Wednesday, December 21, 2005


Ever since reading Alfie Kohn's Punished By Rewards I've been a little uneasy about the way Forge theorists throw around "rewards" as the key to game design.

Jim Henley articulated similar concerns a little while ago:

I promised Elliot I'd promote a developing comment-thread drift into the subect of reward systems to a top-level entry, but I don't have time to make it any better than I did in the comments. On one level, all I'm doing is saying "But the play is its own reward!" one more damn time, but I'm also trying to explain how I think that is necessarily the case.

If there's a formal reward system that gives me X, say, experience points, for doing Y, is the idea that I'll do Y so I can accrue my X? Because what is it about X that makes it worth having, necessarily? Chances are the function of X is to make me more effective yet at doing Y, right? (It has to do something.) So if I wouldn't be inclined to do Y in the first place, why would I do it just to get X so I can do Y even more? (Or even better.)

Take "classic" D&D. If I kill things and take their stuff, I get experience points. Which will make me better at killing things and taking their stuff. IF I want to kill things and take their stuff in the first place, I'm good. But if not, not. If I really want to kill things and take their stuff, why start me out bad at that, and only make me good later? This is probably related to why so many actual existing D&D campaigns start characters out at 3rd level or 8th level or whatever - the written reward cycle fails to match up with player desires.
"Reward" to me brings up the idea of "external motivation" -- "you do this and then you get that." "Be a good boy and you get a cookie." "Be a good employee and you might get a nice annual review and a raise."

Henley's post clearly articulates the absurdity of this... and the commenters agree and say that's not what "reward" means in context of Forge discussions. But I'm not sure what it does mean, and I'm not sure I will without reading a whole bunch of threads that I'm not gonna have time to read, about the concept of a "reward cycle."

And Jim didn't even find those threads that helpful:

Hi Mark: You might be right. I did read the "reward cycle" threads. I think it's an interesting term that is currently bound up in some circular definition (the it's what signals the end of an "instance of play" which is "enough play to figure out what the creative agenda is" etc). And the reward cycle threads did in fact seem to focus quite a bit of attention on reward mechanics too - hence the "what's the reward cycle for sim?" question segues into "most of the one's I've seen are actually negative, like punishments for 'bad roleplaying'" turn that one of them took.

So I'd like to learn: what do you think would be a formal, intentional reward cycle that would be distinct from a formal, intentional reward mechanic?
Perhaps the best commentary is from Neel, who brings up the Matrix Game, which has no explicit reward mechanics.... or does it? If you make an argument that seems "strong" to the referee, your stuff happens. That's the reward, right?

I dunno. It is a puzzlement.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Crashspace: Glim

See the immediately previous post for an account of our pilot episode of Crashspace.

I'm changing Glim's Issue. His current Issue is that he was a really cool popular well-liked guy back in space, and he wants to stay that way, but it's challenging on Earth, where he doesn't know the territory.

That wasn't fun for me, because "wanting to be cool" isn't an interesting problem to me at this point in my life. Being cool and the life of the party and well-liked is an interesting power, but wanting to be cool isn't an interesting problem. I would have more fun just having Glim have the magical power to be the life of the party even on Earth than having him trying to be the life of the party and having trouble with it.

So what for an issue? Well, the pilot suggested this: he likes everyone to get along, have fun, and be happy. He's a peacemaker and a diplomat. But there were two times where he abandoned his friends in the face of danger. When is he willing to take a stand, to get into conflict and stand up for something rather than compromising and trying to smooth everything out and get everyone to "be cool"? What will it take for him to take a stand?

THAT is the issue.

Cool is the power. Drawing a line in the sand is the issue.


Saturday, December 03, 2005

[PTA] Crashspace

Last night I started up a new show of Primetime Adventures with my Grand Rapids group. I had been doing DitV with them for a while, but I needed a change, and PTA seemed right.

The premise of the show is this: a group of extraterrestrial college students crash-land on Earth and are staying with a group of Earth college students, all the while trying to stay hidden from the MIBs and attempting to find a way home. We wanted some drama, with a liberal dash of comedy. Some ultra-violence found it's way in too.

There are five players and they divided up the roles, with three playing aliens and two humans.

First off, the humans:

Corwin Dawson, played by Greg is a Comp Sci/Physics major, who is so disaffected with his life that he wants to help the aliens and go back with them.

Owen Cristobal, played by Kub, is a conspiracy theorist/journalist major, who is a major fast-talker. He has found himself on the other side of an alien cover-up, and is not sure how to handle it. He is also fairly fluent in Basque. Wait for it...

Now the aliens:

Jim is playing Benat, a koala like alien. Yep, he's a cute little fuzz-ball. But, he has been trained from birth to command starfleets. See, his race is to be the warriors of the galaxy. But here on Earth, he is considered a cute pet. He is desperate to return to his home and way of life, though he has recently discovered alcohol and is very fond of it. The language he speaks is a lot like Basque, and since his translator was destroyed in the crash, he can only communicate with Owen. Oh, and everyone call him "Mr. Snuggles."

Bob Waters, played by Dave, is a sentient liquid alien. His people are part of a collective that sends parts of itself out to experience life and learn things, then come back and share with them. The problem is, since the crash, he has developed a self, and he does not want to lose it, which would happen if he rejoined the collective. He really does not want to go back. He has learned to maintain a human form, but it can be tiring.

Ed is playing Glim, who can actually pass for human. Back at the alien university he was "someone." A cool dude, the life of the party. He's not sure where he fits in here, but he is sure gonna try and find out. This might change, as Ed told me after we ran the pilot that he was not entirely happy with Glim.

I had so many more clues about PTA than I did when I ran Unseen. The pilot was kinda short -- we didn't start playing until 11:30 p.m. and we were all pretty tired. There were 8 scenes, mostly taking place at a house party that Glim had been invited to, almost all character oriented. I figured it would be nice and low pressure, and give the players a chance to see and use the system. It went well.

There were a lot of highjinx at the party, including a drunken koala-like alien, a voyeuristic water-alien, and the electrocution of a nemesis on the part of Corwin -- he just stunned and humiliated him. Then the MIBs showed up, and captured Owen and Mr. Snug... er, Benat. The drunken, militaristic, koala-like alien opened a can of destruction on them. I'm pretty sure they consider him a major threat and will act accordingly if they find him again.

Our "Next Time On..." seemed to feature a lot of Agent Neon, the gorgeous MIB who is Glim's nemesis. I can't wait.

-- Joe

Friday, December 02, 2005

bye bye theory at forge

You've read about it in all the other indie RPG blogs and fanblogs already, nothing to add here, except that it still baffles me when we end up on lists like this:

Chris Chinn's Deep in the Game
Vincent Baker's anyway.
Ben Lehman's This is My Blog
Matt Wilson's The Dog Blog
Matt Snyder's Heads or Tales
Ed Heil and Joe's Esoteric Murmurs
Shreyas Sampat's Raven Swallows the Sun
Jason Petrasko's Rainfall
Keith Senkowski's One Angry Polack
Joshua Bishop Roy's Game Foo
Most of these people are game designers and deep theory thinkers or fine theory preachers. We just sort of talk about stuff and we like Forge games and every so often I go on an absinthe binge and rant a bit. Joe talks about games he runs and plays and likes. There ain't that much to it. But it's kinda cool. Hi, anyone who followed those links! This is just where we hang out, nothin' special. Follow those other links for cool theory talk. Stay here if you just want to open a cold one and hang a bit.

Course, someday I'll finish Odyssey: Strange Lands and then I'll be one o' them game designers too.