Meritocracy vs. Equality for All

I’ve been poking through Spirit of the Century again. johnpaul613 has been talking about using FATE-style Aspects in Amber and it’s made me want to give them a second look. I was hesitant to just toss them in with out much experience with FATE, but now I’m feeling jazzed about the idea. (I’ve managed to temporarily get my gag reflex regarding FUDGE under control.)

While looking at the book I wondered, “How do they handle advancement with this?” So I flip to the back and read through it a bit, and noticed this chunk:

Player characters should always receive the same amount of on-sheet rewards, in order to make sure that everyone remains a peer of one another. Giving out advancement only to those who manage to attend one or more sessions means you’re penalizing those players who may have busier schedules. It’s impolite; don’t do it. The game will benefit when the characters are mutual peers. No one should come back from a playing hiatus to discover he’s become the sidekick.

This is something I’ve struggled with over several campaigns, and something I was planning on dealing with a bit more strictly in future games. So this paragraph gave me pause.

My thoughts behind the cut.

From the perspective of SotC’s goal to be a “pick-up” game, that paragraph makes sense makes sense. If Frank missed a few nights of poker due to other obligations, you wouldn’t deal him less cards when he showed up next. And I’ll readily admit: I’m often the sort of wishy-washy GM who doesn’t want anyone to have hurt feelings. In the past I’ve usually had some sort of “missed session” advancement or uniform advancement for players who couldn’t make it to the game so that everyone else is in about the same power level. Because the compassionate and more mature part of me understands that there is more to life than just a game that I play with people every couple weeks. We do this for fun and it’s a little lame to further penalize someone because they weren’t able to show up to have fun with you once or twice.


Some of my first experiences with Amber were magical. Everyone poured a lot of energy into the games. They did art, they wrote character diaries. We looked forward to the next session with passion burning in our hearts. There was an energy built up over several sessions of building camaraderie. The downers were the people who couldn’t meet that energy. They’d miss sessions. They’d show up late and wouldn’t care that they inconvenienced the rest of the group. They wouldn’t really do anything outside the game session. Sometimes they didn’t do anything in the game session either.

And such apathy is contagious. In a campaign where people start to not care, soon other people lose energy too. And it just snowballs down. When you’re the GM of this sort of thing, it kills your energy too. You send out the email that says, “Hey guys, we just had this time jump. You all said you’d email me with what your character is doing in that time. What are your characters doing during that time?” And no one responds. It was this growing attitude in Frozen Misery of Centuries that really killed it for me.

While writing this it occurs me that games like these are not like your regular poker night. It borders on community theater. You aren’t getting paid. You’re doing this for fun. And when people blow by it off by skipping rehearsals or not learning their lines or whatever, the whole show suffers.

I have a beer and pretzels game. People show up, shit gets beat up, we make poop jokes. It’s fun. But it’s not what I want when I want an emotionally-charged character driven game campaign. I want to strive for that energy that I first fell in love with playing Amber. Where do you find that happy medium? That middle road that Buddhism revolves around. My current fantasy is to better encourage and reward people who participate. If you’re not contributing to the game in some fashion, why should you get any reward? If you can’t show up reliably or you can’t let me know in a timely fashion that you won’t be there or you can’t be bothered to answer your email or you show up and you just sit there like a lump expecting to be entertained, why should you gain the same benefits as those who work to make the game better?

And if people like that get the same benefits for being passive and inactive as the people who pour their hearts into the game, then what does that say to the people who do all that extra work for the game?

I recognize that there’s a subtle emphasis in that paragraph. There aren’t any on-sheet differences, the benefits are supposed to be the more subtle aspect that you get more out of the game when you put more into it. (Later in the section they recommend that the only imbalance that should occur is if FATE points roll over to the next session, as that indicates that the player got compelled more than other players and so earned that. And that sounds nice and cheerful on paper but doesn’t really pan out so well in reality. Compare it to weight loss, something I can empathize with really well. I’m overweight. I’ve lost about 60 pounds in the last year, but I’m still overweight. The knoweldge that I’ll get more out of life if I shed the weight sounds great on paper. But it has never been enough to get me avoid eating poorly or exercise more. And I think the same applies to many overweight people. Studies have shown that people are more willing to put forth that effort when there’s some sort of tangible hold-in-your-hand reward available.

