On winning – Warpg’s revisited

December 9, 2012

It has been over three years since I wrote my initial Warpg’s post. I’ve linked back to it several times, re-read it and still agree with what I wrote back then. I suggest you read that one first if you haven’t already, this one will make much more sense.

I was more than delighted when blog reader Andrew May commented a few weeks back:

 I keep coming back to this post to get ideas flowing, great inspiration here. Any chance of part 2? I particularly like the prospect of unwinnable scenarios!

Since I’m probably not the only blogger in the world who’s a sucker for compliments, I promised to return to the subject – hence this post. In this one I’ll touch upon the subjects that I mentioned at the end of the first post, namely narrated/GM-led games, cooperative gaming and unwinnable scenarios. These three tie together nicely to boot.

Narrated and GM-led games are definitely a step in a role-playing direction. Actually, to the point that the line between a wargame and a role-playing one is effectively blurred. The idea is definitely not a new one. Role-playing games sprang in the seventies from strategy games onto which different elements were bolted, so you could say we’re pretty much at the core here. In my view, they allow for a much wider scope for a game than just going along using different mechanics. The addition of a GM (Game Master) makes the game/story a lot more dynamic. All of a sudden the game can react to a given situation in literally countless ways. In a sense, it’s taking a step from “game” to “play” (but I won’t go there, there’s a massive academic swamp of term definitions that way). The rules become more malleable too, as the game takes a more story-like approach to the events. A good example of this is our previous game of Utopia, where the players were tackling Predators. We had a soundtrack featuring jungle sounds playing in the background, and as there was rain included, I mentioned to the players that it was now raining on the jungle battlefield as well. Later on we had this exchange:

Me: The Predator re-activates his cloaking device.

Player #1: Doesn’t he need to roll a die?

Me: No, it’s automatic, just takes an action.

Player #1: But you said earlier it was raining. We all know how the cloaking device responds to water.

Players #2 & 3: Hey, that’s true. You need to roll.

Me: Ok, sounds fair. On a roll of 1 the device won’t work.

<die roll of 1>

Me: The Predator, in fact, doesn’t activate his cloaking device. Apparently the combination of rain and the gunshot he just received has temporarily disabled the device.

…and all of a sudden we had a far more interesting situation. This might of course simply sound like players trying to exploit the rules, but in fact there was no rule to exploit here. I could’ve simply said that the rules don’t cover this and activated the device. Why was I willing to give the players an extra chance? That’s the beauty of GM-led games: a GM isn’t usually personally too invested. In other words, the GM controls the world and various characters, but unlike the player characters, the GM-led non-player characters aren’t an extension of the GM. As such, the GM can take a far more neutral approach to things, as it’s not a direct, fair competition between the GM and the players. If I was just another player playing the Predators, I probably wouldn’t have agreed, since that would’ve hampered my chances of winning. The GM doesn’t need to win. In fact, since he’s pretty much omnipotent, there’s no point for him in playing to win. I mean, if you can simply tell the players to roll three sixes in a row or all of their characters will die, then why stress about winning? Once winning is out of the window, the GM can concentrate on creating a fun and interesting game.

Cooperative games are tied to the same theme of winning. In competitive games the sucky (in my opinion) part is that in order for someone to win, another must lose. Usually losing isn’t much fun. Sure, you can do it in style and all, but you’ll often be left with a feeling of disappointment, frustration and such. While a staple in RPGs, this has been discovered more and more in other games lately. Board games, computer games, miniature games…cooperation is fun. If you lose, then everyone loses and you can share the disappointment. Then again, if you win, everyone’s a winner. On your side at least. Combine this with the GM approach above, and you have a very nice combination. If you lose, there’s no-one to gloat since the GM isn’t playing to win. If you win, there’s no-one to mope since the GM isn’t playing to win. A GM can also try to minimize the disappointment of the losing players: maybe they fail their mission, but not everyone dies. A loss can also be turned into an interesting story, and that brings us to…

Unwinnable scenarios. At first this sounds like a major letdown. Seriously, a scenario you can’t win? Where’s the fun? Let’s start again by ditching the need for winning. Suddenly also losing is deprived of most of its meaning – it’s a given, so why stress about it? While you’re going to lose eventually, there are plenty of small victories and glorious moments to be had. I suggest watching any movie about the Alamo for a good example of what I mean. You know what will happen – the defenders will lose and die. Doesn’t mean it’s a boring story. Since we already know what will happen, we can focus on the interesting path to the conclusion, instead of the conclusion itself. Take a scifi or fantasy classic – say Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings. You know the good guys will win and the bad guys will lose. Doesn’t mean there’s not a story in there, does it?

