[Poison'd] Trying to understand Currency and Reward Systems

Started by hix, January 25, 2011, 05:33:29 AM

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I ran Poison'd twice at Kapcon in Wellington this weekend, and I'm hoping to use the experience to try and better understand the ideas of reward cycles and currency.

The first run was a spectacular success: a group of seven players completely in the zone, well-briefed by me, who exploded into action once Brimstone Jack's body hit the deck of the Dagger. To follow the actions of just one character through the game:

  + Patrick Marlow, quartermaster, immediately pulls out his brace of pistols and shoots two of the pirates he is ambitious to be revenged upon. He then guts Young Zeb Harris and claims the captaincy while holding Zeb's intestines above his head as a trophy.

  + Following a successful raid on the Hyperion, the rest of the crew revolt at Patrick's disgusting behaviour and throw him overboard. Patrick endures duress rather than fighting back.

  + Sinking into the ocean, Patrick strikes a bargain with God – who is cynical and doubting about Patrick's willingness to follow through – and vows to build an orphanage to God's glory if he's allowed to reach shore. Patrick is then rescued by the crew of the Resolute, and impersonates a priest ('Father Benedict') using deceit.

  + It so happens that the Resolute is transporting the Prince of England, and Patrick subdues an unsuspecting and helpless opponent in order to fulfil one of his more sordid ambitions.

  + Finally reaching shore, Patrick begins construction of his orphanage but is ambushed by two pirates from the Dagger, who are following the Devil's orders. Patrick endures duress rather than fight back, and we last see him being carried off to be sacrificed.

The second run was a fairly complete disaster, partially due to low energy levels from myself and the players. The pirates never left the Dagger, and the whole thing culminated in a disgusting scene of sexual revenge and violence that repelled the whole table, prompted me to suggest we close the game there, and triggered a really interesting debrief about the game's mechanics and the social experience.

(Is it worth noting that I've run Poison'd twice before this – both times were enormously successful – and had less players. In both of these games the pirates left the ship, had great scenes on shore and got back aboard the Dagger.)

Now I don't really need to talk too much about why it was a disaster. I think the key things I took from the experience were:

Graham Walmsley's advice to 'get the pirates on shore as soon as possible' is absolutely true. Scenes on shore give us the opportunity to see another side to each pirate – they can give us something to admire about them or want them to achieve. For example, in that first run of Poison'd Young Zeb Harris survived his gutting and managed to promenade with the Governor's daughter, Abigail Winslow around a ballroom.

The initial situation foments a whole bunch of tensions between the pirates. Getting them ashore gives them opportunities to pursue their other Ambitions, and then getting them back aboard the confined quarters of the ship ratchets the tension up to a whole other level.

What this second run inspired me to do, though, was draw up a chart of my understanding of the various systems in the game and how they work together. This is what I came up with (it's a work in progress):

A chart of Poison'd's system

(I created this in Google Docs, and apparently it can only be shared as a .png file to download. If that's problematic to view, let me know and I'll try and find some other way of hosting it.)

A couple of things that were immediately obvious to me once I'd drawn up that chart. First, my second run of Poison'd at Kapcon only used the right hand side of the chart. We never dealt with Ambitions that took place ashore, Leisure, or Scenes on land.

The second thing is how brilliant Poison'd design is. In order to have scenes on shore, the pirates have to earn Leisure. But the amount of scenes you can have on land is strictly limited by the amount of Leisure you have available to spend. This forces the pirates (who might otherwise never get back onto the ship together after reaching land for the first time) to re-board the Dagger and go hunting for ships to plunder.

Maybe it's weird, but that dynamic was never obvious to me until I drew the chart (despite having run this game four times).

What I'm hoping is that we can use this as the starting point for a discussion about what Currency is, and what the Reward Cycles in Poison'd are. The Provisional Glossary defines Currency as:

QuoteThe exchange rate within and among Character Components. Currency may or may not be explicit (e.g. "character points"), but it is a universal feature of System, specifically as it relates to Character.
Here are some things in Poison'd that I think meet that definition:

  • Xs (earned by successful overcoming non-fighting challenges, these give you advantages in fights)
  • Leisure (earned after fights with ships, Leisure allows to you fulfil land-based Ambitions)

The Provisional Glossary defines 'Reward System' as:

Quote(a) The personal and social gratification derived from role-playing, a feature of Creative Agenda. (b) In-game changes, usually to a player-character, a feature of System and Character. (c) As a subset to (b), improvement to one or more of the character?s Components. Typically, the term refers to how (a) is facilitated by (b).

