Reward Systems and Paying Attention

Last week, I was having a Twitter conversation with the bane of my existence[1] Clyde Rhoer, sparked by this comment:

What if your “good roleplaying” awards in a LARP were medallions that were given from one player to another like Fan Mail.

I suggested that this was not particularly possible, and he asked me to unpack why. Now, I haven’t played in many American LARPs, but I have done enough to feel like I have a sense of those social dynamics. And something like Primetime Adventure’s Fan Mail system wouldn’t carry over.

See, in LARPs, you’re talking about 30 people, give or take, doing a lot of small-group interactions. Rarely (and it happens, but rarely) is the entire room paying attention to the same thing. So, any positive reinforcement mechanism will have to complete with the medium, rather than cooperate as it does with tabletop.

The point of positive reinforcement is two-fold:

  • Reward the person for good behavior (whatever that is)
  • Demonstrate to others the benefits of said behavior

In a LARP, the first can happen provided those with the ability to grant rewards are paying attention to you. Good luck with that. But the second? Hell no. There’s too much going on. Five people can sit around a game and throw Fan Mail around when people are being, well, whatever we want to reward. (Eric Boyd got Fan Mail for being particularly evil in several scenes of my first attempt at Blockbuster Adventures, the PTA-for-movies hack. Which made me realize the power of Fan Mail to be use in more specific ways to different characters/players rather than general.) But 30 people have 10 different constantly-splitting-off conversations cannot do so with the same effectiveness.

“But Ryan, we could tell everyone why X Dude is totally awesome and deserves this bennie!”

Yes, yes you could. But that’s way, way diminished in value. There’s being demonstrated behavior and its reward in person, and there’s hearing about it. When you hear about it, some of the emotional resonance of that moment are lost. You’re retelling a story whose context was moment-dependent, and while people can intellectually understand why a X Dude got his bennie, there’s much less of a lesson to connect to, if at all.

Furthermore, we can also intellectually re-equate hearing someone else’s tale with something we did. If I hear “X Dude got the Good Roleplaying Award for being true to his character even when his secret of being a necromancer was out and he was beheaded” or whatever, rather than actually see the quality of that moment and the emotional resonance around it, I can re-equate it with “Fuck, man, I did that last week and I didn’t get shit for it.”

(Why, yes, I have worked in a large institution that has given out little certificates of achievement for years and seen how they depress morale in staff that gets little attention. How can you tell?)

This is why I responded to Clyde at the time with the following[2]:

There’s something I tell software people that I feel applies here: be wary of using technology to solve social problems.

Not “don’t” but “be wary of”

And I’m wondering if it’ll end up backfiring due to social dynamics.

Something that works well for five players constantly communicating might not for 30 split up.

Positive reinforcement is a different beast when everyone is able to pay attention to both the act and the reward.

I naysay not to discourage but to make sure you’re armed properly for the attempt I’d like to see. :)

We’re talking about a social issue that the innovation proposed might be ill-suited for. Granted, I’m all for someone trying. I hope someone proves me the fuck wrong.

– Ryan

[1] For the love of fuck, Internet, it’s a joke. I know, I have to say that upfront. Y’all are a touchy bunch.

[2] I was pretty mouthy that moment on Twitter. Clearly I was bored.


18 Responses to Reward Systems and Paying Attention

  1. I understand better. Still think you’re wrong. I’ll try to make you look silly in the future, if this wheel-spinning about LARP continues in my head. Thanks for unpacking for me.

  2. Karen says:

    I see what you mean, it would seem impossible for the reward system in a LARP to be fair. However, I ran a 20-person LARP about a year back that had an MVP award at the end. Everyone wrote down the name of one person, and the votes were counted.

    Of course, the game required people to cross paths, so by the end everyone had talked to one another at least once. If you played damn well but only interacted with 3 people, it won’t be acknowledged, as opposed to the one guy who did one cool thing but it was witnessed by 10.

    In a perfect world, there would be an all-seeing, all-knowing being who would reward the good and punish the wicked. I nominate myself to be omnipotent!

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      What LARP was this?

      (Also, I could be bribed into seconding your nomination…)

      – Ryan

  3. Paul Tevis says:

    How does Houses of the Blooded not do this?

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      There’s a Fan Mail mechanic in Houses? Style is not that mechanic — it’s not given to reward, but spent to do (in a more or less closed economy where someone else gets said Style).

