Victory: The Importance of Winning

Recently I played and finally finished Horizon Zero Dawn. It's an amazing game, full of all the things I want in any game. Diversity, incredible story, impressive characters, badass moments, and meaningful layers of nuance. Except the ending. The ending is one of those endings that promises other games (fuck yes) but it does it in a way I can't stand that I'm solidly convinced is bad story telling and bad GMing. And yes, I see all media as GMing in one way or another.

At the end of this game, the bad guy you thought you killed is still alive. The threat is stopped, temporarily. It's not a real win. You were promised it was, but it wasn't. Just like in the end of Season 2 of Stranger Things. You thought you won, but you didn't, jokes on you! Monster is still there! What is this nonsense? Honestly, it's just... cheap. It's an easy out for a cliffhanger to get you back in. It's a cheap trick to keep the story going. When this trick is used in gaming, it's a pot shot at your PCs and their players. Because winning fucking matters.

In gaming, we have a habit of following media tropes in how we tell our stories and in how we GM. We rely on storytelling methods that we feel are tried and true. Sometimes, this means awesome results like ensuring that our villains are compelling or that we allow the hero to grow and change in our stories. Other times we get stuck with shifty things like meaningless scenes, weak plot hooks, and of course, the false victory.

Escapism relies on pulling us away from real life and into another world, even if that world looks and sounds like our own. In a lot of gaming (although not all), we have goals we are trying to achieve. Our characters have things they want and conflicts they will experience. While in real life, we expect to lose and face the reality that we may never win, whatever that means. In gaming, we often want to feel success, to one degree or another.

I'm not going to brand all gaming with "winning matters" because that's a false statement. For the sake of this conversation, I'm referring to games where conflict and stakes are set in place to present obstacles for characters to overcome. In games where winning is an option and a goal, winning matters. Success matters. Victory fucking matters.

There have been many times where I've railed against the idea of winning. I'm a huge fan of games like Downfall and Ten Candles, games with no winning and a premise of losing. They're beautiful games. But victories are designed in games to make you feel like you've accomplished something. While there is definitely a beautiful space for games that engage the premise of losing consensually, most of our games are tied up in the premise of getting a win. Whether we're rolling 2d6, a d20, or all the dice at once, we're fixing to win.

This isn't to talk about how losing is also interesting. It is and it should be and if your fails aren't interesting, something's going wrong in that game. This is more to talk about those wins, why they're important, and how we can maintain win spaces without detracting from the victories of our characters. We know why winning is fun. It makes us feel good, it accomplishes something in game, and if the GM is doing it right, the fiction changes because you did something cool.

Being successful in a game sets off all sorts of fun happy chemicals in the brain. Oxytocin and serotonin are released when we dominate a situation, or "win" a situation. We feel good. The brain feeds us chemicals to reward us for work well done. While we may play down the importance of the chemical side effects of winning, we can't ignore that they create a drive in us to win. When we roll a natural 20 or 10+, we get a happy.

Where a schism begins to appear between dice rolls and the fiction is often the GM. When we're searching for a hard move to toss at them, sometimes it's hard to remember not to steal their hard earned victories. It's also easy to forget that even if they've rolled ten fails in a roll, the players need to get rewarded and get those victories because it's a part of the social contract of the game. We're here to have fun, as some would say (one day I'll blog about that). Part of that fun is getting a win in.

When the GM uses a hard move or a fail or even just makes fiction that supports removing a victory, like when Hades is still alive in Horizon Zero Dawn, or when the big monster thing is still poised to eat the town at the end of Stranger Things season 2, it feels like the win was redundant. Which makes us feel unimportant or like all we did was for naught. It's a strong signal to the players that they can't actually impact the story. Only the GM can. And what's the point of a story where the heroes can't impact anything?

