I have been thinking lately about the prospect of doing badly, and the more I think about it, the more I think that it's probably a valuable thing in role-playing games, at least some of the time.
Now, I'm not talking about the role of character failure. I happen to think that that is a useful thing in some games; it generates tension, which is good, and it produces unintended results, which is good. I have been guilty in some of my games of padding character failure, which I think ultimately leads to fewer opportunities for players to be quick-thinking and creative. But every game is different, and there are times when room for certain kinds of character failure isn't relevant to what those games are about.
But in this case I'm talking about creative failure on the part of the game's participants, whether players or GMs or what have you. I feel like a lot of the discourse around story games, which often constrain player option, is about preventing certain failure modes, stopping people from doing things that are not ... appropriate(?) ... to the game being played. And I'm certainly not against rules relating to creativity -- constraints promote invention, at least for me, and it doesn't usually matter too much what the constraints are.
And yet ...
And yet ... I do feel that a lot of the times I've succeeded in running a game are times where what I was doing could have fallen pretty flat. I turned a low-key horror-investigation game into a weird dimension-hopping sci-fi game, and people seemed to like it. I've added all kinds of nonsense to my D&D game, and people engage with it happily. Overall, I feel like it's been successful. But there are certainly times when I've put an element in a game and the players have just looked at it and shrugged, or clearly not wanted to engage with it. And that has, sometimes, made me too cautious in what I introduce.
I think that one of the best things about RPGs is the way in which unexpected creative elements -- indeed, even elements that seem obviously to be in conflict with each other -- interact in unexpected ways. And I don't know how you do this without exposing yourself to creating mixtures that don't work.
But I don't think that either the culture of gaming on the internet, the culture that surrounds live gaming, or the general experience of being old make these very easy. It's like character lethality in OSR games -- high lethality went with low character-gen time. But in 90s-style games, character gen can take a good hour and integrating a character into the group can be very tricky.
What I mean is that ... well, take me, for instance. I run my D&D game every other week, and I run my Requiem game and play Lost once a month. I play a miniatures game about once a month, and every once in a while I drop in to one-shots. I guess that's not bad -- an average of slightly over a game a week. But those games are in separate boxes for the most part, and they're often quite short. My D&D game might often be as short as two and a half hours, because it's on a weeknight. Players are investing scarce time in it, too -- I'm in competition with a lot of other entertainment opportunities and a lot of other responsibilities. And if we're talking about big LARP events, we're talking about games that players might end up paying quite a lot of money for. I have people who come up from London or Kent to play my game, a significant investment of time and expense.
And that means that I always feel the voice that says "don't fuck around, stick to things you know will work" in my head. Which I think is a shame.