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275647 Posts in 27717 Topics by 4285 Members Latest Member: - Jason DAngelo Most online today: 139 - most online ever: 429 (November 03, 2007, 04:35:43 AM)
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Author Topic: Incentive Systems and Wanting to Lose  (Read 10045 times)
Sydney Freedberg
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« on: February 10, 2005, 07:02:03 PM »

Yes, yes, yes, in D&D you kill things and take their stuff, and as a result you get better at killing things and taking their stuff. Not what we're talking about here.

Tony Lower-Basch got our local ad hoc gaming gang together to run, within a week of each other, one session each of Vincent Baker's morally agonizing Western game Dogs in the Vineyard (Actual Play posts here) and Tony's own relatively lighthearted superhero game Capes (Actual Play posts here) -- two very different games, but each built around an incentive system that strongly drives its particular style of play. What's particularly interesting is that each system rewards certain forms of defeat as much as, or more than, victory: Dogs tempts players to escalate conflicts and gives them new, double-edged character traits as they suffer ("Fall-Out"); Capes allows players to invest one kind of resource (Debt) in improving their chance of winning a conflict, but converts the winner's investment into a reward for the loser in the form of a more powerful resource (Story Tokens).

I think there's a lot of potential in rewarding defeat, for two big reasons:

1) Game & Story: No interesting story has one guy win all the time; there are ups and downs, triumphs and failures, moments of doubt and moments of certainity. Positive feedback loops as in D&D -- where the more you win now, the more likely you are to win later; the more you lose now, the more likely you are to lose later -- are less interesting a gameplay challenge than negative feedback loops as in Capes --where  the more you win now, the more likely you are to lose later, and the more you lose now, the more likely you are to win later.

2) The whole point of roleplaying in the first place: If you have an amazing story you want to tell... go write a novel. The whole point of roleplaying is that you get to enjoy the imagination of other people, your fellow players, and what you come up with together is better than what any of you might have produced alone. But here's the thing: If you really let everyone have influence over the story (i.e. if you reject "the impossible thing before breakfast" that somehow the GM is the author of the story, yet the players control the protagonists in that story), then some things you want to see happen definitely won't. Defeat is inevitable. So why not embrace defeat and make it as much fun as victory?

Two questions, then:

Generally, does my theory of the Joy of Defeat make any sense to people?

Specifically, what other systems have people seen, played, or invented that reward failure? Trollbabe's "the loser gets to narrate" rule comes to mind, but alongside Dogs and Capes, that's only three examples in a vast sea of systems where "success is good, failure is bad."
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TonyLB
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« Reply #1 on: February 10, 2005, 07:32:43 PM »

No big surprise that I'm a fan of negative feedback loops.  But I'll add another item, which is not specifically related.  More of a "two great tastes that taste great together" thing:
    [*]If you reward victory and punish defeat in equal degrees, you have created a zero sum game.  At that point, any player who wins (counting the GM as a player) is doing so at the expense of one or more other players.  Even the GM, who has supposedly infinite resources, will often find individual situations where player victory would mean stinging GM defeat ("They can't kill my bad guy NOW!  It ruins the whole story!")  Setting aside the social ramifications, a zero-sum game encourages players to take risks only when their odds are as assured as possible.  In short, it encourages tactical caution.  D&D is often played as a zero-sum game.
    [*]If you punish defeat MORE than you reward victory then you have a negative sum game.  Any confrontation, even if it benefits one player, worsens the overall situation of the group.  Good strategy is to avoid any possible type of confrontation, no matter how much weaselling you have to do in order to do it.  Caution becomes cowardice, and then paranoia.  Amber and V:tM are often played as negative-sum games.
    [*]If you punish defeat LESS (or less often) than you reward victory then... I don't know what that is, and therefore I think it's very worthy of discussion.  I think that InSpectres and My Life with Master fall into this camp, but I'm not at all sure.
    [*]But if you reward victory AND you reward defeat then you have a win-win game.  Picking a fight with another player is always a benefit in such a game, and always welcome (assuming rational participants).  High-risk, and even self-destructive strategies are logical and inevitable.  Capes, Dogs and Universalis are designed in this way.  The only way to lose is not to play.[/list:u]And... yeah, I got one more thing to say, more directly in response to Sydney's point.  Positive feedback loops lead to death-spirals (where once you start losing you have, statistically, lost).  Negative feedback loops are self-maintaining.  That's their most recognizable characteristic.  You can push them as far and as hard as you want, and they'll always bounce back to somewhere near the middle ground, usually with a lot of velocity/chaos on the return trip.
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    coxcomb
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    « Reply #2 on: February 10, 2005, 07:37:19 PM »

    This is something that I first started thinking about after playing Trollbabe for the first time. I think the key may be less of players being rewarded for not getting what they want than players getting to have some say over when they fail.

