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[D20 Arcana Evolved] How do I improve my reward cycle

Started by ffilz, August 26, 2005, 05:17:17 AM

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ffilz

I have been running a new D20 campaign since April and things are going pretty well.

The players:

D&A: the young couple from my previous campaign
S: a new player who joined at the start
M: a new player who joined a few weeks ago

Not present:
J: another player from the previous campaign who has had to drop out
R: another new player who joined a few weeks ago

I'd like to highlight two play experiences from recent sessions:

Currently, I am running the old Judge's Guild module, Dark Tower.

The first experience was after a running battle where the PCs were able to capture some prisoners. They of course wanted to question them. Instead of my old method of making them make all sorts of rolls, and not really get much information, I called for one intimidation check, and then we dropped into a Q&A session where I dumped a lot of information, and gave them opportunities to ask their own questions. This was incredibly satisfying and seemed well received.

The second experience was the last combat in Tuesday's session. The PCs encountered a hall with two intelligent, spell casting, doors, one at each end. The two doors are arguing over a diamond sitting in the center of the hall. The PCs listened at the door, and then burst in, taking a while to grok that it really was the doors and not some people out of sight. One PC charged into the room and smashed the diamond. Another decided to grab the treasure lying at the base of the door they entered (each door had it's own little pile of treasure). That door of course took offense and blasted the PC. The other door took offense at the PC who smashed the diamond. Then the PC who smashed the diamond charged the other door and started to smash it.
An NPC, who had been holding, not quite sure what to do then also charged the door, and the two quickly smashed it. Then the three characters smashed the other door. I really liked how the players reacted to the situation, and took charge, even if I had sort of hoped they might only destroy the evil door (the one they entered by was good, the other was evil). Smashing the diamond in the center was just so cool.

My biggest issue with the campaign is what the reward cycle actually is, and what I might do to improve things.

We started off by using the Sweet 20 experience system, but we pretty quickly agreed it wasn't working well. A's character was earning twice as many XP as the others without really breaking a sweat (she plays a spryte healer/blaster and her keys were coward, healing, and conscience). J's character was earning about half as much as anyone else. One of his keys was key of the vow - keep his word, he only gave his word once (passing up several opportunities). S has key of glittering gold which didn't work very well with the way I hand out treasure. Several people have key of bloodlust which isn't working too well. S did do a good job of exercising key of conscience.

So we decided to just do arbitrary XP awards with each player getting the same XP. I also basically give them the appropriate treasure to meet the DMG's treasure guidelines by level each time they level up. We then decided to use the keys to drive awarding hero points, basically turning the 3+ XP awards into a hero point (limit one hero point earned per session). A was still racking up a hero point every session (pretty much every session, someone goes down hard and needs to be healed - triggering key of conscience). M has recently started to do a good job with key of the scary (his character has a ring of sustenance so he doesn't have to eat and drink, and after being poisoned at the inn, he has decided to forgo all sustenance even for pleasure, and has been quite vocal about it, and really does have the other players considering his humanity).

I guess there is still the reward cycle of leveling up, but that isn't driven directly by game play. It seems like the hero points are the primary reward cycle, but if so, some people are getting rewarded for actively seeking their keys, and others are just muddling along.

I think what I want to do is crisp up the keys and make it clear that the player has to actively seek them, but also make it easier for the players to seek the not quite so obvious ones. Probably allowing the possibility of gaining more than one hero point per session would be good. I also need to encourage the other half of the reward cycle by making sure players get to use the hero points to do cool things, M has made a couple uses of hero points to do cool things, but mostly they have been used as "get out of death free" cards.

I'd definitely love some suggestions for idea sources for creating new keys.

I also need to work on how the counter works, and make it a payoff worth taking. One thing that would be cool is for the payoff to include some kind of permanent bonus on the character sheet (related to the counter of course).

Frank
Frank Filz

Christopher Weeks

Quote from: ffilz on August 26, 2005, 05:17:17 AMIt seems like the hero points are the primary reward cycle, but if so, some people are getting rewarded for actively seeking their keys, and others are just muddling along.

Hi Frank!  I don't know the systems well enough to give really constructive comments, but this line above struck me.  It sounds like you're pointing this out as a bad thing...is that right?  And that you might have dropped Sweet20 for the same reason.  Why?  What will the 'boring' characters do if you leave it?  I'd think the whole point is to let them figure out the incentive system -- or explicate it if they're really dense, and away you go.  You're supposed to be making them drive the story with a system of keys.  'Course I'm not sure how that all works with a really standard module kind of adventure, but it's something they could make work.

Kerstin Schmidt

Frank, more questions than answers from me, too - for now.

First, you're using some Keys that aren't listed in the Sweet 20 document: I see Healing, Vow (the way you're using it anway) and Scary. Could you post the descriptions of those Keys and their Counters so we can make more specific suggestions? Some of your problems may be in the design and application of these Keys.