So for the next game I run, as I think I mentioned earlier, I’m seriously considering not only only doling out an XP reward for showing up, but only giving out that reward if they let me know in advance what they want in the next session. (I also want to dock XP for missing the game without warning, but I don’t know how well people will take that.) This is on top of rewarding people for doing contributions and getting fan mail from their fellow players.

Does this make me impolite? I mean, I tend to invest several hours prepping for a campaign and at least a few hours preparing for each session (if not more). Is it better for me to let people walk all over me than to be so impolite as to create a disparity in power because I’ve rewarded people for making the game better for everyone? I mean, social contract sounds nice and all, but what do you really do to encourage people to treat the game and the other players with respect? Anyone can rationalize why they don’t do more for the game (just as people can rationalize why they eat shit and don’t exercise).

I’ve tried in the past to get a dialogue going on what sort of social contract players wanted to have regarding the game, and they didn’t have any input. “Oh, yeah, that all sounds good.” And then when they end up being lame-asses, what do you do? Vote them off the island? Is that more polite than character sheet disparities? Will the threat of gamer politics and social maneuvering encourage esprit de corp?

While the Buddhist in me wants to remember that everyone has the potential for enlightenment and all other positive things, the cynic in me thinks that humanity as a whole is lazy an selfish. If the game is better with a little agreed-upon carrot and stick, is that really such a bad thing?

The dark side is that some people also exploit that system. You offer a per-contribution reward for doing trumps and then you have someone doing a dozen half-ass trumps in Photoshop for every session. “That’s 1 point each, right?” And sometimes life just sucks for people. Great people who are really sweet and wonderful but don’t have time in their lives to work up a contribution and don’t have the wit to impress people to get fan mail or whatever. Do they get punished then because circumstances conspire against them? I don’t do many contributions these days. I run four games and play in one. When am I supposed to work on this?

Threaded through all of this is a bigger fear that lurks in my heart. Sure, most of the games where there was a lot of player contribution had a GM with a firm hand and encouragement to contribute. But not all. The Friday night group I play with gets no reward for their contributions, but everyone really pours themselves into it. So has my problem been that I don’t provide enough carrot/stick for players to want to commit energy to the game? Or do my games suffer from some other flaw on my part as a GM?

To quote Zelazny (who was paraphrasing the Bible): Where shall wisdom be found, and where is the place of understanding? If I knew, I’d walk over and stand there.

14 thoughts on “Meritocracy vs. Equality for All

  1. zdashamber

    You blame yourself a lot, J, but you don’t ever seem to reach the obvious conclusion that these people are assholes. They may be nice and smart and fun to be around, but if they flake without notice they have a streak of their character that is nothing but a fucking asshole, and you shouldn’t game with them.

    So, cutting their points is maybe a way to gently convince them to leave, but it’s also a potential source of more stress for you. What if they don’t leave, but are also still lead weights? What if they complain about the points lost, instead of getting the message?

    I guess there are also culture/habit issues… In one of my groups, we have the habit of sending mail Monday to which people generally respond by Wednesday or Thursday, so the GM knows who will be there Sunday. Anyone not responding is assumed to be not coming. I suppose if you were to do this, you could have expressions of surprise at the appearance of a non-responder, “I haven’t really got anything to do for you this session…” In the other group we try to sort it out at the session who will be at the next, but they’re always so far off that everyone forgets, so when mail goes out a week or a few days in advance, there’s a flurry of drops and failures to respond… Which annoyed me when I ran for them, but I’m not sure how to fix it without having a solid continuing day/time slot for the game.

    But people who flake at the last moment? Fuck ’em. A new person off the street would be a better player to have. If people aren’t respecting your game and the time you put into it, I don’t think there’s a system answer to that.

