Day 3: What’s your favorite behavioral incentive?

So, my thinking behind why I asked this question.

One of the most notable and maybe cliched aspects of the past decade-plus of small press games is their focus on the actual table experience. If you haven’t been around from the beginning of RPGs, you might think, duh, this is obviously a game design thing. But it wasn’t! We had literally decades of “we all know what roleplaying is,” which resulted in designs that didn’t do much more than present novel ways of deciding if you hit and killed an opponent.

And oh the pushback. It’s one of the most contentious points of friction between trad and indie gaming. The word “meta” lies somewhere between dismissive and pejorative in the trad world. Those people are just wrong. I don’t often draw a line in the sand that way but I am here: the games trad people love have all the same “meta” considerations, even if they’re not explicit.

In my experience (!), a lot of the most popular modern indie game design treats behavioral incentives as literal incentives: the designers want X behavior, so here’s a reward cycle that pulls you through X on a regular basis. Fate wants the players to cooperate in building exciting, colorful scenes, so here’s how you earn Fate points and then invoke Aspects with them. Mouse Guard wants the players to help create complications for their characters, so here’s how you invoke your Traits when you get in trouble to earn Checks. And so on. Prescriptive design: we will pay you to play this way.

Compare to the more descriptive methods that are the hobby’s roots: when you kill a lot of shit and steal a lot of treasure, you get better at those things. Of course some/many players have treated experience point schemes as prescriptive since the beginning, hence stuff like “we go kill evil races because that’s where the XPs are” type play. How meta!

There’s probably a whole pretentious essay buried in here about the influence of capitalism on this school of design. The thing is, while indie games work marvelously well when the players are incentivized by what the game is paying them to do, they can get reeeeally squirrelly when the players and the incentives don’t match up (that’s tomorrow’s question btw, about perverse incentives).

Thing is, right? Not everyone actually wants to “win.” Games that pay you in a currency that helps you “win” won’t do a damned thing for the players who just want to, you know, be acknowledged. Or to have the right to push the story in some direct that interests them. Or to keep score.

Some of the early answers to Day 3 have been terrific and thought provoking and have nothing to do with direct payment for behavior: ask questions, assert your enthusiasm as a fellow player for the behaviors you like, provide an interesting choice between winning and advancing. Behavior is so broad! I think it’s the core of luke crane’s “game design is mind control” mantra.

On that note, my favorite behavioral incentives are both luke crane creations.

One is the requirement that you buy shoes in Burning Wheel. Such a tiny little gesture, but it generates so many interesting choices that influence the game’s shape. It’s so tiny that, I think, the trad folks who are bridging over to fiction-driven gaming via BW often ignore it, and what a shame. When you make your player work out just how it is that they’re armed with an expensive sword but they can’t fucking afford shoes? That’s your whole game right there. Thank your player for handing you so much useful context.

The other is choosing the color of your cloak in Mouse Guard. He’s not the first one to add that bit of visual authorship, but it’s so efficient. And damned if it doesn’t work: my players own their characters so much more when they’ve made positive assertions about how their characters look. And when they don’t, it gets really easy to revert to treating your toon like a package of scene-winning capabilities.

They’re my favorite because they’ve produced the biggest bang for the buck. And they’ve done it invisibly.

12 thoughts on “Day 3: What’s your favorite behavioral incentive?”

  1. Mark Delsing aw thanks, man.

    I wish I’d paid attention to the actual calendar when I put the questions list together. I had a lot to say about this one but it’s a Saturday post so it’s gonna disappear.

  2. This is the most interesting question so far. I’m seeing some cool ass answers.

    But I guess I’m not really understanding how the cloak color thing (which I agree is awesome) is an incentive? If it were optional, I’d agree, but it’s sort of demanded, isn’t it?

  3. IMO it’s an incentive to come up with a cool one.

    But there are most definitely players who will say “uhh black” and that’s the end of it. They won’t really care about their choice and it won’t really set the hooks very deeply. Which is the thesis of my whole essay: not everything incentivizes everyone.

    That one’s a favorite of mine because when it works it’s very efficient. I love efficiency in design.

  4. Aaron Griffin shorter and pithier:

    The behavior is acting like you give a shit about your character, and the incentive is a teeny little bit of visual authorship that does not have to be cleared by the GM, and reincorporating it as a player at every opportunity.

    IME the trick is way more effective than it should be. The “uhh black” folks are in the minority whenever I’ve run it.

  5. The word “meta” lies somewhere between dismissive and pejorative in the trad world. Those people are just wrong. I don’t often draw a line in the sand that way but I am here: the games trad people love have all the same “meta” considerations, even if they’re not explicit.

    I love this.

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