Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Tricking Players into Having a Good Time

As I may have mentioned, one of my skills is running live games: tabletops, LARPs, etc. Certain kinds of players find my games exceptionally fun, and I take some pride in that. This essay will tell you just a little bit about how I try to run a game.

I'm not perfect, of course. But I definitely do better than the "average game master". In case you're thinking this doesn't have any application to whatever your hobbies are: you're probably right. But maybe it'll be an interesting read. You'll never know until you try it.

The thing about a tabletop game is that everyone really does have more fun when they role-play. By that, I don't mean the rigorous enforcement of speaking in character. I always found that idea a little irritating, and I don't think very many people want to play that way. What I mean is that most of the people I run want to be part of a story. They want their characters to live in the world, even if the players do not. It doesn't matter whether the player speaks in character all the time, so long as their character speaks in character all the time.

This sounds obvious - or perhaps confusing - but it's something that few game masters build their games to allow. I try to do so.

In fact, I very, very rarely run a ready-made game system, because they are not built to pull the characters into the game, they're built to push the players into the game. Let me give an example of what I'm talking about.

Let's take GURPS. If you're unfamiliar with GURPS, just pretend I'm talking D20.

In GURPS, you spend a great deal of time making your character and picking personality traits. These personality traits cost or provide a certain number of points, and are intended to be acted out in session. For example, if you take "honorable", you're expected to act honorably.

This is a "pushing" method. The player takes a trait, often because he wants the extra character points or the stat modification, after which there is no built-in reward or penalty for acting out these traits. It's up to your GM to keep prodding you along with threats and entreaties.

Sure, some players do fine in that situation. But most do not. So I use game systems which have a built-in pull to them which rewards a player for making his character act in-character.

To explain, I'll use Nobilis. Nobilis is a fun and deeply defective diceless game in which everyone plays gods. In addition to a few other cool features, one of the most notable features of Nobilis is the flaws system. When you take a flaw, it gives you no character points. Instead, when it comes up during game play, you get "miracle points", which you can spend to increase your power temporarily.

This means that players who would normally have "powergamed" find themselves suddenly acting in character for maximum payoff. If they take "scared of heights", it only pays off when they act scared of heights.

Powergaming by role-playing. This really does work, but Nobilis is only a primitive example. Largely because it's pretty rare to use up enough miracle points to need to earn more.

My greatest attempt to perfect this was in my "Bastard Jedi" game. I ran in a "Not Star Wars" universe which used a lot of the same basic tenets. There were Jedi, and Sith, and the Force, and light sabers, etc - but I threw away all the particulars.

Now, this game didn't run... uh, smoothly. At all. At the time, I had just finished a Nobilis game in which half my players dropped due to time constraints. So, when I started up the Jedi game, I decided to take all comers, expect half of them to drop, and run two sessions.

I got stuck with between sixteen and twenty players for the entire course of the game. Almost nobody dropped. So the game was a bit hectic. But, still, many people did enjoy it (and many people didn't), and the core tenet of the game system was surprisingly effective.

The core tenet, of course, was "light side vs dark side". Each character had a number of personality axes. I think there were five or seven. They were axes such as "humility vs arrogance" and so forth. Each axis was obviously one side light, one side dark.

The way the system ran was this: you rolled a number of dice depending on your skill in a particular Force power plus the absolute value of what was driving you. So, if you had an arrogance of three, you would get three extra dice for using a Force power out of arrogance, whether it was a healing touch or a lightning bolt. Moreover, I would sometimes increase (or further decrease) the axis if you used it, so someone who used Force lightning out of anger would find their anger stat increasing... making it more useful to act out of anger next time. It also worked the other way: acting out of compassion was likely to make acting out of compassion more powerful.

This led to a natural tendency for even stat-mongers to give their characters a strong personality. And it worked. Flawlessly. Every single character in that game had a distinct personality, because they were very much rewarded for doing so.

I'll run it again someday, I think, with fewer players. Or more GMs. But I just wanted to explain:

The game system needs to support the whole game experience. If you want your players to have deep emotional attachments to the game, you need to reward them for pretending to have deep emotional attachments. Automatically. Continuously. As the rule, rather than the exception.

And this works for all players. I had people who were absolute munchkins, and they added to the game for once, instead of detracting. I had people who liked to role-play finding that they weren't being left behind on the power curve. I had people who were total newbs role-playing better than people in other games who had a five-year history.

Unite your rules and your goals, and nothing can stop you.


Patrick Dugan said...

To my understanding that las sentence, in context, is PAC in a nutshell.

Craig Perko said...

Yeah. PAC is my attempt to do it automatically.

JC Brewer said...

That's a really interesting take. Did you mean to do that with the original game, or is this theory something that developed from the experience?

Craig Perko said...

No, I developed it on purpose. I was irritated by Nobilis' not-quite-success. :)

Kestrel404 said...

I can attest to Craig's GMing skills. I've never been dissappointed by one of his games. Even the turn-based strategy game that only lasted three turns.

Craig Perko said...

Bastard Stars! Heh, that was a fun game.