  2. colomon

    It seems to me the thing with advancement and people missing sessions, etc, is that you don’t have to worry about rewarding the people who show up faithfully — they will pretty much automatically get more out of the game, and probably be more effective in game even if they are equal in points. The thing you need to watch out for is players who do show up and do every contribution they can for points and are a bit munchkin-y anyway — you need to figure out how to keep them from running over the game. (My current theory is that it makes more sense to award drama points for contributions than it does character points, but I admit I haven’t tried that in practice yet.)

    I’ve got to mostly agree with zdashamber on the flaking thing — a little bit is one thing, but if it is a regular habit, there’s absolutely no excuse for that. (Well, unless there is a really good continuing reason…)

  3. admin Post author

    While I guess it’s nice to feel superior and say that people who have this problem are uniformly assholes, the problem is: I’ve run into this problem with every gaming group I’ve run for. People are, unsurprisingly, going to be human with all that the term entails. If I decided that everyone who ever frustrated me when I’m the GM was voted off the island, then the only game I’d be running would be Silent Hill 2 on the PS2.

    I’ve also had the experience where the same group of players will be awesome for one GM, but when I GM the level of engagement drops. What is the difference?

    There are some GMs with sufficient force of personality to just keep people in line with just a stern word. I’m not that GM. I will likely never be that GM. I’ve tried to go the opposite end and be open and understanding that people have lives outside the game and sometimes it intrudes. But then when people flake like that, the game suffers and the problem grows.

    Clearly I need a different solution. I’m never going good at calling people on their bullshit and being wishy washy doesn’t help either. The best I’ve come up with is this simple carrot/stick method.

  4. admin Post author

    I do recognize the problem of the point-mongering. I’ve had people in a few games I’ve run go ramshod over the contribution mechanics. The obvious solution is to just put a per-session cap on contributions, and I’ve seen that implimented. But that has it’s problems. While I don’t want to encourage the munchkins who work the system to get the most XP possible, I also don’t want to curb people who genuinely make the game better. My thought for the next game I run was to simply say, “I’m not going to put a cap on it. If I feel someone is abusing it, then I’ll put in a cap on the award and everyone gets to suffer for it. Please don’t let it reach that point.”

  5. zdashamber

    I apologize for the superior vibe. I get mad for you, and that’s not what you want, so I’ll keep it down.

    I was just at a party where someone mentioned that she’d been stood up for a date for the first time ever that day… Guy had said that he’d pick her up in a limo to go to the Dickens Fair, and nothing ever came. The consensus among the five people who heard this was “Never talk to that guy again,” except for one person who was like, “Call him up and be like, ‘Oh, you’re not dead? Too bad!’ *click*”

    I understand that gaming is different. But I still don’t think you should accept a person flaking on you. Unless, like Sol says, they have a really good reason.

    Sounds like your pointdocking idea may work well for your situation. Fred and Rob have different situations so their answer isn’t 1:1 relevant.

  6. admin Post author

    No worries. While I do have that burst of rage and frustration starting out, in the long run it’s harder for me to maintain that accusatory rage. It’s hard to know what’s going on with people. “Don’t judge a man till you’ve walked a mile in his shoes” sort of thing.

    So, with the person who got stood up, it sounds like she doesn’t know what happened. It may be you left some details out, but I could easily see such a scenario happening in which she was enraged when all she knew that the guy didn’t show up. He could have been in the hospital for all she knew, but the response from her peers was that he was the worst sort of person because he maligned so maligned a person. There’s often more than one side to any story, though. And the boat is always empty.

  7. hunnythistle

    Most players who are motivated and able/willing to do homework and contribute to the game are going to do it regardless of in-char rewards.

    Those whose real life obligations prevent them from investing as much are not going to do it _just_ for the in-char reward.

    So the real beneficiaries of this type of policy generally are the munchkins — who do it because of the reward. While it’s not always true, way too often the contributions are mediocre, at best. If they don’t add to the game, does it really deserve an award?

