So Jeff Gameblog Ran A Storygame...
It was part of the PTA family of games--that is, Powered by The Apocalypse--meaning a game mechanically inspired by Apocalypse World*. It was a pro wrestling themed game.
Jeff is a big wrestling fan and we all had fun inventing wrestlers, including a juggalo wrestler who hit people with bottles and Jacques LaRoque, a proud Quebecois separatist lumberjack. I played The Leviathan--a phlegmatic mountain of muscle (Power +3) who, behind-the-scenes, was a cerebral, introspective man who disdained the showmanship and foolishness of the circuit but kept on in order to put himself through his PhD.
What Went Wrong?
Part of it has to do with the set up of this particular game. The idea is fine: you don't play Hulk Hogan (a character in the ring) you play a guy named Terry trying to become successful as a professional wrestler. We liked this idea. I might repeat that a few times, since PTA fans are, by and large, kinda slow and may read this: we liked this idea, we liked this idea, we liked this idea. The biggest problem was twofold:
-The main action of the game set-up (PTA games are much-vaunted for requiring little or no prep) is in the ring. That is, a series of matches.
-Wrestling is fake.
Inside the ring, on top of the usual oblique bunraku-show of storygame combat (Am I rolling vs Work or Power? Can I redescribe what I'm doing so it's about Power, since that's my good stat? Is there any reason to ever not?), you have a match where you have no goal other than serially doing moves (which, if impressive, gain Audience--the xp stat). So while cool wrestling moves are one of the high points of the game (as Jacques LaRoque came toward me with a sliding kick, I swatted his foot aside, spinning him 180 degrees on the mat and grabbed him by the hair in an illegal maneuver) there's no mechanical incentive to describe a cool move (you're still just rolling + Power) and a mild social disincentive to do it (the faster you shut up, the faster other people get to play, including the 3-4 players that aren't even in this match).
Outside the ring, where our characters should be genuinely interesting (The Leviathan, being a postgrad, is actually fairly sympathetic to Quebec separatism and dislikes the frog-baiting that his manager encourages him to do on-screen) there is no support at all:
You are all entertainers competing with each other to gain Audience and become more popular than the other wrestlers--that is the goal. Yet....on top of all the other problems with PTA games, this means that there are very few incentives to do anything behind the scenes with other PCs besides:
-Injure them (which takes your friend out of the game so socially sucks).
-Get into fights with them causing you to gain "Heat" with them. (Which means that there is no reason to do anything but have a conflict, but nothing about the conflict matters so long as it doesn't escalate to someone getting injured.)
Like, after the match...
"I hate you, Jacques Laroque!"
"I hate you as well, Leviathan!"
Ok we both got 1 Heat from that, unless one of us wants to hurt the other one in real life and sideline the next player for an entire session, there's no further mechanical purpose this behind-the-scenes encounter can serve. At this point we can and will keep having fun acting but.....this needs and has no rules? And every second we do this just delays arbitrarily the point at which we switch to the actual wrestling matches and involve other players.
Acting out of the ring (like cool moves in the ring) is the point--and the system disincentivizes it.
Means-Incentives vs Ends-Incentives
In a way, PTA games are pro wrestling: it matters that you dazzlingly leaped through the air onto your opponent--it doesn't matter if that is actually a way to hurt a guy in that situation. The system doesn't care about effectiveness, it only cares about the spectacle. You are only incentivized to do the move not think about what would work and engage the inventions born of necessity.
It speaks to a larger problem with PTA games for people who have played traditional ones or for people who play them as their first game. To back away from the white-hot-button of claiming PTA games are imperfect (I can already hear the trolls going "Zak says PTA is pro wrestling but OSR games are real lol" which I do hope no-one reading is stupid enough to believe) I'll use an example of a game everyone agrees is a mechanical disaster: the original RIFTS:
RIFTS, like most Palladium games, had xp for good plans--if I am right in quoting from memory A critical plan or action that save the entire group or a large number of people: 15 xp. I remember because it was a relatively large reward and so I was always angling for it. The (mild) problem with this well-meaning reward is that it is redundant: your fellow PCs not dying is its own reward, and saving people already has a separate reward.
So the game rewards the means (the plan or action) and the end (everyone being saved). So you get rewarded for both and that's not necessary, it just inflates the math.
All kinds of games have rewards like this where you're essentially rewarded for doing things in the genre instead of-, or in addition to-, successfully achieving the goals that characters in the genre want to achieve. And, of course, old-school D&D and its ilk instead successfully incentivize all kinds of emergent lunacy by the simple expedient of handing out xp for gold or defeating foes.
We can call these rewards-for-steps-along-the-path "means rewards" and call the simpler ones "ends rewards".
Storygames are especially fond of rewarding means-over-ends, because, so far as I can tell from their discussions online:
-A disproportionate number of them are afraid of dying, so the games make it hard to die and "Do this cray thing 'cuz it'll keep you alive" won't work as an incentive
-A disproportionate number of them aren't very intelligent, so the connection between "Get into the spice merchant's good graces" and "Steal the spice ship and its cargo" isn't really apparent to them, so they need to be told they get rewards by saying things like "You are a rogue, every time you deceive someone, gain xp!", and
-Despite being unintelligent, a disproportionate number are dimly aware there is this thing called capitalism that has contributed to them being unintelligent and they get that that's bad (all true), so the idea of granting mechanical advancement for gold sounds a lot like bad capitalism which is bad and bad but also bad, so they never really wrapped their precious lil storygamer heads around how goal-incentives work
So this leads to a game like Apocalypse World positively pneumatic with means-incentives where you're constantly mechanically incentivized to do basically anything in-genre or that creates "drama" and have absolutely no incentive to actually think about how a PC in that universe would achieve an in-character goal. Mad Max and Furiosa have reasons to argue about how to beat the Warboys and little incentive to think of ways to beat the Warboys. They go down when you roll high--possibly because you add the points you got from arguing, period.
Scenes themselves have no end goals (unlike many trad RPGs where they could end with an advantage or disadvantage developing for you during the scene), you can't get anything out of them unless you trigger a move.
-Like Apoc World you have a long or generalizable move list you kinda need to remember in order that scenes are constantly triggering moves so you make mechanical progress--and you need to always interject the moves at the right moments to make progress, or
-Like the wrestling game, you haven't got many moves so you have a lot of scenes which not only aren't mechanically helpful to you but you know at the beginning aren't going to be mechanically helpful and so now you're just outside the action of in-game progress and delaying the time until you get to the scenes that do create in-game progress. i.e. a strong mechanical and social disincentive to roleplay.
Meanwhile in a trad RPG the goals of your player and that of the PC in a scene often align, so that there is a strong incentive for both of you to get whatever it is the PC wants to get during that scene. Taking actions which seem like the kind of thing your guy would do isn't the point, simply getting the thing that player wants in the scene is the point and the tropes happen as a result.
A really good design doesn't reward Peter Parker for angsting about his personal life, it rewards him for, say, trying to meet commitments and punishes him for failing so the angst will just happen--along with a lot of other things characteristic of the genre. It requires some insight into where a story comes from, not just listing tropes and incentivizing them.
Turns out the implied trad engine "Decide what you want, when you get it gain xp" is actually tremendously flexible and powerful for both action and drama.
Ok, but who cares?
Lots of people like PTA games and are perfectly happy with means-incentives. So what's the problem? Nothing if you're them--but if you like games that push you to do things you wouldn't do without the game or have a lot of emergent mayhem, they can be a little thin. Means incentives don't push invention beyond the expected limits of the genre--any invention is mere gravy. Ends incentives tell you "The standard trope didn't work, think harder".
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