“I bleed and take another action.”

There is a kind of magic in sacrifice.

No, I don’t mean literal magical sacrifices with babies and goats and stuff like that.[1] I’m talking about taking one for the team to bring said team that much closer to victory. That kind of thing earns mad respect, right?

You see this in all kinds of media — the guy who grimly deals with all the horrible stuff happening to him and voluntarily takes on more pain because it’s the only way to win — in film, Harrison Ford basically made a career out of it; Bruce Willis too, for that matter. In fiction, you’ve got your Frodos and Sams, your Celanawes.[2] In gaming, you’ve the Grey Wardens (Dragon Age), the Mouse Guard (Mouse Guard), or the game I stole this post title from, Shadows Over Camelot.

I’ve talked about Shadows Over Camelot before, so I’m not going to rehash the gameplay, and really this isn’t about the gameplay except for one small part of it.

SOC is a game where you work with the other players cooperatively against the game itself (yes, there’s a chance that there’s a traitor in your midst, but that doesn’t change the basic framework). During each person’s turn, something bad happens, and then you do something good. Something heroic. Just one thing.

However, if you choose to, you can take an additional action on your turn.

All you gotta do is bleed.

You’ve got a few life points (default is 4) and if you take a hit to that score (which, at our table, is referred to as “bleeding”), you can take another action.

We played this game this weekend, and I observed something during play that I’ve seen every single other time we’ve played — a grunt of acknowledgement and appreciation when someone chooses to do this. A respectful primate chest-thumping, if you will.

Strategically, there are good and bad times to do this — it’s pointless just to get around the board more quickly, but if you can join a quest and then ‘bleed’ to save said quest from failure (good) or complete it (better), well… you’re awesome. That particular game is, to me, very much about those kinds of sacrifices and hard choices — where do I fight when there are seven fronts in the assault on Camelot? Whom do I help? What should I save?

And you know what? Something else I’ve noticed is that some people really don’t like that game.

Now, I like games where I can lose. It would be really easy to make a cooperative game like Shadows Over Camelot that is, once you grok the rules, easy to win — I’ve heard there are games like that on the market. I wouldn’t consider that a good investment of either time or money, frankly, because in the time it takes to play a game like that, I could play something else where the outcome isn’t a foregone conclusion.

So part of the dislike is the fact that the game can be lost by everyone at the table – that no one might win? Maybe.

However, more than games I can lose, I like games where I have to bleed to win – where I have to weaken myself to strengthen The Cause. In the most recent SoC game, I was the traitor, and I still found myself bleeding (ostensibly) for the cause, simply because I find that compelling as a player.

I wonder if that’s part of the thing people don’t like about such games, because there ARE people who don’t like such games. Or movies. Or stories. Mouse Guard is a very heroic game to me, but it’s not heroic in a “super” sense where you’re all shiny and victorious and never really get touched by the dirt of the world; it’s heroic because the characters suffer — get hurt, get tired, get angry, get pneumonia — and keep struggling toward their goal anyway — they are little mice in a Great Big World That Will Eat Them, and still they battle on.

"This ends in death."

Just writing that gives me goosebumps — that’s how much I like it. When you can play a game like that and win? Oh man, the grin on my face (while my character cradles his broken arm and hobbles along on a crutch).

But I’ve played with no small number of people who find the whole Mouse Guard-like experience terribly frustrating — that you might win the day and be worse off, personally, than if you’d just stayed out of it? Grrrrrrr.

For me, it’s magical, that they struggle on in the face of such adversity.

That the knights continue to strive for Camelot even though Camelot is (we know) ultimately doomed (and, sometimes, doomed within the scope of the game we’re playing).

That the Wardens do what they do, knowing the price they pay.

That kind of stuff is pure magic. For me. It’s something I’m always pleased to find in a story, or movie, or game.

So much so that I have a hard time seeing when it’s not fun for someone else.

Or even, after the fact, figuring out why.

[1] Seriously, though: why goats? Who cares? Why not sacrifice a finger? If I were a blood-craving deity, I’d give mad props to the priest that needed my attention so badly he voluntarily went Frodo Of The Nine Fingers for me.

[2] You know, I was trying to think of an example of this kind of behavior in the most recent book I read – Until They are Hanged – and it’s not there to be found. The series is kind of noir fantasy, and that kind of self-sacrificing behavior just… wouldn’t quite fit. Which isn’t to say that people don’t bleed for a cause – they totally do – but they don’t manfully say “I’ll take this hit to save the lot of you,” because, well, it’s noir. People don’t want to get hit if they can help it, and in that setting there’s no guarantee that such a noble sacrifice would mean victory — it might just be a meaningless death, and who wants that?  People who act like that in the story (and there are a few) usually die. Quickly. And unmourned.


  1. I love struggle and adversity.

    I love being able to balance the negative and positive.

    I don’t like that feeling you get in most flight/driving simulators, and in games with a lot of random: I can’t ‘feel’ whether I’m pushing it or not. Am taking this corner a little to fast or a lot too fast? Is there a point in getting really good at something when you might fail totally randomly?

    One step forward, two steps back can be OK, as long as you can have a sense of whether the next step is right off a cliff or not…

  2. Next post: a list of ‘sacrifice games’ – stuff that let’s you ‘push’ in various ways.

  3. I would say I find myself asking the question, “Does my blood translate to solid coinage?” too often. I’ve always gone off the “V for Vendetta” economics: you can have everything but that last inch… so as a GM, I want to know what would make the characters give up that last inch, and as a player, I want to know what makes that last inch valuable. If I’m playing a character who doesn’t have anything to lose, it’s a boring character.

  4. Excellent post. I often call it character masochism. I love watching characters get ground up for what they believe. Ironically John McLane is the example I use all the time.

    What kills me is when the sacrifice isn’t. In SOC, every life point is dear; losing one means you may do more now but do a LOT less in the future. You may not get it back; you may eat the black sword and get to play the game less because of it.

    “I’ll cover the retreat until everyone else makes it to safety” however, isn’t. Or at least not as I’ve seen it in many games. These kind of sacrifices, that tend to be binary in nature (either I’ll survive or I’ll die) frustrate me because the stakes aren’t exciting. You win and nothing was lost. You lose and you’re making a new character. I think every person (real or imaginary) has the capacity to experience loss (of a loved one, of a job, of a finger) and it’s not until you can explore that loss that sacrifices are real.

    We talked about character failure on Narrative Control and then Kevin Richey commented on the forum and linked me back to this article. I love seeing other people hacking on the same rpg elements that I am, so if you’re interested, check it out http://forum.narrativecontrol.com/comments.php?DiscussionID=69

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