy, or
    6) Every once in a while someone is born as you, like the Light Wing in Azel, or
    7) Every time you die you get to bargain for a new body like Spawn, or
    8) You are functioning in the Matrix but you don’t die in real life when you die in the Matrix because that’s stupid

    There really are a lot of possibilities that flow just from this little thing. Well, that’s why we like RPGs, they’re like fractals because they’re incremental, The mechanics are just the function for your iterated equation, change the constants and you get all kinds of intricate weirdness :)

  2. UZ says:

    Those sunglasses were meant to be an 8 and a bracket; any irony was unintentional :)

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