I have been a part of “geek culture” for a very long time now. I say that not to suggest authority in any way. Far from it, in fact. What it means, however, is that I remember a lot of the more turbulent times of this and other hobbies. I lived through the times where it was more or less openly OK for “geeks” and “nerds” to get bullied and physically assaulted in school. I remember the “Satanic panic” of Dungeons & Dragons as well as M.A.D.D. (Mothers against Dungeons & Dragons) and some of the other events that occurred in what I would call the “dark days” of gaming.
As we climbed out of that time, I can remember what it was that helped. It was a craze that I never actually got into, but am somewhat grateful for now all the same. It was 1999, and in March, a game was released by Sony Online Entertainment that would change the face of gaming forever. The game was Everquest. It took the computer gaming world by storm, and honestly, it took me completely by surprise. People I knew that would never think twice about playing a tabletop roleplaying game began playing this computer game that was so obviously based on Dungeons & Dragons that it was laughable that they couldn’t see it. But as more and more games like this got released, up to and including the massively popular World of Warcraft, suddenly, it wasn’t so strange that people would talk about pretending to be elves or wizards. Gathering together in gaming groups, or “guilds” if you prefer, and talking about such things in one’s spare time became acceptable. And slowly, the animosity we had faced began to fade some.
Aside from that, however, Tabletop Roleplaying Games (TTRPGs), and in particular, their theory, owe a lot to Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (MMORPGs). One of the reasons that they have been shown to be so popular has to do with the psychology behind playing them. In those kinds of games, we often talk about an Achievement Mentality. In other words, the endorphin rush that comes when you obtain a powerful quest item, level up, or defeat a difficult raid boss. Combined with sight and sound produced by incredibly talented animators and audio effects artists, such a rush is amplified handily. TTRPGs can have a similar effect, and while not as pronounced usually, it is still important to understand.
The most concise explanation for this idea in TTRPGs that I have ever run across was given by Monte Cook in the game Numenera. In the Discovery corebook, he says the following:
“…the game also has a more conventional method of awarding XP between sessions. But it has nothing to do with killing monsters.Numenera: Discovery, page 123, inset sidebar, emphasis added
“I know—that’s weird for a lot of players. Defeating opponents in battle is the core way you earn XP in many games. But not in Numenera. I’m a firm believer in awarding players experience points for the thing you expect them to do in the game. Experience points are the reward pellets they get for pushing the button—oh, wait, no, that’s for rats in a lab. Well, same principle: give the players XP for doing a thing, and that thing is what they’ll do.
“In Numenera, that thing is discovery.”
Since it was what popularized the industry, let’s look at Dungeons & Dragons for our first example. Where do you get “achievement” or experience from in Dungeons & Dragons. Initially, it was basically just killing monsters. As time (and editions) went on, that broadened to be more flexible a bit, but it was reinforced again by the MMORPG genre. When most people think of Dungeons & Dragons and advancement in that sphere, they think of killing monsters. I want to be very clear here. There is nothing wrong with this line of thinking. Dungeons & Dragons rewards a specific thing. That is just fine. If you enjoy that, play it. It is, however, only one example.
Numenera mentioned another: Discovery. In numenera, you get experience for discovering new things. If you find an artifact from a prior world and figure out what it does and how you can use it, you get experience. If you explore a prior world ruin to figure out why the river that feeds your fishing town suddenly got flooded with green goop, you get experience. There are, however, no experience values given for ANY of the monsters in the game (despite combat being a thing – which it is). “Give the players XP for doing a thing, and that thing is what they’ll do.” By de-emphasizing combat, Monte was trying to get players to look at alternative methods for getting things done in Numenera. It doesn’t always work, but the idea behind it is sound.
Let’s take another example. John Harper released a game called Blades in the Dark that spawned a series of spinoffs that are said to be Forged in the Dark. There are seven different character types in that game. At the end of each score, experience is awarded to characters based on four different questions. Three of these questions are the same from character to character (although based on the build of the character, two of those will be completely different for each character as well). The fourth, however, is class specific. A Hound will not earn all their experience in the same way as a Slide or a Whisper might. What is being emphasized here is playing to a character’s strengths which are not necessarily combat-oriented either. In this game, if you can get around an obstacle by talking, and you are a Slide or a Spider, you have the ability to gain just as much experience as if you were a Cutter or a Hound and took care of the challenge through violence.
In roleplaying games, the most obvious “carrot” is experience (whatever the equivalent term for your game is). But there can be others. Treasure, character power, character prestige, special equipment, etc… All of these can be motivators for a character (and consequently a player) to drive the action. So how does one ultimately decide how to structure a game to use this principle for maximum enjoyment of the group? By covering it in Session Zero, of course!
Session Zero is a great place to sit down with individual players and the group as a whole to discuss and understand what motivates each individual character, player, and the group/party as a whole. Oftentimes, this will be similar from game to game, but if your players enjoy diving into deep, immersive roleplaying, it may very well be dependent on the type of character they are playing, so you may have to change it up from campaign to campaign. There is nothing wrong with that. What you will find, however, is that if you do not take the time to figure this out at the start, there will arise a disconnect during the campaign and your characters (and players) may not act or pursue the things you expected. This makes things more difficult overall and can hinder enjoyment.
In summary, focus on rewarding characters for what you (and they) want to do. Figure out what that is in Session Zero and structure your campaign to match it. You’ll find that a lot of things are easier and will go a lot smoother if you have done this ahead of time. We did not talk at all about the other half of this common saying, the stick. The reason for that is because there shouldn’t be one. The purpose for TTRPGs is so that everyone has fun. If the GM feels like they need to get out a stick because the carrot isn’t working rather than trying a different carrot, there’s a quite different problem that needs to be addressed. Happy gaming!
- Josh Walles
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