January 10, 2016

New Rewards



Forsaking the quantitative reward and punishment mechanisms of games creates doubt and uncertainty.

Where are my rewards? My punishments?

If I take out the game, what are the rules that will let us work together? I’ve been asked this a lot. I’ve asked myself this a lot. I’ve chewed on the roots of it, but also looking to cultivate the soil around this issue. I’ve done enough that I’ve stimulated the growth of something...an answer? I’m still not sure. But here goes:

Game-emergent storytelling (fancy language for “games from which we expect the  emergence of a an explicit and separate narrative in the course of play”) revolves around quantitative rewards translated into fictional rewards and events. I’ve got this bonus to my next die roll, which means a higher percentage chance to take action, which results in a higher chance of me getting what I want in and from the story. The natural loop means telling a story, and at certain moments we access the game underneath to guide play. We resurface with results and determine what they mean in the fiction.

The game layer does a lot:  generating randomness, tension, surprise, a sense of “realness” as we cannot simply impose our imaginative will upon our shared universe. We must apply tactical thought and reason on a fictional or meta-fictional layer to make the “physics” of the game conform eventually to our demands. The “old school” of game-emergent storytelling linked game and fictional rewards for simulation purposes (what is bad in the game is bad in the fiction), but modern game-emergent storytelling seeks better flow by matching some game rewards with poor results in the fiction while leaving much of the “punishment” to the randomness of dice. Probability punishes people sufficiently on its own that further punishment mechanics are unneeded.

People are then guided in their play by what they will have to do to get what they want within the fictional space. Ultimately it is a tactical exercise: You want to rescue the king, and how will you get there?  How will you fight the people guarding him? What will you do to get access to the dungeon? When you rescue him, what next? Each of these questions represents its own sets of goals with its own tactics, rewards and punishments for getting there. With minimal guidance from the story, the fact that there are rules for us to use push us towards developing a rhythm and informal structure of play.

Given all that game-emergent storytelling does, it’s easy to wonder (and people keep doing so) why I am even looking for a change. Why not use the inherent risks and rewards of game design to push forward our story? That answer in full is another essay, but the concise answer is I desire a model without the extra burden and barriers to storytelling that the game layer often brings.

A truth: all games tell stories.

The trouble: games don’t always tell the stories you want to tell.

I seek to remove these conflicts but also leave something that we can play in real time with or without physical presence through the medium of conversation. Without the barrier of system, in theory we make an activity with more immediate engagement and one that rewards creativity more than tactical brilliance.

But cutting out the middle man is hard work. Again, how are we motivating people without rewards? Where are limits being set? Without the implicit structure of explicit rules, where is our guidance and cohesion?

The absolute first action is defining a space where the story and the creativity is the reward. That has to be out loud mentioned and reinforced.

Again, I’m not saying I have the definitive answer, but the following principles represent my current principles and working theories:

Explicit structure, implicit rules. What happens when we are light on rules but heavy on structure? If confused between the difference, I like to think of rules as tell you how to do things (“to make an attack, do this”, “when driving, stay on this side of the road”) and structure tell you what is to be done (“You need to go to this place at 10:00”, “Describe this action in detail”).  Prioritizing structure provides boundaries without hard-defining pathways or procedures. It gives you room to be creative but also limits the edges enough to keep some unity and constraint for storytelling play.

Creativity is rewarded with more creativity. Where a typical game will reward you with incremental advantages and ways to influence the rules going forward, what I am trying to design and build are games where your reward are more opportunities and seeds for roleplaying. What vanishes in the gamification of creative endeavors is the fact that creativity and expression is its own reward. Adding new opportunities for creative expression should be enough on its own to motivate players.

You build, I qualify. Instead of giving creators in the group full license to do everything at every time, divide the building of any creative unit into parts to be divided up to the group.  A simple example I like to use is the Ultimate Super-power.  Here is how you use the Ultimate Super-Power:

One person describes what their power does in the moment, but another person then names the price of that power.

So, one person can clearly wield their power widely and to great effect, but not with impunity, and not without repercussion. We give both players in the pair full authorial control, but it’s important to note that neither has the power to reverse the other. One person defines, but other people qualify,steering the shape or revealing hidden aspects of what the originator defined. This avoids the classic Cops & Robbers “I shot you! No you didn’t!” problem that can happen without rules that clearly define such.

These are the principles I use when I am designing social fiction these days, and it seems to be working pretty well in play.

Imagination is For Everyone.