Character Success Vs. Player Success

In more than one of the games I’ve played in over the years, truly terrible things have happened to my characters – and almost all the time, I’m happy about it. The reason for this is that I have a distinct view of character success and player success.

Character success is easy to like. You roll well, or spend points well, or however the system works, and your character wins in the conflict or gets what she wants. I think that at a very basic level, character victory = player victory. When I first started playing, I felt great when my character won and frustrated when he lost.

Over time, though, I started t realize that the two need not be the same. I had a few situations where things went bad for my character, but it was funny, or exciting, or made the game more interesting, and I forgot to be frustrated and had a good time. As time went on, my victory as a player became more and more independent of my characters’ victories.

I started to play with this idea more and more. I would do things that I knew would be detrimental, but would be fun or make things more interesting. Not in the obnoxious sense of escalating every situation or doing things that made no sense just to derail the game – I was thinking about how I could improve the game by my characters’ successes and their failures.

This led to more thinking about the game-as-such, which I’ve continued to develop as I’ve become aware of a lot of Indie games and RPG theory (the pretension-lite versions) that deals with the game-as-such more in their rules and thinking.

I think this results in a win-win situation for the game as a whole. If your failures are thoughtful, even planned like this one was last night, then the game is improved when things go well and when things to terribly…for your character. Either way, its more fun for you as a player.

–> As a side-note, this is also a great way to get over cheating on the dice, or to help other players stop doing that. In RPGs, when you roll the dice, there are usually so many modifiers that you can fudge a roll if you feel you have to – I’ve done it in the past and I’ve seen it done in most games I’ve been in at one point or another. Realizing that player victory does not have to equal character victory gets over this.

–> On the other hand, sometimes its just dramatically better if you win. In this case, I prefer games with some kind of mechanic that lets you weight some rolls or actions more than others – White Wolf has Willpower (and Vitae, Quintessence and other spendables), Burning Wheel has Artha, Mortal Coil uses tokens for everything, Exalted has stunt dice, BESM has Energy (and my friend has come up with a cool token system to use as well), D&D has the optional Action Points…you get the idea. I think these kinds of things are absolutely necessary – but its a lot better if you use resources like this with the overall game in mind, and not just your character’s victories.

5 thoughts on “Character Success Vs. Player Success

  1. In my estimation this is one of the signs of a really mature gamer and it never fails to add to the fun in a game, because good storytelling really does require the protagonists to fail once in a while. Success is only meaningful if it is not guaranteed. Thus a player which can free themselves to have fun failing has liberated the whole group to tell a better story with more meaningful successes which are more rewarding for all involved. After the high everyone seemed to be on last night I think it's obvious how great your choice to let your character take a fall was for all concerned.


  2. I agree with the point. What I'm saying is that a player who enjoys dragon-slaying and epic triumphs, but who can't tolerate setbacks and defeats along the way, does in fact seem to have an “immature” view of what a narrative is. A good story is about overcoming hardship and setbacks, not about never experiencing them. Moses is a good example because his disaster drove the game forward and made it better, helped develop his character further, and so on. The Eberron game is an example of something else entirely – I don't think that causing problems for other Player-Characters is generally good gamesmanship, unless you have their permission beforehand and see how it drives the story forward.


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