Friday, March 6, 2009

A Narrative Game Economy of Making You Look Awesome

In discussing lessons I'd learned from Ganakagok, the question of the game economy came up. I really like the balance of good and bad medicine in Ganakagok, and thought of something very inspired by Primetime Adventures. The game starts with an amount of fate determined by the number of players. The Genius loci spends fate to introduce obstacles. Spent fate becomes a pool from which players can award one another will, and spent will goes back into fate.

This has a lot to recommend it, including the dynamic of will vs. fate and good medicine vs. bad, and a tested narrative economy (tested by Primetime Adventures). It allows the Genius loci player to complicate the story without breaking the cooperative feel; since you'll need will to complete the game, the only way to free up will involves facing adversity. So you choose to introduce adversity in order to free up will—you make things harder not in an adversarial way, but because facing adversity now offers the only route forward. You choose the harder path on purpose. I find that alone a good enough reason to do it. But it also addresses another issue that one of my close advisors raised: namely, that will in the game seems to reflect a very modern, anthropocentric view of it. This dynamic makes will (and fate) something you find in the region, something you breathe in and breathe out. I could even add something so that when fate runs out, really bad things start to happen, so you need to keep a balance between will and fate—again, like that balance of good medicine and bad medicine I liked so much in Ganakagok.

But, Willem raised an important concern about this. Does Primetime Adventures' fan mail mechanism create a "punishment by rewards"?

In his 1993 book, Punishment by Rewards, [Alfie] Kohn argued that rewards are ways to manipulate student behavior. He cautioned teachers that rewards can be most damaging when the task being rewarded is already intrinsically motivating to the student. A student who is praised every time he or she completes math facts may lose interest in the task, especially if math comes easily for him or her. (Powell & Caseau, 2004, p. 180)

Or, to quote Marshall Burns in a recent post to Cultures of Play, "They're supposed to be reward mechanics, but I don't see the reward. I don't want points for doing dynamic, interesting character stuff. That's fun by itself! What could I possibly gain from points?" A very interesting point; one I didn't really get fully at first, but chewing it over longer, I began to really understand.

That made me start thinking about Keys in The Shadow of Yesterday. If you haven't spent a lot of time with indie games, these provide a means for a character to declare, at creation, what kinds of things he or she wants to advance in. In Dungeons & Dragons, every character has the same Key: they kill monsters to advance. In The Shadow of Yesterday you could advance from killing monsters, or from protecting someone or something, or from acting in a certain manner, etc. Characters get XP when they act in accordance with their Keys. It contains rules for changing keys, so that the game can provide a pacing mechanic for character development through the story—not just characters becoming more powerful, but characters changing through the story.

Which brings me to this morning, listening to the latest episode of The Voice of the Revolution. In the Pravda section, Paul Tevis—I apologize again—I got his name wrong when I met him briefly at Dreamation, too—Ennie-award-winning Paul Fucking Tevis—discussed playing Judd Karlman's hack of The Shadow of Yesterday, 1st Quest. Instead of Keys, 1st Quest uses "Banners." They act like Keys, except that in addition to your character advancing when you act on your Banner, other characters also advance when they act on your Banner. So, your Banner to protect a little girl allows you to advance whenever you protect the little girl, but it also allows my character to advance whenever I threaten that little girl, giving you the opportunity to protect her.

"I'm gonna make you awesome" has a long history in improvisational theater, and Story Game hippies have talked about it for a long time. Most recently, a great thread on Cultures of Play got started discussing this.

Say someone is playing the incredible hulk. The hulk yells, screams, roars, and flexes his muscles. This helps sell that he is very strong and not to be messed with. But it is thin and fragile. Say the hulk punches a car. That's pretty strong. But if the car doesn't react, doesn't break, doesn't move, then the hulk looks weak. I'd say in contrast all his previous muscle flexing now makes him look like an idiot in context to not being able to break the car. On the other hand, if the car exploded into a million pieces, that sells to me waaaaay more than anything the person playing the hulk could have done. The reaction cements the perception being communicated.

I'd much rather the 5 other players in a game try to make me look cool rather than me trying to do so alone. Hell, if the other 5 were making me look cool, I wouldn't have to. They would do a better job and I can focus on making them look cool.

In wrestling, the villain is in charge of making the hero look sympathetic. And the hero is in charge of making the villain look like a threat. This codependent relationship works amazingly. And way better than if the villain was primarily interested in making themselves look like a threat independently.

1st Quest's Banners offer a brilliant mechanic to provide precisely that kind of play, and it suggests a brilliant solution to my own problem of the narrative economy in the Fifth World. An "RP reward" falls into the trap of "punishment by rewards," because good roleplay has intrinsic rewards. But what about selling your character concept—making you look awesome? What if, instead of getting will from the pool of spent fate for "good RP" in general, I can reward you with will whenever you hit my issue? You can never award yourself will; you can only give it to other players, and you give it to them when they sell your pre-established issue, your "Banner."

I really like this idea. I think, taken all together, this solves a lot of problems, and could really come together to make something great. What do you think?

  • Powell, R.G. & Caseau, D., 2004. Classroom Communication and Diversity. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.


Willem said...

Well that sounds just dandy! I like it. Every game really either addresses, or sidesteps, the central problem of engaging the issues of the other characters.

I like Polaris in part because it makes this the central issue of the game, and addresses it head-on.

You current solution definitely places player attention on the issue of "issues"!

buddha said...

That's pretty interesting! I like PTA reward mechanics, not just because they reward me for being awesome, but because they tell me what the other players think is cool... However, in practice I've found they rarely get used as effectively as they could be, instead people focus on the story and give non-mechanical, social rewards like praise or exclamations in response to cool moments.

I like your idea, because it sounds like you'd be more involved with the other players, but only playtest will tell you if it works the way you want!