No matter how roleplaying heavy or interactive a game is, it usually contains conflict that the characters engage in. I can’t remember ever having played in a game where there was no challenge for the characters to overcome. Even in the most non-combat oriented games I’ve played in or run, there imagewas something for the characters to set themselves against. In a game of Bunnies & Burrows that had no combat, we had a food shortage and pilgrimage that needed to be undertaken and played out. What I’m  getting at is this: Every game you play is going to involve Win Scenarios. More than just the goal of the party, a Win Scenario is what happens when the characters overcome a challenge and get a sense of success. In my next sentence, I’m going to be that dick who makes a generalized statement that is full of logical holds in order to prove a point.

If you think you know all of the Win Scenarios your game has, you are missing out on a lot of places where you could be enabling player fun.

Sure, the Win Scenarios for a game seem pretty obvious when you are the Game Master. You probably even have them written down in your notes as party goals or things the group needs to do to succeed. They probably seem like simple, easy to define things about your campaign, such as:

  • Beat The Big Bad Evil Guy
  • Retrieve The Stolen Artifact

Maybe you break them down even farther into chapter goals like:

  • Get Into The Castle
  • Retrieve The Information From The Evil Corporation’s Database
  • Acquire A Spaceship At The End of The Third Session

And maybe you even think of player and character goals as Win Scenarios that need to be enabled. Things like:

  • Make Sure That Gatran Is Able To Find His Kidnapped Sister
  • Incorporate An Assassin’s Guild For Jeff’s Character To Take Over

These are all Win Scenarios, but thinking of a Win Scenario like this is missing the point and might make you gloss over hundreds of better ones in each game.

A Win Scenario really boils down to just one thing. It makes the player FEEL successful.

The word feel is important and it conveys a lot about this particular paradigm. Win Scenarios are anything that gives the players a sense of achievement. It might not change the game or provide a reward in the traditional sense, and it might  not get them any closer to their main goal. However, if the player feels they’ve come out on top or gained something from the situation, then it is a Win Scenario.

Making The Most Of Win Scenarios

At this point, you might be thinking that good ol’ John has lost it a bit. Of course anything that the player accomplishes can be a Win Scenario. Beating down the monsters is a Win Scenario, or making a roll and successfully bypassing a challenge is one. Well, duh. There are a lot of moments that go on in games that can be so much more fulfilling than that though. Mechanical aspects of a game are just that. They are mechanical. They are achieved by dice rolling and character building, not necessarily the player engaging in the game. Let me throw some examples out there to make this concept clear:

  • One player engaged an obviously pathetic goblin captain in dialogue for 8 minutes real time, just so he could trick the captain’s gun away from him and start combat on his terms. The group knew they outclassed the encounter, but the player wanted to exercise his idea and use his talking skills. I went along with it, the goblin captain got iced because of the player’s trickery, and everyone had a blast. The player got to engage his character’s abilities to gain one small advantage, but that made all the difference in the fun level for that player.
  • Another player decided his character wasn’t going with the group to try to get information from a contact. Instead, he was going drinking at the bar and trying to cause a distraction. In doing so, he kept hinting that his character got progressively drunker and louder, wanting free drinks. While this had no impact on the events going on elsewhere (the distraction being unnecessary by the way the other players were handling it), I made sure to play out the bartender cowering and ceding to the character’s requests. The character spent most of the rest of the game carrying around his free bottles of booze and crying when they were broken in subsequent combats. This didn’t change or help the group get info from the contact, and it didn’t even help or hinder the overall goal. It did give the player an element to build into his character, something he had more fun with than kicking ass in combat.
  • In one game I ran, I had a young kid NPC who was meant to get attached to the party and be killed as a way of building up their outrage at the BBEG. In the scenario where the kid was going to die, the players realized this and fought tooth and nail to prevent it from happening. One player kept having his character jump in front of the damage, nearly killing himself to save the kid. To be clear, the character was a selfish thief with no moral implications or roleplaying hooks that would make him the self sacrificing type.  The group tried everything and were really invested in saving the NPC, so in the end I made sure they were successful. The group adopted him and kept him around until the final fight with the BBEG, where they sent him back to his village where he would be safe. The group decided that their non tangible connection to the throw away character that they had known for four hours in game time was more important than character death.

Find Out What Win Scenario The Players Want And Make It Happen
Win Scenarios can be pre scripted events or success over mechanical situations, but they can also grow organically in response to the players’ actions. As the Game Master, you should keep your eyes open for situations that could provide incredible Win Scenarios. When you find one, you should ask yourself two things. First, what does the player seem to want to get out of this? Second, can I make that happen without seeming like I’m giving it away?

