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Me and my friends are novices in TRPG. Recently, we've played Anima Prime. The game's quite simple so we could play it right away with short prep. But one thing came in my friend's mind. What happened if the party lose a battle (not just in AP, but RPGs in general). Is it a game over? Should we start over the campaign? Or maybe there's workaround for that?

Btw, I was the GM and I have just answered that the party could always flee to recover and re-engage the enemy later.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think it's fine; they're asking a beginner question and stated what game they're playing, we can give them an "it depends" answer and, if we happen to know what happens in Anima Prime, tell them that bit. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Nov 3 '15 at 9:25
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You are correct

Game Over is something that depends on the game. Outside of RPG you would think of Game Over either as the fact that you can't continue with the game as a player (some card or board games), you lose some of your progress but can try again (Video games with saves) or have to start over from scratch (saveless video games). The social contract, or shortly an understanding that you make at a table with your players, defines which of these can happen, but some games handle Game Over better than others, while some discourage it completely.

In some games a Total Party Kill is often accepted as a sort of Game Over situation - since no characters survive, players lose significant portion of their achievements and even if allowed to continue, they can do so only with fresh characters. There can also be situations where player-generated failure forfeits their control of their character, e.g. in Cthulhu games losing all Sanity often means the character is a blabbering lunatic and no longer under player's control.

However, other games discourage situations like that by establishing that PCs can't die or that failure is a setback, not a Game Over.

Anima Prime discourages Game Over situation strongly

From Anima Prime PDF:

Sacrifice: PCs don’t die when they are defeated. In fact, there is nothing the GM can do to kill off the PCs. They are never going to die because of an unlucky roll, a bad tactical decision, or the failure to figure out the trap that the GM put in place. Accidental character death like that goes both against the spirit of spontaneous fun and against the types of stories that you’re creating with this game.

p. 55, on Conflicts

The book goes on to explain that characters can only die (or be permanently out of play) by player's decision to sacrifice themselves in order to achieve a heroic deed, save the day and be remembered forever.

In general, if a goal is not achieved, the status quo remains in place. If the goal was to rescue someone and no one achieved it, that person is still captive. After the conflict, the GM rules whether unresolv ed goals can still be achieved (maybe in a follow-up character scene) or, if not, how they turned out.

p. 58, on Goals

That means even if your players do not achieve their goals in a conflict, the status quo remains - which means they can regroup and try again. Sometimes specific the goals are no longer appropriate or realistic, e.g. if you wanted to stop the bomb from going off and failed, it exploded and there is no way to change it. The plot progresses as the story demands, but the players are still involved in it and capable of achieving overall success - they've lost a battle, not the war. Even if they lose in a final showdown with the Big Bad, it would simply mean it wasn't a final showdown after all, but a setback on the way there. Sure, it means complications and more difficulty ahead, but that's what the game is about.

You might want to consider setting up Enabling Failures, situations where despite the failure, players have avenues of action to explore. Let's say that your characters wanted to catch a thief red-handed. They failed and the thief ran away. The goal is no longer attainable, there is no retry button to press. You can turn this around into an Enabling Failure by putting hints for the players - maybe the thief lost a business card players can investigate? Maybe there is enough evidence on the scene to identify the thief? Maybe something else happened to restart the PCs on their way to victory?

So how do we stop playing?

Some scenarios in games can be effectively finished (e.g. Gehenna stories in Vampire the Masquerade or any other kind of End of The World scenario) without failing, because some circumstance made the current game scope irrelevant (e.g. PCs are gods now, the world has ended, characters have achieved omnipotence etc.). In general, however, most groups have a limited time or desire to play, so after a while you might decide that the story has run it's course and settle that the next game session is going to be the last one. Usually, it means that the players confront the Big Bad and wrap the story up. At that time, when everyone agrees that they are done playing, you roll credits and have the true Game Over.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ It'd be nice if you included a little information about the advantages and disadvantages of enabling failures and the playstyles they do and don't suit, but this is otherwise good, solid advice. +1. \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Nov 4 '15 at 0:04
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As you can see in the Anima Prime docs, that game is designed to be like the legion computer RPGs where it's not generally possible to die or lose permanently unless you want to. Defeat or failure is more or less a temporary setback that often means you try again with little or no consequence.

But you also ask about RPGs in general, and for that there is a wide range of answers, and Anima Prime is at the far extreme. On the other end of the spectrum, there can be such things as:

  • If your character dies, it's dead.

  • If you want to start another character, you might have to wait until it's appropriate to consider adding someone to the group in the circumstances of the game.

  • If you start a new character, it starts as a beginning character.

or even:

  • If you die, you aren't allowed to play in the campaign any more.

If the whole party gets wiped out, the players and GM may brainstorm, or may already have come up with ideas for who the players can play as next, and other consequences, such as:

  • The GM may want to pass some gameworld time before the new party forms, and have a variety of things happen in the wake of the previous party's demise.

  • The GM may want to start the next party somewhere far away but in the same world.

  • Some games have players intentionally grooming NPCs to take over if/when their character dies or retires, such as children, cousins, comrades, friends, apprentices, wards.

  • The new party may be an attempted rescue team to try to find out what happened to the first party.

  • The GM may decide to run a different campaign altogether.

There are quite a few creative options for what to do next in a game where there are plot paths other than victory or delayed victory.

There are of course many moderate ways of playing somewhere in between.

P.S.: Note that the policy on what happens if someone dies, can be very different from the frequency of it happening in play. In most games I've run or chosen to play in, death means death, lost limbs and eyes are usually permanently gone, and in the rare cases where someone is resurrected there are grave consequences. However PC death and dismemberment usually ends up being quite rare, because players become quite careful, and will do things like flee or surrender or avoid highly dangerous situations, to avoid the consequences. In games where dying and serious consequences of injury are just a temporary inconvenience, players may make very different choices.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Another option: One of the players dethrones the homicidal GM and takes over the campaign or starts a new one. \$\endgroup\$ – Stig Hemmer Nov 4 '15 at 11:20

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