Against incentivizing mechanics

A conversation came up in the Discord (in the Storygames channel) asking about how to add more character-driven play to a game. There was some advice given to add in mechanics like Keys (from The Shadow of Yesterday) or other incentivizing mechanics, and someone suggested that these mechanics might provide good support (kind of like training wheels) to get people used to this kind of play.

I see it a little differently: rather than being training wheels, I’ve found that these kinds of mechanics are often distractions and lead people new to this kind of gaming away from the things that are necessary to achieve it consistently. While mechanics like Keys from The Shadow of Yesterday can indeed support/energize thematically-rich, character-driven play, in games where they do so effectively, they aren’t doing it in a vacuum. There are three necessary elements for this kind of play: if you have them you don’t need mechanics like Keys. If you don’t have them, mechanics like Keys won’t get you there — they can’t create them for you.

By “mechanics like Keys” here and throughout, I’m talking about mechanics that give a certain amount of XP or some kind of bonus for bringing out a specific trait, characteristic, or thematic issue of the character. That is: mechanics that try to incentivize characterization. I’m not talking about things like Psychological Disadvantages in early Champions, which provide guidelines towards/constraints on characterization but aren’t connected to an incentive. Nor am I talking about what we see in games like The Pool or Hero Wars (1st edition of Heroquest) where there’s a fee form trait system, some of which might be “characterization-focused” (“wants revenge on the Baron +1”) but which are mechanically identical to all the other kinds of abilities (“has a big sword *1”).

Ok - here are the three necessary elements.

First, you need the situation to be one that we as people sitting around the table find genuinely interesting on a human level. Not something that reminds us of stories from other media, not something that recycles gamer tropes (so no wizard who gives us a quest with a plan for him to later backstab us). Rather, something that engages us in some kind of dilemma that each of us, as an individual, could be expected to have a different take on.

As an example from a recent game of mine: one of the PCs’ allies had broken a taboo (for some understandable if not completely justifiable reasons) and brought down a curse on the community. The PCs needed to work out how to handle the situation given a number of competing factors: this was their ally who had fought side by side with them in the past, he definitely did step out of line and in doing so brought consequences down on otherwise innocent people, and his reasons for breaking the taboo were sympathetic and paralleled the motivations of some of the PCs. The one clear way to reverse the curse was to make sure their ally was punished — but that wasn’t something any of the PCs could take on lightly.

I bring this example up not because I think it is especially creative or imaginative: rather it is pretty basic — but it more than meets the necessary criteria of being a situation where different PCs — and different players — could have equally valid yet differing opinions on how to resolve it.

(Jesse Burneko’s Dungeons & Dilemmas offers a great procedure for developing these kinds of situations for dungeon-crawl based games).

Second, you need procedures to resolve uncertainties that result in consequential changes to the immediate situation and where outcomes — especially unwanted outcomes — cannot be undermined or massaged out of existence. Luckily, we have no shortage of these kinds of procedures from the beginning of role-playing onwards, although we have to approach them without a lot of the well-meaning “GMing advice” that effectively nerfs (softens or subverts) otherwise solid resolution procedures. We — all of us, GM and players — need to be willing to honor those outcomes and recognize that it is not the GM’s responsibility to shape them or make them more palatable.

Third, and this follows directly from the above: we need to honor player choices so that when they decide what their character’s attitude towards or opinion about the situation is and then decide on how to act on that opinion, we let that action proceed through the resolution procedures, without deflection and without requiring some kind of table consensus about a given character’s actions. This means, among other things, throwing away the idea of “the party” — the implicit or explicit idea that the characters are really one big character (I’ve heard this described as a kind of Swiss Army Knife approach) and that their actions can only proceed once there is consensus among the players. (Note: the Swiss Army Knife approach is perfectly suitable for lots of challenge-based gaming but will completely subvert character—driven thematic play).

Here’s how these things work together to allow for thematically-rich character-driven play:

The situation is a moral/ethical dilemma with thematic potential. It is the thematic equivalent of a well-designed battlemap that forces interesting (tough) tactical choices on us. There is no one “right” way to approach it: because of that, players have the opportunity to have their characters take actions which express the individual character’s full emotional, psychological, and moral response to the situation.

