Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Incentives Matter

The other day I listened to an RPG-related podcast in which a story gamer talked about playing an old school game. She was broadly positive, but said that she was dissatisfied with the way in which combat worked - if a PC was out of action or killed, it would mean that the player would have nothing to do, for the rest of the fight at least. This was seen as bad because, I gather, it would make that player feel left out or bored.

I am trying my best these days not to be judgmental and dismissive, which are always my driving instincts, but I do sometimes wonder where the infantilisation of adults will end. Even young children understand the concept that incentives matter - if there is a consequence to playing unintelligently, and the consequence is that you can't "play", then there is a good reason to play intelligently instead. The result is a better experience for everybody.

Let me put that a different way: if you remove the consequences of bad play in order to satisfy any given individual player and stop them feeling left out, you make things worse for the group, because you encourage the players not to take things seriously.

Death and incapacitation are important because they encourage thoughtful engagement with the game. If those threats feel real, players understand that what happens actually matters. This raises the bar for everybody - the other players, who feed off each other's energy, and the DM, who has gone to the trouble of starting up and planning a campaign that he or she wants them to engage with.

[EDIT: Apparently because it's not clear, I am not talking about the DM doing this in an authoritarian or "yah boo sucks" sort of way, and nor am I talking about character death meaning having no further contribution to the session. I am talking about the natural incentives which will arise when players know that getting incapacitated is going to mean having to sit and watch for 5 minutes or so, and that character death is going to mean having to roll up a new one and wait until there's an opportunity to be reintroduced to the game - i.e. a little while later in the same session.]

42 comments:

  1. I think you and this podcaster are talking past each other a bit here. She said "it's bad for players to be frozen out of the game and just have to sit there watching everyone else play." You said "there should be consequences for players' actions and the possibility of failure." Those aren't contradictory at all, and I definitely agree with both- the obvious synthesis is that there should be consequences for failure but those consequences should involve playing MORE, not being forced to stop playing.

    This is, for instance, why I never give monsters paralysis attacks in my game. Paralysis is absolutely un-fun for the paralyzed PC's player. It's basically just telling them "no DND for you for the next half hour or so!" There absolutely should be monsters with scary status effect attacks, but those statuses that force you to work around them, force you to think more and play more- not ones that mean you can no longer play at all.

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    1. Yeah, I'm kind of taken aback by this post as well. I mean, sure, incentives for intelligent and serious play are all well and good. But if that means the DM kicking a player in the crotch when his or her character dies, we can all agree that would be a bad way to play.

      Your point about the players being "adults" seems to point exactly the other direction: assume your players are people with busy lives who have taken time out of their schedules to gather together to play a game together. Treating them like children who need to sit in the corner and think about what they've done when their character dies seems like a pretty good way to get them to decide that there are better ways to spend their time than watching everyone else participate in an activity that they're being left out of.

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    2. I don't think we're talking past each other. I get your position and I presume she would say the same thing. I just don't agree with it - the consequence has to be to be forced to stop playing, because otherwise it's not a negative consequence and therefore not an incentive to play intelligently.

      Having to "play more" is a positive, fun thing, hence not to be avoided, hence no incentive.

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    3. @Picador: You're putting words in my mouth. Nobody said anything about "kicking a player to the couch" and making people "sit in the corner and think about what they've done". if a player is knocked out of combat they have to be a spectator for 5 minutes. If their character dies they roll up a new one and get introduced at the next sensible opportunity. That's all.

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    4. Or in the crotch for that matter.

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    5. The five minutes on the bench is exactly enough time to roll up a new character. Where is the problem?

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  2. I'd say having to wait for a fight to end to re-enter the game is much less of an issue in old school D&D than in newer editions. I usually run B/X, and the stripped down nature of fights means that combat fly by. Maybe because this person was trying it for the first time, combat may have bogged down a little. I went back to B/X during the 3E era, and the speed of combat was the thing that sold us all on it.

    As for sitting out for five minutes, I'd still be interested in watching what happens to the rest of the group. If things have reached the point where I died, it suggests an intense fight is going on.

    My main issue with this viewpoint is that RPGs are always partly about watching what other people do. It's why I like gaming with people that I find entertaining. Even if my character is dead, there are those scenes where other people are taking the lead.

    I'm someone that like traditional RPG and Story games, and I'd say story games have at least as much time where you sit back and let someone else take the spotlist.

    Lastly, if your character just died and you have no interest in what happens to the rest of your party, rather than sitting on your hands, how about rolling up a new character?

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    1. Yeah, I broadly agree with all of that.

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    2. Johnny F. Normal30 October 2019 at 13:20

      "Fuck yo couch".
      I don't know why we pretend to have time for self-entitled whiners. The player is prefaced as a story gamer, of course they are going have a problem when the hand holding and mutual masturbation ends.
      The game must have consequences.

