Dec 20, 2012

The Long Narrative: Being Totally Unfair About Rewards

One set of questions I feel referees ought to explicitly ask players about their characters is "Does this person want to be an adventurer? Why do they want to go on or not want to go on adventures?"

Having an explicit answer for each PC is surprisingly useful. I've played in many games where there is a lot of confusion about whether or not a given character actually wants to be an adventurer. The wrong assumption by a referee has led to them offering the wrong kinds of incentives for participation in the campaign to PCs, and frustration when they are uninterested in the incentives being offered.

I suspect the specific site of cleavage here is amongst players more than characters, games, frames, etc., though all of these play a part. Some players are risk-averse, and some are not. In my experience, risk-averse players tend to run their characters in risk-averse ways, unless they are consciously playing against type. Risk-averse characters can make good adventurers, but they require external compulsion to push them into adventuring. Rewards are accumulated with the eventual goal of being able to stop adventuring and take up some much less risky career. One must constantly deprive them of the social bonds and material wealth that would allow them to stop adventuring or to employ someone else to take the risk in their stead. This is not to criticise these players or characters - the finest roleplayer I have ever gamed with is a risk-averse person who plays characters who adventure only reluctantly. One can often play on their sense of morality and duty or their foresightedness or fellow-spiritedness, though these are almost always short term means to the end of getting them to go on adventures. One can also push them to adventure by presenting a greater risk caused by not adventuring, though this threat will retain its effectiveness as an incentive only insofar as it remains immediate, dangerous, and close at hand. When one does reward them, one ought to give them only enough to continue adventuring, or rewards that are only useful for adventuring, or by averting some threat (to themselves or others).

I suspect that referees who are risk-averse themselves predict that the PCs will act in a similarly risk-averse way, and deliver the kinds of compulsions that would spur them into action. This is fine when dealing with risk-averse players, but can be intensely frustrating for venturesome players, as one is constantly being pushed into action rather than freely choosing to participate in it.

Venturesome players (of which I am one) tend to play their characters in venturesome ways. Specifically, the characters have strong internal motivations to go on adventures, stick their noses into other people's business and just generally interfere in situations they come across. Venturesome players require frequent small rewards to enable them to keep adventuring, but the main thing one ought to avoid doing is using the same strong external compulsions one uses for risk-averse players, as this limits the choices, options and freedoms they find rewarding. These players seek to accumulate agency, and rather than limiting agency by denying it to them, one ought to complicate this accumulation with responsibility. Whereas a risk-averse player will think "Now that my character has a child, they ought to settle down", a venturesome player will say "Now that my character has a child, how can they continue going on adventures?" Money, etc. are not reasons to stop adventuring, but rather ways to enable the irresponsibility necessary for it. Threats and perils should be presented as challenges to be overcome, but as ones that require a serious investment of energy and effort, and the rewards for overcoming them should restore a character's autonomy and freedom.

Venturesome referees will often offer PCs incentives that increase their agency and ability to make choices, which can lead to frustration with risk-averse players who will take the gold and start running an inn, or take their newly-awarded noble title as an excuse to retire from active play. Players will wonder why the referee isn't driving them towards the drama and struggle they want.

While these are presented categorically, I suspect that most people contain both tendencies, and which one predominates depends on the player's mood, the character concept, the group dynamics, the campaign concept, the setting and the system being used. For example, I play a lot of 2nd edition Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and I tend to overwhelm the scenarios a bit because I am a venturesome player and the default assumption of WFRP modules (I am currently playing in the Liber Fanatica team's Thousand Thrones rewrite, for example) seems to be that the PCs are mostly reluctant adventurers and highly risk-averse. There are plenty of times where I am running ahead of the plot, throwing myself into trouble willingly, in a way the campaign can compensate for but does not necessarily anticipate.

Most groups probably have mixes of risk-averse and venturesome players (and this mix may change over time without the membership of the group changing), so one has to attain the right balance of different kinds and strengths of incentives. I propose that if one has not experimented with doing so, ought to try being totally unfair about rewards and compulsions, tailoring the rewards and compulsions to each PC. Give the venturesome player a barony while his reluctant companion is hunted by the same king's men. Of course, you aren't actually being unfair here, but rather offering each player the type of incentive that they require to want to go on an adventure.