I don't quite know what brought this to mind, but it has bounced around in my head off and on the last little while. I may be imagining things, but I'm pretty certain that a number of RPGs that have come out in the last year or so have developed a 'the player can't lose' sort of mentality.
The one that stands out the most, currently, is Scion, which tells the ST to fudge for the players, and to guide the adventure to the end, where the characters have victory over the opposition. It doesn't have to be decisive, and there can be a price involved, but in the end, the heroes win.
InSpectres is another one, but you sort of expect it with that kind of game.
4E D&D has adjusted the HP system somewhat, so that heroes can go into the deep negatives (I think it was half your maximum HP, in fact), while monsters and NPCs die at 0. They discussed the many alternatives to death, including capture and so forth.
Mutants and Masterminds defaults to all damage being non-lethal, so most combat involves stunning or knocking the opponent unconscious. I never knew that fire blasts were mostly concussive. ;)
Dogs in the Vineyard, I was told, is designed so that regardless, sooner or later the characters 'win'. There can be a hefty price involved, but in the end the game focusses on the decisions the characters made on the way to the end of the adventure.
I'm not certain why this has cropped up more and more in RPGs. While I accept that for some players (and perhaps the game master), the ultimate goal is to tell the story, I find it somewhat disheartening to see the hand-holding that is visible in some games (like Scion), or the 'soft' approach that a number of games have taken.
Let me explain my view on this a little.
A part of my aversion to this, I think, stems from what I've seen in the last fifteen years or so. When I was younger, games tended to have winners and losers, and even in school, losing was par for the course. About ten or twelve years ago, when I was temping at a day care centre, I was fine with teaching the kids some of the games I'd played, but I was informed that none of the games the kids were to learn were allowed to be 'confrontational'... specifically, that there should not be a losing condition to the games. The videos the kids were allowed to watch had much the same thing ... confrontation was kept to a minimum, and specifically everyone wins,
And the thing is, I think this is creeping into society more and more -- the idea that there's somehow something wrong with letting people lose. Or hell, even the idea of the 'no-win scenario'. It feels almost like people feel affronted at the idea that someone should be allowed to fail. This idea bugs me to no end.
A role-playing game, to me, is a game first and foremost. It isn't a 'storytelling tool' (though yes, some games can be), it isn't some deep thing with a purpose. Sure, it can be, but that, to me, isn't the default, to-be-expected purpose of the game. For me, and I know people feel differently, it is a game. It is a game where the design is for you to, with other players, explore a fictional setting, complete with the trials and tribulations associated with such.
As such, for me, players should be allowed to lose. Because it is a setting, the cause-and-effect of such a setting, for me, should always come into play. Characters can fail, they can fall short of the goal, and it should not always be 'fair'. It can be fair in the context of the rules, but the circumstances in game most certainly don't have to be.
Some good examples of this:
Cyberpunk, where it warns that having a grenade stuffed under the character's bed is a perfectly viable tactic. If the character isn't suitably paranoid enough to check their home after being out for a few hours, they can expect to die horribly and unexpectedly. Now, admittedly, it is rare that I've seen a GM do this, but that does set the tone for the game -- if you've made some enemies (and the lifepath starts you with a few right off the top), you should be paranoid.
A good example for Cyberpunk involved my group finding a program which could upgrade nearly any daemon program into an AI. Two corporations were after the program and we had to avoid a few assassination attempts by the companies involved. I came up with the plan of setting a meet with someone from each side, and took the chip containing the program to the top of a building. I then buggered off, and let the two companies duke it out on the rooftop there. This resulted in an orbital drop on the building, wiping it out and killing everyone inside (and destroying the chip). The companies found out they destroyed the resources themselves, and we left and laid low. The adventure was aborted, because we'd gone so far off course, and essentially 'lost', but that was fine for us, and we continued playing.
Call of Cthulhu is a classic. People shouldn't expect to make it to the end of any given adventure. If they do, that's a bonus, but it is not something to be expected.
My wife's first time ever playing Call of Cthulhu had her in the solo-adventure in the book. This adventure is considered 'low lethality', since there's no real conflict in the adventure. But my wife's character chased a ghoul down into the warrens, and I simply closed the book and informed her she was never seen or heard from again. That was the end of the adventure... unfinished, with my wife wondering what the heck happened. I ran it for her again, later, but it was her first-ever character fatality.
1st Edition Legend of the Five Rings, more than the latter editions, emphasized this. Characters were capable of dying quickly and horribly in the game, but on top of this, there were a number of circumstances where a character could fail miserably. From the 'choose between honour, and duty' or 'choose between Family and Clan', characters were forced into a lot of horrible situations which would result in dishonour, death, or the lose of people close to them.
A good example is this adventure written by Tastes Like Phoenix called 'Fortunes Lost'. I ran my group through that game, and one of the NPCs in the group was a romantic interest of the PC's, who has been with the group for the better part of a year or two. The PCs had done a good job of protecting one of the NPCs that was at risk in the game (the bad guy needed someone with imperial blood), but they hadn't thought about the NPC love-interest. As such, the group was ambushed, and once they broke free, they found the NPC, the romantic interest of one of the PCs since almost his first session, strewn all over the floor, guts scattered about.
The player was shocked, to say the least, and the character became quite dark for months upon months afterwards. The adventure was won (with casualties), but it never felt like a victory for the group -- the price had been entirely too high.
Another fun game I ran in L5R involved the group having to deliver some spell scrolls to the Phoenix for an 'olympic' type of game. (I forget the name of the adventure, but it is an official one). The group had the scrolls taken by bandits, and had to negotiate to get them back -- in exchange for having a ronin join the games. The Phoenix Clan wouldn't stand for it, but the PCs were put into the position of trying to vouch for a ronin participant. This is all fine and dandy, the adventure takes this into account. The problem came when one of the PCs, who had the 'Can't Lie' flaw... was asked for their opinion. They were adopted by the Phoenix, so the character tells the Masters everything.
Which promptly ended the adventure with the shame / dishonour / seppuku of almost the entire PC party. Unexpected, but amusing for the group.
Anyway, enough babbling from me... other thoughts?