Friday, October 28, 2011

What We Want

What we want in a game is a lot like what we want in life. I’m gonna riff a bit here on David McClelland via Peter Bregman with the list of desires that drive us:

  1. Achievement (To compete against increasingly challenging goals)
  2. Affiliation (To be liked/loved)
  3. Personalized power (influence and respect for yourself)
  4. Socialized Power (to offer others Personalized power, which is to say, influence and respect)

This list speaks a lot to how much our jobs and lives are going to satisfy us, and it’s no coincidence that the list also reads like a checklist of things that players want in play in an RPG (both in game and out of game).

Now, there’s no one point I want to make from this, mostly because I think there are dozens of points to be made from it, so it’s important to me to lay this out as a foundation, because it makes subsequent points easier to discuss, so with that in mind, let’s run through these.


Achievement is probably the most obvious, since it lies at the heart of the game part of most games, and it’s intimately tied to things like advancement, encounter design and so on. It’s important to call out that there’s a reason this is achievement, not challenge, because challenge is only a part of it - it’s the increase that is truly critical. Our brains thrive on mastery - we get a buzz from learning things and overcoming difficulty, but only the first time. If we’re faced with the same problem again, it quickly bores us. If we’re faced with an utterly different problem, that might be fun, but the sense of progress is not there. It’s counter-intuitive, but the best reward for success is a greater challenge.

This is one reason we’re so attached to character advancement in games, because it’s the easiest way for a GM to ramp up challenge. Without advancement, the GM needs to either push harder every time (as you would in a non-RPG as you progress in competitive ranks) or get very creative.

Now, I should note that there’s a lot of leeway in terms of what the challenge is, and that interacts pretty strongly with what Achievement needs. Fight scenes are challenges, and they’re the sort of challenges that advancement speaks to, but if the challenge the player seeks is creative, that requires a very different sort of ratcheting effect to keep increasing challenge.


Hopefully, this is largely obvious - it’s a big reason we play these games rather than write fiction to similar effect. The social element of play is huge, and not to be underestimated.

However, in my experience this is also a big part of satisfaction in play. One of the rules of design behind a lot of Evil hat decisions is that everything should have a face. Settings are made most interesting by the imaginary people in them, because the fact that they’re imaginary doesn’t really keep us from forming strong attachments to them (as can be evinced by the message boards of any fandom). Play that provides opportunities to scratch the affiliation itch is going to be satisfying play.

Personalized Power

Well, duh.

Ok, maybe it’s a little more complicated than that - step back a minute and consider what power means. It means the capability to accomplish things, to make things happen. It’s the ability for your action to have a measurable, noticeable outcome. It’s the ability to shape the world through your actions. When we have this power, it is a great feeling, and when we are denied it, it can be frustrating beyond measure.

Now, the first instinct is to look at RPG characters and drawl a line to their obvious power. Throwing lightning bolts, lifting cars and cutting through hordes of monsters are such clear expressions of power that they’re the first thing the mind goes to, but in doing so, it misses the mark. Certainly, that sort of blatant power is fun, but it is not in and of itself satisfying.

The real power of an RPG character is the ability to act. Part of this is implicit in the structure of rules (you roll the dice and something is going to happen) and some of it is implicit in adventure design (it’s a poor adventure where there’s not much to do) but taken as a whole, it’s an ability to simply do things which we often lack in our day to day lives. In real life, there are complication. Doing things is slow and boring, or our situation may not allow us to impact things that matter to us. In games, we can act. We may not always succeed, but just being able to try is empowering.

Lightning bolts and flaming swords just make that ability to act more colorful. It’s the action that is power.

Socialized Power

This one is probably the most interesting because while it’s probably the most poorly served by games in general, it’s possibly the most powerful when a game makes it go, because in play it’s most often reflected by as making other people awesome, which is (to my mind) one of the best things that can happen at a table.

The real meaning of this is something that could take up multiple posts of its own, but one interesting thing about socialized power is that it is hard to do without affiliation and personalized power, since it’s the fruitful combination of the two (it’s possible, but doing so tends to be more like martyrdom than a healthy dynamic). As a result, it can take more work to achieve, and it’s benefits are probably the least obvious until you have tasted them.

There’s more to say, but at this point it starts turning to how these points interact with games at the table, and that’s fodder for future posts.


  1. Loved this entire post, and really want to see where you take it next.

    On a side note, do these flow logically from your brain like this, or have you distilled your thoughts down into a nice pretty package with a bow on them for us?

    Either way, I want to hear more...

  2. I wonder if "the ability to act" can be universally upgraded to the ability to make meaningful decisions. As you note, it's essential to a game to have the ability to shape the world. It can be easy to mistake this for the ability to shape the world _exactly how I want_, which is a problem because it reinstates an artificial way to gauge winning and losing.

    In an rpg, the ability to shape the world and the ability to act are the same thing. When you act, the scenario is changed in some way, even if you didn't intend that specific change. You can throw out the escapism concept and just embrace the value of meaningful decisions and consequences in narrative media - without those things, the story sucks.

    So, to me, when you act in the game and you get a compelling result, you've succeeded regardless of the outcome of the dice. Because if there is no interesting consequence of failure, there's no reason to roll. From a logistical standpoint, this is valuable just because you want story to happen regardless, not just when the players succeed. And, either way, your actions have told a cool story.

    But once you're on that path of actions=interesting results, a further step is decision-making. If all of your attempted actions come down to rolls of the dice, you need to have a way to empower players to specialize very well or game the system to achieve a high likelihood of success in a significant amount (perhaps half) of what's essential in a world and scenario. Otherwise, success and failure becomes arbitrary. The alternative to specialization that assures high likelihood of success is at least some decision-making that is decoupled from the conflict resolution mechanic.

    By that, I mean that just by attempting certain actions or behaving in a certain way, regardless of success or failure, the world is changed. For example, the decision to attempt to steal something could have more powerful (even if less direct) consequences than the outcome of the attempt.

    Where that all gets fluid and interesting is 1. where the players' responsibilities are in enforcing consequences, and where it might be on a GM's shoulders to do so. And 2. regarding "interesting failure" - how does everyone get on the same page for what types of actions are expected to generate significant outcomes? These parts of the social contract have been the most important in figuring out what an individual or group wants in most games in which I've played or spectated.

  3. @Jeremy One of my biggest problems is that I don't edit my own stuff, so this is more or less straight from my brain.

    @Paul Complex question. I think making the choices meaningful makes them better/more rewarding, but there is still reward to be had when the meaning is very small, but the action and outcome is concrete, especially if the act itself is rewarding. A sense of accomplishment, victory or mastery can bring their own meaning to an action.

    Which is not to say "Get rid of the meaningful choices" but rather than meaningful choices are a lot less one dimensional than they tend to be presented in game writing (my own included).

    That said, this bleeds into an interesting point that probably merits its own post sometime: the role of failure, and the interesting trap. You are far from alone in finding success in both successful and unsuccessful outcomes, but that introduces a challenge for both you and the GM. Is it simply that you'll have fun with whatever is put in front of you - that you 'make your own fun' as they say? If so, then the question of what they game is providing you becomes really important, because if you could do just as well doing anything else, then why not do something else?

    Anyway, as I say, that's a topic for its own post someday, since that's the tip of a BIG iceberg.

  4. When or whether to roll dice gets interesting, too. I've played in games, as player and as GM, where there weren't a lot of rolls made, and folks used a fair amount of what we dubbed consensus-fiat, where the group as a whole decides what would be cool, and that's what happens. I know we're not the only ones who've done that.


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