And we allow the players to take these actions that express those responses: we don’t try to artificially or coercively form a consensus or force the actions down a path based on our familiarity with genre conventions from other stories.

Finally, when we make use of the procedures for resolving uncertainty, we end up with a situation that has been irreversibly and meaningfully changed by the actions taken by the player characters. We now know something about these characters that we didn’t know before — what they believe, what they are willing (or not willing) to do for their beliefs, how they deal with the consequences of those actions, etc.

We didn’t need any specific mechanics incentivizing characterization or character motivation to get there. We got there because doing this activity is fun, enjoyable, and compelling in its own right.

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But let’s look at that kind of mechanic for a minute:

These mechanics may or may not be a good addition to a game that has these three foundational elements already in place, but without these elements, they’re worse than useless: they will, I’d argue, actively drive you away from meaningful character play into superficial, genre-based portraiture.

To take Keys from The Shadow of Yesterday as an example. To the extent that Keys are supportive of this kind of play, they are so because (and only if) these other elements are in place.

These other elements are supported by TSOY (to some extent at least): the setting of The Shadow of Yesterday is rich with political and cultural material that can be used to create dilemma-filled situations and the procedures for resolving uncertainties definitely lead to consequential changes. As for the third element, I don’t think the text necessarily makes this clear enough, but play that doesn’t honor player choices (or play that is forced into a “party” approach) falls flat in this game.

Given these three foundational elements being in place, Keys, then, support and can act as an engine: they provide character motivations that intersect with the dilemma of the situation in unpredictable ways, further complicating the moral and psychological landscape; they also drive players to make individual choices that will likewise complicate things in a way that will highlight the specifics of each character through the way they differentiate each player character from the others.

Without those elements in place, however, Keys are at best a superficial addition (like giving bonus XP to players who use funny voices) and, in practice, end up being a serious distraction because people get the idea that the Keys (or similar mechanic) are where the possibility for characterization and thematic play come from, and the three, necessary foundational elements are ignored or underdeveloped.

(Historically, that is what I think happened within the design culture that started at the Forge and migrated to the Storygames forum: people got very excited about Key-like mechanics and lost track of the importance of what I am calling the three foundational elements. People familiar with Forge theory might recognize what I am describing as Vanilla Narrativism: a coinage that was not initially meant to be derogatory but rather merely descriptive (Vanilla meant as baseline but not boring), but which, like a lot of Forge jargon, picked up negative connotations.)

Lady Blackbird is a good example of a game where Keys become a distraction from thematically rich play: there we have a situation not drawn from genuine interest, but rather from things familiar to us as audiences of other media; the resolution procedures are easily massaged away from consequential outcomes; and the assumption of the scenario is that player character actions will only be honored to the extent that they do not take characters off the narrow path expected by the expected. Keys here do not support character-driven play: rather they act as prompts towards creating portraits familiar from other media and help pace the story in similarly generically familiar ways.

Ok - so why did I go through all of this?

Basically because I think achieving this kind of play is a lot simpler than many people think (simple in terms of “not requiring more mechanics than we’re used to from ‘traditional’ games). It may be difficult — or, rather, there’s definitely a learning curve: but Key-like incentivizing mechanics won’t get you through the learning curve any more quickly. They are just as likely to be obstacles to this kind of play. And I think the discussion around this kind of play/these kinds of games has lost track of this.

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Okay there is a lot here. I mostly disagree, but there is a lot and I think I might agree with some of it, but again mostly disagree.

So to start off, I want to talk about what I think certain phrases mean, because it might be that all we disagree on is what certain phrases mean.

character-driven play is when the beliefs, hopes, dreams, desires of the character drive what actions the character will take in the fiction AND what challenges the character will face in the fiction.

support, when used in reference to rules, mechanisms, and procedures, things that support something are things that help make it easier for the player to do those things.

