This may be an unusual topic for Mythopoeic Monday, but it's what I've had on my mind and what I have in the greater state of readiness. I have been thinking about my recently closed first poll. The outcomes were as below:
What are the win conditions for an RPG?
There are none by definition.
They are determined by the Players alone.
They are determined by the GM alone.
They are determined by the GM & Players together.
They are dictated by story logic.
The sampling wasn't as large as I had hoped, but it was interesting to watch it unfold. For most of the week, Determined by GM & Players was ahead, but in the final hours, No Conditions by Definition pulled ahead. Story Logic made a decent showing. Very few went for Populism and even less went for GM Tyranny. It may be that I needed to include two more options: 1) Having Fun and 2) Provided by Game Designers/Adventure Writers. I'll think about that some more in case I ever try to repeat it. Here's my take on the controversy.
First, it seems clear to me that a distinction needs to be made between In-Game and Out-of-Game candidates for victory conditions. Examples of Out-of-Game candidates are: having fun, filling a certain period of time, doing something with a certain group of people, or beating the referee/players. Besides being OoG, they are all have something else in common: they have nothing to do with RPGs per se. We could be playing golf, football, or chess and doing any of these. For most of these,we might not even be playing a game. This is my problem with the supposed goal of having fun. It's not specific enough. Why having fun playing an RPG? What kind of fun is that? It's like saying the purpose of life is to be happy and then trying to get a conversation going between Stalin, Steve Jobs, and Mother Teresa about it. It's a broad truth that needs to be applied to the case at hand: What does choosing to have fun by playing a RPG mean? What is achieved or enacted by a RPG that supplies the conditions for fun? Once one has realized that OoG candidates are not helpful getting at the essence of what an RPG is, we move on to In-Game candidates.
We could try to give general candidates, or classes of candidates for RPG victory conditions: Defeat opponents, kill monsters, loot treasures, survive, explore dungeons or wilderness. These broad classes bring to mind the fact that other games (and for that matter, other activities that are not games) that are not role-playing share these conditions of success. Specific examples of In-Game candidates are successfully returning to Waterdeep, retrieving the three legendary weapons of White Plume Mountain, killing all the orcs in the caves outside of town and taking their treasure, saving the princess from political machinations in her court, or stopping the return of the evil Runelord. These are specific to role-playing and could not be mistaken for anything else -- except for plot elements (because RPGs and narrative share the element of characters). They follow Gygax's insistence that role-playing is more than role assumption.
All of these examples indicate that playing an RPG is a way of having fun by doing something else, and this something else is related to goals. When gamers talk about their games -- which they are known to do at length and with gusto -- they talk foremost about things attempted that either resulted in success or failure. In other words, they have a conversation in relation to goals. Are there any goals not covered by these examples? Say a GM says, "This Halloween, I wanted a game that would scare my players." Not specific enough, I counter -- somethings are left unstated here. The GM is not going to scare the players by jumping out of the bushes at them while they wait for him to answer the door and thus consider his goal met. The GM wants to scare the players through the imaginative situations that he creates for their characters. The characters are scared to the extent that they identify with those character and play those roles. Those situations are characterized by specifics that fit the pattern of examples above.
While you can talk about many if not all of those goals in external, OoG, terms, (say, killing 20 orcs and getting XP and GP, which could happen on a computer or game console, or could be special targets at the shooting range), they may also be discussed in terms that the character played would recognize: "We killed the band of orcs of the Black Tusk, saving the traders of Marketville from ruin and collecting the reward. The combat practice seems to being paying off as well, so we are raring for our next heroic endeavors." The game is fun because characters are played towards certain goals, and the specific goals comprise the game in question. While fun is not strictly equivalent to the meeting of these goals, it is had in playing toward them.
It is probably clear by now that I regard the best answer to the poll as "Determined by the GM and Players together." When people insist that RPGs have no victory conditions by definition, I find such a blanket assertion to ring false. Now, if they specify, "per se," then of course I agree with them. That is exactly what makes RPGs special: they don't specify victory conditions, the players do. Now, someone might bring up a game that I find interesting, like Kagematsu. But as much as I'd like to give this game a try, by Gary's lights, this is a game of role assumption (wandering samurai or women of the village trying to get him to protect the village and the one who secures the samurai's services wins), and I agree. The roles, actions, and victory conditions are all much more constricted. In an RPG like D&D (at least, the versions of D&D I know anything about), there is much more freedom, and consequently, you more fully enter the character in play and you play that character towards the goals you decide. Of course, you don't play by yourself, and so there are compromises between the players to work together and with the GM who is facilitating the players' fun but, naturally, has certain goals of his or her own to be considered. The mutual achievement of these goals through play in ways that are surprising, and occasionally enjoying striving towards those goals even in the face of failure (which eliminates characters but does not, as in life, eliminate the players) is the stuff of RPGs. You might argue that you enjoy other games you play even when you lose, but there is a difference: you lose. In an RPG, when a character loses its life or fails to achieve its goals, the player may have succeeded in playing that character towards those goals, and thereby you still win.
The only other candidates left are Story Logic and Game Designers/Adventure Writers. Perhaps there is a certain amount of story logic that is emergent, but it emerges out of player and GM choices. This may be true to a lesser extent if you are using published materials, but even then, the group chooses the material in question. As long as the design or scenario does not circumscribe the gamers too tightly -- or perhaps it is better to say against their , they are still role-playing and not merely role-assuming. The choices of the gamers together is the most significant characteristic of role-playing. And thus, the best answer to the question of a RPG's win conditions is that the GM and players together determine the conditions and bring them into existence to greater and lesser degrees in-game.