Day 11: Best unwanted outcome from procedural uncertainty?

One of my favorite things about digging into indie games for me has been all the out-of-the-box thinking that goes on. The more common and unchallenged the topic, the better!

I think it was Vincent Baker​​​​ who said something about the point of uncertainty being to produce unwanted outcomes. After literally decades of systems that struggled to make all outcomes acceptable, this I think really resonated with a lot of us. Hero points to nudge failures into successes, feats and talents and whatevers to fudge over fumbles and misses, novel die-rolling schemes, all in the service of “making the player feel heroic.” Which starts from such screwed-up assumptions about heroic that I can’t even.

There was a friend of mine, many years ago, who had this idea for a novel. He recited the whole thing to me on a through-hike into deep wilderness and it was one of those super deep sharing moments that you can only have away from the world. So he’s obviously modeled the main character against himself; fair point, dude was a forward observer for the US Marines during Desert Storm, full of lots of traumatic experiences and interesting training. But at every twist, he’d quickly point out “…but my character wouldn’t be so screwed up as I am, he’d know what to do.” And after a couple days of that talk, I had to stop him and say “No. No…that’s no good at all. He needs to be screwed up! Things need to go wrong! Then we have something to root for. We need to not be sure he can do the thing, so when he does the thing we can love him for overcoming his weaknesses.”

The cool thing about Vincent’s observation about unwanted outcomes is that it turns conflict resolution on its head. It allows the table to move on from worshiping success and fearing failure. It’s “unwanted outcomes” but they’re also wanted because at the creative level, everyone agrees that we need bad things to overcome. It’s the impossible thing, made totally possible because we can manipulate our perspective from moment to moment.

My best unwanted outcome: When the most Glorious knight in our King Arthur Pendragon game ate shit in a meaningless fight. He was the golden child, beloved by all factions; other knights envied him but loved him so much they wanted to see him succeed as well. And then he just fucking died.

His replacement was the younger brother, the only suitable heir, and he was a total shitheel. For the rest of the campaign, we’d compare him unfavorably to the golden son who had passed. The characters despised the younger son; the players (including the player of both the shitheel and the deceased) loved that dynamic. It was only possible because the player wasn’t able to discard the unwanted outcome, to throw a hero point at saving himself, to veto.

Embracing unwanted outcomes is the core of being true to your fiction, and there’s nothing more rewarding when the fiction is your desired end product.

10 thoughts on “Day 11: Best unwanted outcome from procedural uncertainty?”

  1. I plussed, but with a caveat about “The cool thing about Vincent’s observation about unwanted outcomes is that it turns conflict resolution on its head.”

    Conflict resolution was ALWAYS about that. Giving players what they wanted, whatever they rolled, was instead the “appeal” of task resolution and story-before: the GM already decided that you had to find a clue, you would find it, whatever you rolled. Conflict resolution was a reaction to that: REAL rolls, with REAL failures, that the GM could not gloss over.

    Conflict resolution is about success or failure, period. If your game doesn’t have the chance of failure it isn’t conflict resolution and it never was.

  2. I don’t understand what’s meant by “procedural uncertainty,” or how that leads to uncertain outcomes.

    I do love it when something I can’t anticipate turns out terrible for my character in a very satisfying way, though.

  3. I think that the whole point of adventuring is that bad shit happens and you deal with it, right?

    Yesterday a PC got turned into a wraith by a random encounter with 3 wraiths.

  4. I mean, from a pure OSR sandbox point of view, I run stuff pretty much completely procedurally (except if I want to hasten play for reasons). So my role as a GM becomes be more of an MC than a “narrative controller”: there is no plot, players decide what to do and where to go, there are consequences, emergent story instead of story first, etc.

    In my games, fun happens because of engaging bad shit.

  5. Our Breakers gang in blades. We had a plan. We had a mission. We had friends to build, actions planned … and then an entanglement hit us. Just a casual roll.

    Someone much, much bigger wanted our turf. And was pretty unreasonable about it. So we dropped our initial arc, refocused, and got embroiled in a long gang war that ate up most of the middle story of our game.

    We lost friends, we gained traumas, and all because one die came up a specific number.

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