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  3. Nothing clever to add, just roll a fucking character already. The good DM, will have one enter the game before the clock strikes half-past.

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    1. Exactly. The previous dead character had a long-lost sibling who has come looking for them. Or there's a solo adventurer in this part of the dungeon. Whatever. A short break and then back into the game.

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    2. You don't even need an external event to bring in a newcomer usually-- isn't half the point of having henchmen around so that you can "promote" one on-the-spot into a replacement PC?

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  4. Also, it's a game and a social activity. What's also fun is, "C'mon Dave, what's wrong with your dice, hit that god-damn thing. It took me out."

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  5. Without more detail, I'd simply assume that the things she and you want to incentivise different things, rather than that she's so infantile as to not understand that incentives matter.

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  6. A high risk of PC death in a game is a good thing, I reckon: it quickly cures players of recklessness, incentivises them to innovate and encourages non-combat interactions with monsters and other NPCs. There's more fun in roleplaying Bilbo talking to Smaug (or Cugel talking to a deodand or whatever) than in roleplaying Bard drawing the black arrow from his quiver.

    A corollary of that is that a system in which character creation takes a couple of minutes is a very good thing. The Fantasy Trip is superb in this respect: just assign eight points between three attributes and you're off (skills can be worked out later).

    I do think that the GM should always have a few prepared means of introducing new PCs to the game - whether it's an orcish living larder, a caravan of dwarven slavers or the de-petrification of a gorgon's victim (thus allowing a PC from past centuries to be introduced). In a recent TFT one-shot I ran, all the starting PCs were members of a crew shipwrecked on an island; they didn't initially know if any of their other shipmates had survived, but it turned out that some had - rather conveniently, but with hostile lizardmen in hot pursuit.

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    1. Yes, I agree with all that. It's very easy to just say, though, "Oh, in the next room you come across some other adventurer who you recognise from the tavern" or whatever.

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    2. It's *often* very easy, I agree - but there are times, too, when it isn't quite as straightforward: the "sealed tomb" sort of dungeon, or any locale in which the PCs are apparently trapped.

      In those situations, having a preplanned PC-depositing engine can help out quite a bit. I like to have more than one, so that the dwarf slavers aren't constantly appearing with fresh bargains!

      I also like to incentivise survival by having new PCs impaired in some way, usually through the loss of equipment. I often somewhat Braunstein-ish skirmish games with several players (using Song of Blades or Fistful of Lead or the like). Our usual convention in that is that if your warband is destroyed or routed, you get a new one that is somewhat weaker (having fewer people, being built on less points or having only low-tech weapons in a sci-fi game). I like the effect that this has. It means that players don't throw away their last couple of blaster-toting aliens - because those are preferable to six club-wielding primitives. And the effect holds in RPGs too: you want to keep your plate-armoured dwarf, because whoever you rescue from the orcish larder won't have the same sort of gear (and the dwarf's companions will have looted his corpse of all the good stuff). There's endless fun to be had with Frodo-and-Sam-in-Mordor situations and the perils of sporting the wrong faction's heraldry after looting gear.

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    3. Good ideas! I like the idea of a table for that sort of thing.

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  7. She said "it's bad for players to be frozen out of the game and just have to sit there watching everyone else play."

    That statement applies to every single game to some extent. Run out of cash in Poker, you are out. You can watch or leave. Run out of money in Monopoly, you are out. You can watch or leave. Take away the risk and the reward is meaningless.

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    1. Yes - it's not really a game without that.

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    2. Sucks when the players split the party as well. Same problem, less permanent.

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  8. Seems like a case of different assumptions. She seems to want a game along the lines of "theater games" or various improv games, where the rules are mostly an excuse to prompt interaction and hamming it up. From that perspective, it is "bad" to remove a player from participating. Participating is the whole point to that kind of game -- not testing yourself, not simulating a dangerous environment, not pushing one's luck.

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    1. I suppose that's it - different strokes for different folks, as they say.

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  9. I am confused.

    Noisms, let's say you sit down to your regularly scheduled group game, which meets once a month for about 4-6 hours. On the average, it takes you about a half hour to get to the game and the same to get home afterwards.

    In the first ten minutes your PC dies due to a bad die roll, max damage from the GM, or a maybe some heroic action on your PC's part that saves a fellow PC but costs you your character.

    Now you think you should 'suffer the consequences' of sitting out the next 5 hours or so without being able to play? Well...bully for you. Personally, I would never want to be in a game like that. It's a waste of my time to travel 30 minutes for 10 minutes of fun and 5 hours of nothing.