Sometimes, we as GMs, tend to forget that those wins matter to our players. Winning should be as story-altering and fiction impacting as losing. Any time we roll some dice, the outcome should be interesting and make the story better. It shouldn't just be "Yeah, you succeed" just like it should never be "Yeah, you fail. Try again." Dice mean something interesting is about to happen. Wins, unless they are your final scene and the game is about to be over, should only lead to more complicated questions while also giving the heroes what they want, mostly. Victory comes at a cost, sure. But the cost should never be redundancy.

I think of Spartacus, when he beats Theokoles. Here we have this Thracian nobody take down the Shadow of Death, thus bringing the rains, ending the drought, and becoming the new champion gladiator. In one great victory, we're left with a dozen questions the show now needs to contend with. What will Crixus do now that he's not the champion? Will Spartacus start to truly obey his Dominus? Will his owner finally give Spartacus his wife back? What will it mean to have a man who betrayed the Roman empire as champion? So many questions that lead to more story. The show, smartly, follows up those questions with answers that do not cheapen or destroy Spartacus' win, but rather, pull us forward with him to his next challenge.

I'm also reminded of Buffy. Season Two showcases the threat of the Master's return. The very threat of him returning is enough to trigger some PTSD symptoms in Buffy. There is a threat of making her Season One victory redundant. But smartly, the show doesn't, and gives Buffy an opportunity to hammer out her issues while destroying the threat. At no point does the villain come back. At no point do we render our heroine's victories meaningless. It's threatened, but used as a method of improving story and of talking about the consequences of victory.

Yet time and time again I've seen people use the return of the unkillable villain as a plot device. I've seen people take away the win a character just got, twist it until it's not a victory, or add the cliff hanger that makes the entire four hours of play meaningless. Our characters are almost (and sometimes do) killing themselves to get that victory. How dare you make it meaningless? How dare you take away what we've worked so hard for? How dare you demand more sacrifice?

A win is a win. Don't fuck with it. If you're struggling on what to do to make the story continue, ask hard questions about what the win means and follow those questions until you have answers. Victory changes the world around it, rewriting what could have been a horrible loss. How does that impact the heroes? Are they now suddenly in charge of rebuilding after a war, a job they are not trained for nor prepared for? Are people turning to them with bigger problems? Are they suddenly hated because the villain was actually well liked? Where do you go from here?

If a win happens, and there are no more questions, that may be the end of your story. That's okay! Because stories end. Stories need wins to reach their conclusion. They need loses, too. Most importantly, they need movement forward. Stagnation, or a stunning lack of movement, isn't good story. A becalmed boat gets nowhere fast. Don't steal the wind from your players' sails. Let the victory cost them, let it change everything (or at least the thing they set out to change), and let it be compelling.

High emotional impact games can get suffocating. Often deliberately. Those moments of victory will be the bit of oxygen that keeps your players going. Don't deny it to them. When your players' victories can change the world, it means their failures can also change the world. Giving your players the right to impact your world also gives them the very real sense that their failures will hurt, and possibly more than just them. It raises the stakes and demands they put themselves at risk to get what they want and save the world.

There are so many more creative ways to deliver on a fail than to strip away what victory the players have already earned. You can give them what they want but at a much steeper price, you can draw others into their problem and mess, you can hurt them in new and exciting ways, you can add new plot that complicates the shit out of things, you can bring to bear that a friend is truly a rival. The moment you decide to take away what they just worked so hard for because it's the easy answer is the minute you punk out and give up on compelling story and choose the path of least resistance. It's the same moment we lose interest in a television show. Don't be a bad writer.

Let your heroes be heroic and smash the bones of their enemies. Let them win political standoffs. Let them change the world and don't take those moments away from them. Let the Avengers beat the big bad. Let a new Jedi float some rocks. The story isn't good if the villain just appears again next movie as though nothing happened or if the rocks fall and everyone dies beneath them. We change with each loss and each victory. We get rewarded and we make an impact. It empowers us to keep trying and to keep going forward. It teaches us that the impossible can be done. It makes us big damn heroes.