Carrot and Stick

by Mary K. Kuhner, 1999

This is a personal position statement, and a longish rambling one, on what I think goes amiss with many roleplaying campaigns and groups and how it might be fixed.

When I was in elementary school I was in an athletics course where the teachers bullied us constantly on the grounds that without bullying we wouldn't exert ourselves. I came out with a violent dislike of the whole idea. I also didn't exert myself much, since I would slack as soon as the teacher looked away.

This year (about twenty-five years later, admittedly) I started studying martial arts. The class culture doesn't include bullying. If you run out of breath and stand with your head hanging, people just ignore you, or make sympathetic grimaces. There's no grading, not even a belt system.

I find I'm working a lot harder, and feeling a lot less resentful, than I did under the previous regime.

The roleplaying subculture has a very strong streak in it of using coercive or punitive tactics to try to get a better game. This tendency was already there in AD&D ("lose 1000 EXP for violating your alignment") and is well developed in many more recent games. Sometimes it is combined with bribery in a sort of carrot-and-stick approach: GURPS is a good example of this. You get more bennies if you agree to take on personality limitations (a "good player" action); you lose bennies if you don't play your limitations to the GM's satisfaction ("bad player").

There may be people for whom this is a good approach. In the groups where I have seen it tried, it has not seemed to work well. Players do the minimum they must in order to avoid penalties or gain benefits, and slack as soon as they can. The GM gets into a mindset of distrusting, even disliking, the players because they are constantly "abusing" the rules. The players get into a mindset of resentment because they feel the GM is bullying them into playing in a way they don't prefer. (I have been in one game where the bullying was all player-player, with little GM involvement. It was equally painful.)

The fundamental problem is that good roleplaying, like athletics in my childhood, has been defined as something that's icky and unfun. That's why people have to be bribed or threatened to get them to do it.

This doesn't correspond with my experiences at all. Roleplaying at its best is terrific fun. I've turned down a lot of neat things (including, I'll say with a blush, the Purity Test entry of 'have you ever passed up being laid in order to roleplay?') for the sake of a good game. And it's most fun when everyone is playing well, just as martial arts is more fun when everyone is having a good day and fighting at their best.

So how did we ever get to the point of needing punitive mechanics?

I suspect that the historical answer is that people evolved modern RPGs out of a different kind of game, and it was hard to get across the new style. They resorted to punitive rules to enforce the desired style, and we've been repeating that tactic ever since. ("We" in a general way here: there are certainly a lot of groups, and some systems, with no punitive component at all.)

RPGs also arose, in large part, out of an intensely competitive activity in which it was seen as desirable to limit player freedom of action. It's hard to cooperate fully with someone whose role in the activity is purely as your opponent. (I play Diplomacy with people I would never roleplay with; I am only comfortable with them in the context of a rock-solid rules system.)

Roleplaying is a somewhat unsuitable format for purely adversarial play, since the rules are never solid enough to completely constrain the players, and since the GM has way too much power to be a real adversary.

My big insight, many years ago, was that I wasn't actually interested in roleplaying with anyone but cooperative, friendly people with somewhat similar RPG goals to mine. And with those people, it's not necessary to enforce punitive rules, as long as you go in with the clear expectation that we are *all here to have fun by roleplaying well*. Surfers don't need rules to force them to catch waves, after all: that's the *point* of surfing.

Some people aren't very good at roleplaying: they can learn. I've taught quite a few. If you approach the problem as "Here, let me show you how we do it; this is what's worked for us" I've found that beginners can learn very fast. (Beginners who turn out not to like your particular game style can also drop out very fast; that's inevitable. If you've been pleasant to them, the odds that they'll find a more suitable game elsewhere go up.)

If the group has been using a coercive system, the transition can be rocky. My elementary school class, if suddenly told we wouldn't be bullied into doing laps anymore, would surely have stopped doing them. It is easier to integrate players one by one into a group that's already playing somewhat cooperatively, rather than shifting a whole group at once.

I'm not saying "be nice and there will be no problems." Problem situations, players and GMs are a fact of life. But if you go in with a cooperative mindset, you can often fix problems by talking them over and reaching a compromise.

"Lose 1000 EXP for violating your alignment" does not really encourage talking things over. It's about one side being RIGHT and forcing its views on the other.

In the last analysis, we do this stuff because it's fun. I know that people make a lot of sub-optimal decisions about who to game with and what kind of game to accept, because that's better than not gaming at all (for some of us: others quietly drop out of the hobby). But I'd rather adopt a strategy that treats the other participants as willing, honest people with goals and desires somewhat similar to mine, and willing to talk about how we can best reach those goals.

Roleplaying can be incredibly fluid and deft. In scenes where several PCs of mine are talking, my husband (the GM of that game) often slips in dialog from a PC's point of view. The ship captain may say "We're heading out tomorrow at 7:00 hours" and the GM, speaking for one of the crewmen, says "Isn't that pushing it a little? We've only been in-system for a day and a half." This would hit me as trespass if the GM were using force (i.e. insisting that he was RIGHT about what the PC would say) but in the actual game it's supportive. I have a moment more to think about the captain's point of view, to improve my grip on it; and the GM's intuition about what the crewman would say is probably good. If it isn't, I'm free to say "No, he's just as eager to leave as she is."

If you put threats in, if you put sticks and carrots in, this fluidity is going to be lost: people won't dare.

I would be willing to play in a game (Pendragon, say) where the group was using personality mechanics to tackle a roleplaying challenge they felt they could best accomplish that way. I'm not a fan, but maybe I'd be surprised.

I am, however, no longer willing to put myself in the position of being bullied and threatened in order to do something that I would like to be doing for fun, so I won't play in carrot-and- stick games. It's usually fairly easy to remove the problem mechanics, though removing the mindset is more challenging.

The usual response to this is "If I didn't use the carrot or the stick, my players simply wouldn't play well." There are three responses to this:

(1) It can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you treat players as though they are just waiting for a chance to play badly, they are likely to meet your expectations.

(2) Why is the GM defining "playing well" unilaterally? If the group as a whole defined it, perhaps they'd stick to it.

(3) In my experience, you *can* (at least for groups I've played in) pitch the entire carrot and stick apparatus, and after a rocky transition period, the games simply improve. You don't get less characterization, less firewalling, or fewer tactically suboptimal decisions--unless the players really prefer a style which doesn't have those things. And if that's what the players prefer, you will never be able to whack them hard enough to convince them otherwise. At best they will comply sulkily and half-heartedly; at worst they'll just abandon the game.

Roleplaying groups notoriously break up. I believe that the average length of a campaign is around 6 months and the average lifespan of a gaming group is only a year or so. Some of this is life's pressures--people move, peoples' interests change-- but I've also known quite a few groups where no one ever seemed really happy with the game. No wonder they quit.