[Pitfighter] SBP: reward system options

Started by David Berg, April 02, 2012, 01:38:44 AM

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David Berg


I've been recounting some key features of the d20-based homebrew Pitfighter game I ran in college here in Actual Play, to serve as a springboard for discussing ways in which we might make good Story Before Participationist (SBP) games.  SBP is play where the GM plots (some amount of) what's going to happen in play before actually playing, and controls (some amount of) the fiction in play in order to implement those plans, and the players are fully on board with that.  Thus far in SBP-land, we've discussed the GM's role in resolution, and asked is there anything better to roll for than success?

My Pitfighter game was more Illusionist than Participationist: as GM, I sometimes manhandled the fiction without admitting it, as the players were not always cool with such manipulation.  This methodology was the result of how I learned to push my GM plots into play, and it had its pros and cons.  Notable among the cons was a rather murky system of feedback and reward.  I'll do my best to describe that in my next post, and then we'll see what better options we can come up with (no need to relate them to my Pitfighter game at all unless you want to).

Once we've done our best, I'd like to see if we can chisel a game out of all this!  See here for more info.

here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development

David Berg

It's been many years, but here's what I remember about the process of feedback and reward in my almost-SBP-like Pitfighter game.

Formal rewards: XP buys you character awesomeness!

As per Pitfighter's d20 origins, XP earned you levels, which gave you slots to spend on combat (hitting, dealing damage, parrying), skills (knowing and doing all kinds of stuff, physical, mental, social), and magic (power, precision, duration, range, area of effect).

Just like in most versions of D&D I played, the combat improvement simply meant that you would now fight monsters with better stats, earn more XP for them, and need more XP to advance.  It seems to me now that this amounts mainly to changing the color of your opponents, but folks certainly did get a big kick out of increasing their bonus to hit.  "Look at that number!  I'm a fuckin' badass!" was definitely felt in my group, and "+7! That's a 22!" was rejoiced in fights, even if now all the badguys required 20s to hit them.

Skill improvement meant you could list more stuff that would probably never come up, but if it did, "Hey, look guys, here's another thing I cleverly chose to be good at!  My swimming skill is going to save us now!"  As GM, I never planned for this.

The magic was a combination of some stats and a lot of GM fiat.  If a player came up with something that wouldn't break the game or the encounter but seemed plausible and cool and clever, it was probably gonna work, with your stats mostly fine-tuning that.  My general recollection is that our two mages did in fact feel cool when they gained magic points with levels.  They didn't always agree with my arbitration, but it never got so bad that the advances felt meaningless.

How you got XP

Every session, I, as GM, drew a few columns on my notepad and tracked XP awards for each player character.  Here's a single session for Jonas, played by Matt:

+1500 - fight with Cor (non-lethal honor duel with fellow PC)
+4500 - kill badass badguy (group fight; each PC got 4500)
  +100 - compelling roleplay in solo scene with his martial arts teacher
  +300 - cleverly conceiving the idea to place bets on his fight, and convincingly roleplaying how he'd get who to bet on whom
     -50 - Matt's cringe-worthy sodomy joke

I think I communicated the awards like this:  When Matt finished Jonas's scene with his teacher, I probably said, "Nice!" with a smile, nod, and scribble on my pad.  And then after the session, I probably did the math out loud, telling Matt each award ("100 for the teacher scene") and then the total.  I do know that I sometimes called out totals on the spot, though; maybe I always did that and just can't remember it now.

Anyway, in that list above you can see what sorts of play got addressed by XP: combat with a side of everything, heavy on "what the GM appreciates".  If I had to guess what impression the players took away regarding "What Dave appreciates" it would be "anything fun instead of boring, clever instead of thoughtless, and funny without being disruptive".