I'm unsure what the Reward Cycles of the game are. These spring to mind as possibilities:

  • Scenes on-shore and the development of relationships with non-pirates
  • Fulfilling Ambitions

I hope this gives us enough to discuss – let me know if not. This is something I've been fascinated about for a while and – despite the fact that real life will keep my posting rate slow over the next two weeks – I'm keen to understand.

Find out more about Left Coast (a game about writers, inspired by the life of Philip K. Dick) on Twitter: @leftcoastrpg

Ron Edwards

Ooooh! A system chart, drawn by someone besides myself!

I thank you for making it possible that some day, I might try playing Poison'd again.

Let's talk about reward cycles! I'll start with the small but crucial detail, from your chart, that Ambitions only pump arrows outwards. This means that in order to play Poison'd at all, the characters must strive to fulfill their Ambitions, frequently, imaginatively, and with verve. Now, there's something subtle about this - if that's all there were to it, then characters would be boring automatons. Conditions of the moment should also provide nuances and moderators of Ambitions, such as coping with a warship or storm or whatever, obviously, but also agreements to delay (for instance) opposed Ambitions between two pirates at least as long as it takes to achieve some common goal.

OK, that's the start: Ambitions, opportunities to get them, and moderating influences upon such efforts. By definition, therefore, a major reward cycle of play per character must be striving toward one or more Ambitions under circumstances A, seeing how that turns out, and then having some new profile of Ambitions which are being striven toward. This "new profile" can be constructed of different Ambitions or not, and the important ones last time around could have failed or succeeded or been delayed. It's "new," though, because something has changed significantly along the way, even if it's just the circumstances.

Since no arrows feed directly back into the Ambitions in obligatory mechanics terms, people playign Poison'd should be aware that such transitions are an emergent property of play. Since you've played several successful games of Poison'd, my prediction is that if you were take any number of player-characters from those games, and list out their personal arcs like you did for Patrick Marlow, you could see those Ambition cycles in action just like I think I can see two for Patrick.

It might be useful to re-draw your chart by flipping the Bargains-Success loop over to the other side, then rotating the whole thing so Ambitions are at the top. That way, it's clear that there are two separate mini-cycles at work, one about land & leisure and one about fights, and that the X system provides mechanical underpinning and nuance to the Ambitions cycle - because how many X's one has plays a big role in re-casting the circumstances of one's Ambitions, and how hard to drive toward them the next time around.

Let me know if that makes sense!

Best, Ron



I'll chime in when I have something to add, but so far, not a thing. Hooray!


Tim C Koppang

The first thing I did when studying your system diagram (or any system diagram for that matter) was to look for a place to start.  To reiterate what Ron said, "Ambitions" is the only place that doesn't have arrows funneling into it, and, therefore, seems like a natural starting point. That to me says that the game revolves around Ambitions.  If the players aren't invested in or striving towards any of their Ambitions, then the game won't work.

This is all based simply on your diagram, but I think your diagram makes it clear where everyone should be pushing.  Ambitions lead to Scenes on Land, Fights, or Bargains.  From there, the rest of the game follows.  What I find interesting is that it sounds like your player-characters had Ambitions, but that they were only striving towards those ambitions by way of two of the three methods provided: Fights and Bargains.  So how important is it to follow all lines leading out of Ambitions in order to have a successful game?  It's not just Ambitions that matter, but how you pursue them.  Would you agree?


Hey, what about suffering new violence and committing new sins? They're features of the system, but they don't appear on your chart. Is that intentional?



Definitely not intentional! After posting last night, I realised I'd forgotten those - and when I thought about it, I also realised that I wasn't sure how to take into account that achieving Ambitions reduces your Ambition score (which I suspect has some interesting consequences on Sucess Rolls ... ah, it makes it easier to go into danger, but harder to act with stealth and deceit).