    What surprises me is neither you nor the podcaster (I guess) came up with an alternative. Without thinking about it for longer than two seconds I can only come up with three or four ways this could be handled that would prevent the player whose PC died from feeling bored.

    Dead, paralysis, or the inability to contribute to the game is indeed a consequence of failure. That has nothing to do with not playing for the rest of the game. The consequences are you lose that character. All that character's development, plotlines, experiences, skills, etc. are over. Done. They are gone. I think that's plenty. The player should be penalized further?

    Am I missing something?

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    1. Yes - you'er missing most of what I said in the post, the edit at the bottom, and the comments.

      Nobody has anywhere said that once a PC dies the player has to just sit there and do nothing for the rest of the session. Nobody thinks that.

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    2. OK, I misunderstood the Edit at the bottom clearly. My apologies.

      At the same time, the rest of it still seems strange to me. Something in how it's delivered doesn't quite convey to me exactly what you're getting at. This is perhaps me, not what you wrote or how you wrote it.

      I haven't had a PC death in a game in years. Maybe a decade. No one complains. No one thinks there aren't consequences. Sure, some players say I should be tougher, make things harder...but always on others. Those same players freak out if they think their PC might die. I don't need those kinds of players.

      I need ones who are on the same page I am (and vice versa). Death is not necessary. There are other sorts of consequences. Moreover, if everything is going right, there is no need for them.

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    3. I have never known anyone who would freak out if their PC might die. That sounds totally bizarre to me.

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  10. A good compromise can be giving the player of the dead PC some monsters to run as a DM sidekick.

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    1. I have experimented with that. It can add a lot of tension, because usually that player, in my experience, wants to kill the other PCs much more than the DM does.

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    2. That's exactly the experience I've had - and especially when running games for kids.

      It's one reason I increasingly favour games in which combat, when it happens, is highly tactical: a board game or skirmish game in its own right. The Fantasy Trip is my favourite at the moment for this reason, but Tales of Blades and Heroes and certain others work similarly. If fights - when they happen - are absorbing in their own right, the player of a dead PC is still getting a good game out of running the goblins that just shot his character.

      It also helps that those games tend to be ones in which a handful of goblins will always pose at least some threat to a party - so roleplaying and non-combat encounters come to the fore much more.

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  11. Ironically, the longest I've ever seen a player have to "sit out" in a game I've played in was during a storygame, due to one of the other PCs not being "on scene" for an extended dialogue.

    Here's the thing with that: That same scenario can happen in any game. Town adventures are a recipe for this, and there's a reason that "never split the party" gets put around. The short "out" period spent re-rolling a new PC in, say, B/X, before that character can be re-added, is nowhere near as extensive.

    Even then, it's hardly as if there's not other things you can have a player with a dead PC do until that point - handle a henchman, roll for the monsters, take over as the real-world mapper, etc. The same can be more or less said for things like paralysis as well. The idea that there's "nothing to do" is certainly a theoretical issue, but it doesn't seem to have any bearing on the game in practice. If nothing else, you're at least socializing with people you (presumably) enjoy being in the company of. Banishment from the table, as far as I know, only exists in Jack Chick comics.

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    1. Well this is the point, isn't it? I seem to be being set up as the advocate of a completely absurd, non-existent position here. Banishment from the table does not happen.

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    2. I had a similar thought when reading this post. I've seen threads/blogs/videos/etc. concerning storygame-ish practices where the main piece of advice is to let each player have a moment "in the limelight" doing "something awesome" while the other players watch. It's really just an inverse of the situation described above (one player watching all the others vs. all the others watching one player).

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  12. Very interesting - http://goblinpunch.blogspot.com has a different take on paralysis effects (Post title "Scraps of Undeath"). My players are about to enter a Maze with a lot of Ghouls in it and I am trying to decide if paralysis is the default effect or should I have a lot of different effects of their attacks. Also one of the PC has a magic weapon that causes paralysis on a failed save so that has created some interesting options for the players and me as a DM so I think situationally paralysis effects can create interesting options for role play.

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    1. Paralysis is such a cool dangerous effect you'd be mad not to use it. Players are terrified of it, so it adds a real edge to proceedings.

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    2. Yeah, I love paralysis, and its cousin turn-to-stone. Was extra cool recently when a Barbarian PC in my epic-20 5e game got Stoned by a single failed save from the Golem of Xin (rolled a '1'), only for his Druid friend to immediately turn him back again.

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    3. Paralysis, turn to stone and level drain.
      Weirdly, those things almost seem scarier than the prospect of death to players.

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  13. Out of curiosity, which podcast was this?

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  14. The ironic thing is that a whole combat in OSR can take less time than a single round in 5e or 3e, or a single player turn in 4e... 5 minutes is nothing. Games that make PC death unlikely often have very slow combat systems as part of achieving this.

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