As per my "this isn't a railroad! really!" ethos at the time, I don't think I biased these awards toward my plots.  If someone did something that clearly mattered to their character, and managed to contribute to a scene that I enjoyed, they got XP, even if it had nothing to do with my own plans.  On the other hand, side concerns that I deemed irrelevant sidetracking were never rewarded with XP.  And grabbing onto my plot points to initiate ideas and scenes probably tended to earn well.  Probably.  Or maybe it didn't, as it was "expected" and not "players adding".  I wish I could remember.  I do feel reasonably confident about the player takeaway above, though: "fun, clever, funny".  I'd guess that not much beyond that came through strongly, unless it was encouragement to invest in one's character and have them manifest their values and interests in play.


Getting XP and leveling up and getting more badass was a big part of how the game worked, but the players had almost zero control over the biggest XP source, combat.  All my opponents were sentient, and I pretty much decided who attacked the PCs and who wanted to make deals with them.  I often hedged my bets when I expected a conversation, making my NPCs too tough or protected for the PCs to plausibly take in a fight.

Accordingly, there was virtually zero "Let's go start fights, that's where the XP is!" in Pitfighter.

Instead, the players mostly decided what to do based on the content I'd fed them, chasing both personal improvement (mostly through NPC connections who'd get them exotic gear, like poisons) and the solutions to my various "save the world" problems.

Player characters as purveyors of turning points in the plot

I used the PCs in this game as igniters, as the bringers of the information that sets the wheels in motion. 

The PCs tell the Grey Elders that the Mandragons are on the move, the elders investigate, they get captured, and now there's a security breach in the realm of magic. 

The PCs tell the Silent Wolves assassins guild about the breach, and the Wolves send them to make sure the vampiric Diamondbacks aren't in the process of exploiting that.  The PCs discover that the Diamondbacks are up to something, and tell the Wolves' agent Siltra, who subsequently tries to kill them, revealing herself as a traitor. 

The PCs fight their way back to the Wolves and rat out both Siltra and the Diamondbacks, which compels the Wolves' leader to lead a journey in search of a secret weapon to defeat the all-powerful Diamondback archmage.  The PCs find out where the weapon is, and relay that to the Wolves. 

The PCs find out the Mandragons' leader is secretly the Diamondback archmage, and use this terrible info to motivate Grey Island's magical adepts to join the fight.  They also tell the Wolves' leader where to go with his weapon.

In the end, the PCs wind up forming the strategy for how to best use all their assets in the campaign's final battle.  They pool their magics to throw a flaming tree at the Mandragon leader's tent, sneak in to rescue some prisoners, and run for the hills as the Wolves' leader uses his secret weapon to destroy both himself and most of the Mandragon army.

Informal rewards

I think it basically worked like this:

Dear players,

I, Dave, your GM, have some stuff I want you to check out.  This NPC will tell you why it's interesting and might be a big deal for the world.  This NPC will also think you're pretty cool if you check this out.  They'll trust you more and maybe help you out with the sort of stuff they have skill in or influence over.  If you go check out my stuff, you'll probably get in a fight, find some goings-on that seem worth stopping, and wind up knowing something that the movers and shakers in the world will care about.  How you check out my cool stuff is up to you.  Who you share the info with is up to you.  Feel free to do personal character stuff too, but really, I'm trying to give you reasons to care about my cool stuff, so work with me here.

Not every assignment or discovery was met with cheers.  Sometimes the players shrugged and just went where the GM clearly wanted them to go.  Sometimes the secrets they learned were vague, or seemed irrelevant, or were just pointers to my next planned step.  But most of the time, my leads were interesting enough, and the discoveries were revelatory enough, and my NPCs' reactions to shared discoveries were momentous enough, that the players usually seemed enthusiastic about plugging onward.

I also did some things to generate player investment in the fates of the world's factions.  I endeavored to roleplay the factions I wanted the players to respect, hate, etc. accordingly, to elicit those reactions.  (The Silent Wolves' leader is serene and confident.  The Wolves' number two is a bit of a jokester.  The Diamondbacks are vicious, doom-prophesying, raving psychopaths.  The Mandragons seem like a progressive military outfit at first, but then are revealed to be following the plans of the biggest evil psycho of them all.)  I did a good job of this, and the players got pretty invested in helping the cool guys over here and thwarting the scumbags over there.


