December 29, 2010

System Considerations: Player Actions

Monday, I discussed what DMs can do to encourage players to get into the game, get a little nutty and add to the narrative on their own. Today, I want to approach that same topic from the designer’s mind set.

Obviously, different designers have different ideas on what the players should be adding to the story. In X-Crawl, for example, the players need to be showboating and doing crazy awesome things as much as possible. The Tomb of Horrors, on the other hand, is much less player oriented and more puzzle oriented, wanting to limit players from doing insane things. Since we have two possible extremes, I’ll just talk about the principles of building in incentives and disincentives for the kind of things you want your players doing.

The basic concept is of course that anything you build incentives for is more likely to happen, and anything with a disincentive is less likely to happen.

The issue then becomes how do you create incentives for a specific kind of action? Ones I’ll expand on include mechanical simplicity, mechanical bonuses, resources, and experience points.

Mechanical Simplicity
Why was grappling not used very often in OGL games? It had a long series of problems, but one of the primary ones was its complexity. In a game full of complex subsystems, grappling was by far the most complex action any character to partake in. Often, even if it was the choice that everyone at the table wanted to see, it was passed over just due to how much that thematically interesting action slowed the overall flow of the game.

So learning from that mistake, the obvious way to encourage actions is to make them mechanically simple. The less work the Player needs to do to make it happen, the more likely they are to do it. One or less die roll with a well documented effect allows the players to make a choice and have it done with minimal fuss. This allows people the ability to focus on the the action and flow of the game.

Mechanical Bonuses
Why do you stunt in Wushu? Obviously, because it made you effective. The more you added to the game, the more likely you’d succeed.

So write in bonuses for taking the sought after actions. Extra dice, bonuses to the die rolls, whatever it is that helps your Players succeed. The higher chance of success will draw them to it just for the chance to be more effective over all.

Resources are more abstract, but your system can encourage different things through its resources. Drama points, Action points, even in game currency can all be used to encourage different types of games. A micro-economy of earning and spending these resources keep the players focused on the actions you want in the game, while making unwanted actions ‘not on the menu’ or by raising their price. The only issue with raising their price is you also raise their apparent worth in Players’ mind.

This type of pricing creates an scarcity of the different types of actions, which makes taking the action as much a goal as the actual character goals themselves. If you’re trying to encourage actions, this type of scarcity brings more focus on the intended actions, but if you’re using it to discourage actions, you may unintentionally make those choices more appealing due to their rarity.

The final place that is easily designed around and good at encouraging actions is Experience. However the characters get better at what they already do is a place to put in systems for encouraging the actions you want to focus on. Set the rewards for only the actions you want, and don’t give experience for other actions you don’t want to happen.

To discourage actions you generally take the opposite approach. Penalize discouraged actions, make them more complex mechanically, dock potential XP.

So, readers, what kinds of actions do you want Players taking in your games? How do you plan to encourage those actions? How do you intend to discourage actions you don’t want taken?


  1. That "mechanical simplicity" bit is gold. It's so true - the harder things are mechanically, the less often you see them at the game table.

    The "mechanical bonuses" is also quite true. When we at Cracked Monocle realized that not enough people were using firearms in our very steampunk, firearm-heavy game, we upped the power on firearms and made more firearm options. Now-a-days, firearms are the player favorites, and we like it that way.

    Cheers & Gears,

  2. labatterie: do you mean to encourage the intended behaviors verbally every chance you get? While some developers do get that benefit eventually through panels and such, a developer, like a writer, loses their voice in proceedings after it gets in the hands of the consumer. What was written is all you've got.

    Sir Alan Dreyfus: Mechanical simplicity is something I champion every chance I get, and why one of the complaints I hear in games ("They're dumbing it down!") is so harmful to the business of games as a whole. Nice to hear you improved a core part of your setting feel through mechanics. It's so simple in practice you wonder why it isn't touted by more designers!

  3. I hate to be the one to point this out, but labatterie is a spambot. It copies random chunks from the text on the page and posts it as a comment, meanwhile is getting spread. You can see it on three of your blog entries.

  4. Thanks for the point out, Dreyfus, spam destroyed. Explains why the comments made no contextual sense.