Friday, September 09, 2005

Effing Reward System

So, the game mechanics of Full Light, Full Steam are pretty much finalized. I have stats, a die mechanic, thematic batteries, resolution that can handle Task or Conflict granularity, cooperative rolling rules, "health" and "damage", naval warfare (simplified enough so it doesn't drive me crazy), point-based character creation, integrated history/kicker/portrait/bluebooking... and it all works together. I think.

Except I don't have XP. I don't have an overarching reward system. I have an in-the-moment reward system in the form of thematic batteries -- these little guys reward the player for playing character frailties with opportunities for later chances to shine. What I don't have is Character Development.

The first question, of course, is "Do you need XP?" and I think I do. I at least need the option available. Character Development in terms of stats is an important part of the game as designed -- characters are dynamic and proactive and growing. That needs to be reflected on the character sheet.

I am currently enamored with out-of-character reward systems like Story Tokens out of Capes. As much as I want to add some of that in, I have to keep reminding myself that there's already enough player input and player control via thematic batteries and narration rights earned in die checks. I do not need to add a new mechanic on top of that, especially since doing so would require rebuilding the entire game.

The reward system needs to reinforce the design goals of the game. It's testimony to how frustrating this aspect has been to me that I'm now questioning whether I have design goals to reinforce. Thinking clearly, the design goals are to encourge collaborative creativity among the players, to facilitate characterization, and to be as mechanically simple as possible. I also want the thing to be scalable -- supporting both a five-session game as well as a months-long game.

At some point, I wanted all players to award XP instead of just the GM; I haven't figured out how to make this not a traumatic popularity contest.

One other possibility is to hitch character development to the thematic batteries. These things are the core of the character (gentleman, rake, loyal, competitive, cockney) and are player-designed. I can just have 'every time you discharge a thematic battery, add a tick in your XP box'. This would very much encourage characterization, but would utterly miss the collaborative and scalable goals -- it doesn't involve other players and it's totally static. To make it scalable, I could have the playgroup decide on an exchange rate for XP translating to character points -- so slow development has a high exchange rate (5xp for one CP) and quick development a low rate (1xp is worth 3CP). I try, however, to avoid multiplication and especially division in game design -- adding and subtracting in the 1-10 range is safe; anything else gets problematic. All that said, though, I don't know if doing this would overburden the thematic batteries and degenerate the game to charging and discharging these at the expense of collaborative creation.

I like in-game XP rewards, rather than end-of-game rewards -- in-game rewards celebrate player contributions while end-of-game rewards tend to judge player contributions, and that ain't happy. I'd be inclined towards a "you did something cool, here's an XP" thing awarded by fellow players, but that seems to add more variables (how many times can you award eachother, how much XP is it worth?) and props (how do you keep track of how many awards you've given and received?). The game is already shading into more complex than I want, in terms of moving parts and fiddly-bits. But this option does hit the collaborative creativity goal, it can hit the characterization goal... it's just not very simple. It's one more thing to keep track of, and in my experience, these systems always fall on their faces in implementation because players "unfortunately" get so wrapped up in playing that they forget to reward eachother with game effects (praise and smiles are a little more automatic).

Which of course begs the question, "Can I do both?" Can I tap thematic battery use and player commendations, giving players two streams of xp? At that point, I'm hitting collaborative creativity and I'm hitting characterization -- I'm just sacrificing mechanical simplicity as a burnt offering to the gods of game design. That's also a ton of details to keep track of at the most engaging parts of play -- potentially even distracting from those moments. That's "I discharge my Fever Genius battery for a 4-rank promotion; that's four ticks on my sheet. Rolling dice, I get a 12! In a shower of sparks, Merriweather engages the etherdrive and the asteroid streaks out of orbit into the Russian dreadnought!" Other players cheer and throw commendations at the player. Is that too much?

It's times like these when I see why GM Fiat gets used so often -- from a design perspective, it's easy to shove these very complex decisions onto the GM and hope she gets it right. I mean, while I'd certainly like whatever feedback I can get from you guys reading this, I feel like I've only scratched the surface, and I really need to explain the entire game, top to bottom, in order to give anybody enough context to respond. All this for one relatively minor aspect of the game. Fooey.

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