I'm also pondering whether there are elements of the Cruel Fortunes that should be on there.

I'll mull over your comments for a while and take another crack at redrawing the chart along the lines Ron suggested, with those additions.

Find out more about Left Coast (a game about writers, inspired by the life of Philip K. Dick) on Twitter: @leftcoastrpg


A tiny correction! Achieving an ambition gives you the option to increase your ambition, by adding a new one, or to leave it where it is. Abandoning an ambition reduces your ambition.

But I should say that all three - achieving/abandoning ambitions, committing new sins, and suffering new violence - are mere additions, they shouldn't substantially change your chart or your or Ron's analysis so far.



Ron, I think that all makes sense. Consider all of this post to be me testing out whether I get what you're saying.

Tim, you're absolutely right that the PCs in the second session were only using Fights and Bargains to achieve their Ambitions. One of the players described the game as feeling a bit 'one note', and that was my diagnosis for why that was (*)

(*) Although I've had a little bit of email correspondence with
him subsequently, and he thinks there's a bit more going on.

To draw out Ron's point: in my previous successful games, I could see a few 'Ambition cycles' in action. For instance, Henri the vicious French psychopath fulfilled his ambition to become captain, and then another ambition to have sex with the Governor's daughter. At the same time Geoffrey Fenton the genteel surgeon struck a bargain with an agent of the King, in order to fulfill his ambition of being pardoned.

Those two strands intersected when both Henri and Geoffrey returned to the Dagger. Geoffrey's player was repelled by Henri's actions with the Governor's daughter (as was Henri's player, to be fair). This repulsion coupled with Geoffrey's need to be pardoned led to a really satisfying betrayal and climactic fight between the two characters as the Dagger came under fire from the Resolute's cannons.

The point is that I think Tim's right that a successful game needs to follow all three lines out. (And it occurs to me that there's probably a fourth line that leads out from Ambitions directly to Success Rolls.)

Ron, I've revised the system chart along the lines you've suggested.

The revised Poison'd systems chart

Doing that has helped me clarify your points, which I'm going to restate here:

  • To play Poison'd effectively, the characters need to be fully committed to achieving their Ambitions.

  • A major reward cycle of play consists of characters striving to achieve Ambitions. Characters and the situation change as a result of those attempts, which leads to players revising the list of Ambitions they want their characters to pursue.

  • You said, "people playing Poison'd should be aware that such transitions are an emergent property of play." I'm taking 'emergent to mean that: players are responding to what happens in the fiction; they are caring about their characters; and they are caring about or hating other characters. (Let me know if that's accurate.)

As an aside, thinking about all of that helps me see that all the different sub-systems in the systems chart basically 'float' in a sea of fiction, the moment-to-moment descriptions of scenery and character decisions, and it's the process of creating, enjoying and paying attention to the fiction leads to Poison'd rules being triggered.

Now, I've been doing a bit of study about reward systems on Vincent's blog. I'm going to put this next bit into a second post, because I'm not sure if it's useful to info-dump it all at this point (and I want us to be able to ignore it easily if it's not)

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I've been studying this post (and the ensuing comments) on Vincent's blog about reward systems. I'm not sure whether it's useful to bring into the conversation at this point, but I think it's helped me get an insight into part of what's going on.

This is all taken straight from Vincent's blog (his words, with contributions from some of the commentators):

QuoteThe reward system is just the game system at its largest repeat. From the provisional glossary:

Reward System: (a) The personal and social gratification derived from role-playing, a feature of Creative Agenda. (b) In-game changes, usually to a player-character, a feature of System and Character.

Vincent suggests we read the "in-game" and "usually" as meaningful components of the sentence, not as hedges or filler.

QuoteIn a well-designed game you keep doing this thing and it gives you what you're after. (b) facilitates (a). Thus, the largest cycle of the game is rewarding.

The "reward" system (the game system at its largest repeat), will contain subsystems that aren't rewarding by themselves. It's the highest-level system gives the subsystems their value.