When I see someone saying “mechanisms like keys” support character driven play, what I think of is that the list of actions that are in those mechanisms make it easier for the player to choose actions that will be inline with the character’s beliefs, goals, dreams, desires. I think this is totally true, I do think those list of actions or triggers make it easier for the player. I don’t think it’s ALL you need, you still don’t have anything that challenges those beliefs, values, and actions. But I do think it makes part of it easier. I also don’t think the “get an xp” for the thing helps support, it’s there, but it’s not actively supporting character-driven play. To me, too often the XP reward is the thing that people focus on, I think it’s the list of stuff that people should look at.

BUT that’s not all that “keys like mechanisms” do, they also have a clause where you can “burn” that key and act against it in order to get a big amount of XP all at once. Again, the XP, is sort of inconsequential to me. The important part is that it has within the mechanism a way to challenge the existing behavior and to do something different. These are supposed to be big meaningful moments where you get to act against type and challenge what how people see the character. To me, this is getting to second part that challenges the character’s beliefs, desires, values.

There’s more to talk about especially with the first response and example. But let’s start with the above.

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I think I’d use character-driven more loosely than you do, but I’m not sure that that matters. What I took was meant by character-driven (in terms of the Discord conversation this spun out of) is that we have a certain interest in the characters as fictional entities (in terms of motivations and psychology — I.e. they aren’t simply pawns on a board) — and that the fiction we create is done so by following along the actions taken by the characters — the plot is the wake behind our boat of PC-actions (not a great metaphor maybe, but it’s all I’ve got right now).

I don’t think you necessarily need to have the challenges they face related to those beliefs — or rather I don’t think we need to set it up so that is the case. If you have characters with specific motivations/beliefs/psychology then even if they face a “generic obstacle” we’re going to learn something about the character based on how they approach it. This is tricky to talk about in the abstract, though.

As for your discussion of Keys - I have nothing against Keys (in The Shadow of Yesterday), but I don’t think they work like “magic character dust” you can sprinkle on any old game and voila - character-driven play. As you suggest, more is needed. My attempt in this post was to get to the fundamentals of what is needed, which I think are often ignored in practical conversations where people are asking for advice; instead, well-meaning advisors offer up their “character mechanic” of choice before exploring the (perhaps less exciting) question of whether there is a solid foundation in place upon which those mechanics can sit.

Okay, like I said there was a lot there in your first two posts.
To me, the Three Foundational Elements you’ve outlined above can be briefly reworded as:

  1. Interesting and engaging situation to the players
  2. Procedures to meaningfully change the situation
  3. Characters need to be their own individuals with their own opinions and values

Honestly I’d put them in a different order (and slightly reword). I’d have them be:

  1. Characters need to be their own individuals with their own opinions and values
  2. Interesting and engaging situation, which intersects these opinions and values
  3. Procedures to meaningfully change the situation

I can totally get behind my version of your three foundational elements. I do think that challenging or at least being adjacent to the opinions and values is necessary. I think that if the obstacles involved don’t meaningfully touch on those opinions and values they won’t show up and be visible in how the character responds to the obstacle.

If a character has a very strong belief that Santa Claus is real… and well most interesting situations where the players care about it… odds are the belief in Santa Claus is not going to come up and it’s not going to help drive play at all (unless the module we’re playing is Miracle on 34th Street). The situation and the beliefs NEED to intersect in order for the beliefs to help drive play.

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I should add that I agree with the idea that that the “xp reward” or “incentive” or “keys” or any other procedure. Is NOT the thing that is helping character driven play.

I happen to think that keys do help support character driven play. I think they help players understand and portray the characters. I think that they often contain and lead to opinions and values for the character. I think they also have the ability for character growth.

To me if you really want “a procedure or mechanism” you probably want to create something that basically interrogates the PLAYER about what the character believes and wants, and have the PLAYER figure out HOW the character is going to get that in the current situation or how they are going to change the situation to get what they want.
Keys are definitely not a “magic character dust”, but I do think they help. To me, they are more useful than a lot of other procedures and mechanisms.

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I think we agree (mostly). Maybe 85%.

