Monday, November 23, 2009

Give Them What They Want...

Over at, Old Geezer asks:

One of the things computer games have going for them is QUICK rewards. In an interview about Diablo, one of the designers said they swiped the reinforcement schedule from Las Vegas slot machines; small, frequent, irregular reinforcements...

How do we translate this into table top gaming? How can we incorporate small, frequent, irregular reinforcement -- which Skinner clearly demonstrated is the strongest kind.

The discussion generated deals almost exclusively with mechanical tricks to give table-top play the “ding” of MMOGs. I think this mistakes the symptom for the disease.

Yes, you need to give your players little shots of happiness on a regular basis. That's the core of all games, whether we're talking about WoW or Monopoly or bingo or poker. Different games deliver this jolt of happy-happy endorphins in different ways. For WoW and slot machines, it's the randomly delivered reward for simple, repetitive action. In chess and poker, however, it's the head-to-head cerebral duel between players. WoW kinda combines the two where it incorporates player-vs.-player play, but doesn't do it nearly as well as the card game Munchkin.

RPGs are different from these other games in that they are infinitely flexible. Yes, I used the word “infinitely” and I meant it. As a GM (or a player, though that sometimes takes a bit more cleverness) you can reproduce the quick rewards by giving your players what they want.

No, I'm not talking about Monty Haul campaigns full of +5 dancing vorpal swords and characters with stats in the 20s (or whatever is amazing for your game de jour). I'm not talking about numbers at all.

If it's got a number or rule attached to it, it's completely useless for what I'm talking about. Numbers are only short term, one-time goodies. Sure, they're fun to get, but less fun to have, and you can only push them so far before you start to bump into the limits of your game's mechanics. This is why Old Geezer's thread is full of notions for mini-bonuses and short-term power-ups. Offering longer-term bonuses and such throws the mechanics out of whack and accelerates the power creep that is central to the reward mechanics of most games.

Those little mini-rewards, however, are a lot of book-keeping headaches. Honestly, do you track all the numbers you want to right now? Do you really want to shepherd more? And doesn't this just play to the strengths of computerized entertainment, while ignoring the strengths of pen-and-paper play?

Your players don't want mini-power-ups. They don't want to keep track of more numbers. They don't want more paperwork.

They want to be heroes. And being a hero has nothing to do with numbers.

Ok, I'm guessing here. Maybe they don't really want to be heroes. Maybe they want to be villains. Or they want to be sparkly vampires engaged in blushing teen romance. Or they want heart-tugging drama. Or they want to do things they'll never be able to do in their real lives. Or they want to misbehave. Or they want to fight the good fight. Or they want to evade the fiendish traps while trading verbal jabs with each other.

I can't tell you what your players want. Sometimes they can't (or won't) tell you themselves. You can tease it out, sometimes, through play. What's going on when they become most animated? What do they ask questions about, especially between sessions? When do they tune out? What does their body-language tell you?

Once you know, you can give it to them. If they seem to really enjoying chatting and deal-making with powerful beings, include more monsters that outclass them, but who are willing to deal for the right offer. If they really enjoy outfoxing fiendish traps or turning those traps against their foes, get a few issues of Green Devil Face and sprinkle the contents liberally through your dungeons. If they thrive on Red Harvest/Yojimbo/For a Fistful of Dollars -style cross and double-cross, give them warring factions to play off against each other. If they want romance, toss a handful of potential partners their way and see which ones stick. If they relish overcoming impossible odds, give them adversity. If they're really about exploring, give them free rein to wander where they will, but tease them with places they can't reach, knowledge that is forbidden, and secrets that are dangerous.

This is where games that follow modern design styles paint themselves into corners. When there's a rule for everything, everything is reduced to a roll of the dice. In spite of what some Old Schoolers will tell you, rolling dice isn't fun. It's boring.

Games are about making choices, not rolling dice. It's not the dice that separate pen-and-paper RPGs from computer games, it's the infinite latitude in the choices you can make. It's the ability of a real, live person to riff on your choices, and for the interactions of all involved to make the game something more intriguing than stat modifiers and dice mechanics. RPGs are not, after all, overly-complex, baroque versions of craps.

So when everything has a rule associated with it, you move away from the fun and towards rolling dice. Your elven sorcerer's knowledge of ancient cultures becomes a +6 bonus instead of knowing that winged serpents were associated with planar travel. Your rogue's charm and etiquette are reduced to bonus dice in a pool, rather than scouring the wine-cellar for just the right vintage and learning what her favorite books are.

These details make the game come alive, organically generate new adventures, and draw the players in. They make worlds feel real, they make NPCs seem three-dimensional and multi-faceted, and they make pen-and-paper RPGs something that computer games may never be able to touch.


Dennis Laffey said...

Well said! And this is something that transcends edition, or 'play style.'

You've hit the head on what keeps me playing these games, and I'm sure plenty more people, too.

AndreasDavour said...

You might add something which is fundamentally wrong with this approach. It breeds a sense of entitlement. Nothing could kill a game better than that.

I mean, come on! How can someone who have been in this hobby as long as Geezer misunderstand something so basic?

People don't stay in your game because you hand out cookies frequently. The small gifts they get are not a +1 here or there. They should get to shine, say something cool, hang with their friends and experience a cool event of exploration and adventure!

To think that it has to be quantified as actual bonuses is missing the bus totally! I'm baffled that somebody could miss that.

E.G.Palmer said...

Very well said, Trollsmyth. I am in agreement. I'll have to read that thread at It does seem odd that Mornard would take that tac, but I never could figure out why he posted there anyway.

Grodog spoke of measuring Player Engagement in the comments to a post of mine a little while ago, and I think you're on to the same thing here.

My guys aren't looking for power-ups in the game either. They like those little character building moments of interaction with NPCs and each other.
When they arn't murdering something, at least.

Anonymous said...

You'd be surprised how many people miss this Andreas. In the more than quarter century of gaming I suspect that the majority of GM/DM's actively work to prevent players from being cool.

Opportunities to be heroic or to shine are few and far between.

Even giving "cool" items is often too difficult.

My personal guess is that most of these guys are frustrated novelists who are deathly afraid there precious little snowflake world will get messed up.

Its kind of sad actually.

Its also the reason that I've left gaming for long periods and why I almost always GM/DM to a happy crowd

Natalie said...

I snagged a quote on this very subject a while ago. Nice to have an opportunity to break it out:

"Just tacking on option after option doesn't turn a wargame into a RPG; it just becomes a more complicated/complex wargame. It's the act of giving options that aren't defined by the rules that was the whole reason D&D existed at all." RSC

I'd say that there are some people who do get their main kick out of numbers, and manipulating those numbers, except that really that just comes back to choices again. The numbers part of the game is only interesting so far as it creates a tactical environment to manipulate -- having that +20 bonus to whatever isn't interesting in itself, it's the process of creating the build and then making decisions based on it in play. But then again, RPGs are kind of outclassed by other, more laser-focused types of game in that particular area.

So yeah. What you said.

Oh, and rolling dice *is* fun, but not when it happens all the time, and not as an activity in and of itself. Spending a whole session doing nothing but rolling dice? Lame. Throwing down your oracular bits of plastic to see whether your character lives or dies, or to potentially determine the shape of the next dozen or so sessions? Awesome.

AndreasDavour said...

Well, I guess I know most GMs prevent their players from having fun and doing the cool stuff. Most often I try to forget it, though.

Somehow I had imagine Mornard wouldn't be one of them, but I guess it could happen to us all.