Invoking for the Enemy

Recently my Tuesday Star Wars GM wrote an article about what bothers him when running Fate. I wanted to write a counter-point to some of his thoughts, not intended to bring anyone into the Fate fold specifically, but rather a way to think about running adversary NPCs.

Here’s the specific part of the article that I want to address.

And I’ll freely admit I don’t push as hard as I can by using GM Fate points (which +Bill Garrett has called me on). But I know why I’m bad it: it feels adversarial in an unfun way (I’m FINE with adversarial in fun ways).

You pulled the short straw and have to be the Bad Guy in Betrayal at the House on the Hill or whatever? That’s cool. You’re cock-blocking someone’s attempt to get Longest Road, just because? Much less fun. That’s kind of what "pouring on GM Fate points" or “start everyone with no fate points and 0 refresh” feels like.

First, I’m going to acknowledge that writing isn’t always comparable to roleplaying. But I will assert that people plug into characters in fiction in similar ways, no matter what medium you’re working in. If you disagree, let’s talk about that until we’re both on the same page, because I like having that kind of conversation.

RPG fun comes from a lot of places, as described in Mo’s excellent Covering the Bases article. In roleplaying games, people have fun by having an experience, and part of that experience will be playing a character and doing things as that character.

Failure

For a few gamers, fun will come from succeeding at everything all the time. I think - I hope - that this is a pretty rare attitude. “Twilight Zone” did an entire episode on how getting everything you want all the time is literally hell. So we’ll assume that most people are comfortable failing at least some of the time, and talk about the specifics of what “failure” means, and why they matter.

The specter of Dungeons & Dragons hangs over the industry and always will, but D&D taught us that bad rolls can and ought to kill your character, that save vs. death was a thing, that wishes must necessarily be cruelly warped, that failure was the enemy. The positive game rewards - XP and gold - were all about averting failure. With enough money, you don’t lose your character when they die. With enough hit points, you don’t get killed as fast. With enough levels, you can kill the monster before it kills you.

Even games that like “mixed success”, such as Dungeon World, or “success at a cost”, like Fate, treat such outcomes as lesser than “full success”. Success and failure are seen as opposing outcomes, with a weird hybrid option at the center.

I think we need to separate what we call "failure" from what we see as “success”. Okay, how?

Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling

I go back to this a lot, so it’s worth linking here: https://io9.gizmodo.com/5916970/the-22-rules-of-storytelling-according-to-pixar

I want to focus on three of these rules:

  • Rule 1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
  • Rule 6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
  • Rule 21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?

A Reddit user made an excellent point, citing Rule 1, in this post: Han Solo is sympathetic because of his failures.

If we admire a character who fails a lot, why do we ourselves fear failure? I believe that many players equate “failure” with fear of having their goals shut out or being deprived of their payoff. As described, D&D’s main failure outcome was either "what you did was ineffective" (an attack miss) or “you lose something that you are trying to amass as your primary goal” (character death, XP or level loss, item destruction, whatever).

Pixar’s rules give us a different vision of failure. Failure is the crucible in which our characters are forged. “Good” failure doesn’t shut characters out from their goals: good failure is the vehicle for making characters ready for those goals.

The Antagonist

“Lessons from the Screenplay” has a video, Creating the Ultimate Antagonist, which echoes Rule 1 and Rule 6. Antagonists must be “exceptionally good at attacking your hero’s greatest weakness”. The antagonist’s role is to apply pressure to the protagonist, forcing them to make hard choices that reveal their character.

In other words, the antagonist is your vehicle for exercising Rule 6 as a GM. Rule 6 is how you let a character struggle. And that struggle, according to Rule 1, is what we admire.

The antagonist doesn’t always have to be a living person, but they should always be something that qualifies as “a character”. The Galactic Empire can be a character, just as an individual admiral can be.

Antagonists are the GM’s characters. Rule 21, and common sense, tells us that we need to be able to identify with our characters. If the GM is introducing an antagonist NPC, they need to be identifiable too. Antagonists have their own story and their own goals. Their story comes into conflict with the protagonist party, which is the source of your drama.

In Fate, hostile invocations and compels don’t have to be adversarial attempts to knock a player away from their goals. Instead, they can be realizations of the antagonist’s own story. But story is still story! As players, that’s what many of us are here for. If your antagonist’s story is interesting and compelling, we’re okay seeing it played out.

Hostile Invocation in Fate

The Fate Point Economy has allowances for this sort of thinking. If the GM makes a hostile invocation against the player, that player receives the Fate point.

Going back to the post about Han Solo earlier, let’s look at his experience. Every two or three major failures on Han’s part lead to a later success. His player’s willingness to take Fate points in exchange for "success" turning into “success at cost” or "failure" let him bank up Fate points for big spends later on - specifically, spends on aspects that are a core part of his character, which is the scoundrel with a heart of gold who can say “never tell me the odds”.

The Fate point economy is designed to encourage this style of play, where the antagonists of a scene get the upper hand for the moment but doesn’t have to shut a PC out of their larger goals. They don’t derail the PC’s goals, they force the PC to change tracks, and they make it easier for the PC to win when it matters by letting them accumulate Fate points.

Failure in Grand Adventure

Grand Adventure tries to solve this general problem in three ways.

  1. Actions can never simply “fail”. There’s two ways to not get what you want when you perform an action: use a broadly defined starter word like “Confront”, rather than a specific word like “Attack”, or to stop rolling dice if you haven’t activated an Action. But there is no six-or-less outcome that simply scrubs your plans.
  2. Actions cannot be repeated verbatim. No character can just continue to shoot at the same target in the same way. By mandating variation without penalizing it, the players don’t lose anything for describing their early actions as failures and switching tactics.
  3. Twists are a special dice pool that the player has access to whenever they accept a consequence or change in the status quo. Notably, this doesn’t have to be a negative one: if the melee fighter jumps on the dragon’s back as it launches itself into the air, that can be a positive Twist that’s worth dice.

For example, a Jedi in a lightsaber duel might use the “Duel” Word, starting the conflict with a Sith warrior with a physical fight. As the duel progresses, Words like “Persuade”, “Resist”, or "Avoid" might come into play, as the combatants chase each other through falling infrastructure, try to talk each other over to their side of the Force, and so forth.

Grand Adventure Actions aren’t a single swing of the sword or a single spell cast or whatever - they’re aggregations of actions, the back-and-forth of an extended sword duel, the minutes of negotiation, whatever. Momentary failures are factored into the larger roll.

“Failure”, then, is the aggregation of side effects the character experiences on the road to success. It’s the accumulation of costs and consequences you get to deal with, not an equal-but-opposing force.

Conclusion

Hostile invocations can be seen as an antagonist’s story playing itself out, and story is one reason many of us are here. If the game rules allow it, those invocations also power the player up for later success, letting them choose which wins are most important to them.

The specific ways an action fails matter much more than the mere fact of failure. Failures that invalidate a character or shut a player off from his payoffs will be bad, failures that sharpen conflict and focus on the character’s nature will be good. If you cause a failure, make it the good kind.

If you can separate “failure” from “success”, do it! Think in terms of “primary goal” and “unintended consequences” if you can. Don’t make a roll about “success vs. failure”, any more than a painting is a conflict of red vs. blue vs. green paint. You need all your colors to paint a complete picture.

Thanks for reading! I’m sure that not everyone agrees with this attitude. If you want to reply and talk about your own views, please do.