A lot of roleplaying games take the possibility of failure to be a necessary element of the fun. If you know that your characters will survive, where is the tension, the anticipation? That is the argument, but it has always had an attendant problem. If a character dies permanently, that player has nothing to do in the game until she creates a new character. Thus, permanent character death is always a difficult issue, and providing possible failures in which all the characters survive is not easy.
In Kannagara, personae are very unlikely to die, because the game isn’t about those sorts of stories. However, I have been working on the basis that the personae must be able to fail. I’m now less sure about this, and I think I might change it. The change comes from thinking about my experience of line editing Ars Magica.
In Ars Magica, magi are extremely powerful wizards, even when they have just completed their training. It is hard to create opposition with a realistic chance of defeating them, whether in combat or in scheming. Magi are not just powerful, they are flexible, and they can be subtle as well as direct. This means that, in an Ars Magica scenario, the question is not usually whether the magi will be successful. Rather, it is how they will succeed. Different approaches have different consequences, and take the saga in different directions.
Structurally, this has an important benefit for the game. It means that there are almost no choices, other than the players going on strike, that bring the game to a halt. The story always continues, and not always in ways that the players would have predicted.
How would this work in Kannagara? I haven’t worked out the details yet, but I don’t think I would reduce it to simply choosing the outcome you like best. Rather, there will be a basic success, which the personae can achieve without making any effort. This would come with problems for the future, such as strained relationships or missing items. Personae would be able to remove problems and add additional benefits, by using the abilities that they have. A certain group of personae might be unable to remove a particular problem, because none of them have the necessary abilities, but that is not a problem for the game. It just means that a future story will be about the personae dealing with that problem.
Since Kannagara has no GM, the players will also be describing the situations and the problems. The problems that come with a solution make good complications; something the personae do creates the possibility of an ongoing problem, and unless they resolve it, that problem is a lasting legacy of their actions. Nevertheless, the existence of a continuing issue in no way alters the fact that the personae have succeeded in resolving the primary problem.
This structure does mean that it matters what the primary problem of a scenario is. The primary problem has to be solved, while secondary problems might remain to cause the personae trouble in the future. This may be a feature, rather than a bug, in that it may make the game easier to play if every scenario defines a central problem, and each scenario ends when its problem has been solved. In the current introductory scenario, for example, the central problem would be “we are in a kamikakushi”, and the problem is solved when the personae get out.
As I continue to develop Kannagara, I will be looking at making success assured, but its consequences variable.