Regarding your #2, I see where you’re coming from. I do think the idea that in general (i.e., across all of these kinds of games) prep needs to be laser focused based on what’s on the player characters’ sheets has been oversold (especially in certain discussion communities). Which isn’t really what you’re saying, but I’m sensitive to that overselling as a potential problem, so I would tend to underemphasize that. (I think that kind of laser-focused prep can be claustrophobic – and I think many games work just as well without it despite what proponents of these games may say.)

But if the situation has genuine human interest, and I’m playing a character encountering or enmeshed in that situation in some way, I’m going to have to figure out what my character’s belief or opinion about the situation is. It doesn’t really matter if prior to starting play I wrote down on my character sheet “believes in Santa”: I still need to come up with what my character’s opinion is about what to do about (to use my example again) the former ally who now may need to be brought to justice (or let go).

(I think your Santa example really brings up a different issue regarding character creation procedures that result in characters that are way off the beam for what’s going to be relevant in play. That’s related to what I’m talking about, but isn’t central to it).

Also, for what’s its worth, I put situation first because I think that without the situation, you can’t get anywhere. You can start with characters that are complete cyphers, with nothing but the 6 D&D attributes and some Hit Points, and put them in a genuinely interesting situation, and once they realize the group will honor their choices, the players will develop beliefs and opinions about the situation and we will see their actions driven by those beliefs. We will be rocking and rolling in no time. But if you take, say, a fully Beliefed-up Burning Wheel character, but put them in a tropey Shadowrun-adventure fake-interesting situation (even one that features elements drawn from their Beliefs) then you will not get the kind of play I am talking about.

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Oh yeah I think we mostly agree. I think there are differences which probably at least partially come from preferred styles of play. Because for me

  1. Characters need to be their own individuals with their own opinions and values
  2. Interesting and engaging situation, which intersects these opinions and values
  3. Procedures to meaningfully change the situation

Is necessary for all games I’m interested in playing, so likely the venn diagram of “character driven games” and “games I’m interested in” is a circle or maybe concentric circles.

I can definitely understand the situation first perspective. To me, that makes a lot of sense when the GM comes up with a pitch and starting situation which is then proposed to the group who make characters based on that starting situation.

But generally I tend to prefer games where the group collectively decides and talks about their characters as they make them. The situation is then based off these characters that we make together. So for me, the situation naturally flows from the characters, and their beliefs, that we created together.

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I can totally believe that is true for you, but I don’t believe the same holds for me. I probably wouldn’t even start a game with a blank character which then gets dropped into an interesting situation. That does not sound like a game setup I would like to be involved in.

To me, if you taken fully Beliefed-up Burning Wheel character and put them in a situation with that features elements drawn from their Beliefs I think you will get character driven play. To me, if you aren’t then you aren’t actually touching on the beliefs of the character.

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I have two clarifications/elaborations to make:

First:

In terms of what I’m talking about here, I’m not presenting my preferences but rather attempting to present my observations on the minimum required for this kind of play. So I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with adding more, and we may prefer (whether in a specific situation or across multiple instances) to have more — but I have observed that we don’t need it. That is: I have consistently observed character-driven, thematically-rich play come about without the need of prep that is focused on what’s on the character sheet; and without the need for mechanics like Keys or Beliefs in Burning Wheel. That’s why I’m pushing back against adding more language or qualifiers to my foundational elements.

A metaphor that might help (or might not): my fundamentals describe an acoustic guitar; Keys and Beliefs are like a fancy pedal set up for an electric guitar. Playing acoustic guitar is good; playing electric guitar with a fancy pedal is also good. But if we just want to “play guitar” we don’t need the fancy pedal.

I have observed two related phenomena:

One, across many years and many groups, people trying to play with these kinds of incentivizing mechanics, but without the fundamentals in place, leading to confusion and distraction. I.e. adding in a fancy pedal before you’re able consistently to play a song on a regular guitar.

