I’ve talked about Fallen London before, but they recently brought back some content that I think is worth talking about as a new focus. Seeking the Name. “It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s one of the most interesting, disturbing quests you’ll ever regret taking on.” to quote Rock, Paper, Shotgun article here. I mean, the whole next paragraph is as follows:
Seeking The Name is the exact opposite of most RPG quests. You can argue it has an element of fighting for justice to it, but that’s not really the point. Really, from the point of view of your Fallen London character, it’s less a quest than it is a curse – a voracious hunger, an unstoppable drive that strips them of everything they have and promises nothing in return. One of the standard Fallen London slogans is “All will be well and all manner of things shall be well.” Seeking The Name is so far removed from that, the game itself regularly breaks character to tell you that you are making a mistake, that you should turn back, and that nothing awaits but pain, suffering and more pain. Pain like losing half your stats in a single click. Pain like throwing away your Destiny. Pain like sacrificing your hardest earned possessions just for a chance of progressing.
Normally, in Fallen London, you build up your character by doing storylines. Usually most are repeatable mini-quests, following iterations of a few choice forks like a choose your own adventure book. You do them, build up stats and resources and further yourself into stories deeper and deeper. This one is instead one that you will be broken on, as mentioned above. A lot of the in game backstory is discussed in places like this, a Fallen London tumblr discussion page and it is quite an interesting story, but I mostly like it for the idea of how it is giving the players literally enough rope to hang themselves and then the freedom to do it. Something that, as Rock Paper Shotgun says, you don’t see enough of in games. An actual ‘Hey, go do this thing that will literally make your game harder, because it’s different’.
I like the idea because it actually has real consequences for the choices players make. There is actual loss, actually giving up of resources and things that way. Something you don’t see very often in games. Actual consequences that can hinder a character or story in the future. That to me is interesting, because the whole essence of drama is conflict. John Wick, game designer, wrote
A Dirty GM, on the other hand, is someone who uses every dirty trick in the book to challenge the players. Keeping them off balance with guerrilla tactics, he increases the players’ enjoyment with off-beat and unorthodox methods, forcing them to think on their feet, use their improvisational skills and keep their adrenaline pumping at full speed.
I think losing some abilities of your character due to choices made is a perfect example of that sort of challenging players.
The idea of this means things given to the players can be lost at any time due to their actions. This means that a game of this nature has to be agreed upon by all players when they begin, so that they know if they send one of their allies into combat with a big bad, they could lose that ally. Perhaps someone breaks into their house and blows it up, making the PCs homeless. Perhaps someone catches the thief and cuts off his hand, or someone wants to bring a PC down a peg so hires some thugs to tool them up and breaks their knee in the process and reduces their mobility. The essence of drama is conflict, so be willing to sometimes take the fall to make the story that much more interesting when the players finally win by somehow overcoming the odds.
Parson Gotti: That, um, game I was developing at home…
It had rules.
But it couldn’t be won within the rules.
I wanted a game where the players had to surprise the GM with lateral thinking.
So I was essentially goinna cheat them.
Undermine everything they tried.
Until they found a clever enough way to cheat me.
To break my rules, and win. (Source: Erfworld Book 1: 134)
The above paragraph may not sound like an example of that sort of thinking, especially when you talk about cheating them out of victory. The idea is about how far you are wiling to go, what sort of punishment you are willing to take and still get back up and fight. If done right, the players feel like big damn heroes for overcoming overwhelming odds and pulling a clutch victory. If done wrong, it may be like this quote from TV Tropes Failure Hero: One of the major problems most fans have with Young Justice is that no matter what the heroes do, it almost never matters. They usually end up soundly defeated, and on the rare occasions that they do win, it just furthers the villains’ goals somehow.
Granted, superheroes are a great example of this idea, how they become separated from anyone they may care about because they have to be the person there to save everyone. They don’t have a chance to be the person who sits back and relaxes and enjoys things, otherwise you end up with bad guys winning. Instead, they chose to turn their back on significant others because they don’t want them to become targets or worse (I mean it could be worse. You could be this, and that is one worse option in my mind).
So, let players know they can lose, maybe start off with small things to see if they are willing to go along with it. You could surprise with a major loss, but some players may not agree with it as they spent time and resources to get it in most cases and thus should be compensated for the loss. Whether you do compensate depends on your game, but as long as you don’t do it all the time and don’t always target the biggest advantage the players may be willing to accept a loss from time to time.