While I don't understand the first paragraph yet, I think I can see what he's talking about in the second paragraph with Poison'd. A success roll is an okay thing. Multiple success rolls leading to an accumulation of Xs that mean you feel comfortable about going into a Fight (or spending 3 Xs to insta-kill an NPC)? That'd be satisfying.

Vincent's recommendation (which he's currently discussing on his blog) is to

Quotedesign your games to work functionally over (at least) three timeframes, with interaction and feedback between them. "What do you do right this second, what do you do tonight, and what do you do in the game?" Then if you feel like it, you can retrospectively examine the game, find the little cluster of procedures that creates the said interaction and feedback, and name it "the reward system."

In the case of Poison'd, here's my first impression of the answers to those three questions:

Right now: Pursue your Ambitions, engaging in Fights, Success Rolls and the accumulation of Xs as necessary.

Tonight: Fulfill an Ambition or two. Choose more Ambitions if desired, and abandon others.

By the end of the game: Have your pirate placed in a position you find satisfying by the time the story is forced to resolve. (I imagine this would be a little like when you're jostling with My Life with Master's endgame mechanics to get a satisfying outcome for your minion.)

The duration of a multi-session game of Poison'd is very specifically defined: the game ends the second time a pirate leaves play. Pirates leave play by:

  • dying and coming to final judgment
  • retiring from a life of piracy
  • fulfilling or abandoning so many Ambitions that the player doesn't know what to do with them next
  • renouncing all ties to the other pirates
  • becoming so foul a character that you no longer want to play them

Vincent also says one other thing about reward systems that I thought was worth noting here:

QuoteWe're talking here about changes to your character and stuff over time. What's linked to your fulfillment isn't the moment of changing your character, but the whole process of changing your character.

If you ask, "Why should in-game changes, like putting a +1 on my character sheet, be linked to my fulfillment?", the answer is: it shouldn't. +1, -1, nobody cares, doesn't signify. A "Reward system" isn't about the changes themselves, it's about changing over time.

Is any of this stuff useful for moving into the next bit of the conversation?

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Ron Edwards

Hi David,

I think you're on track with most of this, with at least one exception I hope to deal with later in this post.


1. For maximum clarity: "reward" is a real-person, social, psychological, and creative thing; "reward mechanics" function insofar as they aid that thing to happen. I've been trying to keep the two distinguished in my posting, but I'm pretty sure not everyone notices that. Experience points and levels are reward mechanics, but they are only rewards in the context of playing that particular game in a particular way. (Playing a game for rewards which do not match its reward mechanics is possible, but it's also how people get all bent out of shape about "real role-playing.")

2. Reward cycles are nested.

For example, in late-70s AD&D as I have played it, a fight is a mechanics reward cycle insofar as it represents risk, specific efforts, and outcomes, and it can be seen nested centrally in a larger mechanics reward cycle called "stay alive," and that can be seen as a major mechanics cycle within the biggest, called "advancement." All of which are at the service of a reward cycle which unfortunately was rather piecemeal and fumbling at the time, but probably manifested most as appreciation for however many EPs we got at the moment and to some extent as competition about that. (All of this is more coherent and for me, much more fun when playing Elfs or Tunnels & Trolls, but the "this" is the same.)

In Poison'd, it is crucial to understand that Fights don't fulfill Ambitions!! This is exactly what borked our absolutely disastrous attempt to play Poison'd. Fights exist only as extreme forms of getting X's and carry the risk of Deadly Wounds (that's from memory; correct me if I'm missing something), and the decision of whether to fight or not is rather different from its use/appearance in AD&D. The lesson is, someone must understand what the mini-mechanics-reward cycles do and must tell everyone else. This is really what's meant by "learning the rules," I think. You can blather all day about how to roll to hit, but unless I get how it ties into having fun, it's disorienting.

