The Bright Side of Play-to-Win

Last week’s blog started a lot of arguments on the internet and, while I stand by my words, there was a strong sentiment that I was railing against all players who have a play-to-win style. So, I sat down and thought about the people in my community who fall into the ‘play-to-win’ category, people who I genuinely enjoy gaming and telling stories with on a routine basis. I even reached out to the greater community in requesting a defense or more blogs about how to do play-to-win in a healthy manner. Lastly, I simply talked to a lot of my friends who are win oriented to get their views on why this style is a healthy, supportive part of our community. While no one wrote a strong blog fully advocating the play-to-win style, I had a lot of enlightening conversations. Therefore, this week I am going to discuss what advantages play-to-win players bring to our greater community and how it can be done in healthy, holistic ways. The wonderful things play-to-win style gamers do are as follows:

Make Systems Better: A week does not go by that I’m not relying on my more mechanically minded friends to help new players build character sheets, do a rules rewrite, or explain why certain rules are written in certain ways. Because of these players, our game mechanics are getting better every passing day. They see not just how game progression might end up damaging play, but the best ways to equalize progression across different classes and playstyles. So, while all your players might not be oriented for the top of most mechanical trees, the players that are (when they do it respectfully and work with the staff) make the game better for EVERYONE around them. However, this requires that the player communicate with the staff; they need to be open about the things they find which are broken and help coach us when we don’t see why certain things should be rewritten for game balance.

Open Plot Doors: Because of certain groups of players who have intensely focused goals where mechanics and plot are considered, I’ve been able to open certain storylines that might have taken forever to achieve or had to be seeded into the world by an NPC. It’s far more interesting when intensely driven player accomplishment can open major plot goals and have wider reaching effects across the entire game. This play style is immensely healthy when it is done by creative, driven players determined to explore every angle of a certain aspect of the game. This is a game enhancing style as long as those players, once they have reached the top, share what they have learned and help spread that plot to others. It only becomes unhealthy when those players are hoarding all that knowledge and force others out of exploring the same area. I’ve rarely seen true play-to-win gamers do that, when they were actually interested in the game and community around them.

Lead by Example: Sometimes there are mechanics, play categories, or plots which are a little more complicated than many gamers care to dip their toes into pursuing. When a play-to-win gamer gets their hands on something like this, they set an excellent example for others to follow who might be interested but don’t know where to start. They then become a resource to other gamers around them and to the staff to learn how we can better explain difficult play concepts to the game on the whole. The best example I have of this is in Dead Legends, we have an aspect of the game called Allegiance. It’s the spy versus spy and intrigue game which is necessary and important to our political world, but many players find it to be opaque and aren’t sure how to get their foot in the door. We have a player who has been the textbook example of what it is to play this aspect of the game well. Not only has he been able to help teach people through his in game actions, but he wrote a blog post for staff to better explain it to other players. Because of his winning in this aspect of the game, the greater community has been enhanced on the whole.

Keep Things Balanced: It’s no surprise to anyone that I play many games where ‘Play to Lose’ or ‘Play to Lift’ are the predominant styles. However, if everyone around is playing to lose/lift, there is no one actually trying to pursue the win. A game where everyone is failing constantly not only can become stagnant, but it also gets f*cking depressing. As much as you need the losses to make the victories worthwhile, you need the victories and the winners to make the failures all the more tragic. As a tragic player, seeing the people ‘winning’ around me, living ‘happy lives’ and being ‘successful’ as characters makes my own generally tragic story all the MORE INTERESTING. It gives me story to play off of and wonder, in character, why my character cannot get it right too.

Rally the Troops: Any story needs leaders. A game needs strong front runners who are able to command and organize on the ground. Whether this is a game where there are actual battles, political struggles, or emotional dynamics, if there is not a player in the room who is willing to step up and take the lead, the action of an entire game will flounder. A good play-to-win player will step forward in those moments, help drive the action, and knows how to pull in other players on their coat tails as they drive story forward. Once more, it’s important that these players do their best not to be driving forward ALONE, but play-to-win gamers can make some of the most inspiring leaders in a story.