Two, designers turning their focus on these kinds of mechanics, rather than working on the (much less appealing to “game designer brain”) task of explaining procedures for groups to more reliably get the foundational elements in place. I.e. wanting to design a fancy pedal, instead of talking about ways to make a good sound from a guitar in the first place.

Those observations were a big inspiration for this post!

Myself: I probably do prefer games without these specific kinds of mechanics (games like Sorcerer, Primetime Adventures, Champions, The Pool, Trollbabe, InSpectres) compared to ones with them, though I don’t dislike these mechanics across the board. And while it may be because it’s my preference, or that I’m biased, i genuinely think that playing, say, The Pool, and seeing that you can get enjoyable, fun, intense, compelling (choose your favored adjective) thematic play WITHOUT mechanics like Keys is a worthwhile experience for all of us interested in this kind of play to have. I do think playing something like The Pool makes these foundational elements clearer and give us a more direct opportunity to learn how to reliably develop them.

Second clarification:

I put these elements in the order I did for conceptual reasons, but I don’t meant to suggest that as a procedural order. For any given game, procedurally, we may or may not start with situation prep versus character prep, and most games have some kind of back and forth between them as we’re setting up. I.e. in Champions Now, the GM provides a series of inspirational statements (which have a very formalized structure), the players then go create characters, the GM then looks at the character sheets and all the stuff on them (including a bunch of NPCs and villains) and puts those elements into a starting situation. That works great - but what also works great is, say, a GM for Dogs in the Vineyard creating a Town and then having the players create their characters, so there’s no specific connection between the situation and the characters beyond what’s baseline for the game.

So my list represents a conceptual order, not procedural: but because I’m talking about fundamentals — all three are needed — theoretically I could lead with any of them. I decided to put situation first because I think that’s often overlooked and historically again it’s been one of the least developed/thought about parts of gaming procedures. I.e. we’re much more likely to find good textual support of consequential resolutions mechanics and support for honoring player choices compare to good textual support of situation prep procedures.

Situation is also the thing that I see a lot of people struggling with when they’re talking about wanting to have this kind of game play experience. I.e. the DM complaining that they can’t get players to invest in their setting in a meaningful way, but then when you ask about what’s going on in the game the immediate situation is a tropey, mission-based thing lacking in human interest. So I think it’s reasonable to lead with it here as it is often overlooked or under appreciated.

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Cool cool. I think we will have to agree to disagree on your clarifications.

I absolutely agree that the “incentive” of the incentivizing mechanisms is not what makes character driven play. I think the actual title of the post we pretty much agree on, we both don’t think “incentives” from incentivizing mechanisms will necessarily lead to character driven play.

But what I think is the heart of your post, if not the title, is what we have slight disagreements on.

I disagree with your conceptual order. I understand that it’s conceptual and not procedural, but I disagree with the order. You argue that the interesting engaging setting is the most important element. I argue that having characters that are individuals with their own values, beliefs, and goals is the most important. I agree that procedurally you can arrive at a situation with all three elements in different orders. BUT I think for “character driven play” the characters need to actually want something.

I think, “beyond what’s baseline for the game” is very important because that game has opinions and there are character beliefs and challenges built into the premise of the game that are inherent just by accepting to play that game. If you don’t get character driven play from playing dogs in the vineyard… odds are you aren’t addressing those built in beliefs the game sets up for the characters.

I think you have a particular axe to grind against tropes. That’s fine, you can grind that axe. I don’t have the same perspective. I totally understand and agree if you ONLY do tropes and that is the end of the character development, then yes, it is not particularly interesting and the result is not character driven play. BUT I think tropes and generalities are great places to START I think that these things can give players actions, perspectives, goals, values to start from, so it’s easier and faster. To me, being on the same page about the fictional space is very very important. I think tropes, generalities, comparisons to existing media are great places to START to help ensure people have the same shared fictional space. Again I totally agree that if tropes and generalates are the start AND END, it is not going to lead to character driven play (and it will likely be less interesting if not boring).

I totally understand. I disagree, but I understand. I think individual characters that actually want something is the thing that is often overlooked and under appreciated. To me, that is the thing that is most important and the thing that is often actually lacking.

