Collaborative Bonuses

Posted: November 19, 2012 in System Design
Tags: , , , ,

I’ve been re-reading the clouds and dice series on It’s a series of posts about how rules refer to fictional material and to real-world cues (like dice and character sheets). It’s a lot of material but I’d strongly recommend reading it if you’re interested in writing game rules that encourage good fiction.

I was reading part 6 – “Now where WAS I…”, especially the comment thread, when a couple of exciting questions hit me.

To summarise the context:

  • Mechanical effects that emerge from the fiction (“if you have the high ground [fiction], you get a +2 bonus [mechanics]”) help encourage good fiction because they mean the fiction matters – players have to create detailed fiction in order to use the mechanics effectively.
  • But being able to invent your own fictional bonus-producers whenever you want (“err, so, there’s probably a table, right? I jump on it for +2 high ground bonus”) can result in fictional details that are trivial and transient – only there for the bonus, not for the lasting effect – so that in fact the fiction no longer matters after all. (This is an effect I see – and dislike – in Dogs in the Vineyard, sometimes, although I think it is deliberate there in order to encourage escalation for bonuses. But I digress.)

So, ideally, we’d prevent players from creating fictional details on-the-fly just to get a bonus. My questions are:

  1. Can we enforce a system where players have to establish something a few “turns” before they use it?
  2. More interestingly, can we enforce that bonuses can only be taken for statements other people have made?

Note that both these questions are pre-empted by Vincent’s suggested mechanics in comment #43 on that thread (which I read after having the above light-bulb, but you’ll have to take my word for it). What I’m really wondering is can we make better mechanics than those somewhat simplistic teaching examples. In comment #46, Moreno suggests that point 2 is in fact mandated in Spione – I’d better check that out. I wonder if any other games do anything similar?

I think there’s a risk that unless your fictional detail is specifically angled toward someone else getting a bonus for it (e.g. “I provide covering fire”), then it may not be that usable for mechanical effects in most cases. Perhaps I’m being narrow-minded, though – I need to think about it some more. I think a bigger risk is that if such details can be used to get mechanical bonuses against you, then you might be encouraged not to provide them, which would be totally counter-productive. Hmm.

However, I’m particularly hot for Jesse Burneko’s comment #55 – it’s all about communication. By using such mechanics, players are encouraged to communicate effectively – both providing fictional input that has meaningful implications, and considering the implications of the fictional input provided by others.

I think we can rely on players to pay attention to others’ input in order to trigger mechanics (e.g. bonuses). My concern, though, is that it may not reliably get players to give that input in the first place. What encourages that, beside the hope that others will reciprocate for you?

  1. Rabalias says:

    So, this has given me an idea which I shall call the improv escalator.

    You say “I leap onto the table, ha! +1 bonus for high ground!”

    I can then reply “he smashes the table to matchwood, knocking you the the floor. +2 bonus for knocking you down.”

    You respond “I grab one of the table legs and bash him over the head with it. +3 bonus for the table leg”

    …and so on if you can come up with a development of the idea. You aren’t allowed to escalate your own idea, you have to build on someone elses. If you do, you get an increasingly silly bonus.

  2. Blackrat says:

    Neat! I look forward to seeing it in context. Let me know when the playtest is happening :-)

  3. Blackrat says:

    I should point out that later in that series, question 2 is answered – unsurprisingly since this series is a few years old now – and the answer is: Yes.

    Specifically, from comment #12: “So: make sure that your game’s rules treat now your character’s in action and this is what your character’s action is as significant. Especially, make sure that somebody else needs to know that now your character’s in action, and needs to know what your character’s action is, in order to make her decisions” (my bold-ing).

    It’s kind of a reversal – “make other people’s subsequent mechanical consequences depend on the current player’s fictional actions” rather than “make the current player’s mechanical consequences depend on other players’ prior fictional actions”, but the principle is exactly the same.

    Edit to add: And comment #20 has some very well-explained examples of this with reference to the mechanics of Dogs in the Vineyard.

  4. Rabalias says:

    So, I went and read the whole series (but not all the comments because DAMN that’s a lot of comments).

    I’m feeling smug because Farmtopia (my 24 hour RPG Geek entry) totally hits the “you must refer to the fiction to make the rules work”, as well as being awesome in various other respects.

    I’m also impressed that a major design problem I was having with Disaster Strikes! is essentially entirely to do with the fiction/rules link (rightward arrows dealie) and the fix I came up with matches the substance of Vincent Baker’s arguments.

    • Blackrat says:

      Yeah, some of the comment-discussion I found really useful, some not so much.

