There is a myth we old-time gamers have tended to propagate about our hobby: that there are no winners, or losers, in our games. That role-playing games are by nature non-competitive. I am going to disagree.
I’m even going to go out on a limb and say it may be good to get away from this thinking and treat RPG’s as a game with definite victory conditions. Why? Because I think doing so has the potential to make RPG’s more entertaining for the players.
I see RPG’s as games in which there are definite victory conditions, which in most rulesets however are implied rather than made explicit. In every game session I’ve ever been in, I could identify a particular player as the winner; the player whose character got to carry the story. The player whose character succeeded in an almost-impossible feat, the player whose character had the most memorable role-playing encounter, the player whose backstory came to the fore and shaped the course of the game. And if different players achieved these, then the winner was the one whose contribution affected the course of play the most.
I’ll now posit two insights that are working for me in my own games (YMMV, of course): First, that whatever the type of game you are playing, every player wants his or her character to be the hero of the story, the star of the show. You’re all in the story of the game together, but at the end of the story, who achieved the ending they desired?
Some players may be more forward about this, and some are not. Second, if you can have a way of quantifying this in your game, you and your players can track who is ‘winning’ the game and reward the victors as appropriate.
The question is what actions or accomplishments should count toward the ‘score’? This is where the nature of your game comes in. If the game is about heroically kicking monster butt, you give points for the quantity and quality of monster butt kicked. If the game is about political intrigue, you give points for amount of influence gained as a result of the PC’s maneuverings. Aside from these, points can also be given for player characters’ achieving or working toward their personal goals.
I also like including player input in the form of allowing players to vote each other awards. I also believe the top scorer for each session should be commemorated somehow – make up a certificate for it, buy the player a drink, write it up in your game blog, etc etc. Winning a game session should be Something to Remember.
The result of all this should be threefold: First, your players on knowing what behaviors get rewarded, will act accordingly thus improving the quality of your game. Second, this encourages proactive play. Players know there is value and competitive edge in actively seeking out conflicts and means to advance the plot. Third, it’s easier for newbies to understand what role-playing games are about when you tell them they’re competing for something, rather than giving them the very abstract notion that ‘RPGs are games without winners or losers’.
This philosophy was at the heart of my game Chronicles of the Drenai, based on the novels of David Gemmell. In CtD, players compete to achieve the greatest level of Catharsis, which was earned by accumulating points of Karma and Dharma. To reflect Gemmell’s tortured antiheroes, player characters earned Karma for virtuous acts, and Dharma for playing up the antiheroic side of their characters. Catharsis = Karma x Dharma, meaning that earning no points at all on either side results in a final score of 0.
I also recommended that GM’s of the game find a way to celebrate the winner of the game somehow. It doesn’t matter how, as the real prize is actually the memory of having won.