Second, what do heropoints do in your game? What's the benefit of using a third type of reward in addition to truncated d20 (levelling up arbitrarily)  plus  truncated Sweet20 (Keys but not for XP)?

QuoteI guess there is still the reward cycle of leveling up, but that isn't driven directly by game play. It seems like the hero points are the primary reward cycle, but if so, some people are getting rewarded for actively seeking their keys, and others are just muddling along.

...I also need to encourage the other half of the reward cycle by making sure players get to use the hero points to do cool things

This I find puzzling. How can hero points be the primary reward if players never use them for anything?

QuoteI also need to work on how the counter works, and make it a payoff worth taking. One thing that would be cool is for the payoff to include some kind of permanent bonus on the character sheet (related to the counter of course).

Now you're thinking about including a fourth reward system, with specific bonuses instead of abstract player currency (in the form of XP or hero points). Why do you consider that as a benefit?

Tough overall question: what do you want the reward system to achieve? You're basically designing your own reward system here, so I'd reckon it makes sense thinking about this.




Kerstin


Kerstin Schmidt

For ease of reference (mine, partly), the Sweet20 rules are to be found here.



Kerstin

Eero Tuovinen

Using Keys (assuming these are the TSOY kind of Keys, like the TROS spiritual attributes) isn't a functional technique to begin with, if you're working with a traditional dungeon module. At least everybody should know beforehand what kind of adventure it will be, otherwise they run the risk of choosing Keys that are impossible to apply within the adventure's boundaries.

Keys are only suitable for games where the players have major influence in the story, so they can set their characters up for xp gain themselves.

Just some general observations. Carry on.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Andrew Cooper

Being a D&D 3.5 player, I have some comments but I'm going to wait on most of them until Frank can get to Kerstin's questions.  The only real comment that I have right now is that too many reward cycles would seem confusing and I might consider avoiding that approach.


ffilz

Ah, good, lots of thought provoking questions. Of course in my usual writing, style, I've muddled things by shortcutting a few things... Kerstin, thanks for posting the Sweet20 link, I should have (Sweet20 experience is Clinton's adaptation of TSOY's keys to D20's XP/leveling mechanism).

Non standard keys:

The Key of the Scary (darn, not sure where I found this...): We all worry about you. 1 XP for uneasing people in a scene, 2 XP for calling into question the character being reasonably human and 5 XP for calling into question the player being reasonably human.  Counter: Put another character at ease.

The Key of Healing: this was player defined, defined to be sort of like Key of Conscience. One issue is that players want to create their own keys, but we haven't really sat down and worked out just how the key should work.

Hero points can be used for several things. One is to gain a +20 on a roll (and if the roll would have succeeded without the +20, there are usually other benefits such as automatic crit on an attack), Another is to get an extra "turn". Another (which is historically how they have been most heavily used in my games) is to avoid death. Other uses are also possible.

I'm not sure I would count the keys as a separate reward mechanism from the hero points. The keys are the thing that drive acquiring the hero points. Now there is a question, which is part of my big question, is leveling up and gaining treasure in D20 part of the reward cycle if everyone gets the same amount, and the reward isn't directly tied to events in play? If it still is, then adding keys and hero points might well be muddling the waters. If it isn't, or it isn't a strong enough drive, adding hero points might be just fine. Adding a different reward for the counter may be muddling the waters too much (and maybe the counter is not needed if we aren't trying to address premise).

On Chris's question of whether it's really a problem if some of the players are muddling along: In one sense not really. But it feels like the players really don't grok the keys at all. Of course maybe that's because there really isn't something to grok (or the thing to be groked is that they don't do what they're advertised to be).

But some of the comments the players have made, and the actions some players have taken suggest there is something there. One player remarked that he liked the fact that the keys rewarded a player for playing a "consistent" character (my sumarizing of his words). The player with the key of the scary is clearly being proactive. Earlier in play, one of the players with key of conscience was being quite proactive.

What do I want my reward system to achieve? I like the idea of hero points to give the players more control. Being able to refuse death (sitting out) is a good thing. Using a hero point to enable something cool is also good (M used a hero point to jump a balcony and land safely, despite his heavy armor - good start, but the followthrough failed since he didn't have the speed to chase the opponents - I needed to do something a bit more there, or make sure the player had a stash of hero points so he could then have burned another to catch up with an opponent). So the root of the problem is hero points are cool, but the players don't get enough of them to have a real impact.

My initial use of Sweet 20 was definitely not functional. If I didn't want to have people leveling up at different rates, giving individual XP is absolutely the wrong way to accomplish that. The use of something like keys to personalize how the players acquire hero points, and to make an explicit system for awarding them seems to be good idea on the surface, however, clearly the keys have to be capable of working in the framework of traditional module play.