I think this jumble of GM techniques and mechanisms is, collectively, a bit of a mess.  The parts of it that were explicitly defined absolutely depend on the parts that weren't, in order to function at all in the context in which they were used.  As a GM with a lot of practice running this exact type of game, I was just barely good enough to pull it off (and that was with some sizable chunks of time spent between sessions writing up what all my factions wanted and were up to).  So in one way, this jumble of a system sucks.  At the same time, somewhere within that jumble, I think there may exist some tools that we can apply to proper SBP designs.

Specifically, I think "We just provided the spark to kick the plot into a new gear!" might function as a pretty powerful reward in a game where the whole group is in fact explicitly signed up to interact with the GM's plot.  A system that reliably produced that dynamic might be pretty cool.
here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development


Hi David,

Your actual play example seems like something I could not have achieved as a GM - in fact, I tried several times, and it was no fun (too much work on prep for me, many "down times" during play when nobody is doing anything, or the players are just arguing about what to do next for hours, ...).
As you suggested, that may be related to the amount of practice of the GM. I also think that a clever system could help us.

I'm really interested in your "spark" idea, but something bothers me.
On one hand we have the story, already written by the GM (here I consider the GM as only one person, dedicated to that role). On the other hand, the players, that will do some stuff with their PCs.
At the time when the GM writes its story, he can not be sure about what the players will do (except if he is granted the privilege to "take control" on players actions - or maybe if the situation or their skills limit them). In fact, I have seen both many times, sometimes quite successfully, on video games.
Another option could be to have the players work on the "Story Before" with the GM ... but I'm not sure about how that could be done.

Now, back to the reward system.
When I designed my own system for Vampire, my main idea was this one : the players (and not the PCs) should be interested in helping the story to progress, and in providing color.
So I came up with the following :
- the GM write his story, establish the main events in advance, and identifies several objectives for each "scene"
- during a scene, each time a player do a successful action related to one objective, one point is scored for this objective
- as a bonus, each time a player describes a colorful action, one point is scored for "ambiance"
- at the end of the session, these points are divided between the players as "experience points"

I tried this with two groups of players, and that didn't work, for several reasons.

At first, the objectives were not labelled : I thought that it would be interesting if the players could deduce what the objectives are by observing when the GM allocates points.
The main problem is that the experience points were not enough rewarding, because that's not something the players were supposed to use during play, and character evolution was not really the focus of the groups. As the players were not really paying attention to the points, the objectives stayed a "GM tool".
I then tried to label some "obvious" objectives at the beginning of a scene, and leave the others for when they will be "discovered". That worked better, but the main problem was still there.

Also, there was no mechanism to link the PCs to the story, or even to the setting.
During the games, I really had the feeling that PC's skills, traits, anything that could be used for Resolution, should be strongly related to the setting and / or the story, so the PCs really fit in any situation, like characters in a movie do

Another problem was that there was really no mechanism to identify when an objective was "cleared", so it was totally dependant of the player's ideas.
I gave some points each time a player did a successful roll related to an objective, so if a player had a really clever idea, thus clearing an objective on no time, that meant less points for them ...

OK, now enough with my system, let's talk about ideas on rewarding the players.

If we're talking about a setting with high level conspiracies, I really liked the idea, as mentioned by contracycle, that players could "gain" knowledge about these through different steps of initiations or revelations. That knowledge could appear like a skill, or like a "pool", some kind of metagame mechanism the player can use when its PC is facing the organisation he has information on.
That could perhaps be shared among players (or maybe traded, as information is sometimes).

