Friday, 15 May 2009

Luck Does Not a Hero Make

This is in response to a post I came across via Whitehall Paraindustries in which poor old Gleichman ends up in a frothing rage at how gormless and direly in need of a character-building thrashing are the youth of today. Thinking that it couldn't be that bad I clicked over to The Core Mechanic and had a look at the target of his ire. And what did I read?

"The difference between good intentions, and true heroes is only one thing: Luck."
- Tom W at The Core Mechanic

This is the opening comment of a paean in praise of Fate point systems.

Now, I'll go on the record here and say I'm not adverse to using Fate / Heroic Destiny / Get Out of Jail Free mechanics in my games. If used right (ie: at a meaningful cost in either character ability or player narrative control - see SuperNecro's fine system for an example of what I consider "cheating fate done right") they can be an excellent source of drama and thematically appropriate action in a game. Likewise, I'm all for opportunities for player-driven, in-game awesome when playing. The bravura stunt that comes off just right and leaves a PC surrounded by a corona of radiant win! is something for which we're generally on the lookout. However, such things are more precious and appreciated if players earn them against the odds and through their own efforts.

There is a converse to what TV Tropes calls such Crowning Moments of Awesome, and that is, in one word: failure. Failure, although something to be avoided with all the wit and cunning at your disposal, is an important teaching aid. Failure is how you learn to do it right next time; it is the bitter aloes used to purge the poison that is stupid; and, ultimately, failure is the salt that makes the sweet taste of victory all the sweeter.

I'm not suggesting you should actively seek out opportunities to suck and fail in the name of drama: but you should certainly be aware that the risk of failure is always going to be there in any co-operative game worth the playing. Smart players will not try to create mechanics to fudge away risk. Instead they will take account of it, and actively work to minimise the risks to which they expose their characters (for what else were situational modifiers created?).

Stop. Think. Research. Plan. Choose your own battlefield and terms of engagement. Weight the odds in your favour any way you can. Then run screaming into harm's way.
Remember: Rainbow Six; not Halo.

All this theory aside, having "75 characters die over 2 years" in a single campaign doesn't sound to me like the result of a policy of thoughtful, tactically astute play. If anything, it sounds more like a lemming-like rush to self-immolation. The first lesson I for one would take from this hecatomb is: "Stop running at things with your head son."

I think there is something of a disconnect in understanding of how story works in RPGs. Tom seems to think in terms of designated protagonists and 'achieving the mission', whereas I - and quite a few of the OSR - think in terms of potential heroes in an emergent story. Unlike a Hollywood film if things go badly in an RPG then the original 'intended script' gets torn up and a new one is written in by events. Through the choices the players make the session stops being the story of "Our glorious victory over the Trollish Horde" and instead becomes the tale of "The day we fought a doomed last stand against overwhelming odds" or "That time we got our butts ignominiously handed to us by the Trolls" (which varies by player skill and degree of situational hilarity).

"Suddenly the player, not the GM got to decide exactly how lenient the rules would be for them... The Die Hards could still start their character at zero fate, spend their extra attribute points on enormous strengths and dexes, but if the dice killed them; they died, no excuses."
- Tom W at The Core Mechanic

Erm, call me an oddball if you will, but the players should already be doing this by careful, skilful play. Cinematic gaming does not, and should not, equate to plot immunity. The knowledge that there is no meaningful threat to the characters (be it to their persons, or the agenda they are trying to advance) sucks all the drama out of a story. Immunity to death is especially bad for this. Plot armour leaves no room for Boromir's last stand; no room for King Theoden's doomed stand against the Witch-King; no room for El Cid; no room for Druss; and no room for most of Kurosawa.

Sometimes failure is the right answer, and true heroes make their own luck.

Thoughts? Opinions? Brickbats and flung excrement?

note: Dan Collins (of Diminutive20 and OED fame and a man who abhors Fate mechanics) weighs in on the related subject of coddling players and the interesting question of what adversity reveals about character.


  1. I've been on the recieving end of a bizarre Gleichman rant myself - apparently I'm a symbol of postmodernity and how young people these days are pathologically afraid of making judgements, or something. So I take anything he says about anybody with a pinch of salt.

    Nevertheless I do somewhat agree with his rant about fate points. There is a sense of entitlement in the concept (and in 'cinematic gaming' generally) which gets up my nose. But I also think that luck does play at least some part in who gets to be a hero in real life, so I don't mind fate points used in tandem with some sort of balancing mechanic to represent bad luck.

    I also quite liked Planescape's Belief Points, which represented the way belief and faith actually do mould the multiverse.

  2. "If anything, it sounds more like a lemming-like rush to self-immolation" -- LMFAO.

    Tom is somewhat new to blogging; I've asked him to check out this and the WhiteP post in reply to his post at TCM. Personally; I'm on the fence. Fate systems have their advantages for certain styles of games - I mean, 4E Action Points are pretty much the same thing, albeit a bit watered down.

  3. @noisms: Yep, Gleichman can be passionate about his gaming. I've known guys like that IRL. Like thoroughbreds; a proper handful at times, but great if you can get them pointed in the right direction.

    Planescape Belief Points are something which had completely overlooked. Thanks for the pointer.

    @Jonathon: Thanks for taking the time. It was interesting (and a little disorienting in a "Do people really think this now?" way) to read a view of heroism so widely divergent from my own. More preconception challenging stuff like that pls.

  4. FIst of all, if not luck, what is the difference between the one soldier who gets hit by the german morter and the other right next to him who survives? they were both ducking in their foxholes...

    I have no problem if you think differently, different strokes for different folks - I am an older gamers and verteran of campaigns played to completion from before second edition. I am just throwing somethign out there to think about that resulted in a lot of fun in our group

    As for the merits of a Fate system in the first place - Heres the rub - gamers bravado frequently logically results in their death if you played everythign by the numbers. I dont have time to go into grat detail, but everything boiled down to two things: fake stories where the DM wimped out on encounters just because the players went rolling the 20's the way they expected them to, or threats that were so easy that they were frankly boring. The fate system was a mutual idea of our game group adopted from WHFR and it worked out great. We still had deaths, because most players only had about 4-5 fate points per adventure and modding a roll to a clean miss was 3 points. Fate could not save you from death if you were in an unwinnable situation. Say you spend all yoru fate to achieve a few clean misses - so what, the third shot is still coming at you - Fate just gives a small window to re-think your options.

    Tom W

  5. In my opinion, Fate Points are directly descended from Hit Points. It is no accident that WHFRP has an otherwise lethal combat system, and something similar might be said of Star Wars D6. I have often contemplated introducing fate/destiny points to my D&D games, and a mechanism for doing pretty much that was introduced in the AD&D/2e supplement Skills & Powers, but really hit points are already doing the same job.

  6. @Tom: Hi mate, thanks for posting.

    "...what is the difference between the one soldier who gets hit by the german morter and the other right next to him who survives? they were both ducking in their foxholes."

    In game mechanical terms? Could be current HPs, saving throw, distance from aim point, any number of things. Sure, a lot of those factors do depend on unpredictable random chance; but on sheer 'blessed by Fortuna' luck? Ockham's Razor says (probably) not...

    I think we're going to remain a little po(tay)to/Po(tah)to over the question of luck vs. heroism. But then, wouldn't a hivemind just be boring? ;)


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