Frank
Frank Filz

iago

Hmmm. I feel I'm sensing an imbalance in the keys.  Or at least, that there are two macro-types of them at work here.  Some of them are "action" keys -- if you do X, the key's relevant.  Others are (and this is a finely cut distinction) "behavior" keys -- if you act X way, they key's relevant.

To get a little more specific about that, I'm suggesting that Scary and Vow and Conscience are "behavior" keys while Healing is an "action" key. 

My *suspicion* is that action keys are a point of "imbalance" in how things are working out.  Hm.  Perhaps it's more this: the things I'm calling "behavior" keys seem to be more about choices that could easily go either way, whereas the things I'm calling "action" keys are more of a well, duh, of course that's going to happen thing.  There's no struggle over the choice with the action ones ... or more to the point, there's not often much incentive to choose the Counter rather than the Key.

Maybe part of the "fix" here would be to make Key rewards only get handed out if the Counter for that Key is also viably on the table.  For example, Glittering Gold favors wealth... but unless there's also a real opportunity to give up that wealth, it's not a case where that Key should be rewarded.

iago

Someone else also suggested that keys won't work with a Standard Dungeon Module.  That may well be the case.  Much like with Fate's aspects (Keys certainly share some lines of thought with 'em), you're going to get the most punch out of keys if you make certain to design an adventure with the chosen keys in mind.

Picking out the chosen keys from an earlier post, we have Coward, Healing, Conscience, Glittering Gold, Bloodlust, Scary.  (I do think Healing and Conscience are too un-different as to be both allowed on the same character.  Healing just seems like a specific version of Conscience.  Avoid overlap.)

Every character has multiple keys ... roll a die and/or pick one from each character for each session, and make sure those issues come up in the session you're about to run.  So, looking at that list, you know what "countered" questions to make sure your storyline asks:

Do I run like my instincts tell me, or do I stand and fight for what's right? (Coward)
Do I heal lesser folk even if they've done something bad/might not deserve it? (Healing)
Do I give this money I've rightly won to the people who need it most? (Glittering Gold)
Do I give into my desire for a bloody fight even if the long-term consequences don't look so good? (Bloodlust)
Do I comfort those in distress, or do I unthinkingly add to their fears? (Scary)

I guess part of what I'm saying here is that the counters are what's really interesting about the keys.  They have to be just as tasty, as options, to make going  with the key meaningful.

Sean

Hi Frank,

First, I'm really heartened by this post, because it sounds like you're having more fun now  than you were before, and that's great.

Second, I'm thrilled that you're running the great Paul Jaquays' classic Dark Tower. Played through it once, run it twice, love it to death. Haffrung Helleyes. The Sons of Set. Those crazy-ass magic gems and the Lions of Mitra. Oh, man, it's enough to get me to dust off my D&D books even today. The doors in your post are a great bit too.

Third, it's absolutely astonishing how many D&D games I've been in that have just turned into flat xp awards based on, well, nothing except that you were sitting there playing, or a general sense that it's 'time to level up'. This is not an accident, I think.

Now to suggest some answers to your question.

It's a party game, so you're going to want the party to stay roughly equivalent in effectiveness to ensure everyone has fun, which in D&D usually means roughly equivalent in level, which usually means roughly equivalent xp awards. You could fool around a little, though. Here's a way that might be fun: say a session is worth 2500 xp per player. Have an additional award of, say, 500 xp given out on the basis of the person the players vote for (and you don't vote yourself, Mr. DM, or even make suggestions) for MVP. However they want to define MVP. In other words, let them reward themselves for what they like: watch what they reward, and don't claim authority over it.

This doesn't work in all groups, but if they decide they really want this carrot then they'll start trying to play better (whatever that means for your group) to earn the social recognition of having delivered the most fun to the game (again, whatever fun means for your group). Again, not too big a reward, but enough to be meaningful and make people want it.

This suggestion points to a more general point - experience can be part of the reward cycle, but so, as you've noted, can other things like hero points be. (Luke's Artha rules for BW Revised, which used to be free on the intarweb, are to my mind a model of how a good 'hero point' system should work.) So the most general advice is 'figure out what's giving you and your players the most fun, and find some way of making that explicit and rewarding it'. The feedback loop of hero points let you do cool stunts and stuff give you more hero points to do cool stuff with can be a good one. You seem to have a pretty good system of playing your character the way you want to play it gives you hero points which you can do cool stuff and/or preserve your character with...not a feedback loop, but a decently functional system.

If you guys are mostly into exploration and roleplaying then in a way the reward system isn't going to be as important to you - you'll get the reward just by sitting down at the table. In D&D the exploraiton will include lots of fighting and puzzles and talking to weird potential foes, though, so improved effectiveness at those things, and improved interest of the process of play in which you do those things, will likely be what increases your fun the most.