I also liked Anders Gabrielsson's idea to "reward" players when the GM uses Force to move a scene or to decide the result of an action. That could motivate the players to have their PCs knowingly do actions that will fail, because these actions add color or tells something about the PC.
How to avoid players doing "stupid things" just to be rewarded ? Well, I'm not sure we should address this (system can always be broken if the player really wants to), but maybe that could be solved if the skills used by a PC always concerns a deep aspect of its personality or its involvement in the story.

I believe one interesting way is to reward players when their PCs do something that fit into the setting (like, if they were playing vampires, seduce a woman for her blood, or be afraid of a cross), give information about their character (like a strength or a weakness, maybe defined at character creation, or added on the fly - that could also be a relationship), or act toward the situation (that could be related to the definition of objectives for a scene).
These rewards should be immediately available, like a dice pool, or several bonus usable on main events.

Character improvement can also be greatly rewarding, but I think that considering SBP, it's more appropriate if the character improves as he is changed by in-game events.
That change could also be the consequences of choices made by the player, like having its character develop feelings toward a NPC, or abandon a wounded companion.
Or maybe each character could have an objective, different from the main, already written story. The resolution of such an objective should thus provide great change upon the PC.
There could be a system that tests the balance between the "Personal story" and the "Main story" involvement for each character : when the difference becomes too high, the player has to make radical changes - or its character comes to an end.
Another though related with that last idea : I think a PC should not die if that's not the player's decision. In fact, I think any durable modification of the PC should comes from the player - after all, if we consider SBP, it's the only element of the story they have some control on.

Sorry about this long post - somewhat erratic I'm afraid.
At least, I hope it did not give you headache.



Here's some of the things I've seen work:

The first is not strictly a reward cycle in the way we normally mean it, but it is something significant. You can plan to set up cycles of rising and falling drama, which can be a significant part of how these games function. This includes classic non-interactive story elements like regular cliffhangers or reveals, or climaxes of tension timed to happen every 5 sessions or so. This is not unique to this kind of game (you can systemise it in a few ways for example), but it is a classic element that keeps people coming back.

And it can particularly be supported in this style of play by the mystery/reveal cycle, where hints are built up and clues given so that people can work things out, and these can also be given in the same way, timing things not to give steady understanding but instead working with rushes of clues.

That thing about timing clues is basically that you look at the levels of uncertainty people are having about the world (how lost they are), and allow them to build theories but work a little ahead. This sometimes means collapsing tangles of motivations if they aren't going to get them, or complicating things if it seems too easy, although I suspect it's easier to do the latter than the former. It requires a dedication to flow and form of story over world fidelity. Sometimes your made up world can just be too damn mysterious for players to follow, so you need to simplify for the audience you have, or sometimes people point out flaws in npc motivations so you decide that they are actually being manipulated/blackmailed/framed etc.

This is exactly what you'd expect from people importing non-interactive storytelling methods into the game, but there are also more like normal reward cycles; rhythms of change that act directly on the dynamics of the game itself, changing how characters play, relate to the world etc.

The main interactive one I know about is where players introduce ideas for the GM to include, focused around their own character's personal growth/change. A nemesis, a change of heart, whatever. If players give these ideas far enough in advance, and they can be incorporated into play before the player changes his mind, then these elements can cause the story to build up accents of the various player's interests, within the general pattern of the story.

My impression is that these inclusions have to be veiled to work; you have to attempt to give someone that thing they like, and then find out if you have successfully given it to them; if they themselves recognise it as that thing they were after. If not you adjust and go again, and a lot of creativity can be required in getting the right elements in for certain players.

Unlike in narrativist type play, where bangs only whiff if they don't have any impact on characters and how they interact with themes, in this kind of play, these things whiff if they don't have the right impact, if they don't hit the spot the player was looking for.

In other words, instead of asking "what does your character think about this", you ask the question "what event will be sufficient to lead to him doing this". You push characters in directions you have chatted about with players beforehand, and the extent and direction to which you push is dependent on those things that they say they are interested in seeing.

