So you're reading a book, right? And there's this character who's cute and engaging and he's had some hard lumps so far, and in the part that you're reading, things are finally turning his way and it looks like he's getting a brief little spot of sunlight. And you think to yourself, oh, I hope that he's going to get to be happy for just a little bit; I hope that nothing goes wrong to spoil it. And of course, since it's a story, something does go wrong. Something has to go wrong. In fact, things have to keep going wrong on a regular basis or else the story will just dissolve into rainbows and bunny rabbits. And you know this. It's lurking in the back of your mind that it can't last, and you want to hope but you know that you shouldn't, cause sure enough, something comes out of the bushes and screws up everything even more for the character. And when that little hope is crushed, you aren't really that disappointed, cause you knew it was coming. Right? Okay, remember that bit.
So you're volunteering as a Big Brother, right? And your charge is this thirteen-year-old punk kid who's had the world piss on his head for thirteen straight years, who's never had the least breath of opportunity, has been outside the city sprawl maybe three times in his entire life, if ever. But he's got a thing for octopuses -- who the hell knows where he got that from -- and so you're taking him on a road trip to the aquarium upstate. And you think to yourself, oh, I hope he enjoys this, I hope he gets engaged and wants to learn more and sees that there's more to the world than canyons made of grey buildings, and I hope nothing goes wrong like a flat tire or some punk kids to distract him or whatever else could happen to ruin everything. And you take precautions and you plan appropriately and since I'm not being a cynical bastard for five minutes today you have a fifty-fifty chance that this might be a day that changes the rest of his entire life. So you hope, and when everything goes off without a hitch, you're elated; and when everything crashes down around your ears you're crushed, really and truly disappointed. Right? File that away, too.
Now you're playing a game. You've got your character, who's down on his hit points and luck points and sanity points and the situation is pulling him apart from five different directions. And he stumbles into the underground chamber with the lava flows and the giant demonic idol and the evil sorcerer, and the girl is chained down on the altar, and his father is listening in over the radio connection, and the demon lord that tormented him his whole life is about to be brought into the real world. And you think to yourself I hope he can do this, I hope he makes it, I hope his hit points and luck points and sanity points can stretch that far. And the dice are rolled and... he doesn't. The girl is killed, the demon lord is summoned, and dad always knew you couldn't do it. That hope you harbored for your character is crushed, but are you disappointed?
Is it like the story, where you knew things were going to get worse, so now you're looking forward to fighting the demon lord and contacting to the girl's ghost and arguing with dad?
Or is it like the aquarium, where this mattered and now the thought of going forward seems like just pushing the ashes around?
But wait wait -- go back to the lava and the demons and the last couple of hit points again. You roll the dice and he does it! And he saves the girl, banishes the demon, and wins the approval of dear old dad. Are you disappointed here? Is it like the story, and since everything is resolved now it's over? Or is it like the aquarium, and now everything is possible?
My wife, for whom I wrote Full Light, Full Steam, hates what the dice system in Dogs in the Vineyard does to the story. In her words, "You say all the right things and pull out the Book and the sacred earth and you pray and you use all the skill available to you, but now there's a demon floating around in the room. Can something else go wrong?" For her, it's the aquarium. She's invested. (And with every Raise and every See, she's invested even more.) She hopes that it will turn out right, and when she hopes that it will turn out right, she really and truly hopes that, she really wants to see that happen. She doesn't want to see it reversed at the last minute, defeat snatched from the jaws of victory, no matter how clever the reversal might be. She's all about Bad Things happening after that, in the next episode or in the next room or whatever, but right here and right now, she desperately hopes things will work out all right. Her investment is in that hope, and when her hope is crushed, it destroys her investment in the story. This is why FLFS has one-roll conflict resolution with counterstakes: she knows what she's getting into, and it's set up and resolved before she can invest so much that she can't bear to lose her stakes. And then we move on to the next Bad Thing.
Me, I like to hurt things. I like to hurt my characters, I like to hurt the NPCs, I like to hurt the setting. Brand once told me about a planned campaign arc that we never got to finish, where my character was going to be given the Red Button, and the choice whether to let the world erode into mediocrity or blow it sky-high and let the mutants and the bunker-psychos fight it out to rebuild civilization. Lemme tell you, I would have been all about pushing the button. Similarly, I love me the Battlestar Galactica, where nothing ever goes right, and every two steps forward is accompanied by one step back and losing a limb. When I watched Jurassic Park, I laughed every time a dinosaur jumped out at the characters. I am invested in character suffering. Hope is merely a sort of spice that makes the suffering all the tastier. The only Nobilis character I ever made, but didn't quite play, was the Power of Hope, and she followed the Code of Darkness, intent on crushing humanity. So that's where I stand.
Now, the last thing that gaming needs is one more reductive duality, and so I'm not going to say "There's two kinds of gamers in the world." Because really, for the purposes of this article and my current thinking, there's two kinds of gamers in my house. But I think there's something in here -- somewhere -- that's useful. This isn't a creative agenda thing; it's like creative agenda's cousin. Do you want things to go well for your character, or to go poorly? It's sort of a strange question, but I think the answers may tell us a great deal about the players who put real thought into the answering.