3. Rewards are not necessarily good outcomes for one's character, in character-view terms. Reward is about change, not fulfillment, completion, or advantage. Using the above AD&D example, I may not level up this session, but I may have made progress toward it - or perhaps I didn't make as much progress as I might have, and/or have experienced setbacks such as hit point loss, life loss (which is why that game needs resurrection; life loss is no fun as the top cycle), or (god damn it!) level loss. Here's the point: All of that, including a certain productive form of frustration, is reward insofar as my real-person, social, psychological, and creative thing got scratched by playing this game with these people. (Incidentally, all of that excess verbiage is easily covered by the short-hand, "Creative Agenda," as manifested in a specific way with this game, this set of fictional circumstances, and these people.)

I hope my point is clear: although I may want my character to level up, what makes play fun is whether the mechanics reward cycles are contributing to the relevance of leveling up, and whether play is socially validating my efforts - so play can indeed be fun when my character is totally fucked over by events. Getting this right means high mortality-risk Gamist play is fun, and everyone raises a toast to one's fallen character at GenCon, year after year. Getting this wrong - in a variety of ways ranging all the way up from Ephemera through Techniques through Exploration to Social Contract - means fucked-up, aggravating, un-rewarding play.

Related point for Narrativism and genre enthusiasts: actually being a protagonist must suck. One's physical, emotional, and ideological circumstances are placed under the harshest possible pressure, in a way such that this is it, the one time it matters most. All of us talk and think in terms of identifying with protagonists, and I absolutely agree with this in terms of the topics of fictional conflicts, but perhaps overlook that this must include a definite, specific personal safety from actual experiences like his. I've made this point in conversation many times, but I realize now I've never really brought it forward on-line before. It's one of the reasons I spread my hands and give up talking when people get all enthusiastic about "living their stories." No one wants to live a fucking story.

So David, I was pretty sure that you were all on the right track and going great guns, and I was planning on contributing the above points as a means of chatting along with you, until you said ...

The thing which made me grit my teeth

If you are jostling and jockeying for an "advantageous" epilogue when playing My Life with Master, you are mis-playing the game. That's not because strategy is somehow bad in Narrativist play, it's because the highest-level reward cycle in that particular game is about the relationship with the Master, specifically, the subordination of one's own esteem and loves to the service of someone driven by self-involvement. The game's top cycle is all about the question, "How's that working out for you?"

The epilogues are not reward vs. punishment, they are all reward(s), meaning, identifiable consequences for how the Master was conceived, how your character was conceived, and what your character did and did not do, and how much or how fast, during the course of play. Looking across those consequences and the specific arcs across the characters answers the question, for this particular manifestation of dysfunctional relationships as we saw in our particular game.

I have played the game with people trying to strategize their way to specific epilogue outcomes. It. Fucking. Sucks. It always sucks to play with people whose perception of the reward, and how the mechanics reward cycles play into it, differs from one's own. And if it doesn't suck, it's because one has given up on play itself as a source of fun. And in this particular case, I will go so far as to say that no, you can't play My Life with Master "this way" (i.e. seeking an epilogue), because doing so invalidates thematic commitment to things like the Loved NPCs, as a mechanics example, and to the more abstract but crucial component of genuine personal hatred for real people like the Master. I think the actual-play posting backs me up on this.

Therefore my point about not identifying "reward" with in-fiction success for the character is absolutely crucial. In-fiction success or failure - as a unit - for the character is the reward: specifically, the fact that no matter what, the old relationship with the Master is indeed over. Paul and I debated long, long ago about whether the Master had to die - he insisted the Master must die, case closed, and he was right, and that's why.

Interesting example
Graham's Poison'd character from the Color-first character creation project thread.

QuoteThis is, in fact, Filthy Jackie, a Poison'd character.

Position: Surgeon

Sins committed: Adultery x2, Robbery, Murder

Suffered: Arrest, Beating (at the hands of Brimstone Jack), Imprisonment, Lashing (at the hands of Brimstone Jack), Rape

Ambitions: To be captain, to be pardoned, to be revenged upon Admiral Southgate, to fuck Admiral Southgate

Weapons: A fucking huge hatchet; Not a weapon, but she is quick, wiry-strong and vicious.

Devil 4, Soul 4, Brutality 5, Ambition 4, Brinkmanship 5, Profile 4

Outstanding bargains: Drunken Jack swore to back me for Ship's Captain.