    But the real problem is you already have a disparity between two groups — those excited and contributing and those not. Rewarding the first group does nothing to raise the morale of the second. If anything — if the second group has less cool stuff to play with, they are even less likely to be excited about the game — and you’ve exacerbated the original problem.

    So my feeling is that, in most cases, trying to generate enthusiasm by giving out extra char points is not a winning strategy — at least for adults with real life obligations.

    Also, I don’t think the ability to do homework necessarily translates into an enhanced game for everyone. Some gamers can’t do outside homework, but bring a lot of fun and enthusiasm when they are at the game. Others can write pages of stuff, but no one has any more fun because of it.

    That said, I do think acknowledging contributions, enthusiasm, and good role-playing is essential. But I think appreciation and social rewards go a long way, and are less likely to imbalance the game.

    I also think you may be expecting too much from people in terms of outside homework. If people are unable to spend time outside the game talking to you about what they want, then you need to do that _at_ the game session. Either before actual game play starts for the session, or at the close to prep for next session.

    If you want my opinion, I think your real frustration is that you are trying to engineer a “system” or a “mechanics” solution to what is fundamentally a social problem. Then you fret over tweaking the system, when you ought to be having frank negotiations with people about the social dynamics. Which is actually probably harder to do, but has the key redeeming feature that it might work.

    As for the flakes: vote them off the island.

    I don’t mean the ones who occasionally need to cancel due to work, or sick kids, or whatnot. But if they are no call no show, and they or their immediate friends and family are not in dire peril — just say no.

    Also, even if they have perfectly acceptable reasons for canceling — if they end up canceling as much as they show, then you have a problem and something needs to be renegotiated.

    And yeah, it can be complicated to negotiate that section of the Venn diagram that works for everyone. But it saves hassles in the long run.

    And I’ve reached the point where I’d rather be at home, wrapped in my comfy slippers and down throw, sipping tea and playing Morrowind on my computer, by myself, then drag thru another game with people not excited to be there, or whose failure to show totally crimps the game.

    Social dynamics matter. Negotiate reasonable expectations and plans with reasonable people. Find your Venn synchronicities. Focus on those. Be open and understanding when problems arise, but recognise when problems are chronic and can’t be solved. Don’t be afraid to vote people off the island when they are unreasonable. And don’t be afraid to vote yourself off when it’s really just not working for you anymore. And if you are honest, reasonable people will respect that. And if they’re unreasonable, it’s already a lost cause.

  8. admin Post author

    Most players who are motivated and able/willing to do homework and contribute to the game are going to do it regardless of in-char rewards.

    I’ve rarely seen this be the case. I’ve only been in one group where there were a lot of players contributing out of love of the game with no reward. And now that I think about it, it’s mainly been me and spearheading the effort with a the rest of the players chipping in to a lesser degree. The other, earlier games I mentioned started out with us doing the traditional 10-points-up-front system from ADRPG, with a sword of Damocles hanging over their heads if they didn’t do their contribution. Later we moved to a pay-as-you-go system for contributions.

    My interest in rewarding contributions a little more fervantly revolves around a category of player that you didn’t mention: The fence straddlers who have the time to do the contributions but don’t get their act together to get it done.

    My absolute minimum contribution I really want from people is to take a few minutes to write a few sentences before the session explaining what they want their character to be doing so that I can plan for that. And it can be so hard to get. The Exalted game that I killed?

    The more I ponder it the more I realize that the death blow for me was when we had a four week delay between games and a ten year time jump in the game. We’d all agreed at the end of the session that we’d discuss things further over email. One person emailed right away without prompting. A few days later I sent an email to the group to get discussion going and no one responded. Between depression over the silence, being swamped with work and working on the ACNW game book, it was a couple weeks before I had a chance to email everyone again. I sent out the email, reminding everyone of the upcoming session and noting that I’d only heard from one player. Got a response from one more player. Sent out another email a few days later… no response. Personally contacted some of the players I had closer friendships and finally got one more response. Or, rather, half a response saying that she’d talk to me more about it “later.” This was the day before the game.

