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.

Story time!

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.

We were missing our fourth intrepid adventurer for last night’s Forbidden Lands game, so I busted out Plaid Hat’s Gen7. It’s the next board game in their Crossroads series, the first being their two Dead of Winter games. While we were playing, I could not help but notice how much playing Gen7 feels like playing a freeform tabletop RPG.

There are important differences, so don’t go buying Gen7 thinking it’s the next Montsegur 1244What I’m talking about is a strain of boardgame design that evokes emotional responses via many of the same evocations that RPGs have been doing for a while. The methodologies are merging and we’re getting some interesting stuff.

The first time I experienced a strong story-feels vibe from a board game was playing FFG’s Battlestar Galactica. In that game, there are one or two Cylons hidden among the human crew and nobody knows who is in which faction. Players in both factions wind up paranoid and panicky while they try to outmaneuver each other and signal which side they’re on. Yes, fine, I’m sure there are plenty of players who reduce the exercise to pure social deduction. Nobody I play with does that.

Story time!

My favorite BSG moment was playing with my niece. She was, oh, probably 14ish at the time. We had a table of 6, which is perfect because you have two Cylons hidden around the table. Her character started the game as President, which is a vital role for both the humans and the Cylons: humans need their President to make human-friendly calls about various crises that arise during the game, and the Cylons need their evil toaster President to screw over the humans and smile the whole time.

But our President’s player is 14, right? And it’s her first game. And oh boy has she gotten swallowed up by the game’s paranoia. So has everyone else! There comes a point, after she’s made a couple not-optimal calls that have left the humans worse for wear, I turn to her and say “I’m not sure if you’re a Cylon or not. And I’m pretty sure I can’t get together enough votes to get a new President. But you’re bad for humans no matter what, so I’m gonna vent you into space.”

This is me, telling my 14 year old niece, that she’s bad at her job and she’s better off dead than screwing things up for humanity. She’s horrified that I can even think that, much less do it. If that’s not pure storynerd drama fuel, I don’t know what is.

Gen7 reminded me quite a lot of the BSG board game experience. In Gen7, you play the commanding officers of a generation ship hurtling through space toward Epsilon Eridani. It’ll take hundreds of years and many generations to get there. The players are the seventh of, I think, 14 generations (??) that will live and die on the ship before it gets to where it’s going. And of course something has gone wrong.

The killer app of Gen7 is the Plot Book. It’s a branching-narrative game, with eight possible endings. The game lasts exactly seven sessions. Each session is probably 2-3 hours long. We played the first episode last night, and it took about 3 hours. Lots of that is because the game reveals itself as you play, so the rules are scattered between a rulebook, a rules reference section, and rules cards that are being added to the table every session, legacy game style (think Pandemic Legacy or Betrayal Legacy.)

The Plot Book essentially stands in for a live facilitator. The branching approximates simple if/then decisions along the way, much like some larp scripts mandate that certain events will take place in the course of the session. The point isn’t to solve the plot, it’s to experience the events as they are revealed. We’re playing to find out.

In our first session, we were told (via box text read aloud) that we’d just awakened from cryosleep, there’s some minor problems with our robot helpers, and we needed to get our round of ship management started. It’s a learning session, so just completing one round of play is how it starts.

Gameplay comes down to addressing a number of crises, drawn from a large-ish deck, while pursuing our own secret objectives. The tension between cooperating to keep the ship operational and pursuing our own goals feels similar to the structure of some freeforms and larps I’ve done. You know, the ones where you have a stated role (the commander of the fortress, the head of a religious sect) and hidden questions you’re working toward answering in play.

The Plot Book introduces wrinkles to this tension, further stirring the pot. In our game, near the end of the first session, we’d had to decide by vote whether to disengage our ship’s AI from running our life support, or carry on with our normal operations. Do we trust HAL? That was our first branch, and (not trusting our AI, nosiree) we ended up taking our AI offline. Doing that introduced new and interesting pressures, further drawing us away from our own goals.

Pursuing our own goals have a tangible payoff in both “stars” and “merit.” Stars buy you perks, which you’ll accumulate across sessions. Merit helps you gain new ranks (think 3:16!), which allows you to hold more perks and gives you more votes when crew votes come up. If you end up “top officer” (i.e. earn the most Merit), you also get to be the “star” next session. The point of that is to give you more draws from the Crossroads deck, little narrative decision points that impact you, or the ship, or future events as you start adding new secret cards to the various decks in play.

On the table, fully laid out, the game looks like it’s going to be a worker placement thing. And it is, basically: on your turn, you’re choosing how to deploy your faction’s (barracks, which are responsible for various ship operations: data, robotos, manufacturing and biology) colonists, a small pool of d6es. There are “seats” all over the table where you can send your colonists, as well as a growing list of crises that require sets of colonists as well as external resources to solve.

If someone deployed such an elaborate set of dramatic and procedural inputs in a freeform game, it’d be an utter failure. I mean that’s obvious and uncontroversial. But if you get past the elaborate stuff — most likely by internalizing the game’s procedures to the point where it’s all pretty smooth, much like we do with complicated RPGs — the feels are right there, waiting to be felt.

I was about to tick off the “obvious” differences between feels-forward board games and feels-forward roleplaying, but every time I came up with one, I had to stop and think about it.

Shared Imagined Space (SIS): This is the big one. Like, when you’re playing BSG or Gen7, the crises that arise don’t really fictionally “matter.” I have an operations goal I’m trying to achieve called, oh, “population census” or whatever. The name doesn’t matter, you’re not “actually” rooting around in computer records, I’m not play-acting any of that and having a scene around carrying out my census duties. But what I’m doing looks less efficient to my fellow players than, you know, jumping on that busted generator down in engineering that’s threatening the whole ship with permanent disaster. The SIS isn’t about exploring the fiction, it’s about exploring the relationships between players and that imagined space is very much shared. And if we’re really being honest, I think we can point to lots of RPGs (larps, freeforms, all of them) where exploring relationships matters more than exploring fictional elements.

Characterization: There’s no mandate, or even suggestion, that you come up with a distinct character for your role. And yet you still have a role. Gen7 does the mouse-cloak color thing where you get a little character ownership early on, by naming your character. You’re also assigned a relationship with one of several NPC cards, which impacts certain Crossroads cards as they come up. Again with the honesty: Many, maybe most times, at a tabletop RPG session, characterization is pretty weak too. Like, fine, you’re a moody elven hunter but not really. You’re just Joe the Roleplayer, being Joe.

But what about the stoooory: Since events are advanced by movement through the Plot Book, no, there is no facilitator shaping events into meaningful drama. But there’s still definitely drama as players argue about things like whether to trust our AI or whether to let our chems lab get damaged because, hey, I’ve got better things to do with my time. I can feel the edges of meaning as those arguments happen! This is where games like Gen7 feel a whole lot like scripted freeforms/larps: we bring meaning to the events that are going to happen no matter what, and driving “the plot” isn’t the point.

In the end, though, Gen7 is not an RPG. It is mechanically so elaborate that most of my bandwidth was taken up trying to work out my play in terms of efficiency and advancement. (Side note: I’m also aware of freeforms that use similar bandwidth-engaging tricks to distract, misdirect or focus the players.) You can’t really explore the fiction in an RPG-y way. But it definitely licked a bunch of emotional and intellectual spots that get licked in similar ways when I’ve played feels-forward freeforms that have similar constraints.