    What I found with Trollbabe was that players started seeing the possibilities in failure, since they got some choice as to whether they failed or kept going. Instead of, "Oh shit, I failed", it becomes, "Failed again, hmm,  if I stop here I could say that X happened and that would be cool".

    I think the very fact that there is something more for the player to contribute if the character fails is reward enough by itself.
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    Jay Loomis
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    Brendan
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    « Reply #3 on: February 10, 2005, 08:41:48 PM »

    Nobilis's disadvantage system is something like what you described, Sydney.  Instead of getting extra character points for taking advantages when you start the game, you get miracle points to spend when they cause you hindrance in play (or, for some constant handicaps, you have your maximum miracle points permanently increased).
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    Ron Edwards
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    « Reply #4 on: February 10, 2005, 09:02:50 PM »

    Hiya,

    Sydney, you know Pace, right? Check it out; there's a forum here at the Forge too. Big-time failure-driven play.

    Best,
    Ron
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    Callan S.
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    « Reply #5 on: February 11, 2005, 02:43:37 AM »

    Of course, by failure driven we mean the PC's failing. The player is succeeding in their goal through that.

    Which brings me back to D&D 3.x, where an encounter equal to your party level uses up about a fifth of your resources. You loose the thing that matters in D&D (resources), but that grants you XP, which makes you win latter (leveling).

    I think were simply talking about how different CA would use the 'loose to win' technique, here.
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    TonyLB
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    « Reply #6 on: February 11, 2005, 06:00:59 AM »

    On D&D:  Uh... no.  You're still saying they won.  Heroes live, monsters die, virtue saves the day.  But if they fail to kill any monsters then they get (at least in the old-school D&D I'm most familiar with) nothing.  The characters lose and therefore the players also lose.

    We're talking about systems where, for instance, a party would choose to go into a dungeon and come out ragged, battered, bloody, having lost all their magic items, killed nothing and been humiliated by the goblin king... because the players succeed in their goal through that.

    You may well be able to craft a "characters lose" scenario that's profitable in D&D (in fact I'm curious to see how "off the beaten track" you need to go to do so) but I don't see it in what you wrote so far.
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    Ron Edwards
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    « Reply #7 on: February 11, 2005, 08:08:15 AM »

    Oh yeah - Elfs. I think it's the most extreme example of winning through character failure available in a Gamist context.

    Best,
    Ron
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    Marco
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    « Reply #8 on: February 11, 2005, 08:22:30 AM »

    I'm assuming that what is "won" in these games is "player satisfaction" and not an in-game resource--is that right? 'Cause if it's an in-game resource then I think Noon is correct.

    Also: Does the "Rocky" scenario count? You go in and give it a heroic try 'cause the challenge was way over your head anyway? Or does this have to be the "Of Mice and Men" scenario where the defeat is complete and ultimate and play stops there (as opposed to there maybe being a Rocky-2 where you might win something).

    'Cause I've seen a lot of the "Rocky" mode of play -- but I haven't seen so much of the "Of Mice and Men" style play.

    I once ran a game that was designed to be an operatic tragedy. The situation was stacked against the players to begin with and the players were trying to rescue people who were already dead (they didn't know it) and the game was factored (although not required to kill off all their NPC friends along the way).

    Unfortunatley we did not finish due to external factors but the game was very dark and the players appreciated it going in (although they were not told it was going to be a tragedy).

    I had one game end in a mutual suicide (unforseen on my part) by the PC's after it became clear they were up against a foe they weren't going to beat, had been betrayed by their familes, and were mutating. The suicide was a *kind* of victory: they were denying the forces that wanted them a chance to have them.

    But it was pretty dark too.

    I don't consider those far off the beaten path (one was run with GURPS. One was run with something like GURPS). Both were considered functional games.

    [Note: I saw a lot of this in my CoC games, now that I think about it ... ]

    -Marco
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    TonyLB
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    « Reply #9 on: February 11, 2005, 09:03:01 AM »

    Marco:  "Won" meaning when the characters win... or lose, or...  Uh...