In short, when play-to-win is done in a healthy fashion, it makes a vital contribution to any gaming community. When I thought long and hard about it, I could not imagine our community without those players who are always driving for the next win, the higher level, and the stronger command. They have helped lift my own story in ways I’d have never pursued just wallowing in the tragedies I enjoy.

However, doing it in healthy ways is important to examine. When play-to-win becomes hoarding plot, props, or power away from others at all costs, it isn’t supportive to the general community. When communication breaks down between win-driven players and the staff above them, frustrations can abound. Both Shoshana Kessock and Craig Page wrote wonderful responses to my blog last week, which I’d like to share here for deeper views into healthy ways to play-to-win. Shoshana’s explores communication and motivations in this style of gaming and can be found here: Craig’s blog concentrates on the importance between separating player vs character in this style of play, and how that promotes healthy play-to-win habits:


3 thoughts on “The Bright Side of Play-to-Win

  1. Michelle Stagnitta says:

    I’ve generally considered myself a play to win sort, and have kind of felt like I didn’t have a good way to articulate my stance on all of this.

    But it’s not play to win Nerdball. Is having lots of spells or high damage an accomplishment? Eh, I guess. It’s nice to do, sure. But that’s not the win. That’s what let’s me do more stuff. The win is the story goal. If I’m playing my medieval goody goody knight, winning is getting the evil-doer and serving her subjects and saving the world… again. If I’m playing my post Civil-War era surgeon, winning is curing a disease or saving someone’s life or coming up with a medical breakthrough.

    But Frisco said it best – winning means NOTHING if there’s no chance of losing. The losses matter just as much as the wins. And if I lose, I lose. Sure, sometimes those losses really hurt. But I never want to play a game where I always win.

    Re: Rally the troops – this is a big one and it has a lot to do with player agency and morale. As someone who is often in this role, your players rallying to achieve something means they CARE about that something. They’re engaged in your story and it matters to them to reach that goal.

    As ST’s we often get frustrated if players don’t engage with the stories we put out. Play to win types are the ones that are most likely to sink their teeth into stories and take that initiative. The ones who are ALSO play to lift will bring others along with them. The two don’t have to be mutually exclusive.


  2. Adam Wunker says:

    I think the real reason Play-to-Win is essential is made clear by taking your points further: play to win makes the best story because in a LARP the best stories are the ones where two players are in conflict.

    A piece of advice that I was given as an ST years ago (and that I’m not sure I ever really did a good job of following) is that when you are running a table-top game the characters all get to be the heroes, because the NPCs can be all of the antagonists you need – everyone can win, and the group sitting around the table is happy. In a LARP you can’t make an interesting story purely based on NPC antagonists. You need to give the players a reason to be at odds. And when players are at odds, you get the most dramatic tension, the most excitement, and the greatest losses, when the conflicts are real, and not being stacked or thrown.

    A game where every fight’s outcome is negotiated is like pro wrestling – it can make a great story, and is often spectacular, but the level of tension, of uncertainty, will never be as great. Playing to win is like MMA – it’s more brutal though still clearly structured, and there’s a level of reality to it that no amount of imitation or fabrication can match. And sometimes it’s less amazing – fighters don’t climb onto the turnbuckle to leap through the air at their opponents – but you know at the end of the fight that the winner is the winner because they earned it, and that makes the win itself more valuable.

    Returning to the LARP side, we can create incredible stories, fantastic scenes, where the outcome has been carefully negotiated in one way or another. Some of those scenes have been among my favourite scenes that I’ve played out – everyone getting what they need for their character to develop, whether that is a win, a loss, or just a compromise that moves the story forward. But I never finish one of those scenes with the shakes of adrenaline withdrawal, with a feeling like I’ve survived something.


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