Tuesday, 9 August 2022

Incentives

 Sometimes XP is sometimes framed as an amalgam of:

  • Reward for doing something (get XP for Treasure/Killing/RP/Attendance)
  • Catalyst for character growth (you level up when you get enough XP)
  • Objective of the game (levelling up is "the point" and you do that via XP)

If you tie all three together you're moving into a real hot-zone of incentives, an understandably contentious topic. Relax, I'm not here to write about Skinner Boxes, Grinding, and Degenerate Strategies. 

In short, my feeling is that rewarding players with character improvement in return for achieving goals in a specific way impedes some of the key strengths of TTRPGs for little or no benefit in return. 

When I come across something that's widespread, but doesn't appeal to me, I try to dig down into the core of it, because there's always something there. I don't have to like it, but it can be useful to understand it. 

I think those three points above come down to questions the players are thinking when they play the game, or maybe even hypothetical questions that arise before anything hits the table. 

Above I listed them in the order they generally occur (get XP, level up, reach high level) but when I sit down to play a new game I'm usually thinking in the other direction.

Something like this: 

Objective

Okay, what's the point of this game? 

Hey I'm not being rude here. I know we're here to have fun, and we organised this game weeks ago, but I mean what's the objective? 

To get as much treasure as possible out of the dungeon without dying? Great, I'm in.

We're knights hoping to rise up through the ranks by doing knightly things? Cool. 

The demon-queen must be stopped? I don't see how we're doing that as a bunch of rat catchers but sure I'm up for a challenge. 

Catalyst

Count me in for a 6 week campaign, sounds great. 

So what's going to change over the length of this campaign?

Will my character get more powerful between sessions? Or in session? 

Level up between each session sounds good to me. 

Oh, you want to do a time-skip after session 3? Sounds neat. We just rebuild the character at Level 6 after that?

Traveller-style sounds fun. It's more about earning money to open up options that weren't viable for us before, right? Can I buy a space halberd somewhere?

Reward

So I know we're trying to kill the Demon Queen, and I know that will be easier when we've amassed power through either money or influence, but every place we've been has just been a pit of horrible monsters and nothing of value.

Sure, we're scraping some coins together, and we're doing that time-skip later which means we'll be in a better position, but I feel like there's just not enough reason to justify going down into another horrible demon pit right now. 

Ohh, we've heard that the Demon Queen's true name is in the Gristletome buried underneath Bonehenge? That'll be tough to get, but let's put together a plan.

Travelling Demonhunters are up for hire? We don't have the money, but if we can get the local Bishop on board they'll press them into helping us? Ugh, the Bishop is going to send us on some deathtrap errand in return, right?

Wait, this is just hooks, isn't it? Shouldn't we be talking about getting little tokens or something here? 

Hang on, where's the rulebook?

Mechanics, or lack of

A purist might look at those queries and see that they're all being resolved without the use of in-game mechanics, but instead through GM advice and setting player expectations. Just old fashioned communication. Author to GM, GM to players. 

If you're finding yourself dissatisfied with how incentive systems are working in your game, I'd recommend considering the alternatives. 

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This post was originally sent as a reward to all Patreon supporters, and is released freely on this site the week after its original publication.

If you want to support my blog, podcasts, and video content then head over to my Patreon. 

Wednesday, 3 August 2022

MVT - Minimum Viable Teach

One of the design goals for Into the Odd was that you should be able to sit down with a brand new player and get to playing almost right away. Fast character creation, streamlined setting, and almost no rules that you needed to know ahead of time.

In general I'd tell players:

  • What the different Ability Scores were for, and how to roll a Save
  • When you attack you roll the damage die next to your weapon, and high is good
  • You lose HP when you take damage, but it comes back easily. When you run out of HP you'll lose STR instead and risk serious harm.

Though I've definitely done games where I've skipped the second and third points there. I'm calling this the MVT - Minimum Viable Teach.

But teaching a game isn't just explaining the rules, even if that's the most painful part. So what's my real MVT for Into the Odd?

I'm looking for everything I'd need to tell a group of new players before I get to the start of the game proper, the point where I'm like "you're in a room and it's horrible, what do you do??"

