Roses and Thorns and Applause

Update Your Operations Manual

This is an official announcement from the Indie Game Reading Club. Please download the updated PDF and/or mark up your local play culture procedures manual.

Time to talk about being the change you want to see in the world, specifically regarding helping players do better.

Primetime Adventures has fan mail. Burning Wheel offers inducements for specific kinds of positive player behavior (embodiment, workhorse, etc.). There are others of course, but those popped into my head. Economic incentives are great and usually (!) actually incentivize. But you know what always incentivizes? Other people.

Recently I received heavy doses of indie game culture radiation (it’s okay, I’ll live, keeping my eyes open for nascent superpowers), during which I got to see lots of uses of roses and thorns. You know this one? Go around the table after a game and say one nice thing and one critical thing. Designers need it to help hone in on the ideal experience. GMs need it to help hone in their craft.

But it’s all trickle-up. Players are above GM or Designer. Do the feedback thing, the top dog gets what they need, the players part ways or maybe they have a gushing debrief.

Please update your Local Play Culture Operations Manual with the following:

10.2.4.a – At the end of session, each player shall give positive recognition to one or more fellow players. This recognition shall herein be referred to as applause. It need not be long or gushing. Any positive acknowledgement will suffice. GMs will continue to receive feedback via standing roses and thorns procedures covered in the previous section.

Here’s what I’m thinking: unless the event was so unpleasant that you wanted to ghost the table (or scream, I get it), every player’s participation deserves to be noticed and you can find something nice to say about every player’s contributions. Believe me, I’ve been at some shitty tables. And I’m pretty sure I could come up with a moment, a gesture, something worthy of praise.

I feel like, culturally, we are in desperate need of more positive feedback loops around play, especially if there’s any belief that play is a craft and that its improvement benefits everyone. I do! I know I’m much happier as a player and as a facilitator with better players. And as a side note: loops need to go in a circle, so as players let’s also be listening for the positive contributions of other players, yeah? I don’t know what it is about playing, but gosh it’s easy to crawl up inside our own heads. That might be a result of the cognitive load of play itself, but I’m betting just about any neurotypical player can split off a little bandwidth.

One small positive thing. Every time. That’s all I ask. Your operations manual now mandates it.

0 thoughts on “Roses and Thorns and Applause”

  1. I typically end my sessions like so: I want to go around the table and have each person name something that happened this session that they thought was awesome, or they want to see more of, or just really liked at the time.

  2. Aaron Griffin I do that too! And you know what usually happens? The players do the safe thing and talk about The Game Itself, the shared hallucination. Very rarely, when given this sort of feedback opportunity, will I hear I really liked how you threw me softballs, Aaron or Thanks for helping explain that thing I wasn’t getting across earlier, Aaron or whatever.

    This is a different thing.

  3. I’m very lucky that my players already engage in this, gushing about one another’s portrayal, dramatic choices, backstabbing, et al. All of which is to say: I like it, Paul! Totes need to be a thing! More positivity between players about players!

  4. Aaron Griffin whichever! But I’m thinking the player-to-player thing is the most important. It could also be “holy wow you’re committed to your accent” or “I loved it when you revealed your big plan!” or whatever.

    Real example: in our Burning Wheel game, completely isolated from the artha payout discussion EOS, I’ve told Jonathan Perrine more than once “I’m loving how wishy-washy your dude is.” Wishy-washy! But it’s so perfect and I want him to know it.

    Also: not gushing. Just acknowledgement.

  5. Back when all I ran was White Wolf stuff, I structuralized this, as follows:

    Since the XP rewards in WW games is usually pretty small, between 2-5 per session, if you go by the book, I went around the table and asked everybody to say one thing that they really liked about another player’s performance or table presence, and reward the recipient with a bonus XP, to reward good behaviour.

    Eventually, I drifted that to reward both the recipient and the speaker, since I thought that praising another player was worthy of support, too.

    In games that use XP differently, I still try to do this, but in different ways. Sometimes I just do it informally, but I definitely like that ritualized debrief of, as you say, acknowledgement.

  6. Adam D my feelings about economic incentives are growing more complicated for Freakonomics reasons.

    My brain: Do I actually need the XP? Naaah. The XP now becomes the cost to not be bothered with all this.

    I see perverse incentives allll the time in games and so my feelings are…evolving.

