Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Comments on a Theme, And a Favor Mechanic

So I'm on a bit of a design kick this week. First the World-god, then The Role-playing Game About Role-playing Games, now I want to talk about rewarding in-theme play on the fly. I've been watching The Wire this week, and it's my first time. Yes, I know that means I'm living in a time before electric lights or the lever, but I don't have cable, I don't _want_ cable, so I usually end up seeing these sorts of things well after everyone else has.

The thing that has struck me as most important to The Wire, and indeed all television (and perhaps all stories ever) is that it sticks to its themes in a very close way. When you're watching the show, you get a very real sense of the policing institutions in Baltimore breaking down around the city's ears. This theme, the dysfunction of the system, is something that the series would be completely hollow without.

Sometimes stories need to adhere to themes. A lot of role-playing games pay some lip-service to thematic elements, talking about how it's typically the Game Master's responsibility to present those themes in his or her descriptions of events, characters and locations. But themes in fiction are more pervasive that that; they make the characters who they are, and they dictate, to some degree or another, how those characters are going to act in certain situations. So how do you motivate your players to stay on-theme?

Well, pretty much the same way you motivate your players to do damned near anything else: carrot or stick. You can try and motivate them with rewards, or you can punish them for doing things that are against the theme. Personally, I prefer to bribe my players to do things, as they resent bribes less than they resent getting slapped around for doing something they want to do. If you make them want to do things in-theme, and they'll do those things without complaint.

So then you get to the question of "Well, how do I motivate my players to behave in a way consistent with a dysfunctional policing system?" It's not easy, because a lot of times, acting in a way consistent with a dysfunctional policing system... Well, sucks. You're going to do things that are not good. You're going to do things that are frustrating. You're going to do things that put your character into situations that suck. So you're going to need a pretty kick-ass reward system, and it can't be something that breaks the game.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer, by the good kids at Eden Games, had a pretty amazing dramatic editing system that rewarded players for being in shitty situations. Xander got kidnapped by the Big Bad who is trying to get him to reveal Buffy's most secretest weaknesses? Xander gets himself a drama point, letting him do some really awesome stuff later (such as survive getting batted around by said Big Bad). That works in a system that's all about Teh Story, but it's less great for things like, well, The Wire. The Wire is not a dramatic show; it's very gritty and realistic. So what to do, what to do...

Something that fits within the theme of The Wire is the idea of Favors. When you do something for someone, that someone owes you a favor. When something happens to you that sucks, when you act in a way that is on-theme, someone owes you a favor. In particular, the Game Master owes you a favor. And there's no one more powerful in terms of Favor-granting than the Game Master.


Favors are the currency of politics. When you do something for someone, it isn't forgotten. If ever you do someone a favor and they renege on their responsibility to return it, you are perfectly in your rights to completely fuck with that person for the rest of his or her gods-given life. It is within someone's best interest to cash in the favors he or she owes, lest he or she get caught in a political shit-storm regarding those pictures he or she took with that little boy in Thailand.

Player characters start off as bad-asses in the world, and as such, some people owe them something big. Each player's character starts off with three Favor Points. Favor Points may be traded in for special treatment or assistance when it's needed. Different favors are worth different amounts of points. The more powerful the person you are calling on for the favor, the more points it costs. The more difficult or dangerous or expensive the favor, the more points it costs. Let's look at a chart!

Favor Difficulty

Favor Point Cost







Very Difficult





Who Owes You?


Peasant, Civilian, Street Bum, Average Joe

/2, round down, minimum 1

Merchant, Union Leader, Your Boss


Minor Noble, Your Boss' Boss, An Old Rival


Ranking Noble, CEO of the Company, An Old Enemy


Prince, A Current Enemy, A Mob Boss, An Ex-spouse


The King, A Mortal Enemy, The Mob Boss' Boss, Your Ex-mother-in-law


A Demon or Wizard, God, The Dungeon Master

All of Them


So if you want a Dangerous Favor (dangerous as determined by the character being asked for the favor, mind, not by you) from the Crown Prince of the Awesome Kingdom, it's going to cost you 60 some Favor Points. To rack up that many Favor Points, you're going to have to o through some shit. Serious shit. World-altering, nuts-in-a-vice shit. But if you need that guy who sells dope on the corner to stand in front of you while people start shooting, well it's going to cost you 6. That you can do after a few sessions, if your life sucks. And if you're trying to capture the feeling of gritty urban dysfunction, your life is probably crap.

A few notes: This system is mostly built as an add-on to role-playing bits. You want something done; you're going to need to convince these people that you need their help. Sometimes, they aren't going to want to help you, no matter how many Favor Points you have in your pool. People have their own shit going on, and most of the time that shit isn't "Huh… I wonder how I can best help that guy who helped me do that thing one time."

Favors are trades. When you gain a favor point, you did something for someone, and doing that thing sucked. It may have happened off-camera, but you did it, and the person you did it for is going to remember it. Alternatively, someone you know needs to do something, and that thing is going to suck for you pretty bad. They owe you for that, and they'll pay up. The same goes for them, though; if you're going to be using a favor point system, understand that sometimes someone is going to try and call in a favor, and if you don't deliver, it's putting your reputation on the line. You don't want to be the guy who doesn't return favors. That guy gets really lonely (or really dead) really fast.

Favor Points are usually a response to some really shitty thing happening to you. This is pretty similar to the way Buffy The Vampire Slayer characters regain their Drama Points. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. The reward for bad things happening to you is that you get a Favor Point. Someone has fucked the pooch and the pooch fucked you, so now someone owes you. You don't get favor points for breathing. If you show up to your session and bad shit does not happen to you, or you do not agree to do something you're going to hate doing, well then you don't get any favor points. These are handed out at the DM's discretion.

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