  • You're treasure hunters going into dangerous places looking for valuable or powerful artifacts
  • It's a sort of weird industrial-era world with one huge city called Bastion
  • Your character has these Ability Scores, here's what they mean, high is good, average is around 10
  • HP is Hit Protection which helps you avoid being wounded
  • You get this equipment as your starter package, weapons have a die type next to them, bigger is better

Okay, I think that's it. Obviously if they're brand new to RPGs then you'll need to add a couple more ahead of that, but let's assume they've played something before. 


I got onto thinking about this topic after running Primeval Bastionland this weekend. I was playing with a group well-versed in RPGs, so perhaps I got complacent. The pre-game teach went like this:

  • Okay so it's a world of Myth, like a version of Early-Medieval Britain from stories rather than history
  • You're Knights sworn to an oath, let me read it out
  • You get Glory at the end of the game if you've upheld your oath, so remember that
  • Here's what your Ability Scores mean
  • HP is Hit Protection, helps you avoid being wounded
  • You're all a random Knight, which gives you equipment and a secret unique to you, just let me know if yours doesn't make sense
  • Also you'll take on these Burdens, each of which can be relieved in a specific way, if you have 3 or more that's bad
  • You have these 3 Gambits that all Knights can perform, they're on your sheet too
  • Here's the hex map and what the different icons represent
  • Each day has 3 Phases, Morning, Afternoon and Night. Going out at night is bad.
  • Each Phase you can move 2 Hexes if you start or end in a Shire or Holding, otherwise 1 Hex. 
  • Oh and the Myths mentioned in your Oath are generally found out in the wilds, but you can ask around about them too.
  • If you're ever stuck it's a good idea to look for a Seer, they're usually in a Holding. 

Now I don't think the players were especially phased, but it's a world apart from how I start games of Into the Odd or Electric Bastionland.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. I want Primeval to be its own thing, and that thing requires a few more specialist tools than I'd use in the other games. 

But looking back at this list, I do think a lot of this stuff could have been held back for explanation during the game when/if they became relevant. For an item to get onto the MVT it needs to be something that players need to know in order to get started in the game, or it should be something that would present an unpleasant surprise if discovered later on.

So, once more, how trim could I make the Primeval Bastionland MVT?

  • You're Knights sworn to an oath, let me read it out
  • Here's what your Ability Scores mean
  • HP is Hit Protection, helps you avoid being wounded
  • You're all a random Knight, which gives you equipment and a secret unique to you, just let me know if yours doesn't make sense
  • Here's the hex map and what the different icons represent
  • If you're ever stuck it's a good idea to look for a Seer, they're usually in a Holding.

With the following getting explained as they become relevant:

  • Also you'll take on these Burdens, each of which can be relieved in a specific way, if you have 3 or more that's bad
  • You have these 3 Gambits that all Knights can perform, they're on your sheet too
  • Each day has 3 Phases, Morning, Afternoon and Night. Going out at night is bad.
  • Each Phase you can move 2 Hexes if you start or end in a Shire or Holding, otherwise 1 Hex.
  • You get Glory at the end of the game if you've upheld your oath, so remember that

And the following getting cut entirely unless somebody specifically asks:

  • Okay so it's a world of Myth, like a version of Early-Medieval Britain from stories rather than history
  • Oh and the Myths mentioned in your Oath are generally found out in the wilds, but you can ask around about them too.

I feel like even very game-crucial elements like day phases and hex movement can be held back, because you can count on the players asking about them once you start the game. 

It's one thing to dump the travel rules on players before they've even started playing, it's another to have them ask "so how far away is this hex" and then explain it to them with some actual context behind it. 

Likewise, it might seem odd to remove the setting blurb, but I feel like there are enough context clues given in the rest of the intro, and they'll keep coming thick and fast as they explore the world. 

Holding back the explanation of Glory is another strange one, but the players already know their Oath, so they should be on board with that. I'd mention Glory before the end of the session for sure, but I don't think it needs to go right at the start.

Going through this process has made me feel much more confident about running another game of Primeval, and I'd recommend it for anybody dreading that first session. 

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This post was originally sent as a reward to all Patreon supporters, and is released freely on this site the week after its original publication.

If you want to support my blog, podcasts, and video content then head over to my Patreon.