  7. That’s fair! I probably wouldn’t need the reward carrot now the way I did back when we were all surly children.

    Though that said, I can see the opposite problem if there was no cookie on offer, that people would say “oh, this isn’t part of the game, and I got places to be” and just vanish in a puff of ketchup chip flavouring powder.

  8. Okay, honestly I cannot imagine that actually happening at a table with real human beings. For real?

    “Let’s real quick go around and give a little applause to another player. No big deal! Just a quickie.”


  9. It’s definitely not likely. I’m thinking mostly of those days where the game goes long and people are halfway out the door before I’ve finished saying “let’s wrap there.”

    Though in those cases, I suppose a small in-game reward wouldn’t be enough to get them back anyway.

    Edit to add: though honestly, I also can’t see someone saying “I don’t need the XP so I’m going to opt-out of the applause phase” as a thing that’s likely to happen.

  10. I didn’t think parents would leave their kids late at daycare if all it cost them was the $25 late pickup fee, either.

    Perverse incentives! Brains are weird!

  11. Rose and Bud — something that was fun, and something you’re hoping to see go further.

    Actually, that could probably be twisted into criticism…but Rose can be used for backhanded complements too. YMMV.

  12. I’ve thought about this a lot in context of larp debriefs: I think “highlight something somebody else did that was awesome” tends to lead to some people feeling stressed: it can feel like an award scorecard where some people win all the apprecation and some people lose.

    But in Here Is My Power Button, it works wonderfully, since the game is about 1-on-1 relationships, and so you give exactly one compliment and receive one compliment.

    So I think maybe the tabletop version, that also skirts the “people being too generic” issue is “call out a cool thing the person on your left did in the game”

  13. James Stuart to your left is nice! I dig that. And it spreads it around. It’s really easy for your Star Player to just get lots of “oh yeah her, she was great” as an easy out.

  14. Is there any value to adding “thorns” to this? Or is that too confrontational?

    Aside: in a college writing class I took we’d do in-class critiques of each other’s stories, but the prof had a rule that the author was not allowed to respond in any way. Since you won’t be there to explain things when people read your work, you have to sit silent and accept what people make of your work. Not sure if that has a place in here somewhere.

  15. Mark Delsing I think I get what you’re going for, but that’s a very specific kind of buy-in. I think I could see “ok, we’re gonna do an RPG skills workshop, and there’ll be thorns”, but it’s not part of the “this is my hobby” thing, for me.

  16. Kit La Touche on the flipside, over-highlighting of a star player could help educate others on what the table wants to see, I get that some people have anxiety or similar issues over this, though.

  17. Having to say something about a specific person (to the left or whatever) would stress me the heck out. I can say something positive about the experience as a whole without making it forced, but with a constrained topic it would feel very awkward to fake it.

  18. Paul Beakley Oh, sorry, I don’t mean them to be fightin’ words. I understand that “negative applause” could go south real quick. I was asking out of genuine interest.

    I mean, negative critique can be useful, too. E.g., “Bob, I noticed that you were having a really hard time figuring out your combat powers every time your turn came up. Is there anything we can do to help?”

    Granted, it’s probably 1000x harder to do diplomatically and constructively.

  19. Mark Delsing yup, cool, sorry, I was reading into that. Combined with yesterday’s bit about having fun w/o system mastery — that’s the post that got out of control and now it’s a Word doc — I had you in a fucking players, amirite? slot.

    Which, depending on the week, I can totally sympathize with.

    I feel like a couple things are going on with player-facing thorns:

    1) When a GM or designer calls for them, it’s because they want the critical feedback. They’re opting themselves into critique.

    2) Encouragement is probably more than adequate for whatever goals you may have for other players (but maybe not yourself; I could totally see a “hit me with your thorns” option on a player by player basis). Kind of like how we give out artha and fanmail for good shit, but we don’t dock artha and fanmail for bad shit.

  20. When playing with Venn in their playtest, after discussing how to symbol “X” with your forearms, or wiggling fingers for “I’m starting to feel uncomfortable”, they also had us lighting drum the edge of the table with our fingers when we liked something. (It’s like that consent flower thing with the green part: “More of this!”)

    And it was grand. There were so many moments where those of us that were watching the scene got to show our appreciation of something funny, or dark, or dramatic. And it’s not only our way of expressing our approval, it’s a way the players in the scene get some immediate feedback on a thing that is making others happy!

    We started taking that into other games during the weekend. I’m going to start using this in my games.

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