Bribes, Fairness, and Fiat — the nature of some rewards in RPGs

It is difficult for me to play some games. Mostly because, in my opinion, those games have skewed views of player expectation. I’m not (necessarily) saying that the problem is with the players — I’m saying the problem is with what the players expect from the system.

Mostly, I don’t like bribes.

Bribes undermine the basic trust assumptions of a good roleplaying game and seem to presume (to my thinking) a competitive side that assumes that players will “cheat” and GM’s are “out to get ya.” Both of these are poor assumptions and I really struggle with them in a gaming sense. More specifically, I guess I struggle with the idea that we (as players and GMs) need to be protected from each other by the mechanics of our games rather than our own ability to interact.

I’m going to pick on Mutants and Masterminds (M&M) because it is a game I know well and it exemplifies the Bribe economy in a game. Don’t take it personally M&M, you are not alone, you just happened to be perfectly positioned as an example right now.

Specifically, M&M addresses the “pay-as-you-go” model of character flaws by using Complications and Hero Points. Effectively, this comes down to two things. First, the idea that players will do everything they can to ignore or mitigate a character’s drawbacks once the game begins because “they’ve already gotten paid.” Second, the idea that (beyond character creation) the PCs deserve a bribe for accepting the possibility that bad things can happen to their characters.

I’ll say it: I straight up hate this thinking.

Do I know players who are willing to resort to whatever shenanigans they can to get one over with disadvantages in games? Yes I do. Do I ever game with those folks again? Nope. The game doesn’t fix the bad behavior, it only masks it. And that is assuming the player even agrees to go along with the proposed complication — a player can simply continue to ignore their weaknesses, they just don’t get mechanical rewards for doing so. A player of the type who would “game the system” in one type of game will find ways “game the system” here as well and get HP for silly things (basically, whatever they can wheedle for). Because that’s the problem with bribes. They set up the expectation that they are somehow deserved.

To the second count of the GM inserting a situational complication and handing out hero points for going along with it… I think the designers’ hearts are in the right place. It’s about genre protection. “If you let the villain escape, I’ll give you a hero point.” “A building suddenly explodes down the street and civilians are in danger! If you respond to that instead of continuing to pummel the villain, I’ll give you a hero point.” “If you talk to the villain instead of rolling initiative, I’ll give you a hero point.” And a dozen other examples. Basically, we are rewarding players for taking actions that: (1) Already make sense in the type of game they’ve chosen to play, and (2) Encouraging “good behavior” only by creating a bad new expectation.

This kind of thing is a cop-out first and makes us lazier in our table responsibilities. If the GM wants the villain to escape, have a good plan that lets the villain escape. If the players don’t want to play Superheroes — don’t be playing a superhero game.

At the risk of being the biggest Amber fan-boy on the planet, I’m going to trot out that game to show an alternative. One way that you earn more points to build your character in Amber (and probably character creation is more vital in that game because the opportunities to alter what you did at the beginning are so limited) is to commit to investing more in the game. You earn rewards not for making easy choices in game that are probably already built-in expectations of the game you are playing — but by committing yourself to bettering the game experience for yourself or others. For example: how many of you would be willing to commit to writing a game journal — in the voice of your character — for the duration of a campaign, if all you got for it was 10 points, up front? I’ve got folders full of these things at home, so some certainly are willing. But that’s the alternative. To require a commitment from the Player instead of just the character.

Getting back to the other half of the equation — the idea of a competitiveness problem. I’ll admit, I love challenging my players and their characters. I enjoy games that involve emotional commitment, powerful storylines, and drama. What I’ve never understood though, is why a GM would consider the game a competition with players? This isn’t a war-game. It isn’t 40K, Battletech, or Diplomacy. The GM’s role is almost that of co-conspirator. You are the players senses, their relationships, and the narrator of outcomes. You might occasionally “betray” a fellow conspirator by throwing in a clever trick or a fiendish trap — but you aren’t out to get them… you are setting them up for success even when it seems they are at their lowest. And it is the “job” of the players to understand this ebb and flow of narrative responsibility and cooperation to improve the game. Just as different play-styles can work in the same group if everyone is willing to let others have their moments, so to is it with players and GMs. It is their job to work together to have the best game.

Bribes break down this dynamic. They mechanize a social exchange and turn it into an economic one. Bribes incentivize poor behavior because you know you’ll get a reward from the GM when you “give in.” Bribes turn trust into a transaction.