The Dagger: It has a grim reputation; It's frightening to see. Profile: 10. Strength: Boarding and repelling boarders

The company of the Dagger: Its members are, by and large, unreprobate murderers; It's well-armed and eager to fight; It's been badly mistreated by Brimstone Jack. Profile: 6

Given the ambition and the bargain, it's not unlikely - although not obliged - that we'd see Filthy Jackie drive hard toward becoming captain fairly soon. Even if immediate circumstances give that ambition a pass for the moment, we'd probably get to see the Brutality and Brinkmanship in action, which as a "moving portrait" could act as a prequel to pursuing the ambition. The most likely other full alternative would be if play somehow brought Admiral Southgate forward immediately, but given that the trigger for play  is Captain Brimstone Jack's murder, I don't see it as very likely.

Now, here's something that I planned for that Endeavor which never got done: let's take Jackie through a medium reward cycle, what you're thinking of as a session (for Poison'd) but which could probably occur a bit faster or a bit slower than that and still be OK. We'll go with the possibility, perhaps misleadingly simple, that the captaincy is indeed the focus of play.

So we play! Play, play, play. Drunken Jack probably gets sodomized by someone. More play, play. Maybe someone takes the hatchet in the head. And so on. Let's not get too involved in the minor reward cycles, but clearly Jackie either goes for Ambition without fighting, or gets embroiled in fights along the way - and in either case, accumulates or fails to accumulate X's and/or Deadly Wounds. If we were to discuss this level of play in more detail, I'd want to review the Brinkmanship rules, because of their interesting position in the diagram - but not now, OK?

What does the sheet look like now? First, there are X's and Deadly Wounds to consider. Or to put it another way, at a smaller scale from my earlier use of the phrase, "How's that working out for you?" This clearly tells us whether Jackie's captaincy bid has gone well in terms of risk and advantage, and is not the same as the second thing to consider: the captaincy. Is she captain? Is anyone captain? If not, is anyone trying to be captain? All of these together are going to be involved as well with her formal on-the-sheet Ambitions, whether she's abandoned the drive to become captain, maintains it, or has fulfilled it. And finally, there's the Bargains profile. What's happened to the ones she started with? What new ones are there?

That's a "medium" reward cycle: when the sheet looks different in a way which instantly informs us that play will be different now. Imagine a ton of X's + the captaincy still available + her Ambition to get it still in place, plus a Bargain with the Devil. My response: "Uh oh." Contrast that with no X's, with Deadly Wounds, and having achieved the Ambition to become captain, plus a Bargain with some other pirate who hates Admiral Southgate. "Full speed ahead to wherever that Southgate guy is!" Or finally, no X's, Deadly Wounds, and someone else is captain - in this case, my eyes snap instantly to the Bargains, and possibly toward making more of those toot sweet.

I'm failing to include a crucial thing in any of these circumstances: what's up with everyone else. I can't do that here, but I hope it's clear how important it is. Especially in Poison'd, but in my opinion, it applies for any game, even those in which the characters are not in direct conflict or theoretically, not even in contact. (Now that I think of it, that's what our first couple of sessions of Violence Future were like; it's a relationship-heavy game so our characters hardly ever met but affected one another constantly. And I'm always saying that two utterly-separated trollbabes' adventures affect one another at the raw, thematic, comparative level without any fictional inter-effects at all.)

The interaction of game mechanics and fiction at this time is, in CA-strong, socially-viable play, seamless. There is no "powergame strategizing" in a way which somehow ignores the in-fiction character, and there is no "ignore the rules to focus on your story or outcome." All such talk is meaningless.


(David, I'd be happy to include the character you invented for that project too, for whatever game you chose, but the character wasn't described in the thread and apparently Vincent didn't make the sheet available on-line. If you're interested, post that information here. It's relevant to the topic.)

Let me know if any of this helped or made sense.

Best, Ron


Hi Ron,

Before I check my understanding of the rest of your post, it's probably worth working through the teeth-gritting moment. It may be a misunderstanding, as I'm talking about the jostling that occurs once the endgame mechanics are triggered rather than how players act through the whole game.