    Three players out of seven. When all I really wanted was for them to take a few minutes to write a few sentences about what their character was doing. And I really had to push to get that.

    We had fun the next session. But my long-term enthusiasm was just shot. And then I took November off for NaNoWriMo. I’d considered trying to get another session in November to ablate the gap between games, but ultimately I just couldn’t muster the enthusiasm any more. I ended up just killing the game.

    Viting people off the island is damn hard, though. It’s especially hard for me because I’ve been the guy voted off the island more than once. It hurts like hell, because you have been deemed “not good enough to be in the clique anymore.” And I’ve voted people off the island in the past as well. Invariably I have contact with them in other games, and I get those wounded looks and ultimately the friendship is usually irrevocably damaged.

    We like to think we’re mature adults, but I find that no matter how old we get life persists in resembling junior high.

  9. admin Post author

    Or, to put it another way: If I’m putting in a few hours preparing for the game, is it unreasonable to ask and encourage the players to do the same? Or should they just show up and expect to be entertained without any work on their part?

  10. zdashamber

    “The boat is empty” is a significantly different proposition from “there is no boat.” There is a boat, it’s coming at you, and no amount of railing or anger will move that boat. But perhaps railing and anger will help give you strength as you paddle your own boat out of the way. Knowing what’s going on with other people seems to imply that they’re out there in boats. What use if knowing other people if you don’t know yourself?

  11. hunnythistle

    It’s never unreasonable to ask for what you want. It may be unreasonable to expect things that you have not explicitly asked for. The rest depends on the social contract. Asking for player contributions is a totally reasonable and fairly common thing. But, some people don’t want to contribute and only want to be entertained. Some GMs don’t want contributions and want to run the show. I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong or unreasonable with this either. The problem comes when there’s a mismatch between expectations.

    In theory, you negotiate all this stuff when you set up the game. I know it doesn’t always work out this way — I’ve been in plenty of my share of games both as player and GM, where failure to do this bit us in the ass later on.

    So, if you set up a pay as you go reward system for contributions, and only a couple of people actually do it, are you going to be unhappy with the rest of the players who are not doing it? If the answer to that question is yes, then no incentive mechanic is going to work for you. You thus need to make player contribution a precondition for joining the game. If on the other hand, you’re satisfied with a few people doing occasional contributions and getting a few extra goodies, then run with it.

    Look, my opinion is that mechanical or system rewards may net you a few more contributions than no reward, but it will not generate “an emotionally-charged character driven game campaign…(with) that energy that I first fell in love with playing Amber.”

    And it seems that the problems you’re complaining about in this post are likewise not going to be solved by system mechanics.

    Your quote: “If you’re not contributing to the game in some fashion, why should you get any reward? If you can’t show up reliably or you can’t let me know in a timely fashion that you won’t be there or you can’t be bothered to answer your email or you show up and you just sit there like a lump expecting to be entertained, why should you gain the same benefits as those who work to make the game better?”

    Giving players a few extra pts will not solve this. It doesn’t even really address the issues! First you need to have a candid discussion with these people, sometimes determining the underlying problem will give you a solution.

    I have a friend who is notoriously unreliable for Fri nights. Not because she goes out and parties, but because after a week of hard work and sleep deprivation and fighting traffic all the way home, she can’t stay awake. She goes home and crashes. So about 30% of the time she’s sleeping and no call no show, and another 30% she actually calls and cancels at the last minute. Even when she does show, she’ll fall asleep during the game more often than not! But on Sun afternoons she’s fine — she’s fun and energetic. It took awhile to figure this out, but the result is that we no longer invite her to Fri games. When we want to game with her, and we do, it has to be Sun. I’m much happier excluding her from Fri than being perpetually pissed/frustrated with her. And you know what? So is she.