Note to Iago: There are substantial opportunities for character-driven play in Dark Tower, so in that sense it's not a 'standard dungeon module' (I'd maintain that a perusal of actual dungeon modules indicates there's no such thing, but that's another thread); but it's still D&D, so some Keys are going to be better than others. Which is going to lead to xp imbalance which is going to lead to not fun play over the long term, so I think Frank's right to be looking for a different reward system.

iago

Quote from: Sean on August 26, 2005, 03:53:11 PM
Note to Iago: There are substantial opportunities for character-driven play in Dark Tower, so in that sense it's not a 'standard dungeon module' (I'd maintain that a perusal of actual dungeon modules indicates there's no such thing, but that's another thread); but it's still D&D, so some Keys are going to be better than others. Which is going to lead to xp imbalance which is going to lead to not fun play over the long term, so I think Frank's right to be looking for a different reward system.

Well, sure.  In fact, exactly right and sort of central to my second point -- if the rewards only become viable when the Counter is viably on the table, and the story of the module is bent to make sure that those core, key-based questions come up each session, I think the inclusion of keys are going to work a lot better, even if it's "still D&D".

Bankuei

Hi Frank,

Here's another idea- reward the group, not individuals.  That is- D&D usually rewards fighting by splitting xp across the board for everyone who is fighting- why not just reward the whole party flat for everything?  Granted, some folks will work harder than others to really rake in the xp, but you will find even the others will probably at least assist in getting points.  Everyone levels equally, but incentive to push for whatever you're planning on rewarding is still there.

Also, don't forget that people can switch out Keys for new ones.

Chris

iago

Quote from: Bankuei on August 26, 2005, 04:15:17 PM
Here's another idea- reward the group, not individuals.  That is- D&D usually rewards fighting by splitting xp across the board for everyone who is fighting- why not just reward the whole party flat for everything?  Granted, some folks will work harder than others to really rake in the xp, but you will find even the others will probably at least assist in getting points.  Everyone levels equally, but incentive to push for whatever you're planning on rewarding is still there.

There's something pretty solid there.  Hell, there's something EXTRA solid there if it's happening with keys contributing XP into the common pool.  In that case, you've got every player invested in seeing your character pursue his keys... (I'm seeing the "reward the party" thing as essentially putting a Level on the party itself, rather than individual characters, with the party's level conferring to its members.)

ffilz

Iago has a good point in the differentiation between types of keys, and that is part of what I'm stumbling on. Good point also about conscience and healer being too similar.

On the other hand, the idea of making a choice between the counter and following the key is addressing premise, which I'm pretty confident isn't where we're going.

Sean, yes, definitely having more fun than in the past. There are some key things that are helping it. The group is smaller which is a good thing. Attendance is also very consistent (3 of the active players have made every session, and have not been a cause for skipping a session, one of the new players has made every session since he joined). A big enabler for that consistency is playing on week nights, and since the 4th original player has dropped out, we have been able to move to Tuesday night which works really well with my schedule (I do lots of long weekends, I have never had a long weekend include Tuesday, but Thursday night that we used to play is generally part of any long weekend). Of course one of the players did play the Tuesday before GenCon (he flew out Monday morning).

Yea, Dark Tower is definitely a cool old module. I don't remember if I ever ran it in full, I did play in it once or twice.

Quote
Third, it's absolutely astonishing how many D&D games I've been in that have just turned into flat xp awards based on, well, nothing except that you were sitting there playing, or a general sense that it's 'time to level up'. This is not an accident, I think.
I agree. Interestingly, a discussion about XP has broken out on Sean K. Reynold's boards, and Sweet 20 was mentioned in the first post. The discussion seems to be heavily leaning towards this flat XP award.

Voting on MVP and awarding extra XP based on that would be counter to the idea of flat XP. Awarding hero points for MVP might work. One possibility instead of using keys is to have the players award each other hero points ("Cool move dude, take a hero point!"). But the players are expressing interest and desire in something like the key system that helps them define their character, and then get rewarded for putting that character into action.

And perhaps it's as simple as that. Tell the players that the idea is for them to define what is cool about their character, and then play the character, and get feedback in the way of hero points which the player can use to help further demonstrate their character (part of which is denying death, saying "no, I'm not done with this character yet." or "my character doesn't go down in the fight, he's cool and shrugs off the deadly blow and keeps on fighting.").

The healer character isn't totally broken in this aspect, except that the player really isn't being proactive. On the other hand, this player may not be proactive ever. This is the young wife, the one who really shrinks into her shell, and may be there primarily to enable her husband's play. Though she does come out of that shell, sometimes to say really random, but energizing things, sometimes with a quite logical contribution. So she is contributing to the game. I'd just like to find a way to get the feedback loop going with her.

Frank
Frank Filz

ffilz

Quick note - I cross posted with those last three posts - back to those in a bit...

Frank
Frank Filz