In some ways this is damn close to burning wheel style belief-challenging, except that to do so instead of writing each belief, you'd also write where they were heading. And when it comes to rewrite beliefs, you instead tick off that milestone as being reached and define the next one, generally after a little thought and some lower drama sessions.

The reward cycle thus forms in two different ways, player's interact with the story in the hope that doing so will be tuned to their personal curiosities, getting the benefit of the logistics of their character changes being set up for them, whereas the GM also gets the satisfaction of various players ticking off milestones, saying, "At last yes, that's exactly what I wanted my character to go through!"

At the same time, this system has to have flex to say "that's going to be too much", where people cannot work out how to fold it into play, and sometimes that means asking for lots of ideas and only doing a few, or

Could this be done better with narrativist, story now stuff? Not sure. My suspicion is that many players want to have specific things happen in a game. I know I've wanted to do it "right" before I wanted to explore; I wanted to have a certain theme play out in a certain way, and from there I would be happy to see the various ways it could work out. (I'd drag up the mists of time for an example but it's basically amorphous childhood freeform stuff.)

Interestingly, I think microscope hits some of this kind of fun without planning, in that you set two points, and someone else jumps in between to fill in the details in a way you didn't expect. The creative logistics element is part of the fun.

I have some ideas on why these cycles tend to be character focused, but I'll leave this for now.

Anders Gabrielsson

Just a couple of quick thoughts on rewards in this type of play:

Rewarding the players for interacting with the important NPCs
When a PC does something that impresses an NPC or otherwise makes them moticed, they get Influence Points for that NPC. In key scenes where important decisions are made, the PC can spend their IP for the present NPCs in (possibly predetermined) ways to affect their actions. Maybe the GM has decided that now that the PCs have delivered the news that the Vermillion Horde has invaded Upper Crustatia to the King of Clams he will go to war. The players can't change that - the war is part of the story the GM has already decided on - but maybe they can modify his strategy in various ways: which allies he will call upon, if he'll set off right away and maybe have time to save the home town of one of the PCs, that sort of thing.

Rewarding the players for being interested in the world and plot
At certain times they players get to make predictions, guessing what the outcome will be of certain events (somehow related to where they currently are in the plot). Keeping track of what's going on with the story and remembering details about and interacting with the world will make it easier to make correct predictions, so the players will have a vested interest in immersing (in a general sense) themselves in the story.

I'm not sure how to best reward that - maybe with something similar to the above, maybe by allowing them to position themselves in some meaningful way - if they correctly guess that the leader of the Vermillion Horde is actually the High Mayor of the Thirteen Cities they'll be able to warn someone from going to his yearly Feast of the Doves, or steal a march on his agents or something. Though I guess those are more in-world consequences of coming to the right conclusions. Hm.

David Berg

Quick thought for the idea pile, before I forget:

Q: Why would players care about game outcomes they have no say in?  (That is, unalterable GM plot.)

A: Because how they interact with those outcomes impacts the parts of the game they do have a say in.

The game's job is to support the right type of impact and interaction.  Example:

- GM scripts Moments
- Moments introduce new Situations
- Player choices pre-Moment determine how prepared they are for new Situation
here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development

David Berg

Since the Forge is closing, I wanted to try to summarize the nifty things from this thread for easy future reference.  Here's the stuff that most interests me:

1) Player choices impact how GM plot impacts the characters (in terms of personal issues, effectiveness/resource, how they relate to the NPCs and plot, and more).

2) GM can put the good stuff where the plot is.  Hinting or promising these rewards is often a good move.
- XP
- loot (e.g. uniquely effective gear) where the plot is.
- NPC esteem (which is a conduit to loot and more)
- info that is valuable (to players and NPCs)

3) GM can prime productive investment in plot by playing intended ally NPCs as likable and intended enemy NPCs as unlikable.

4) GM can make the timing of big plot points contingent on player actions.  (When the PCs give the info to the king, that's when Act II, The King's War begins.)