    Sometimes you can’t find the underlying problem, sometimes you can’t negotiate reasonable alternatives, and sometimes people are just flakes. Then you may regretfully decide it’s not working, don’t game with them, and move on.

  12. admin Post author

    I’ll admit I’m not the best at establishing social contract. I’ll try and propose some stuff in kick-off emails, and get mixed responses. Then invariably something will challenge it: They’ll be late or they’ll cancel at the last minute. Sometimes they are dismissive of my frustration. Sometimes they are highly apologetic. And I’m lousy at confrontation.

    I could say that everyone has to do a contribution, but I also understand that life happens. Such an edict seems unreasonable and would probably result in me only having one or two players. And if I did take that route, what would be the consequence if someone doesn’t do their character log or whatever? Do I nail them with ill fortune in the game? Do I kick them out with maniacal laughter? Am I exptected to just swing around and be a hardass?

    I don’t know that this strategy will solve all my problems and make me a less bitter GM. Nor will it return me to that fabled golden era of my youth. But it’s the best I’ve come up with so far: Stating that I consider contributions and active involvement in the game to be important and offering a specific reward for such. (I also have in mind a system to reward activity in-game, which may not have gotten lost in the discussion here.)

    If this has no positive effect… then I’ll probably just give up trying to run a game geared towards heavy roleplay.

  13. hunnythistle

    Re: fence sitters — the neat thing about people and groups is that your mileage may vary. Different people have different experiences. If awarding goodies in game works for your group, then do it.

    You said: “My absolute minimum contribution I really want from people is to take a few minutes to write a few sentences before the session explaining what they want their character to be doing so that I can plan for that. And it can be so hard to get.”

    If this is truly your absolute minimum, you make it a non-negotiable condition for joining the game. You can give people extra goodies for doing it if you want, but don’t make it seem like an extra add-on if it’s essential to you and your game.

    Also, if you’re having problems getting people to email you between sessions with this stuff, you should include time and space at the end of the game for people to do this then. If they want to do more, then they can email you with additional stuff later, but at least you have a minimum to go on.

    Re: voting off the island: Generally I try to work things out with my friends – some people I can only play light hearted games with, or board games or 5 session games – because other types don’t work. Some people I really can’t game with at all, since what we want is way too different for either of us to have fun – so we watch movies and stuff instead. If you decide you can’t game with friends, then you need to make an effort to do other things with them if you want to continue the relationship and minimize hurt feelings.

    But for the flakes – the people who continually, repeatedly are no call no show – they’ve already decided that the game isn’t important to them. At this point, I have no problem voting them off the island. Any fall out with hurt feelings is considerably less bothersome to me than the perpetual anger and frustration I feel if I continue to rely on them.

    But essentially, that’s your call. You have to decide where to draw the line for your own emotional well-being. That’ almost certainly different from where I (or zdashamber!)am gonna draw the line.

    “I mean, social contract sounds nice and all, but what do you really do to encourage people to treat the game and the other players with respect?”

    You have an explicit agreement to what this means, you negotiate terms, and if people can’t meet these terms then you vote them off the island.

    As far as the Exalted Game – sounds like you all lost inertia. That happens. And if you all can’t generate enthusiasm again, then the game is going to go nowhere. Yes the players are partly responsible, by failing to email and connect they dropped a lot of the energy. But you share a chunk of the responsibility as well, you lost enthusiasm and motivation. I’m not saying that you are bad or wrong in anyway – it’s much worse for everyone involved, IMO, to drag thru games that you are not excited about.

    Lots of times the game dynamics or the social dynamics just don’t gel, or they lose cohesiveness. And sometimes it’s just time to be done with a game. I’ve found that these days I’m much happier with short term games, because it’s easier to keep momentum going and finish with a flourish.

  14. admin Post author

    I thought about this a bit, and wanted to let you know I think you’re right. It doesn’t hurt that transforming energy into positive action comes up a lot in Buddhism. I guess where I hesitate is that line between rationalizing my reasons for doing something and genuinely acting with good intentions.

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