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It isn’t that I think the situation is the most important element — I think it’s the one that historically has been most often missing and thus worthy of highlighting. There are many more games that give you belief-filled characters —- with no real idea of what to do with them — than there are games that give a good example of situation creation but don’t give similarly good procedures for creating appropriate characters. In fact, it’s almost a rule that any text with good situation generation procedures will unfailingly give procedures for making appropriate characters for that situation. (Which is what you are noting with regards to Dogs in the Vineyard).

For example, in Vampire: The Masquerade you would often start with characters that were full of beliefs and opinions and values… but the game would prompt the Stoyteller to prepare situations with little human interest (i.e. some kind of nonsense about Clan politics or whatever). There are many, many, many other games that fit this pattern. But we don’t really see the opposite: most texts written with the understanding that you need a situation with human interest don’t struggle with the character piece. (And I’d again add that you can start with ciphers, throw them into a genuinely interesting situation, and those characters will have beliefs about that situation very very quickly).

Re: my dislike of tropes — I may be pushing that line a little too far. My issue is not tropes per se but rather the mistaken idea that we should be interested in them merely because they are familiar. If the situation is genuinely interesting — and also happens to be a trope, well, I do that all the time, too. But there’s a lot of tropey stuff from role-playing game texts that are just deadly: the Vanpire politics stuff I mentioned above, the mission-based double-crosses of your standard Shadowrun adventure. Recognizing that using language like “you need” or “you must” might be seen as pushy and obnoxious — I think you need to be genuinely interested in whatever situation you’re presenting. It can’t be “I’m going to have the villagers ask the players to save them from the bandits, because that’s what happens in the Magnificent Seven” but rather “I’m genuinely interested in seeing what lengths would otherwise peaceful, non-martial people go to in order to protect what little they have from people who are only too willing to kill to get what they want.” Is this a distinction without a difference? Or just semantics on my part? Maybe! I don’t think so, though, and my experience from playing in a lot of tropey games is that when the situation is presented in the first way I phrase it (“this is here because it should remind you of some other media”) we don’t get character-driven play, but when the GM approaches the same kind of material through a mindset of the second phrasing we at least have the potential of achieving it.

I hear you, but I think we will have to agree to disagree.

I believe genuine character motivation is generally missing and worthy of highlighting. I think the sheer quantity of modules and supplements with pre-built situations demonstrate that “interesting situation” has not been undervalued. Maybe none of those situations vibe with you, but I don’t agree that it has been historically under represented.

I still disagree that you can start with blank characters and get put into an interesting situation. That to me is not how I like or want to play. I want buy in, I want to know AHEAD of time type of thing we are going to be doing. To me, that type of situation where I start with a blank character and then a situation is thrust upon me, will just as often lead me to nope out of the game as it would to where I am genuinely interested in the situation and want to develop my character to the situation.

I am totally fine with this. But this is definitely not how I interpreted your previous statements about tropes. I agree that just because something is familiar does not automatically make it interesting and engaging. I can totally get behind the idea that nostalgia, familiarity, in jokes, and similar to make something interesting and engaging and that if you limit the interaction to just that it will be lackluster at best. To me, this applies to more than just tropes.

I have found that tropes, and any form of communication that gets people on the same shared fictional space, serves to make more interesting play happen. Does it do it all on it’s own, no. But if we all have the same shared fictional space it’s a lot easier to start getting more nuanced and expectation breaking character portrayals. Can you achieve this without tropes, absolutely. But I think it’s way easier to give people support, give them something easy and familiar to start with, to let them warm up into something more interesting and nuanced. I’d much rather have support and help then be thrown off the deep end and told, “just learn to swim”.

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Ever since an experiment I did back in the early aughts, and In pretty much every game I run nowadays, I use a free-form XP method. All I do is ask each player to tell me up to three things they deserve XP for and give them an award for each. This takes some of them aback at first, but after a game or so they realize they can set their own goals and should do what they feel is significant. This lets them play their character’s personality without resorting to a demeaning external scooby-snacks dispenser.

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