My brother and I were watching a crime show that takes place in Birmingham right after World War I. Between episodes I confessed that I was just watching the show as a role-playing game, mulling over in my mind how such a game could be made possible at the table. What information was given? What were the interesting choices being made? What was the impact? Over and over, thinking how such things could be handled by the GM to create a dramatic scenario. In the “game” the family makes interesting deals of all sorts, leverages contacts, intimidates, negotiates, and more.
My brother replied that such a show would be hard to run as a game because none of the players would make such irrational decisions. For example, one of the brothers of the crime family went after a man that disrespected him, but was way above his political weight class. The brother gets beat up pretty bad. Many of the character engage in dopamine-heavy actions because they’re addicted, dealing with stress, or it’s something they have a strong, emotional desire to do.
From the objective point of view a player has, it’s not a rational choice to do many of these actions. They don’t experience the same draws and certainly not the same euphoria as their character. They don’t share brain chemistry affected by serotonin, cortisol, dopamine and what have you. There’s a disconnect between the player and character, one who is rational and the other irrational. If people making bad choices or dramatic blunders is part of your game, you should seek to rectify the two.
Blades in the Dark does this a lot. The entire back-end of the game is a complex system of incentives to do certain actions. To “heal” in the game, you engage a Vice (luxury, pleasure, stupor, etc.) of which there might be some harsh consequences. If you take too much stress, you gain a Trauma which gives you XP if you willing let it cause you trouble. Making “desperate” rolls in which you have a poor position also gives you XP. Finally, when the GM sees a golden opportunity during an important roll, they can offer a Devil’s bargain: “I will give you an extra die if you do this or if you let this dramatic thing happen to you.” It’s this last one I want to talk about.
The Devil’s Bargain as a system can actually fill the role of all of the other incentive systems in Blades. “If you engage in this Vice, I’ll give you this token.” “If you let your Angry Trauma get the better of you in this situation, I’ll give you a token.” “If you go for this roll that could have serious consequences, I’ll give you a token.” The token in this case is just some abstract resource that could be spent for a bonus, a re-roll, some more dice, whatever is balanced for your system. It’s certainly a powerful tool to nudge players towards a certain style of play, one that features bad choices and dramatic blunders.
But doesn’t this whole idea distort role-playing? If RPGs are about making choices as a character in a given situation, doesn’t choosing whether or not to take a token for a poor choice tamper with the experience? Yes it does, that’s why this is a “soft recommendation.” This mechanic introduces a decision point that players engage in from an “author” or “pawn” stance, not a “character” stance. It’s my patch-fix for the gap between rational and irrational decisions. Providing a desirable mechanical benefit behind a poor choice is one easy way to do that.
That’s the “why.” Now on to more application.
Fleshing it out
Blades in the Dark has Devil’s Bargains, FATE Core has Compels, which work about the same. However, in Blades there is no direct cost for refusing the “token.” In FATE Core you either accept the “token” or pay with one of your own. Blades’s method is lame because refusal just results in “nothing happens.” Any GM (or player) effort in coming up with an interesting Bargain is wasted. FATE Core’s method is lame because it’s a direct punishment and makes the token economy zero-sum. A GM giving Compels to a “drama-magnet” character and them refusing makes them mechanically less potent.
Here’s my approach: The GM offers a token in exchange for a consequence or future consequence. If the player accepts, they receive the token and the consequences happen. If they refuse, the GM receives the token.
There is still an impact, albeit mechanical one, but the game does not come to a dead-stop. Instead, it builds dread as the opposition becomes a greater threat. (Note: this wouldn’t work in Blades because most of the rolls are player-facing. The GM only uses dice during Luck rolls and other “behind the scenes” stuff.)
Now I’m imagining a game set in Blades in the Dark’s dark industrial city of Doskvol that uses 2d6-opposed rolls only. Players make bad choices and dramatic blunders, and engage in risky behaviors in order to accumulate resources that allow them to re-roll. The GM invites bargains and accumulates a stack of chips to be used for re-rolls of their own.
Invite dramatic impact in your game through reward systems like these.