Remember, a Win Scenario still relies on overcoming a challenge. Whether the player is giving you subtle hints about their desired outcome by how engaged they are in the situation, or whether the situation is pre-scripted with an easy to determine Win Scenario, it relies on their being some challenge that is overcome.

I’m sure that this felt like common sense to a lot of you, but what you do think about Win Scenarios? Do you have any examples of unexpected situations that ended in Win Scenarios that the players really felt great about? What did you do to facilitate those situations?

12 replies
  1. Riklurt
    Riklurt says:

    This is an article worthy of thought. I think I understand what you mean, and I think this situation from my latest Big Eyes Small Mouth game is an example of an unexpected win scenario:

    A PC challenged a far, far superior opponent to a duel because of conflicting religious beliefs. The PC was tolerant and open-minded, but the opponent was quite hidebound. I had no idea where the player was going with it, but I ran the duel nonetheless, warning the player that this duel would basically mean suicide. He insisted on going on with it.

    A short battle ensued in which the PC was pretty quickly beaten to a pulp, and then just as the opponent was going to finish him off, he dropped to his knees and essentially declared that “If you truly believe I’m evil, then kill me. But I don’t think you do.”

    He lost the duel, of course, but the enemy spared his life. The player was more satisfied than I’d ever seen him be in the entire campaign, because he’d managed to get one of the main bad guys to doubt his beliefs. That was a win scenario that would have gone to waste if I hadn’t been able to pick up the players’ cues.

  2. Hawkesong
    Hawkesong says:

    But what if your players don’t give you cues? I’ve had problems with Win Scenarios before. One of my most perplexing problems as a GM came when the PCs were about to storm the castle of the BBEG. There was a segment just before that, where the group had to travel through strange and dangerous lands. Three of the PCs had obtained strange relic type items, which according to divinations and visions, would help them defeat the BBEG.
    One of the players who didn’t have a relic, came to me out of game and flat out asked why she didn’t have one. Most of the reason was that she had no patron deity, and I told her this, and she made it clear that she felt that was unfair, and that she would have much more fun if she had the chance to acquire a relic too.
    I wasn’t too sure about this, but I felt that I had an opportunity to let her try for one, and planned out a short scenario.
    Her character failed to talk to the party, however, and wandered off into her side quest without so much as a “Hey, I see something shiny over there, I’m gonna check it out.”

    She got her relic, in the end, but the rest of the group was very irate; plus, the player who wanted all this in the first place got no enjoyment out of it at all.

    I’m not talking about a case where her fun was killed by the group’s reaction – she laughed that off without a problem. But her reactions during the sequence I’d written for her…were blah. She showed no more enthusiasm or excitement for that scenario than she had for any other part of the game.

    This player left our group not long after this, basically sailing off into the sunset in her very own pirate ship…and then never followed through on plans she’d made with me to continue this character’s adventures. I can only conclude that she was terribly bored by my game.

    I can’t understand what I missed, though. So what do you do when the players are like that?

  3. John Arcadian
    John Arcadian says:

    @Riklurt – That sounds awesome. Organically generated Win Scenarios can be hard when your players are less engaged in the game, but it sounds like you picked up on his cues and knocked that one out of the park.

    @Hawkesong – The situation you describe is a hard one. From a complete outsider perspective, it seems like that the player felt left out and merely wanted to get the same thing everyone else had. However, it didn’t seem like she was that interested in group cohesion or being involved. I’d suspect it was more that she wasn’t that into the game, but you shouldn’t think that is because you ran a bad game. Sometimes the player just doesn’t mesh with the group or isn’t interested in the game, no matter how much fun the rest of the group is having. Back in college I had one player like that. He didn’t really want to be playing, but he didn’t have anything else to do and didn’t want to be left out.

    If you haven’t read it, I’d suggest checking out Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering. I’ve had this book on my shelves for years, and it is one of the best GMing books there is. It dissects player types and how to make a game fit multiple different types of players who have different methods of fun.

  4. MonsterMike
    MonsterMike says:

    Thanks for this article – excellent mind fodder.

    In my current PBP game, one of my PC’s displayed a sudden change of alignment and broke away from the rest of the delving group. While the rest of the party was basically pursuing the stated major and minor objectives of the adventure, this player clearly wanted something different for his character.

    We had a good discussion in the backchannel that basically started with me asking “What is success for your character?” This discussion led to a much more interesting and interactive adventure with a lot of pieces in play at the same time.

    While we’re on the topic of win scenarios, I would also like to hear something sometime in the future of how to deliver setbacks to your player party. There has been a real shift in gamer/GM mindsets over the decades away from “Expect a TPK” to “Let the dice decide” to “The players always succeed”. Yet sometimes it is helpful for the purposes of good epic storytelling to the party to suffer a setback – to lose, to have to run away, to fail at something, or to realize they are not strong enough yet to take on the BBEG.

