In my article on how I run a game, I mentioned that there are specific genres in which I’ll sometimes accept predetermined outcomes. I’ve most often experienced this in horror games, where both the players and the PCs know that there will be certain terrible things that happen, regardless of the actions taken by the PCs. But why does this work? How could any player enjoy knowing that their terrible doom approaches?
First off, when I say predetermined outcomes I don’t mean that I know what’s going to happen when the players roll their dice, no matter the result. I should have some idea of what might happen whenever any player rolls for something, because players should only be rolling when it’s interesting for them to roll, but what I’m talking about is knowing the future.
This isn’t being psychic, it’s more like knowing that your particular Call of Cthulhu adventure is going to end with the PCs catching a glimpse of some eldritch horror. Maybe there’s a shoggoth deep in the vaults of the cultist operated bank and it will burst onto the city streets at 3:30pm on that Saturday, or maybe you know that the horrible god the cultists worship will peek through the curtains of reality and give your PCs the hairy eyeball. Whatever it is, it’s a set piece, something that will happen no matter what the players do. They can try to stop it, and they might deflect the repercussions… but it will happen one way or another, to them if not to anyone else.
Just to be clear, you don’t need a predetermined outcome to have a set piece, nor do you need a predetermined outcome to have a horror story. But in my experience predetermined outcomes are more likely to be accepted in horror stories than they are elsewhere.
For some reason, players are willing to know that something terrible is going to happen (and have the majority of the game foreshadow the oncoming event), even when they know that their own actions will have little to no effect on the event itself. All they ask in return is for their actions to still have meaningful consequences. I suspect that this is because a given set piece may be used to increase tension (maybe even turn it up to 11) without simultaneously deciding the fates or actions of the players.
Perhaps it’s the (potentially illusory) choices that appeal most. Even when the players are aware that something horrible is going to happen regardless of their actions, they can still enjoy playing characters who believe that they have some say in the matter. The game becomes less about preventing the horrible thing from happening and more about mitigating the damage done, or escaping more or less intact. This would qualify as a particularly punishing form of Hard Fun, focusing on high challenge and entertaining failure modes. For example, Call of Cthulhu offers this by offering opportunities to see your character fall apart and do crazy things, while Paranoia does it with patently ridiculous circumstances which will almost certainly kill the PCs in bizarre ways.
Honestly, the concept of Hard Fun goes a long way towards explaining why people can enjoy such potentially painful experiences. But to me it also suggests that the hope for a different outcome is just as important. The players need to be able to convince themselves that their actions make a difference, even if that difference is a small one (from the perspective of their PC’s fate) and involves a great deal of struggle. Striving against a cult to prevent the summoning of an ancient god is a classic Call of Cthulhu example, with the potential that they could succeed in their mission while still dying in the end.
So. Taking a step back from the Horror genre and looking at predetermined outcomes in more general terms:
“Rocks fall, everyone dies” ends the discussion. But “rocks fall, what do you do?” could still end up being interesting. When you’ve spent the whole game hinting at how dangerous those rocks are and insinuated that there might be some desperate ploy the PCs can pursue that could stop the rocks from falling, while simultaneously offering them an (unlikely) opportunity to save their own necks… then PCs might be excited when the rocks finally come tumbling down. It’s a tricky balancing act; it’s easy to do poorly and potentially very rewarding.
Perhaps a better way to do it is to let your players know that there is a threat lurking in wait for them, and that they might be able to stop it. Harking back to that illusory choice, it helps if you can confirm their agency, even in the face of an overpowering foe. I repeat, don’t take away their agency. Even when the inevitable doom approaches the players should still feel as though they might be able to make it out if they’re very smart or very lucky. Or perhaps they should know that their choices won’t alter their own circumstances, but might make a difference for someone else. Sacrificing yourself to stop the end of the world is a heroic experience; so is sacrificing yourself to save your friends. The PC’s death might be a forgone conclusion, but so long as they have agency the player can choose to make it mean something.
Empathizing with someone in a struggle against impossible odds is part of what drives the horror genre, and predetermined outcomes are perhaps the easiest way to clearly offer impossible odds. Maybe that’s why predetermined outcomes are so often found in horror stories. But when your players are living the struggle themselves, playing those who are expected to face the impossible odds, it’s crucial to have the PCs be able to do something. Otherwise they might as well give up and die, a very different kind of horror.
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That’s one of the things I really like about Call of Cthulhu as a game system. As a player, I tend to like characters that are evenly balanced and can handle most situations reasonably well. With a game like CoC, I know that caution isn’t going to do anything for me except put more work on the GM, so I make characters that take more risks and go in wild directions. It’s a different type of game, for me. When it stops being about winning and starts being about experiencing, my goals as a player are different. My experiences with CoC are that, if you have a good GM, you don’t get to pick whether you die (or go insane) but how.
Few games can get away with this, in my opinion. The setting has to be just perfect, and the players have to know to expect the worst.
Right. I would add that it can be lots of fun to not go crazy or die too. Or rather, only go a little crazy. Playing the long descent into instability while you try to squeeze every last drop of heroic (or unheroic) potential from your character is just as fun for me.
Also, I totally agree that player goals often change in these sorts of games, and become more about experiencing, exploring, and investigating. The rewards at that point often come from role-playing interactions and a deepening sense of mystery and discovery, rather than from what we might normally call winning or losing. Winning can still feel good, of course!