Friday, February 25, 2011

Investment in Advancement

Haven't done a random idea post in a while, so I figure I'm due.

Twitter discussion with @atminn gave me an interesting idea for how to handle player investment in the setting in a way that ties it directly into advancement. I'm going to present this in a fairly generic fashion, but the concept is pretty easily portable to whatever system you prefer to use.

The core idea is a basic one - tying character advancement to the investment in the setting by tying points earned to specific setting elements (usually people) and paying out advancement when those elements how up in play. The basic model pays out something like this:

1 point if the element shows up during the session.
2 points if the GM has to "take the reins" of the element and actively use it during the session.
3 points if the element is central to the session, seeing use in many scenes.
4 points if the element is put at risk
5 points if the element is lost or destroyed.

This can be tracked pretty easily with something like this on the character sheet - just mark the box as it happens, then pay out the highest value at the end of the session.

For Example, if Lord Chuzzleworth (Chaz to his friends) is your anchor, you might get the highest of the following in a given adventure:
  • Get 1 point if you say go see him, send him a letter or otherwise bring him up in play (it's very easy for a player to get 1 point).
  • Get 2 points if the GM uses Chaz to hire the group to do something.
  • Get 3 points if that something is to escort Chaz to Castle Winterscap
  • Get 4 points if there are assassins after Chaz specifically (as opposed to generic road dangers)
  • Get 5 points if Chaz gets killed.

Now, by itself this is pretty abusable, since it basically encourages players to get their elements killed and replaced as quickly as possible, so there needs to be some check on that, allowing for investment in an NPC or other element to grow over time. To model this, I propose that at the end of every session (and chargen) the player gets a point. That point can be used to add a new element at "rank 1" (more on that in a second) or to increase the rank of a current element (I'd cap the maximum number of elements somewhere around 3).

The "rank" of an element indicates it's maximum payout. That is, if your character's father is one of his elements, but only at rank 1, then the character only gets 1 point of XP when dad shows up, not matter how involved his role. This is not exactly speedy investment, but it makes the ideas of risk and loss carry a bit of a mechanical edge in addition to whatever they may mean in the fiction.

There's a lot of implicit information for the GM to work with in this kind of setup, but most importantly, it can turn the player into an advocate for risk. Even the most mechanically-minded player has incentive to push things towards the more dangerous (and interesting) outcomes, and at the same time offers some small payback if things go horribly wrong. In some ways, it's the flipside of the XP system from The Shadow of Yesterday. It's not player directed, as TSOY is, but that sentiment of transparency and explicit xp hooks is definitely baked into the thinking.


  1. I like this a lot, and it's the kind of exploration I hoped it'd spur in you. After our twitter convo yesterday, I was thinking similarly to this (using the SP system rather than the system-independent idea here) and pondering about what sorts of elements players could invest in. Of course people are easy and effective: easy to incorporate and endanger, especially in settings where the NPC's basically are the setting, as you've said works best for you.

    Items, and locations are a secondary type of element that could work in certain cases.

    The most interesting thoughts I came to however, were intangible elements such as pride, beliefs, or relationships. If a player chooses to invest in their characters pride or identity, (maybe with a tagline like those attached to Smallville Drives) then they will earn advancement points when the narrative calls up, threatens, and challenges their idea of themselves. If a player invests in a relationship with an ally or NPC, then that ally can endanger the established relationship in some way through roleplaying, adding conflict and interest to the narrative, and benefiting the player mechanically in the process.

    I think intangible investments like these would go a very long way toward increasing character depth and player willingness to invest in narrative, setting, or plot details as a fundamental component of min-maxing.

  2. This is brilliant. I'm not going to use it for advancement, though. I'm going to use it as the payout scale for putting something new down, how you get plot points back from your investments. Basically, a player can invest 1 plot point to create something and put it in the story. You don't get anything back in the scene in which it was created, but you keep the notecard you put it on (or put the introducing player's name on it). If it gets introduced again in a later scene, you get your plot point back and check off the first box. If it gets 'used' in a second scene, you'll get another point of investment back.

    This is totally exactly the incentive I need to encourage players not to drop plot threads. Thanks so much!

  3. Have you read the Ambitions mechanic in my retroclone Errant? It is a free download if you are interested, but here is a piece of text from the book that is a variation on the theme you are working on here:

    "At any time during the course of play, you can create a minor ambition. This represents a short-term goal that occupies the character’s immediate thoughts. When created, you must negotiate an experience point value with the GM that will be given to the character if they achieve the ambition. This value should represent the relative difficulty of accomplishing the task. You can have up to three different minor ambitions at one time.

    For example, after having a particularly tense encounter with the local Duke your character feels slighted and wants revenge. You talk with the GM and they agree that if you can publicly humiliate the Duke then your character will receive 100 experience points."

    This is combined with a major-ambition system that allows the player to come up with goals for their character and get rewarded when they achieve them. Yet it is going to be hard to abuse because the GM has to agree to it.

    Your solution seems too mechanical to me, Rob. I think negotiation with the GM is the way to go on this.

  4. I don't think it's too mechanical, if only because it puts players in control of what is important in the game. In this case, I think requiring less negotiation with the GM is actually beneficial. Players will become motivated to suggest their own complications and twists to the plot, rather than just looking out for ways for their characters to 'win'. In some cases a player may prefer to see the party fail horrendously, but benefit tremendously if they all were invested heavily in the effort.

    I wonder how a game of 4e DnD would change if players actually want to fail or lose in certain circumstances? For one thing I know it would make the DM's job much, much easier.

  5. I love this idea and think it needs some fleshing out (follow up post... hint, hint).

    Some thoughts and concerns I have are:

    1. What is to keep a player from creating an element he wants to kill or destroy?

    2. If you introduce an element in session one and the GM uses it the player gets 2 points. If in session 2 the element is put at risk does the player than get 4 points?

  6. "at the same time offers some small payback if things go horribly wrong."

    This bit interests me. I'm not sure one wants to directly encourage players to kill off elements, but one does want to give some payoff for their loss. This is the essential element of any revenge-drama, right? That you develop investment in something, and then get badass because you lose it. But giving players a payoff when they lose it doesn't sit well with me.

    So, I love, and may adapt, the rest of this idea, but that bit in specific I'll need to think on.

    Now, where I love this idea is where @atminn points out applying this to intangibles. That hits right on my love of character development over advancement. But what, then, do you use the points on? Some narrative-control currency comes to mind as one option.

  7. @Kit - In a blog yesterday, I explored the possibility of these points allowing players access to more potent powers (in 4e dnd). So as their other resources depleted, their determination and motivation allowed 'digging deeper' and unleashing their greatest power. (Inspired by earlier posts by Rob, and another by TheAngryDM) This is somewhat like your idea of a circulatory system of balancing inverse game resources.

    Narrative control currency sounds good too.


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