      That said, I think I’m getting what you’re driving at, and here’s the thing: there’s no explicit “good roleplaying” award in Houses. However, for said roleplaying, you involve yourself in more interesting shit that other players can do with and to you. So, yes, there’s a little bit of this going on in Houses, but not as Clyde’s initial (albeit limited by 140 characters) thought proposes. I would go farther as to say the system rewards you semi-publicly for being interesting rather than very publicly for “good roleplaying.”

      And that’s how I’d probably go about it if I designed an American-style courtly LARP. Which is why right now I don’t feel the need to do one, since I like how Houses works.

      – Ryan

    • Paul Tevis says:

      Style is a Fan Mail mechanic that says “Here’s a reward for being a good roleplayer by making the game fun for me.”

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Could you unpack that? I don’t think that it is, because Style is given to achieve an effect, not merely to reward. But then I never bought John’s “Style is a reward mechanic for the players to the GM” explanation either, for similar reasons.

      Or, rather, it’s not a reward mechanic explicitly the way Fan Mail is. I would buy Style as “Here’s us rewarding each other for this interaction” sort of mechanic, but that’s really about commerce than it is commendation.

      – Ryan

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      An interesting point can also be made in Houses: There is a reward mechanic for being “good audience.”

      – Ryan

  4. Hey Ryan,

    Let me lay out the more than 140 character thought, and then go into why I’m not sure you’re right.

    The whole idea would be to have a good roleplayer “medallion.” This essentially is a status symbol. It shows someone else in the community saw that person’s play as above average. The person with the medallion, who we’ll call… Clyde, gets one XP, bennie, whatever, on turning in the medallion at the end of a session. This would be a one time reward. The medallion blocks getting another medallion, so if you ever want to get the extra XP again you need to give it away. If my contention that it’s a status symbol proves to be true then I think you can count on most people awarding it with some discrimination, and taking the awarding responsibility seriously.

    I think my mentioning of fan mail gave you an impression of a currency constantly in flux, whereas I used Fan mail as an example due to the fact that it is given from player to player. I’ve used this kind of instant feedback to good effect in smaller larps, as the gamemaster, but as the size increases it becomes difficult to even know everything that is going on in a LARP, let alone keep track of everyone. The instant-ness does indeed make number 2 occur, but due to the fact that the reward is kept in the hands of power (GM and narrators) it becomes meaningless in it’s rareness and the size of group that can see it given.

  5. Ryan Macklin says:


    Fair enough. The thing about how I see Fan Mail working in games in that it’s a message to everyone that X Dude did a thing someone else likes to see, which is why I don’t believe that you can translate Fan Mail’s effects into a LARP. Which means I took you more literally than intended.

    (I also loathe status symbol things like what you’re talking about, but that’s personal baggage I’m copping to.)

    I think the “getting the medallion blocks getting another” in an interesting way, if you pace the spending of it. That said, seeing it in action would be fascinating. Depending on the group and its alphas, you’ll either see a vicious cycle or a form of moderation…if it’s awarded obviously and overtly. The hat-vote MVP idea Karen mentioned is interesting, as would turning that from a vote into a lottery (as to diffuse the popularity contest element — more votes means more chances to win, but no guarantee).

    This is making me think back to the game Luke & Thor ran at the last Dreamation, regarding the scaling of group dynamics and manipulation thereof.

    – Ryan

    • My thought would be the pacing of medallion trading wouldn’t be limited, but the reward would be. What I mean is the reward would be given at check-out. (You have to check-in and check-out of my games.) If you received a medallion you could give it away to someone, but you’d be sacrificing the bennie.

      I’ve also toyed with the idea of there being a second bennie when the medallion is given away, for the giver, of possibly a different resource, but wouldn’t start with this kind of additional complication.

      I stupidly missed the Burning LARP, to hang out with podcasters, at last Gen Con. I ended up isolated talking to a guy who wasn’t interested in talking, but nerd-dropping a bunch of info about some game I could care less about. I won’t make that mistake again.

  6. Rob Donoghue says:

    Dude, you are blinded by your instincts as a performer. The assumption that it’s all about what fan mail communicates to the table ignores a whole swath of other elements, including the personal dynamic between the participants, and the straight up mechanical benefits. Public acknowledgment is nice, but it’s a side effect, not the thing itself.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      That depends on what social problems a “good roleplaying” system is meant to resolve, if any. But you’re right that I’m boiling down Fan Mail’s effects to only one part — mainly because that’s the part that continues to fascinate me.