If I think of interesting examples of unwinnable scenarios, these might include scenarios that are not directly winnable but might affect the big picture, for example in a campaign game. “You must hold this ford for as long as possible against an overwhelming enemy” doesn’t offer much hope of winning, but will probably be an interesting game. “Try to get as far as possible into enemy territory.” “This is the last game of the campaign, make a glorious last stand!” and so on. Of course, in a GM-led scenario you don’t even have to let the players know that the scenario is unwinnable, although it just might be fair…

Three years ago, I wrote:

The one thing you have to bear in mind is that in the end it depends a lot on whether players are willing to sacrifice victory in favour of a more interesting game. I’ve found that the more players like to do this, the better the games get. Correspondingly the more people tend to focus on winning, the drearier the games get.

Having thought about it for a good while, I’d like to replace it with the following:

There are plenty of ways to define winning in a game, and the traditional victory point counting way is but one definition. Striving to win and striving to make an interesting, narrative-driven game don’t necessarily preclude each other. It depends a lot on game and scenario design as well as the players and the possible GM. A good game enables you to do your best to win without sacrificing interesting game content. At the same time a good game provides you with interesting content without requiring you to forget about winning.

I hope there was something interesting in this to all of you! For a lot of RPG veterans this is old hat, but I’ve been surprised by the fact that many wargamers see this as something groundbreaking. I apologize for the rambling nature of the post, and as a disclaimer I’ll say that not all of those thoughts are as fully developed as I’d like them to be. I’m definitely open to comments, critique and your ideas regarding the subject!






  1. It seems to be a matter of taste, what a player wants out of a game. Some (tournament players) think of it as a sport and do not always value story elements cluttering up their play. This faction even seems to exist amongst RPG players, some of who focus more on character builds and ‘optimization’ than they do any sort of personality and will not accept permadeath for their PC in any games. (I suspect they are the same folks who rush through World Of Warcraft to get to the endgame gearapalooza).

    Personally, I vastly prefer the sorts of games you describe. I don’t care about winning nearly as much as having an interesting game. It’s the main reason I prefer smaller skirmish games like Song Of Blades And Heroes and the earlier versions of Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40K (Rogue Trader)… which ideally include a referee/GM as a third player.
    Campaign play is great as well but seems a lot harder to get going and keep going.


    • Thanks for the comment, that’s a good point. Not all people want or like story-driven games. I’ve never really understood this – but as they say, horses for courses! I’ve seen my fair share of RPG optimizers and the like, it’s just a very alien scene to me.


  2. Well done some good stuff 🙂 and welcome to the play for fun club… also did I emtion how great “all” your aliens articles are and how much they should “all” be redone…esp scenarios 3-10 of Tryton etc… (hint hint) best wishes great thoughts etc….Wayne


    • Thanks for the comment and the kind words! More scenario reports forthcoming, although due to some pretty tight schedules,we won’t get a game in until after Christmas. Oh well, more time to paint!


  3. Thanks Mikko! For me this hobby is very much about the stories that are conjured up, I haven’t played a game in years but it doesn’t stop me dreaming up narratives constantly. Looking at these little minis is like looking at a fantasy painting (like Paul Bonner’s for example) and dreaming about what the story that’s being played out in it was, is and will be. At the risk of being a spamming b****** take a look at my second blog (if you haven’t seen it already) http://www.rpgseeds.blogspot.com


    • Thanks for the comment and the inspiration Andrew! I know what you’re talking about, since during my painting I tend to think up all these wonderful stories about the characters I’m painting. In fact, for me the discrepancy between these mental images and what was happening in games was one of the biggest reasons for dropping WHFB. Really like the idea of RPG seeds, and I love the little vignettes you’re creating!


      • Thanks, if I ever get the chance to start gaming again I think it will be in the form of a hybrid RPG(lite)/skirmish system. Maybe me as GM vs one or two teams. I’m glad you like the RPGseeds blog, it’s plenty of fun for very little effort. I’ve started putting ideas for one page adventures down now I’ll let you know when I’ve posted any but I doubt that it’ll be this year.


  4. […] example of the warpg-style gameplay that I’ve been advocating (see earlier posts here and here) – putting fun and a good story ahead of winning […]


  5. […] warpg approach – a combination of tactical miniatures combat and role-playing sequences – has […]


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