Meaningful Progress

lastholo01Something I’ve been thinking about recently is the idea of an End Game Goal in roleplaying games in general, but specifically with how it can be applied successfully to Edge of the Empire or any other Star Wars roleplaying game. When I say End Game Goal I mean an overarching campaign goal, the challenge that threatens the protagonists for the entire campaign. In my experience, an end game goal acts as the glue that holds the party together and is absolutely crucial to a successful long-term campaign.

That Is Why You Fail

Over many years of running long-term, campaign-style roleplaying games, I’ve consistently had trouble with this part of game design. Only recently have I been able to break out of old habits and succeed. What I would keep doing, and I have to believe this is a pretty commonplace occurrence among game masters, would be to not have a real campaign goal, one way or another.

Sometimes this was done explicitly, with the campaign setup as an episodic mess, stringing the group through one adventure to the next. Sometimes this was done implicitly, with the campaign having a stated end goal, but then throwing that good first step away by having no clear mechanism for the players to make progress towards that goal. In either case, this would be done until everyone got bored or their schedule changed to the point where they could no longer play and/or they moved.

I can only speak for the players that I have gamed with, but those guys can only enjoy a long-term game when they feel as though their own actions, made on a known set of rules that control the game world, govern the advancement of their characters and the campaign story as a whole. Everything else is sitting helpless on the plot rails, watching the game master put on a show for you.

Level Up

A lot of people, and many of them who design roleplaying games for a living, seem to be under the notion that gaining experience points and levels is the way to meaningful progress. They glorify the crude game mechanics and ignore what’s really needed to make a lasting game. Leveling up doesn’t progress the game. If the game you’re playing does have challenges that increase as the characters’ relative power advances, then increasing numbers and gaining new abilities on a character sheet just adds more number-crunching and complexity for everyone. I can agree that a certain amount of increasing complexity is fun and desirable,  but it does nothing to actually progress the game. If your game doesn’t advance the challenges to keep pace with the player characters’ new abilities, then the challenges will quickly become so easy as to be boring and no one wants a boring game.

Meaningful Progress

That gets me into another subject, meaningful progress. When we play these campaign-style roleplaying games, we expect the game to be a series of gaming sessions of 3 or so hours each; spread out over a large number of weeks, months, or even years. Once the byzantine ruleset of any given system is mastered, however, the players can quickly grow bored as the game takes on a sense of meaninglessness. Without going too far into factors of human motivation, a subject I am quite unqualified to talk about, I feel like we can all agree with the notion that meaningful progress is a key factor in making any kind of long-term commitment feel worthwhile and a happy experience. Think about your job, your significant romantic relationships, your life as a whole. While they may all travel along at different speeds, you expect and hope for each of these long lasting events to have a certain amount of meaningful progress as you go along. Here’s some examples from my life.

Time To Get Real

I’m good at my job. I work hard, am smart, and take it very seriously. As a result; I’ve gotten promotions, raises, and praises. When I have a performance review and get a good pay bump, I feel great. The extra money is good, of course, but more than that is the feeling that I’m doing well and progressing further in this endeavor. I have forward momentum and am getting noticeably closer to the next goal: a new title, position, etc.

Now let’s look at something not so fun. For a number of both good and bad reasons, I got married when I first graduated college. I was young and stupid and scared and just didn’t know what I was doing. It didn’t last, of course, and when divorce became a reality and that fact really sunk in, I felt waves of terrible, awful feelings. Just like the example of a good raise, there were some obvious feelings here, too. In this case it was sadness, loneliness  and despair. But underneath all that was embarrassment and defeat. I was still a strapping young lad in my 20’s, but I felt as though I had regressed and wasted what could have been some really great years of my life. I had backtracked. However in truth, I was on the verge of discovery, improvement, and becoming happier than I’ve ever been. The thing that made me feel the worst was thinking about all that wasted time. I had been reaching towards some goal, perhaps a loving family, and all that “work” was now gone. I lost all of my meaningful progress.

Game Example

In the Dungeons & Dragons game I’m currently running, the campaign has an extremely shallow and obvious End Game Goal – Kill the 9 evil boss enemies (dubbed ‘dungeon lords‘) that are causing trouble for humanity. Experience points are only awarded upon the death of a dungeon lord. This plot is paper thin and has almost no details, twists, or intrigue associated with it, but it works very well. After all, I’m not trying to write the next great American novel here, I’m playing Dungeons & Dragons.

When a dungeon lord is slain, it’s a measurable and significant step towards getting to the campaign end. The players know this very well and they feel accomplished, having gotten 1/9th the way closer to ultimate success and a step higher on the complexity scale of their character’s abilities. They know that this won’t be a deus ex machina scenario, there won’t be a far great evil behind the one they defeated, or any other nonsense. The game will end, and if the players are smart about how they play, it will end with their victory. Maybe other game masters are afraid of defining these kinds of boundaries in their game worlds? If that’s the case, they’re only setting up their works to be dragged out in unending boredom, declining membership as real life changes the players’ schedules, and a campaign that withers and dies instead of concluded in a timely and satisfying manner. We’re about halfway through the D&D campaign and it’s looking like this will last a few more months. Everyone at the table can see the progress made during our sessions, and we can envision what the ending will be like. The light is at the end of the tunnel and they grow increasingly excited to get to the end. We’re all having the best gaming of our lives and it’s only getting better.

Back to Star Wars …

So how this all ties into Edge of the Empire or any long-term roleplaying game is the need for the often overlooked End Game Goal with a clear means for the players to make meaningful progress towards that goal. Obligation came to mind, with its nicely laid out mechanics for distributing penalties when too high and readily available means to clear away. However, my feeling is that Obligation never really goes away in an Edge of the Empire game. It’s always lingering around, always causing trouble, and more importantly, is certainly not the focus of the game’s story. It’s the frustrating twist and added challenge that causes so much angst to the Crew when they’re trying to pull off their latest Heist. Speaking of H is for Heists, they aren’t very good material for creating End Game Goals either. Unless of course your End Game Goal is the simple acquisition of wealth, but that feels hollow and dissatisfying to me. No, Heists are a means to an end, a way for the Crew to fund the means to their true goal, and to introduce interesting detours and break up the usual march towards the finish line.

Solution

art by Ralph McQuarrie

art by Ralph McQuarrie

What Edge of the Empire needs is something akin to Destiny as portrayed in the Star Wars Saga Edition roleplaying game (SWSE); with the capacity for abuse removed, but with enough mechanical support so that the players always feel as that their advancement in the game is their own providence and not the fickle whim of the Galaxy Master. The guys that I game with aren’t stupid and like to win. Anything that goes on in my games needs to take that into account, needs to adhere to the rigors of mathematical analysis and Game Theory, and cannot ask them to make a suboptimal choice in the name of the Galaxy Master’s story.

The next blog post, D is for Destiny, will tie into this discussion by presenting a Galaxy Master designed, mechanically-supported means of driving the stories of the player characters towards a satisfying campaign conclusion.

About C. Steven Ross

C. Steven Ross is the founder of Triumph & Despair. View all posts by C. Steven Ross

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