When I've run My Life with Master (only as one-shots at conventions), I've found the players throw themselves into the fictional events and do relate to the Master and potential connections as characters they care about. There hasn't been much (if any) gaming of the system during the majority of these one-shots - perhaps a little bit of "Oh crap, I really need to get some more Love or I'm going to be screwed", when people realise how the system works but no laser-like focus of particular scenes or outcomes.

In my experience, this changes a little bit once a minion successfully resists the Master's command. At that point, the more astute players check their character sheets and find out that they've got the possibility of achieving between about one to three of the Eoilogues.

As we alternate between scenes of jeopardy for each minion and scenes where each minion is allowed to call for a scene, I've seen players try to establish connections or commit acts of villainy in order to get the Epilogue they want (whether that be 'Become a source of Fear in their own right', or 'Integrate with the Townpeople' or whatever).

That's what I meant by, "jostling with My Life with Master's endgame mechanics to get a satisfying outcome for your minion." I think the rules support that approach, when Paul says:

Quote... all the while the players are sorting out the final trait values that will inform their individual Epilogues, likely working with intent towards having certain desired outcomes available to their characters.

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I guess what I'm talking about it the sense of urgency that's created when you have a time-limit on the actions your character can take. Suddenly every action, every scene really really counts as this session becomes your last chance to get the best (or most appropriate) outcome that you want for your character.

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Ron Edwards

I can live with that. My concern is with groups in which someone makes the mistake of talking all about the epilogues when introducing the game, and people get really hung up on engineering a favored outcome - which is nigh impossible to do early in play anyway - and the functioning dynamics of the rules become meaningless.

By the way, I don't know why I kept calling you "David."

Best, Ron


Ron, this is excellent stuff. I've definitely been thinking about reward systems in terms of mechanics rather than the thing about the game that creates satisfaction and fun for the people who are playing it. Like you describe, I have been thinking about rewards as 'advancement' (eg. leveling up) and as something that's 'always positive' (eg. characters achieving success in the game's fiction).

So a reward system is the 'Why' of "Why we play this game".

Let's see if I get what you're saying about Rewards also being about how the fictional characters we're playing change (rather than how they fulfill their dreams or increase their power). Some examples of that would be:

  • a minion who is killed by the townfolk in My Life with Master
  • a Sorceror who zeros out in Humanity after relentless pursuing her need for revenge.
  • a pirate in Poison'd who ends up hanged by the local constabulary after refusing a bargain with the Devil and instead spitting in his eye.

We may not be happy with these outcomes, we may have hoped for something better for that minion, sorcerer or pirate, but these endings provide tragedy or creative frustration that we as players find individually satisfying at a psychological and creative level, and socially satisfying to the group of players at the table (our 'Creative Agenda').

And the changes can be either positive or negative (and still rewarding) because as players, we're advocating for what our characters think is the best thing to do right now. We're not meta-gaming to try and get the best outcomes according to our real-world understanding of the rules.

So I think I get this. If the events we're creating using the game are satisfying the group's Creative Agenda, then the game is rewarding.

The question you're raising is whether the sub-systems of a game's reward mechanics contribute to that largest sense of 'Reward', right?

What are the nested reward cycles in Poison'd?

The short-term, in-the-moment reward mechanics for Poison'd seem to involve Fights, Success Rolls and gaining Leisure. They probably also include making Bargains, which players seem to get a lot of pleasure out of making and extracting.

I'd describe this short-term cycle as 'Gaining the Advantage'.

(As an aside, Ron, do you ever write up some Actual Play of your previous experience playing Poison'd? I can see how the context of Fights in Poison'd – which are provoked by interpersonal conflict, Ambitions and Bargains – are much more incidental than the missions and quests of module-based AD&D play.)

The medium-term, about-a-session's-worth reward mechanics for Poison'd seem to involve Xs and Bargains being accumulated, and all of the player characters acting and interacting to create opportunities to fulfill Ambition (and acting on those opportunities). As a result, new, temporary status quos are created (that are similar in impact to Brimestone Jack's death at the start of the game). I think of this as the game taking in a deep breath before plunging in to the next round of betrayals and plots.

