All Carrot, No Stick

By | February 9, 2013

Hello once again!

We’re going to have to let our deadline for the Races & Cultures chapter slip by one week. But the great thing is, that chapter’s more awesome than we were originally aiming for, and is larger than what we’ve released so far.

So instead, today we have a column from Ray about getting Players to work together in Infinite Earths.  Enjoy!

Hello again!  This is Ray Watters, Vice President of Creative Design at Room 209 Gaming.  I had a rare Friday night off from work earlier this month, which let me attend the Raleigh Tabletop Roleplaying group’s organizational session and casual meetup.

This gave me a chance to talk about how our own efforts on Infinite Earths are coming.  A fair number of questions posed to me revolved around how our rules foster cooperative play during character creation and actual sessions.

“How do you make people work together?”  Someone asked me.

“You don’t,” I replied.

There is no stick in the Infinite Earths ruleset to force cooperation, because Players who don’t want to work together will stop playing together.  When Players don’t cooperate, they already have a harder time of it–the rules don’t need to make things even worse.  Instead, our system encourages Players and the Guide to collaborate together to make a game they all enjoy playing.  One way we do that is by offering small carrots throughout their time together.

One example is Session Zero–an opportunity for Players and the Guide to explain what they want out of an upcoming series of gaming sessions.  The concept was well-recieved by people who told me about games that ended or changed drastically because of a lack of clear communication early-on about what everyone expects.

I pointed out that Session Zero offers more than that–it gives Players and the Guide story and mechanic bonuses that encourage cooperation.

During character creation, the story bonus is obvious.  Players can talk about things they would like to do–“I want to fight a dragon!”–or long-term goals they want to work on–“I want to forge a kingdom!”  This lets other players know if there might be a conflict–“But I want to save all the dragons!”  It also lets the Guide know what sort of encounters the Players will be seeking out.  If all the Players want to explore the caverns deep beneath the earth, then the Guide knows not to spend too much time developing a flying kingdom far above the clouds.

This saves time for everyone involved–and time is a very precious resource for the person coming up with story hooks and places to explore.  It also lets people know right away if their gaming styles don’t mesh well together, giving them a chance to work around potential disagreements or try something else altogether.

The mechanical bonuses during character creation are a small reward from the Guide to Players who integrate their backstories together.  It can be as simple as one player character helping another player character swim to safety after a shipwreck–and both characters gaining a free Rank in the Athletics Skill.  That would let them break the rules on the number of Skill Ranks allowed (no more Ranks in a Skill than a character has Levels), but it can only happen at character creation.

The more serious question for me was how the Infinite Earths rules encourage cooperation once play begins.  Again, there are no rules that tell the Players how they should interact with each other.  That’s something each group of Players has to decide for themselves based on common courtesy.  So a different carrot is used when the dice start rolling.

The Fellowship system rewards Players who help each other by giving them access to abilities that allow them to work together better.  These mechanics often involve assisting the other Players in some way, such as the sneaky fellow in the group making one Stealth check for the entire group when they try to slink past some Guards together.

Once again, the Fellowship is something discussed between Players and the Guide since the types of groupings revolve around how the Players interact with the Setting.  Some examples of Fellowships would be protectors of the realm, mercenaries, those thrown together by chance, and a close-knit family.  The Fellowship helps describe how the group relates to its own members and to the world at large.

The story benefits are clear and upfront.  A group that says it wants the Mercenaries Fellowship obviously does not expect to give away all of their treasure to the local poorhouse and help every kindly farmer for no material reward.  It is another cue for the Guide to help decide which story hooks are more likely to interest Players.

The benefits for Players include some mechanical tricks to help accomplish their goals and a greater likelihood that the Guide is fully prepared for the types of adventures they want to experience.

As the story evolves and changes, the type of Fellowship the group chooses to be can change as well.  There is no penalty for a switch, of course, because this is mainly a signal to the Players and the Guide that the emphasis of the story has changed.  When a band of mercenaries decides they want to be heroes of the realm, it should be clear to everyone that some of the story hooks need to change.

And just like the collaboration that helped shape the characters and story in Session Zero, everyone needs to agree on the Fellowship that best fits the group and story.  No one should feel forced to play a game they don’t like or are not interested in exploring–this includes both the Players and the Guide.

After all, everyone is working together to have fun and tell interesting stories.  These carrots are just little rewards for helping make the collaboration go more smoothly.

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