5) Learning about (or otherwise getting entangled in) stuff in the world (e.g. NPC factions) can give you leverage over it or increased ability to work with it (skill points, dice pool, spendable resources, etc.).  Such learning could be organized into initiations, revelations, and other illuminating events.  Such leverage could include influence over certain NPC actions.

6) Players could be rewarded for:
- character actions that aptly reinforce or fit into the setting
- revealing character
- being proactive in engaging with the GM's plot (e.g. seeking out interaction with key NPCs)
- offering theories on what's going on
- making predictions about what's going to happen
- planning and acting on such theories and predictions

7) System could track/test the balance between a character's "Personal story" and the "Main story", with different corresponding outcomes.  Too much Personal over Main could mean the character completes their own arc and leaves the game.

8) The GM's hints and clues can be organized according to dramatic pacing concerns, and altered on the fly to accommodate player progress.
- if the players are slow, lost, or swamped, the GM can combine multiple threads of plot/motivation/factions into one
- if the players are racing forward with no suspense or pondering, the GM can complexify, adding motives, agents, feints, etc.

9) The GM can fill in the blanks in the Big Plot with stuff relevant to specific PCs, as indicated by flags or other pre-game chat.

10) Defining two end points and brainstorming what happens in the middle to connect them could be one way for the GM to turn mega-plot into scenes.

I'll return to this project at some point.  When I do, I'll post an update on Story Games, as well as G+ and Facebook.

here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development


There's one final reward type I can think of that I didn't include before: (no idea why really as waiting for other people's responses at this late stage is a bit of a fool's errand!)

Another type of reward is sculpted situations that allow players to embody certain positions. Whether it's imperious victory, being proved right against opposition, heartfelt moments, all kinds of stuff. The game can be set up so as to be psychologically manipulative in the sense that it sets up for certain moments where the player is encouraged to relate to the world in a certain way. Just like crescendos of musical pieces, villains can be set up specifically so that they can be taken down, people can oppose them specifically so that at a certain moment they can be reconciled, and hope can be crushed so as to have the players be the ones to reveal it.

If plot threads assume and involve these moments, which play to the emotions of players, then following the GM's thread will allow him to set up scenes, that are not merely dramatic in the sense of imaginary pyrotechnics or staging, but because they position the player with respect to the NPCs and situations in a particularly potent way. That's the key thing, relationship and embodiment, unique features of interactive behaviour that can be crafted by positioning the player with regard to certain thematic cues and npcs.

Many games are enormously effective at producing these moments automatically, setting up certain patterns of relationship, certain relations to the world, my life with master being a classic example. But in a preplanned game, it is often possible to set particularly personal things up if you have a suitable understanding of your players. Many of these moments will fall flat, or not be as potent as expected, and so should not be given any fanfare aside from the setup required, but other times they can be very significant.

Unlike in a story now game, these events will generally not be potent in both large scale plot and character emotion, because the freedom required in making these moments authentic tends to make them perfect places for a plot to become derailed. This is a classic reason to have the character's plots be entangled with but not identical with the pre-planned one, so that these moments of uncertainty can be adapted to and times of procedural significance can be safeguarded. Sometimes they happen in the dénouement of big moments of the GM's plot, with the procedural climax leading to a few pre-arranged personal moments. This is a pretty safe place to put them as the medium term GM plans have probably just gone off, and the lull leaves more leeway for correction.

Because this is manipulative and basically involves using the situation to position a player in a certain way to push their buttons, this is a kind of thing that can easily go wrong. I've stopped a GM short who was using these techniques before by saying "yes, I meet someone I love who has died, in the clouds and it's very touching" in a kind of fastforwarding way, which sort of discouraged him a little, but was because I didn't value people trying to manipulate me for my own entertainment, certainly not with the level of trust we currently had. We basically skipped my scene and carried on to the other people's who actually appreciated it, and considered it a good session. I get the impression that jeepform or other kinds of north-european larp is very strong on this kind of reward also.