For me (and I realize full well that I don’t speak for everyone — this is for me) I don’t need (or want) to play a game that feels the need to mechanize the GM/player interaction and that feels the need to bribe me to act in accordance with the basic presumptions of the game world/genre or to “not be a dick” at the table.

Thank you.


5 responses

  1. So what do you do if the local gaming infrastructure has basically built gamers who fit into the “game the system” from moderately to maximally? I think that perhaps 90% of the gamers I know “game the system”. I include myself in that score, in that I will expect some benefits in return for a drawback (or vice-versa).

    I prefer to look at the transaction like this: I want my character to behave a certain way (that is not necessarily optimal for any given circumstance) – in other words, to have a consistent personality. The game (can) reward this – and then I am even happier. On the other hand, if the only things that happen because I “follow my character” are bad, then I think very few people will do this consistently. Frankly – for example, playing the truly altrustic Paladin type has plenty of downside. One should (I think reasonably) expect that the character will have a few extra benefits beyind those of his pragmatic fighter cousin,

    The other possibility (and I go back to Pendragon) is the notion of traits that are not spcifically judgemental (in the sense of good or bad) – so a character can choose to be either selfish or generous (for example). Once set, this trait will guide (or at least inform) the character’s actions, and is only changeable gradually. Some times one can earn great glory through generosity. However, one can also find oneself giving away the shirt from ones back.

    I think the truth of the matter is that the devil is in the details. A system that intrinsically ecnourages role play with its attendant disadvantages and advantages, without appearing to “bargain” with the player to get them to “behave” can be very good, and get even the ardent min-maxer involved in role play. A simple mechanistic “rewards program” will be gamed mercilessly by most of the gamers I know.

    1. If your local gaming infrastructure is 90% this way — you begin to educate them that there might be a different way. I took 2nd Edition D&D players, reared in the age of Skills and Powers and taught them Amber DRPG as a change of pace — and it was the best four years of gaming I’ve ever had…

      Note that the “pay up front” model used in games like GURPS does actually include a benefit. You get more points at Character Creation. In Amber there are two types of this — by lowering stats you can get a pay-up-front bonus but the “game cost” is actually very high — and there is also the aforementioned up-front-bonus but ongoing commitment option involving higher levels of player involvement (a good thing).

      Your argument that the game can/should reward you for playing a consistent personality is odd. Again, you want to be rewarded for fulfilling the baseline expectation of the game environment… To address the specific example of the altruistic paladin and his pragmatic fighter cousin I can only say this. Roleplaying games are cooperative efforts, not competitive — and if you don’t want to play the altruistic paladin, no one is going to ask you to. You decide what type of character you choose to play. And if you choose to play an altruistic paladin but you don’t want to be altruistic then the question is “why choose that character?” I suspect that the answer is, I actually do want the mechanical benefits of being a paladin but I don’t want to be hassled with actually role-playing the character parts that I find inconvenient… the attitude that leads to the fallacy that RP choices cannot be effective balances against Mechanical choices. Ultimately though, the point is, if you don’t want to play an altruistic paladin, don’t. Play the fighter. No one will stop you.

      The problem is that when the game mechanics boil down to basic math (which is true in many cases) then RP and mechanics find themselves at odds when players value one over the other. It’s why so many games try to exploit that divide to build a mechanic upon.

      For me though — the biggest point is this: The game is cooperative. To argue that you require a reward for baseline good behavior is awkward at best — especially when the only advantage it actually provides is over another player/character. Additionally, when gaming, the reward is potentially in the play itself. My point would be: the reward for the altruistic paladin is the intrinsic joy of playing a game with a character with a rich, interesting personality that provides a fun challenge to maneuver through the game. Not how many “+1” tokens I can rack up by doing the minimum and then whining for more.

  2. What if the only “bribe” or cost to taking either a benefit or a drawback that helped to define/increase the capacity/improve the character concept was an increase in the impact of a character’s Legacy attribute?

    “You’re free to develop your concept as deep as you desire, but be warned that the tradeoff is that if I find it interesting as a GM and am able to work a lot of hooks to tie you to the scenario, then you can expect to be ‘picked on’ a lot… for good or ill.”

    And alternately, “If you want to increase your character’s depth of interactivity with the setting, you have two options: increase your Legacy attribute, or increase the depth of your character (which increases the impact of Legacy.)”

    1. This is a fancy idea. I like it. I probably would not actually attempt it (though actually, Amber does do this (sorta) and I’ve done it before) in my own game. But it’s a damn nifty idea.

  3. […] Bribes, Fairness, and Fiat – the nature of some rewards in RPGs from The Rhetorical Gamer ( […]

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