On Player Struggle and Failure

While reading some esoteric reprinting of the AD&D DMG (a 2018 edition with TSR aesthetic, but with 3E skills and Satan knows what else), I stumbled upon this section regarding the appropriate level of challenge in a campaign:
Never simply assume that the characters will win. What if they don't? What if the forces of darkness and evil win the final battle? 
No matter how high the odds are stacked in their favor, there is always a chance that the characters will do something so stupid or unlucky that they lose. Victory cannot be guaranteed. If it is, players will quickly sense this and take advantage of it. 

- p. 16 Alignments in Conflict

Being that this is in a section on Alignment, in its original context it pertains to grand cosmic/spiritual/moral struggle. It also advocates for PCs having roles of importance in the conflict, which may or may not run counter to OSR ethos, depending on your play style. There is some support for making alignment impactful on a campaign, particularly if one follows the logical path laid out by B2, in which players are responsible for limiting the influence of Chaos, which would likely set the stage for a larger-scale conflict as the campaign progresses.

Personally, I ignore alignment almost entirely, and in my experience so do most others. I'll be examining the advice in the quote from a more general standpoint on challenge and failure.
First, it bears mentioning that the topic of player failure is brought up in grand-scale conflict. With a 3E and onward mentality, there is an assumption of player success. OSR has a higher comfort level with lethality, natural consequences and randomness, and to some degree grimdark.

The most common failure state in games is PC death. How much is too much? Should they be dropping like level-0 nobodies in a DCC funnel? Should they be spared by a merciful Ref fudging die rolls behind the screen so that they can fulfill their chosen-one backstory? (No) What is the balance between the two?



In a campaign that strives for verisimilitude, a body count will likely be high. Disease rules and healing rates are used. Perhaps dismemberment and bleeding, madness, or any number of things which can make a character's life harder even if they do survive a drop to 0 HP or some terrible trauma. These things are to be expected. Your character is not failing, they are gaining unique features, overcoming incredible obstacles, surviving against terrifying odds. The failure is if nothing is achieved. If the grim struggle of survival feels so insurmountable that your characters, no matter how many you play, will never get anywhere. Masochistic players aside, this is not fun for long, but can definitely be addressed. 

 

 In a campaign that strives to test and build player skill, the challenges will be difficult to overcome almost by default. High risk, high reward. Hard, but fair. This type of game may come with Killer DMs, but that isn't fair, and usually isn't fun. I'd point to my own Halls of the Dead as an example of what I'd call hard but fair in my own terms. Give a little slack, allow a learning curve, but don't baby anyone. Brains beat stats every time for the successful adventurer. Is death failure? Depends. Were you playing your best? Were you foolish or taking calculated risks? Did the consequences of death/failure close opportunities you wanted or needed to take? Bad play is failure, terrible consequences are failure. Death isn't. New characters take 2 minutes to make, and you can use a goddamn pamphlet for Antichrist's sake.

In a campaign that is story-based, which has an overarching goal and wants to build a compelling and cohesive narrative, death may indeed be failure. If the characters, their concepts and backstories, their central roles in the grand events of the campaign, their heroic and impossible feats are the priority, death can be a big letdown. This type of play is fairly uncommon in the OSR- PCs are not superheroes, they are gongfarmers, cutthroats, blades-for-hire more often than not. Their backstories are more likely to center around escaping poverty or finding glory than fulfilling the prophecy of their dragon-blooded ancestors. The world would not miss most of them. Neither will players. But if you are that invested in a given character, then death may be a severe failure. It shouldn't be, though. If you care that much, then build your skills as a player, so that your character is going to survive those imposing situations. Play smart so that they have a reason to believe they're the best adventurer, rather than leaning on destiny or other such bullshit. And if they are going to die, if you've botched it and gotten surrounded, or misread the trap, or went into the wrong lair and it's just a foregone conclusion, then go out with a goddamn bang.

One of my favorite sessions ended with a TPK in the treasure room of the Tower of the Stargazer. I was rooting for the PCs, they had played pretty damn well. I had done my damnedest to play Calcidius as a calculating, experienced sociopath (using VAM spells, so very deadly as well), and for the most part the players were keeping pace. One bad decision, combined with one unlucky roll, combined with my best attempts to challenge them with all the tools at my disposal, resulted in not only a bloodbath, but the destruction of the tower, removing the possibility of going back for the treasure. It could easily have gone the other direction, if any one of those things hadn't happened.

Was it a failure? No. Hell no. It was a blast. We still talk about that session. The characters were disposable, more or less. Low-level characters with little more than a few unique spells to distinguish them from any other schmuck. Some, like Seigjagt, did have silly, overwrought backstories. But Arc, who played Seigjagt (and also triggered the TPK) kept playing afterwards. His character wasn't as important as the fun. Fun is success. Fun is everything.

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