      It’d be great to here more specific detail about your mechanics experience – can you say what it is about Farmtopia that forces players to refer to the fiction? Or what about Disaster Strikes wasn’t doing so and how you fixed it?

  5. Rabalias says:

    Sure. (Though I should add that since I posted the above I’ve realised some areas where both systems diverge quite strongly from what VB was on about.)

    Farmtopia’s conflict resolution system is exceedingly simple. When you identify a situation where there’s a decent chance that one of the animals may fail at something, and we care whether they succeed or not, start the conflict resolution. Now you do advocacy: each player whose animal is involved (plus one additional player who advocates for the environment if there is no obvious opponent here) takes turns to give one good reason why their character should succeed. Example: “Pork Chop should win this fight, because he’s a big strong pig with sharp tusks”. Now everyone votes on whether they find the reasons given convincing. You’re allowed to vote for multiple people, so you’ll only lose the vote if at least one person did not find your reason convincing who did find your opponent’s reason convincing. Repeat until someone has most votes.

    The reason it links to the fiction is that it is literally impossible to play without referring to fictional causes. VB cites Dogs as an example of a game that requires you to do this, which is true RAW, but there’s nothing to stop a player just saying “I bring in my gunslinger trait” or whatever, and roll the dice; procedurally the game would still work (kinda – everyone would end up rolling all their traits on the first round, I guess). ndeed, a lot of Dogs play seems to me to be a thinly veiled process exactly like this. But I don’t see how you could run a Farmtopia conflict resolution at all without referring to the fiction. The only way to do it would be to skip the justification and everyone just vote on who should win.

    As for Disaster Strikes, it’s a game that uses playing cards as the randomiser. I wanted to use the suits in an interesting way, so I basically said “describe your action in a way appropriate for the suit of the card you played” (where each suit has a specific meaning, e.g. hearts = creativity). What I found was that nobody did this. There wasn’t any mechanical requirement to do it, the system just asked you to. So nobody did. Once I realised nobody was doing it, I changed the system up so that you get a bonus if the GM thinks you described your action in a suit-appropriate way. (I also made it so that everyone kept their cards in hand between actions, rather than drawing a fresh hand every action, to enable people to plan cool descriptions for their actions rather than have to dream them up on the spot, which I think was making it harder in the previous design.)

    • Blackrat says:

      Nice, thanks! :-)

      “I don’t see how you could run a Farmtopia conflict resolution at all without referring to the fiction. The only way to do it would be to skip the justification and everyone just vote on who should win.”

      Is there a risk that exactly this might happen, given that people will have reasons for voting other than just what they feel is justified (despite the rules saying to focus on that)?

      I’m interested that you don’t think Dogs in the Vineyard does this. Do you disagree with Vincent’s explanations in the comment I referred to above? I think he gives pretty clear examples of why the fictional detail is (usually) imperative.

      Great explanation of your changes to Disaster Strikes! – sounds like that’ll make a big difference in play.

      • Rabalias says:

        Well, it depends. In theory you only use the conflict resolution system if there’s doubt about the outcome. If a clear majority of players have a strong view on what the outcome should be without needing to discuss it, then conflict resolution should probably be skipped and just have that outcome happen. So it’s not a disaster if there’s a straight vote – you move on to describing what happens. What would be bad is if everyone takes the vote even though they aren’t clear on what the outcome ought to be. I guess only playtesting will reveal whether that tends to happen!

        With Dogs, I’m mainly talking theoretically because I’ve never seen Dogs literally skip to rolling without reference to the fiction. What I have seen it do is take an extremely superficial look at the fiction which, at the limit, would tend towards “I get my guns out – woo, time to roll gunslinger!”.

        End of the day I have some sympathy with Ben Lehman’s point that this is a social contract thing. You all have to be invested in developing the fiction or else it don’t work. Both Dogs and Farmtopia give you mechanics which include a clear and mechanically relevant point at which to introduce new fictional events, which is probably the best you can do short of pure, mechanics-free improv.

      • Blackrat says:

        Sure, I see your point re voting.

        Re Dogs, certainly some traits are more obvious-when-used than others, and hence require less description. But even there, the player has to say they’re using their guns, which is an important fictional detail – so again, it does what it’s designed to do, i.e. bring out description. (Remember, it’s not just *any* detail we’re after in this sense, it’s detail that makes a real difference to what happens next.)

        “Both Dogs and Farmtopia give you mechanics which include a clear and mechanically relevant point at which to introduce new fictional events, which is probably the best you can do short of pure, mechanics-free improv.”

        Nah, I think it’s more (and better) than that, in both cases. But I think we’re going round in circles :-)

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s