I'd describe this medium-term cycle as 'Creating a new Situation'. By 'Situation', I'm talking about how 'Characters with differing interests and motivations' interact with 'the wider Setting of Poison'd'.

Are there other short-term and medium-term reward cycles that I'm not seeing yet?

A question for Vincent (or anyone else who's played Poison'd to the end)

So, if one thing I'm really interested in is what the end of long-term play looks like. Vincent, is there any chance you could describe what the end of a game of Poison'd looks like after everyone's gone through a whole bunch of these short-term and medium-term reward cycles? What's the payoff that the group gets for playing Poison'd for that long? How have the characters changed?

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Ron Edwards

Hi Steve,

I try to respond point by point as rarely as possible, but in this case I will. The reason is that the vast majority of what you wrote is right on target, and I'm sort of shaving at or refining a couple of your choices of phrasing. So instead of invalidating your whole point by hacking at bits of it (the usual point-by-point tactic), I'm doing the opposite, I hope.

QuoteLet's see if I get what you're saying about Rewards also being about how the fictional characters we're playing change (rather than how they fulfill their dreams or increase their power). Some examples of that would be:

    * a minion who is killed by the townfolk in My Life with Master
    * a Sorceror who zeros out in Humanity after relentless pursuing her need for revenge.
    * a pirate in Poison'd who ends up hanged by the local constabulary after refusing a bargain with the Devil and instead spitting in his eye.

We may not be happy with these outcomes, we may have hoped for something better for that minion, sorcerer or pirate, but these endings provide tragedy or creative frustration that we as players find individually satisfying at a psychological and creative level, and socially satisfying to the group of players at the table (our 'Creative Agenda').

I want to refine your final sentence. My claim is that we are happy for these outcomes. Ecstatically happy, satisfied, post-climax happy. Cathartic. That's because the people playing are not their characters, and never were. They're authors, and audience, and in both roles, are very happy. When you say "hoped for," you're talking about for the character, and that is a transient, experiential feature of enjoying a story which does not, itself, constitute one's priority for "doing" story (there is no verb for being author and audience at the saming time, but that's what I'm talking about). The character doesn't exist. We do.

QuoteThe question you're raising is whether the sub-systems of a game's reward mechanics contribute to that largest sense of 'Reward', right?

Easy answer: yes.

Jargon answer: the only way that Creative Agenda can be satisfied by the procedures of play is if the reward mechanics feed directly into that particular Creative Agenda. The reward mechanics, like all role-playing mechanics, are contributed to and carried out through multi-person actions, and therefore satisfying Creative Agenda must be a group activity.* The reward mechanics are directly or indirectly tied to specific other procedures in play, whether textual or not, quantified or not, or acknowledged or not. Whatever those procedures are (i.e., other Techniques), how they hook into the other components of Exploration is crucial - and I'll even privilege Color as the primary venue through which all of this must be ultimately experienced, for the CA to hit its hardest all the way back up into the Social Contract level.

Snap jargon answer: "system does matter." This is exactly what I wanted to discuss back in 1999, and why (although without the jargon and from a more limited view) and was surprised and horrified to discover that the easiest part, CA, was an instant stumbling block.

Your summary of Gaining the Advantage and Creating a new Situation are exactly what I was driving at in my post. I really don't know Poison'd well enough to comment much further. I do think that God and the Devil ought to be given some special attention. Vincent has cleverly employed all the fucking, both as language and as in-game actions, to open doors in the players' minds to get somewhere else, and that's the somewhere else as far as I can tell. I also think Bargains are deeply, deeply crucial to play.

I never posted about the Poison'd game because we failed even to get through a single conflict in the first descriptive moment in the first scene. It was an utter brick wall, with many hurt feelings and a lot of shouting about what the game was for and what Vincent meant, and put a lot of stress on friendships. I figured it was a pure example of no one understanding a thing, least of all me, and that the best thing to do was get some distance to try to understand it better. I also had about a million things going on and didn't get around to it - at any given time, I'm about ten actual play posts behind, now included.

Best, Ron

* Yes, even for solo play, which is too much to go into right now and I don't expect one-ninth of the argumentative gits out there to be able to grasp it anyway, and it's a tangent in this discussion, so enough.