An important feature of any RPG system design is the incentive structure it creates to elicit behaviors from the players. Sometimes the incentive structures will be consciously designed to play off each other, creating a space for interesting choices (for example, in the D&D 3e/3.5 character building system for Fighters there’s usually a tradeoff between accuracy and damage: do you want to hit often, or do you want to do a lot of damage when you do hit? Both are desirable, but often the choices that move you closer to one goal will make it harder to achieve the other, even if it’s just in terms of opportunity cost). Sometimes the incentives will seem at first glance to be unidirectional, such that more of X is always better. In a comment on a Vincent Baker blog post, Simon Carryer used a phrase that crystallized my thinking about some systems that do that:

it sucks to be playing against your own integrity

Oftentimes these seemingly unidirectional incentives do have a counter-incentive: the player’s integrity. In a competitive game that integrity might be their sense of “fair play”. Since I don’t read or play many competitive games I more frequently see the incentive balanced against a player’s artistic or aesthetic integrity.

For an example, let’s look at Wushu, which has two separate subsystems which feature this problematic pattern. In Wushu, for each action you roll a number of dice and compare the result on each die to a score from a trait that seems relevant to the action. Each die that rolls under the trait score counts as a “success”. Assuming that you want your character to succeed, there’s an incentive to roll more dice (each extra die you roll has a possibility coming up a success, with no mechanical downside) and an incentive to roll against a stat with a high value (a greater chance that each die you roll be a success, with no mechanical downside).

Wushu‘s most famous rule is that you get an extra die for each “detail” that you add to your action narration. Since more dice are better, you are incentivized to get as many dice as you can, which means you’re incentivized to add as much detail as you can. Which means that the game is encouraging you to create “purple prose”, frequently derided as poor storytelling. The counter-incentive that’s encouraging players to limit the number of dice they use is the desire to maintain artistic integrity: you want to get as many dice as you can without pushing the bounds of good taste.

In Wushu character creation, players author their own traits and assign scores to them by spending points from a limited pool. During play, you decide what trait to use with each roll by picking one that is “relevant” to the action you’ve described. Since a broad, generally applicable trait is more likely to be relevant than a concrete, specific, flavorful one, the game has created another incentive: when creating your character, create a few broad, general traits and give them high scores. Since you’ll almost always be able to narrate an action that seems “relevant” to a broad trait, you’ll almost always be able to roll against the high score associated with it, leading the the greatest number of successes for you. The game has created an incentive to repeatedly engage in similar actions so that you can always use the same broad, bland trait with a high score attached to it. The counter-incentive that’s encouraging you to create more traits, create interesting traits, and use a variety of traits and actions during play is your artistic integrity: you don’t want to be “boring”, “predictable”, or “repetitive” in the way you create or play your character.

When a game creates an incentive that is only countered by your own integrity it encourages you to operate on the edges of your integrity, which sucks. It means you’ll sometimes cross that boundary, making decisions that you (or the people you’re playing with) regret, and will make you uncomfortable about decisions that come close to crossing. If the incentive’s reward is built around character effectiveness, and the game expects social esteem in the group to come from demonstrating character effectiveness, then the game presents players with a terrible choice: do I want to be considered a poor player because I’m not as mechanically effective as I could be, or do I want to be considered a cheesy player with things like trait grubbing and social wheedling? The difficultly of gauging your friends’ sensibilities and navigating that difficult course can lead to social tension, and “labeling” or “pathologizing” people. Concepts like “munchkin”, “powergamer”, or “min-maxer” were created to stigmatize people who respond to the obvious incentives in a game but trip over the hidden social counter-incentives that groups apply as patches to questionably designed systems. This blog post isn’t a demand that games be made jerk-proof or to insulate against obnoxious behavior (bullies and griefers can find ways to make anything unpleasant), but people who are making a good-faith effort to play a game according to the player-facing incentives it presents shouldn’t be led into doing things that make the game unpleasant for themselves or others.

Rather than relying heavily on players’ or groups’ integrity to carry a large load, I think game designers will generally be better served by thoughtfully designing the incentives in their games. Obviously the creative sensibilities of players and groups are important, but it’s dangerous to make them into “load bearing” aspects of a game system’s design, especially if it’s not done thoughtfully and intentionally. There are multiple ways to avoid the problem I’m highlighting in this blog post. For example, in Dogs in the Vineyard‘s conflict system, for each trait or object you “concretely demonstrate in the fiction” you roll dice and add them to a pool, making it superficially similar to the Wushu mechanic I criticized above. However, there are diminishing returns to adding dice to your pool in DITV: You only use dice out of the pool a few at a time, so there’s no benefit to having an overly large pool as long as you have enough to pick from, and there’s some benefit to leaving some traits unrolled so that your opponent faces uncertainty rather than perfect information when making their own dice-game decisions against you. The game provides an incentive to invoke traits or objects (thus making the game’s fiction richer), but the incentive isn’t so overwhelming that you feel dumb or unskilled for not including as many as you can at every opportunity (which would make the game seem silly and overwrought).

Another approach to avoiding the “integrity counter-incentive” is to associate different mechanical decisions with a basket of explicitly designed pros and cons. This is the approach I took when designing the dice system in my game Final Hour of a Storied Age. My game also lets you roll more dice by invoking more traits, but rolling more dice isn’t unambigously better: it makes you more likely to win a roll but also decreases the chance that you’ll have a big impact if you do win and exposes you to more risk if you lose (similar to the accuracy-vs-damage tradeoff I mentioned at the top of the blog post). By designing the system so that there are good arguments to be made for using each choice along the spectrum, the rational part of players’ brains can feel justified in signing off on the decisions that seem intuitively and aesthetically appropriate to them, and they don’t feel undue pressure to compromise their integrity to get an extreme mechanical result. There is some mechanical pressure, since the game wants to guide and encourage action at times when people aren’t sure what to do, but the pressure isn’t so overwhelming that it swamps players’ creative choices.