The greatest gaming lab ever created is the Las Vegas casino industry. That lab’s most significant finding is that humans crave two things in games: pattern completion and intermittent rewards. I’ve been thinking lately about how my favorite games leverage both of those monkey-level impulses. In particular, I’ve been thinking about how the very best games provide many different ways to achieve both.
Probably my favorite-favorite bit of running a PbtA style game is the little biochemical hit (dopamine? serotonin?) my brain gets at the intersection of pattern completion and intermittent reward. Many, many PbtA games set up a few different kinds of incomplete patterns just on the GMing side: rules that fire when a trope is triggered, genre-appropriate GM moves, fronts you’ve created yourself just waiting to tick down. I think those things all feed into my feeling that PbtA style games are the apex tabletop technology for genre emulation games, which is both a strength and a broadly unacknowledged/unrecognized shortcoming.
The bit where that pattern completion comes full circle for me and delivers the Vegas-style hit is the intermittent reward of a player’s missed roll. Whenever I think to myself, man, this sequence was just magical!, it’s those two things coming together, from different angles, and making the outcome feel both organic and fated.
In our ongoing Urban Shadows game, a couple sessions ago ended with a horrific running gun battle in downtown Miami, as a player manipulated a caravan of cartel thugs into a showdown with the city’s SWAT team. The lead-up barely matters: a cool let it out move here, a cashed-in debt there, two snowballs colliding, boom a hail of bullets and blood. Dead cartel goons and a major NPC that had been a thorn in everyone’s side, done and done. Yay!
Of course this being Urban Shadows, this isn’t necessarily the end. My prep between sessions led me to doodle down a new threat: what if that NPC is now a ghost? OOOH. I did up a quick clock to spool out what his vengeance from beyond the grave might look like. Then I filed it away.
The following session played out in the aftermath of this godawful event. Huge media coverage, all the mortals of the city are up in arms at this audacious violence, something must be done, good good, yes. My supernatural scumbags are back to living their shitty lives in the shadows. Worst off is the Vamp, who got caught in that hail of bullets and ended up with a permanent scar (lost a stat rather than straight-up dying). He’s prowling the streets in search of a meal, fucks up a simple feeding, and resorts to seeking out an NPC to square away a more-certain victim. He cashes in a debt with that NPC and persuades him to point out his least-valued goon. The Vamp has irresistible, which turns misses into soft hits with the addition that you “attract the attention of a rival or an enemy.” Because he’s been on the fail-train all night long, he misses and gets that. I file away the “attract the attention…” bit for later in the scene. Because I can feel the first tickles of pattern completion at the back of my brain. Something buried in my prep.
So there’s this great procedural pattern on the Vamp’s playbook that gets invoked every time we see feeding on-screen. It’s actually a two-parter. First, there’s the eternal hunger move, which is terrific: unless you roll a 10+, shit always goes sideways when you feed. Maybe the Vamp won’t care! Like, your victim might die unless you go out of your way to keep them alive. The other half of this is the Vamp’s corruption move, which ticks a Corruption every time you feed on an unwilling victim. Combined with the Vamp’s various incentives to prey on need, the whole playbook is a really unpleasant meditation on consent.
Yeah, well. The Vamp just straight misses eternal hunger. This is one of the few moves with some specificity around missing: “on a miss, something goes terribly wrong.” That’s different than baseline missing! I’ve been hammering home with my players that missing usually just means the GM gets to make a move. So misses that specify badness? That’s special.
I swing back to that “attention of a rival or enemy” bit. I close the loop on my prep and, badabing, his victim has been possessed by that godawful cartel NPC everyone thought was dead. Pattern: completed. And I chose that moment to complete it because I got the intermittent reward of a player’s miss. If someone was running an MRI on me at that moment, I’d be lit up just like I’d pulled three cherries on a slot machine.
Straight PbtA doctrine gives the GM lots of leeway for when and how to make moves. It looks constrained and formalistic but the “golden opportunity” and “when they expect you to say something” codicils makes these game act like any other conventional RPG. But there’s that extra psychic juice built into the intermittency of missed rolls, I think. It’s like permission to make a harder move. It’s a miss that everyone’s already acculturated to receive as a failure even after repeatedly training players otherwise. I know I definitely shrug and blame the dice for bad shit, even thought I could have inflicted that bad shit all along.
The Big Picture
I think where games work or don’t work for me is in how much they push the patterns/rewards buttons. Burning Wheel is all about both of those things: BITs and tests both set up patterns just waiting to be completed; rolling dice is the obvious intermittent reward, but it gains extra oomph both from gambling away your artha and in feeding back into the advancement cycle (itself yet another pattern to complete).
There are lots of procedural patterns to complete in Forbidden Lands but it’s missing a meaningful holding environment, which is any game’s primo A-1 pattern. There weren’t enough other patterns to complete (cool ability combos earned via advancement being the big D&D-style pattern) to hold anyone’s interest. Pushing, one of the Mutant engine’s killer apps, is a terrific intermittent reward though. Maybe it was that the stakes were too low because our particular group likes patterns in the fiction more than patterns on the character sheet.
Or sometimes we just can’t sense any patterns at all. The playbook moves in The Veil are designed to be open to many fictional interpretations, for example. But they are so devoid of guidance that we couldn’t complete any patterns with them. The moves didn’t “feel like” scenes from the movies or books or comics we were carrying around in our heads. But I know these games have their fans, which tells me they’re bringing their own patterns to those moves better than we could. Can’t win ’em all.
None of this is intended as scaffolding for some grand theory on game play or design. I do find it helpful in my own head, though, to spot the patterns my brain craves, to spot the patterns my players are craving (and are oblivious to), and to pay attention to the intermittent rewards being generated by the game and the vibe that comes with them. The intermittent rewards in a freeform game like Montsegur 1244, for example, arise from the inputs thrown your way by the other players, and those carry just as much psychic juice as rolling snake-eyes or a natural 20. And some players absolutely cannot perceive patterns in the fiction. Or in the rules. Or at the table, where we are all repeating patterns for comfort or pleasure: not just who handles what functions, but all the other rituals we enact to draw the magic circle around the table.