      Could you say more about how I’m being “blinded by [my] instincts as a performer”? I’m not groking that, and I’d like to.

      – Ryan

  7. Rob Donoghue says:

    As a thought experiment, what if Fan Mail were hidden. The person who gave it and the person who received it know about it, but no one else does. What does that change?

    The recipient is still getting acknowledgment and respect, as well as mechanical advantage, but they are no longer getting public recognition. So the question is, how much of the value of the fanmail comes from the acknowledgment (“Dave, who I think well of, has concretely demonstrated he like my thing! Woo!”) and how much of it comes from the recognition (“and now everyone knows it! Woo!”).

    From my perspective, the recognition is a small amount of cream, But is also something that makes me more than a little bit uncomfortable as any popularity contest would. I prioritize the table as a collection of individual relationships forming a whole, and from that perspective, the recognition is a trivial bonus at best.

    To a performer, there is an element where the rest of the table is, among their other roles, audience. From this perspective, the recognition is important because it feeds that particular engine. Possibly even the _most_ important, in which case removing the element of recognition would greatly diminish the value of fan mail. I maybe way off base, but I think this is a fair reflection of your angle of approach.

    (This ignores the element of group feedback because, to be frank, it’s fickle and inconsistent. Trying to draw signal from the table rather than from individual players is most likely to just reaffirm whatever biases you’re already carrying).

    The problem is, if a big part of the importance of fan mail is based on the importance of recognition (I don’t think it is, but let’s roll with it) the objection to using it in a LARP really brings out all the _bad_ elements of that idea. It’s a cynical interpretation, but the objection is not far removed from “Not enough people are seeing me be awesome, so reward from the people who do see me is pointless” and that is absolutely uncomfortable to me. Recognition is nice, but we should not _need_ it.

    So let me reframe the question for you: Is fanmail really about getting it, or is it about _giving_ it? Look at how we use it, with wiggled fingers, even in games that DON’T HAVE IT. We want a way to be able to acknowledge people. Fanmail is not earned, it is given. And with that in mind, how would a LARPer _not_ benefit from some ability to say to his friend “Man, that rocked. Have a cookie.”

    -Rob D.

    PS – None of which is to say there aren’t lots of interesting ways to change the mechanical implementation of fan mail in different circumstances, including LARPs, but that’s a whole other thing.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Unsurprisingly, you bring up good points. And if the point of Fan Mail is the giving, hell yes. (In fact, I give you fan mail for that comment.)

      I’ve just now realized[1] that part of my “this won’t work” gut reaction is also about being big on the gaming group-mind phenomenon. I see Fan Mail as a group-mind catalyst (based on experience, not just theory), with the giving and the receiving elements, with the publicness of it, etc. When Fan Mail flows, the four or five of us are all sync’ed. I can’t see *that* element happening in a large-form LARP. But that isn’t about reward mechanics in general as it is about a specific sort of effect from a specific reward mechanic.

      Clearly, when I hear “Fan Mail” something more specific comes to mind. But I can see all of what you said happening in a LARP with various reward systems.

      – Ryan
      [1] What do you know, talking ideas out makes me articulate them better! (Hopefully)

  8. Bruce Baugh says:

    First blog comment written on my iPad!

    When I played in the Camarillla, more than a decade ago, they actually had this. After game time, all the players gathered for a few minutes. Anyone coiled nominate anyone else for a prestige award, and explain what awesomeness, helpfulness, or other good things made the deserving. It took, if I recall, just one second and no opposition for the recipient to get their bonus. Most disagreements could be quickly resolved, one way or another, and officers would meet later to handle the rare exceptions.

    Many players used that time to learn about neat things they’d missed that time, end to plan to get in on/meet up with in future sessions.

  9. Doug says:

    Huh – I think Macklin is right on this one, at least based on my limited experience. I’ve only played in a couple LARP sessions, but I co-ran a 90-player LARP over three nights, and all the problems of scale become a lot worse. I can’t come up with an effective medallion-mechanic that doesn’t involve a lot of hearing about it after the fact…

    It could be a problem of scale, plain and simple. It seems to work with 6 players but not with 20. Let’s say that those 20 are approximately broken into 4 groups with concurrent goals, though – maybe each of those sub-groups could have their own medallion? Then it’s more like 4 regular-sized player groups, and the Fan Mail effect can…be in effect.