Thursday, November 12, 2009

Thoughts on defeat

Right now, I am preparing to do a write-up of a pilot study for my upcoming dissertation methodology, but still need to conduct an interview as part of that. The problem is, my initial study was a complete, dismal failure. Which on some levels isn't particularly surprising-- the kinds of problems I had in data collection were unsurprising, but still disappointing. So my report on the pilot study will be a reflection on problems, my 10% response rate, how that will complicate data collection and sampling, and alternative approaches to my research.

This comes as my friend Rich's 4th edition game faced our first major defeat. No big deal to me -- I have been gaming since 1981. I have faced worse defeats. My friend Will, who just started playing RPGs this year, was gobsmacked. We had regularly fought through some very tough circumstances, but this time, we had our asses handed to us, one of us was captured, and the rest of us left to retreat and regroup thanks to the sacrifice of Will's character.

Which all makes me think about the issue of defeat. One of the reasons I don't so much love killing off PCs is that I like the idea that defeat shouldn't be the end. Defeat is dramatic. Defeat is exciting. Defeat is motivating. This may be part of the reason that my favorite film in the original Star Wars saga has always been The Empire Strikes Back: it's the most fulfilling of the three films. Why? Because the bad guys lose. The rebel base on Hoth is destroyed. Han Solo is captured and carried away by Boba Fett. Luke loses a hand and finds out he's Vader's son. There's betrayal and self-doubt. And a seed of hope. A lot happens, and real investment in purpose and outcomes here.

Now, you can't have every game end in defeat or it will become boring and frustrating. But defeat serves a purpose, and a good one at that, by building tension and engagement. And teaching the players to think and consider options out of that defeat.