This month's topic comes to us courtesy of Lex Starwalker: At one end of the spectrum is the style and belief that the PCs should be able to overcome any challenge that comes their way, that challenges should be “appropriate”. On the other end of the spectrum is the style and belief that the world should be realistic, that every fight shouldn’t be able to be won, and that one of the requisite skills of the game is knowing when to fight and when to run.
Where do you, as a GM, fall on this spectrum, and why? Should the PCs always be able to win?
Games should be fun. That's kind of the point, isn't it?
While you might think a constant stream of "winable" encounters would be fun, I haven't found that to be true. Why is that?
My guess it that it's too predictable. The only challenge becomes how well you win, not if. Why not play on autopilot?
In a great story you always see the protagonist on the brink of defeat. And sometimes they lose. I'm looking at you, George RR Martin!
A great gaming experience can do do the same.
Defeat can be in combat, intrigue, or social. The risk of defeat wakes up the player behind the character, gets the adrenaline flowing, and creates a memorable session.
At the same time, setting up a trap where the PCs will be killed no matter what they do isn't likely to be fun either. Remember the discussion around TPKs?
So in a combat encounter where the PCs are overmatched, I'll always leave a way out. It might not be obvious at first, but they can always retreat. 13th Age has a rule that lets the PCs always retreat from any fight, but if they do, they suffer a story defeat. The kidnapped victim gets sacrificed, the cultists summon their demon, the nice alchemist who used to sell healing potions to the PCs just got his shop burned down.
Intrigue defeats tend to be temporary and the PCs can just keep on going, perhaps on a different playing field. Your faction is down, the opponent's is up, but tomorrow is another day.
Social defeats are similar. Games like Hillfolk have rules that force a PC to accept defeats every so often. How the character deals with the defeat becomes part of the story.
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