Thursday 2 February 2023

The Most Human Type of Game: Negotiating the Winning Conditions

Tabletop RPGs are an interesting example of that fairly small subset of games: ones in which the players negotiate the winning conditions with each other through play.

I don't know if you've had this kind of experience, but the purest enjoyment I have ever had when playing a game of any kind is that which I used to get when playing knockabout games of football with my friends at the local playing fields after school or on weekends. Football has rules (they are actually conventionally called laws) and among them are those concerning the length of a match and how it is won, the size of the pitch, and so on. But we never abided by them. We played almost entirely in freeform - all we needed were two nominal goals ('jumpers for goalposts') - and we often didn't keep score. There were no throw-ins, no fouls, no penalties, no offsides, no real dimensions even to the pitch (we often continued the action behind the goal, like in ice hockey, with the ball remaining in play). Very often we played a game which we always called 'cuppy' (it goes by different names in different regions of the country, apparently), in which there was only one goal and one goalkeeper and the outfield players all competed against one another or in teams of 2 or 3 to try to get the ball and score. These matches could go on for hours, until somebody would stick up their hand and call out 'passing and shooting!' or 'heads and volleys!' and we'd switch to a different variant.

The salient feature of these games were that, when they started, nobody would ever specify how they would end. We'd just play. And play. And play. And eventually get bored - at which point somebody would say 'Next goal wins', and everybody else would nod their assent and that would be that; the next team or player to score would win. Or somebody would say 'Let's just do a penalty shoot-out.' Or 'Let's just take shots at the crossbar.' Or, sometimes, 'Let's just go home.' The winning conditions of the game worked themselves out as the game itself was being played - through a curious collective decision-making process that was never explicit and yet almost always reflective of the consent of everybody participating.

I can think of only a few equivalent examples of this phenomenon - long games of Monopoly or Risk resulting in deadlock, perhaps, but those are a little different in that the winning conditions were clear from the outset but simply took too long to realise, resulting in consensual cancellation between the players. Or childhood games, where the action would flow from hide-and-seek to cops-and-robbers to chariot-races to whatever else without there ever being a clear resolution to any of them. 

At any rate, table top RPG campaigns also usually have this quality, too - a defined start but no clear end, and in which the decisions as to what is the winning or ending point develops organically through the process of playing itself. Indeed, if one were being pretentious, one might say that an RPG campaign is something like a process of becoming, in which the very activity of playing the game is a way of working out how it comes to an end - such that it is only at the end that one can look back and understand what the game was about. Was it about this character getting to level 20? That character ending up being King of Saxinraxinland? These characters slaying the gold dragon under the mountain? None of that was ordained in advance; it happened as a result of choices (and dice rolls) and their consequences that took place within the game itself. Or maybe it is revealed that there was no natural conclusion, and that the whole thing was merely a bunch of stuff that happened. In a sense, you play to find out.

There is something deeply human in this, I think - the idea that, with one's friends, and some vague rules or principles, one comes through a long process of decision-making to an emergent conclusion about what you all have really been doing all this time. There's no way a computer can replicate this. I think it's something that really only we can do, and hence to be celebrated.

[I am currently running a Kickstarter for the 2nd edition of Yoon-Suin, the renowned campaign toolbox for fantasy games. You can back it here.]


  1. Not a very well known example, but there is a "game" called Nomic pretty much entirely defined by negotiating the winning conditions.

  2. Not a well known example, but this idea reminds me strongly of Nomic, a game defined pretty much by negotiating the win conditions.

  3. All these years I thought Calvinball was an invention of the comic strip, but apparently it is real!

  4. My sister, our friend and I used to play "lego wars", which consisted of each of us building a civilization, an army and a cast of characters, and then playing through a complex if vague conflict between them. There was never any scripted story, but there were always great payoffs, character arcs (within reason, we were children) and fun twists. We could never play with anyone else, though -- they just weren't on the same wavelength and were more interested in "winning" (not actually possible or desirable) than in molding the story. I suppose it must have been frustrating for these occasional outsiders, since *we* were making it all up as we went, declaring triumphs and deaths and plot twists, yet their random declarations were objected to. There was always just an understanding between the three of us of what we were doing. In adult life, I've been part of a pretty unique online role play community for ten years, in which there is both an "internet" in which all our characters interact and respond to news, and a place for independent or small group adventures, so characters overlap and play off of each other's developments as desired, with a flexible but consistent background (extrapolated from a popular sci fi game universe). This has some of the sane appeal as those childhood games and I think it's the purest and most engaging storytelling: communal, responsive, and individually creative.

  5. "In a sense, you play to find out." You probably know that this is a major "agenda" item for the GM from the RPG Dungeon World and other PbtA games: "Play to find out what happens."

    Your agreement with this points to one of the areas of strong overlap between the ethos of the OSR and that of so-called Story Games. Both approaches prevent the GM from holding solitary control in deciding the direction of the game and give players the steering wheel to direct (what turns out to be) a story.

    1. I agree and often try to make the point that OSR and Story Games can be understood as reactions against narrative play/plot arcs/railroads.