Monday, November 14, 2011

Failure in Solo Tabletop Games

Last week I attended a very interesting keynote talk by Jesper Juul in the tenth Brazilian Symposium on Computer Games and Digital Entertainment. The theme of Juul's talk was failure in games, how it's different from failure in everyday life and why those differences might be what attracts us to playing games.

The idea (or rather, the way I understood it) is that failure within a game's magic circle can still be emotionally and cognitively meaningful but it doesn't carry further consequences. We still avoid failure in games but when it happens, we can deny it, and try again. The fact that we can afford to fail in a game gives us freedom to explore different possibilities. Therefore, games without the possibility (or with very low risk) of failure become boring or uninteresting. An important point is that failure doesn't have to involve learning. Games of pure chance don't have any learning about them but the lure of succeeding or failing in a controlled environment is still there.

I'm a big fan of Jesse Schell's approach of seeing games through different "lenses", so after the talk, I started thinking about how would a "lens of failure" apply to solo tabletop gaming. The magic circle is still there, with the solo player constraining his actions to what the rules allow. It's possible to see how failure is still there too. Very often, solo games or solo conversions are about adding elements of unpredictability, in a way that has to be coped with during the game. Solo games often have very high failure:success ratios (take for instance Zombie in my Pocket or Island of D.) Mythic GM Emulator is another fine example: much of its appeal comes from the random events and modified scenes, which bring "mini-failures" to our planned narratives. I would say that, from the standpoint of Juul's theory, solo game systems are about adding possibilities of failure. JF of Solo Nexus has expressed a similar feeling when commenting on solo skirmish games: "The concept of a player who commands both sides AND has complete control on each turn is not, in my opinion, gaming."

The conclusion that I draw from this is that adding risk of failure may be more important than creating a very detailed and complex simulation for the "virtual opponent." A set of rules that results in some coherent behavior is still desirable, especially because a competent oponent increases the risk of the player losing -- but it becomes a means to an end. This brings two questions for me to think about:
- How success and failure are experienced by the player during the solo game? In a Mythic GME-mediated solo RPG session, success and failure occur on a per-scene basis. Would it be possible (and desirable) to add such dynamics to the course of a miniature skirmish, for instance?
- Most examples I can think of in solo games add risk of failure through chance mechanics (the prime exception being playing a deliberately unbalanced scenario.) Are there other mechanics that add to the risk of failure, or make failure more interesting?


Slorm said...

Very interesting article.

I think that the best way for a solo gaming is the Mythic Session, with the tables you can stablish how of "risk" you will have, and if the dices don't roll what they want, normally you will live a solo session very achievable session. If you start to ask for stange question, or try to do unusual things for your character, probably you will start to find strange events. But the real live is very siilar, if when you goback at home, you go by the usual path, the things anormals could happen, but it very strange. But if you decide to take the train on opposite direction, the things are going to start to be wrong....

Think about what should happen if you decide to travel to Afganistan to kill a mujaidin leader? A lot of risky rolls are awaiting you if you aren't a renowned mercenary ;)

Have you seen the Enquiry Table from shichitenhakki blog? It is in my blog too, it's brillant

Ricardo said...

Thanks for the comment and for the heads up on the Enquiry Table, it really is awesome!