    Okay, I'm confused.  Your first sentence can (expanded) read as either of the following:[list=1][*]"I'm assuming that what is "won" (by the players, in the act of letting their characters lose) in these games is "player satisfaction" (e.g. a sense that the story is going as it should be) and not an in-game resource (e.g. Story Tokens to buy later control over the story) -- is that right?"[*]"I'm assuming that what is "won" (by the players, in the act of making their characters win) in these games is "player satisfaction" (e.g. they beat the bad guys and therefore feel bad-ass) and not an in-game resource (e.g. they beat the bad guys and therefore get lots of experience points) -- is that right?"[/list:o]If you can clarify what you mean then I can respond.  Then, with the common understanding, I might be able to tackle your later points.
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    Marco
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    « Reply #10 on: February 11, 2005, 09:11:58 AM »

    I mean it in the first sense (1). And, yeah, I guess I was applying it to story-direction. If a D&D group goes up against a foe they can't "beat" and gets humiliated and beat up--but escapes with Xp to make them more effective later, would that count?

    I mean, I think it's a pretty blunt, very basic sense of having the charcters lose but the players think their goal was accomplished--but I sort of think it would count.

    -Marco
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    TonyLB
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    « Reply #11 on: February 11, 2005, 09:24:21 AM »

    You're talking about players getting their characters into situations where they will probably have no power to achieve victory.

    We are talking about situations where the players have the power to give their characters victory, and choose defeat instead.

    For instance, in Dogs in the Vineyard, a fifteen year old girl slaps a Dog in anger during a conversation, escalating to Fighting in order to get the dice to continue the conflict.  The Dog's player now often has a choice:  Escalate to fighting as well (slap her back), take terrible Fallout (curse her out in a way he'll be ashamed of later) or Give.  If they Give, it is not because they were defeated beyond their ability to respond (as you say "goes up against a foe they can't beat") it is because the player chose to lose for the benefits it can garner (in this case, being able to face themselves in the mirror).

    Am I reading you correctly?  If so, does this help explain why I've been finding it so hard to answer your questions from my viewpoint?
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    Troy_Costisick
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    « Reply #12 on: February 11, 2005, 09:25:42 AM »

    Heya,

    Another application of this observation is possible when games provide different advancement rewards for success and failure.  Say, for instance, success leads to social status advancement while failure leads to exp rewards.  Both improve the character, but in different ways.  I woulnd't mind seeing a game designed with that principle in mind.

    Peace,

    -Troy
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    TonyLB
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    « Reply #13 on: February 11, 2005, 09:27:03 AM »

    Sorry, didn't answer this one.  Might as well be explicit....
    Quote from: Marco
    If a D&D group goes up against a foe they can't "beat" and gets humiliated and beat up--but escapes with Xp to make them more effective later, would that count?

    No.  If they went up against a foe that they could beat, but somehow found a situation where they could get more XP for losing, and lost, then that would count.

    As I said, I think you might have to go a bit off the beaten path to find that in D&D.
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    Marco
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    « Reply #14 on: February 11, 2005, 09:37:03 AM »

    Okay: I can see that's a difference--I was looking at it as a choice of game level decision in my cases rather than a during-play level decision (i.e. if I choose to play CoC and say "make it dark" I'm choosing to 'lose' for personal satisfaction). As a player looking at two game books (CoC and D&D) I have "the power to achieve victory" based on which one I choose to play (and, really, how I choose to play them--either could be doomladen or victorious in spirit).

    I have seen players do things exactly like the "slap" scenario (the player's bad-ass character gets chased out of the bar by the bar-maid) for reasons not related to mechanics. In fact, I don't think it's all that rare unless the stakes are high (continued play in the game).

    But I've rarely seen an *entire* game hinge on losing by the intent of the players in a game where it wasn't 'lost' to make a statement (i.e. we play through the whole game and, during the last play session, when it is clear there will not be any more, we are battered, bruised, and defeated but consider the game a success for some reason not related to the story generated by play).*

    It's a good point though.

    -Marco
    * In the two games I cited the players and I discussed the fact that the games would be "very dark" so it wasn't a surprise and the players were, IMO, complicit in the theme of the game (in fact, in the case of the suicide, while they couldn't *beat* their opponent, they could've "gone along with" their opponent and had a much better outcome down the line--it was a fairly informed and passionate choice to 'end it there.')
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