Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Which Is More Important: Glitches or Narrative Reinforcement?

A friend asked me this today while we were discussing my Shadowrun game versus his Dresden Files game. He wanted to know, from a design stand point, which I thought was more important or better to have in a game: a mechanic to throw danger and other bits of bad luck at the players randomly or something that helps to reward the player for staying in character especially when that means making a stupid decision. Now, I'm going to share my answer below the break, but I would also love to hear what each of you personally prefer.

My Answer
My answer was that it depends on the kind of game you are running. For a game like Shadowrun that seems to revel in being the kind of game where you approach everything like a puzzle, work out the optimal solution, and then approach things as carefully as possible having the random bad luck mechanic is great because it adds the element of "you can't prepare for everything" without making the GM have to be a jerk and cheat the players to get them into those situations. That said, games that are clearly more focused on a particular story, narrative, or cinematic feel go the opposite direction. The World of Darkness doesn't need a mechanic to throw random bad luck at the character. However, it does need something to reward players and encourage them to play their character - and the monster their character is - out even when it could be the wrong decision.

Neither of these gaming types is wrong or better. One may appeal to a certain person or group more than the other but they're both valid and they're both good to have.

My Real Answer
Now, my answer was from the perspective of a game designer. So what is my real answer? Well, my preference is towards narrative and cinematic games. Because of that I like having mechanics in place to tempt or encourage my players to stay in character and do stupid things even if they think it'll be a "bad" outcome for the character in question. That is the kind of game I get more enjoyment out of.

The Ideal
To me though the ideal would be to have a game that had both. A mechanic, kind of like the one in Star Wars Edge of the Empire, where you can have bad things happen even on successful rolls - and vice versa - that also had incentives and rewards for players to stay in character even if that meant doing something stupid.

Why do I want that if I primarily like the narrative stuff? Well, as much as those random bits of bad luck will challenge the PCs to think on their feet or do other things to get out of the mess, they can also be used for some amazing narrative opportunities. Some bad stuff happening on a successful roll can be used to spice up the scene by putting others in danger, or to just ramp up the difficulty by costing the PC a favored item. At the same time though, it could mean that a friend or enemy shows up on the scene unexpectedly, or that an opportunity to do something amazing shows up. These are all opportunities to explore the character in question and to make the story feel a bit more real and awesome.

How About You?
So, that's my answer. How about you? Do you have a preference? Do you like both? What kind of game do you find yourself gravitating towards more? Sound off in the comments.


  1. My tastes run in the same direction, and what's more I have the players for it. For some reason, and at no particular prodding from me, they'll always start character generation with a particular flaw or weakness and build from there. For them, it's about how their characters can fail in entertaining ways and, I suppose, how they can win despite the odds, or often, how they can turn a game world win into a kind of personal fail. So they're very much in tune with the dramatics behind the story, which makes it easy for me to use systems (and house rules) that reward them for amping up the drama. The flow of Story Points (and the like) goes both ways in my games, with a lot of refunding going on as players balance FYeah moments with pitiable self-sacrifice.

  2. Currently running a more narrative/cinematic game (Dark Heresy) and would be interested in more details of the mechanic in which you reward your players for staying in character? We're talking about XP bonuses...or something else?

  3. There are really, in my view, three types of rewards.
    -XP and similar mechanics that allow players to "level up" or improve through chargen point expenditure.
    -Story points and the like (Bennies, Star Power, Hero Points, etc.) which allow players to affect game play in some way, whether that be affecting rolls or manipulating the plot. (Complete coincidence, but my own blog today covers just such a type of reward.)
    -And in-story rewards, which would cover everything from treasure and gear, to new opportunities, roles and subplots.

    So it could be any of them depending on the game and group.

  4. In Dark Heresy the easiest way to simulate the effect might be "temporary fate points." A temp fate point is a point that can be spent (but not burned) and lasts until the end of the session (or next session if earned late in a particular play session.) You can then use them to reward players for making in character but dumb decisions (i.e. executing a heretic on the spot rather than question them for informationon where the treasure is lest their lies corrupt your soul) or just as payment if you are doing something against them ("whoops, blood letter. Everyone get a temp fate point!")

    This way the player gets their reward and can use it to add to a roll in the future or reroll something.