    I would like to hear some advice in the future on how to handle these scenarios without discouraging players that are accustomed to always winning.

  5. TwoShedsJackson
    TwoShedsJackson says:

    “Winning” is the mirror twin of “Roleplaying”. What I achieve vs. what I am. In a good session, players will gain pleasure from both. The difficulty is in determining what your players consider to be the essence of achievement or being for their characters.

    For example, a Goliath Fighter (with a little help from some other no-account adventurers) saves a village from evil bandit raiders. To the player of the Goliath, is the essence of victory a) the battle itself, b) the heartfelt thanks of the villagers, c) getting free drinks at the tavern, d) the local magistrate rescinding the “kill on sight” order against Goliaths, or e) having a local amateur bard compose and sing a song about “The brave tall hero from stony plains and ice”?

    Maybe there ought to be a personality test — like the ones used for character generation in the Elder Scrolls CRPGs — that DMs could use to gain an understanding of how players view their characters.

  6. Patrick Benson
    Patrick Benson says:

    Overall a solid article, but I do not agree with the “make it happen” aspect. Set the stage for the player’s objectives to be achieved and then put the challenges in with a 50/50 chance (adjusted as needed) for the players to win. The players should be the ones to make it happen, and not the GM. Just my two bits.

  7. Necrognomicon
    Necrognomicon says:

    “I won Dungeons & Dragons…and it was Advanced!” – Pierce Hawthorne

    Rather than redefine the term ‘Win Scenario’ to include whatever “makes the player _feel_ successful” why not stop using it altogether? If it’s going to be an I’m-OK-You’re-OK lovefest, why call it winning?

    Frankly, setting the stage for creative problem-solving is an art that doesn’t need to be shoehorned into the concepts of winning and losing. Part of the reason I started playing RPGs in the first place was that they moved away from these ideas.

  8. Nephlm
    Nephlm says:

    In my homebrew system the players get to spend metagame currency to create quests. Accomplishing those quests is how they gain xp. This has the effect of me not having to read the tea leaves and divine what my players care about in the game, they are able to align their player rewards with the character rewards and very explicitly relay to me what they want to accomplish.

    Since it takes a currency to gain a quest, there are only a few quests created each session, so they don’t get to diluted.

  9. Rafe
    Rafe says:

    I use win scenarios all the time, but I should specify that I do so in Burning Wheel: My player really wants to find a sword master (I know this — it’s his first Belief and he’s driving it). He will find one, period. No worries there. He doesn’t know that, though (or I might tell him — doesn’t matter in BW). However, the trip could be winding and difficult, full of danger and with plenty of turns. That depends on him, his rolls, how he goes about it, etc. He might not find a master where he thought. At the end, however, he WILL find one.

    Some situations cannot be win scenarios, for reasons Patrick laid out (and which I agree with). The real issue is with players realizing that you are setting them up for success. I would argue counter to what was stated in the article: instead of FEELING like they have a chance, they should FFEL that there’s also a chance they’ll lose. Without that risk, there’s no real reward. Players prefer to play with something at stake. A promised reward is meh.

  10. baakyocalder
    baakyocalder says:

    I try to ensure that all players in my games have ‘win scenarios’ for their characters by asking them. If they are feasible, I make those opportunities available.

    I say opportunities, because guaranteed victory ruins the game. There’s a chance to win and a chance to lose, but I’m fair in setting up those options.

    The most interesting win scenario came from a HackMaster player who choose to interpret his character’s insanities into the backstory of being a polymorphed dragon. That character played for several years before achieving his goal: returning to his draconic nature with full powers as a cleric.

    Many excellent roleplaying moments came out of nurturing that goal and providing challenges to overcome in pursuit of it.

    I rarely play, but when I do, I make my PC’s goals clear. My current character, a thief in HackMaster Basic, plans on destroying a major temple of the deity of disease, Mangrus. He also plans to rebuild his tribe. Both of these goals give the GM a lot of opportunity to develop plot. . .

  11. antonatsis
    antonatsis says:

    well it depends on what the win scenario in my last session my players did some things that will eventually lead an entire thieves guild to hunt them down and their reaction was not the one i was expecting for once our battle-rager said “f@ck yeah we are not playing some random people not but some people that an entire thieve guild will hunt down till the end hell we will even get wanted posters” and it was weird because all of them were happy about those turns of events.what i want to say is that sometimes the best a DM/GM have to do is to observer his players and the way they play and let them decide the win scenario of course this needs the GM to improvise and ad some things that he didn’t plan in his game but hey its a game and we play it to have fun!
    (sorry for my lousy English not a native speaker so bear with me)

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