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.