Today has been mostly spent learning about protectionism and it’s application to a live-roleplaying game. Yes, it’s been about as much fun as you’d imagine. Yes, Trump came up a lot. It’s interesting to talk about the links between trade protection, global recession, and the rise of facism in the abstract but oddly less fun when you’re watching the events unfold in slow-motion car-crash around you.
Anyroadup. Some rambling about repercussions, mitigation, and choices. It’s been a long weekend so this might be even more disjointed than usual.
We use Trump in our examples way too often
The boss is an economics type wheras I… am not. As I’ve probably mentioned several times, my role in an economics discussion is to represent the well-meaning knowlessman and say Glaucon-esque things and then listen for a bit.
I’m mostly joking. In reality there is probably some value to having a knowlessman in an economic discussion. After all, we’re not actually attempting to model the economic structures of an entire planet. We ran that game and it was… well it was impenetrable. At one point, we went to the Boss to ask if we could mess with the prices people were paying for items they traded to the Old World and he looked shifty and then had to explain that we couldn’t mess with those numbers directly because he no longer knew what they were. The supply/demand code for the Old World ports had transcended understanding and set off for Alpha Centauri. Or something. I forget the exact explanation.
Instead, we leave economic factors mostly below the abstraction layer. There’s a whole two-part eighteen hour (I exaggerate for comic effect – it just felt like eighteen hours when we were recording it) podcast you can listen to here and here if you find yourself short on reasons to stab knitting needles into your ears any time.
That’s not to say we don’t have an economic game; one of the reasons I think people are able to make difficult choices is that we’ve given stuff in the game value in one way or another. Its easy to (for example) agree to build a giant statue of a monkey in a game where you don’t have to also worry about how you’re going to build that castle you desperately need to stop the orcs torching all your orphanages.
We see supply and demand all over the place, I understand, in the decisions players make and the prices that things fetch. Putting the most valuable materials in the game (mithril, weirwood, white granite, ilium) into the hands of the players has been fascinating – personally whenever I hear that the prices for these commodities are unfair I do a little dance inside because I feel like we’ve successful given value to the made-up stuff in the game. I digress.
Where was I? Oh yes. Protectionism.
Last event, the Empire voted to impose trade sanctions on some foreign nations. Today we’ve been working on laying out some of the repercussions of that decision. Thus the discussion about protectionism.
One of the reasons we have these chat is so that I understand what I’m writing, but they’re also useful for framing how to communicate things that are often contrary to common-sense to the average player. I mean, if you put tariffs on trade than you ought to have more money right? Apparently not.
The Senate also voted to set the civil service to work trying to work out how to mitigate the losses caused by foreign traders going elsewhere. That is a much trickier proposition and one that gets economics tangled up in game design pretty quickly.
The Good Choice Costs
There’s a principle I live by which is that the Good Choice Costs. I first came across it written down properly in a blog article on the Failbetter Games site back when I was playing Fallen London.
The gist of it is that when you’re looking at the repercussions or rewards for choices, the “good” choice has already provided part of its reward in the feeling of satisfaction it brings. Virtue is in a sense its own reward. If it isn’t – if both the “good” choice and the “bad” choice reward you equally then its easy to choose the “good” choice. If the “bad” choice costs you more than the good choice its a no-brainer. But if the “good” choice costs you and the “bad” choice rewards you… then you’re cooking with chocolate.
An obvious example from Maelstrom was slavery. In the context of the game, slaves were just great. They let you run your plantations for free. Who wouldn’t want that? But… it meant you had to have slaves. Some players tried to con themselves that it was okay by claiming they were “indentured servants” rather than slaves but they were fooling nobody. Suddenly, the choice to oppose slavery cost you. You had to pay money to run your plantations. Getting rid of slaves cut into your profit margin.
People still agitated for the liberation of slaves, but they encountered significant kick back from their fellow players. Because the “good” choice cost you.
You can see some obvious examples of this in Empire. Freeing slaves and helping refugees costs. The Marches can’t have their fifth army because they don’t want to murder a bunch of pacifist orc farmers. The cruelty argument is complicated by the fact that murderous evil tactics “work”. And so on.
I’m not suggesting the “good” choice always has to be significantly more awful than the “bad” choice – too much imbalance and it becomes too easy to take the bad choice and then justify it as bad game design. The good choice doesn’t have to be all bad – but the rewards for taking it should be statted to take into account that sensation of doing the right thing. Working out how much that feeling is worth? That’s trickier.
The Good Choice Matters
There’s a flip side of course, which is that a cost or a sacrifice is only a cost or a sacrifice if it is real. It’s very easy to have a consequence one week that you then get rid of the next week. Everyone gets to feel good about their sacrifice, then it conveniently goes away. We tend not to write like that.
Sometimes we fuck up. Hmm. I need to pick my words carefully here as I’m going to use a recent example of something we did and talk as candidly as I can about it. Let’s see how successful I am!
So we recently set something up with Highguard (the “walk the trods” mandate) and I think we over-egged the consequences for the choice for individual characters. Specifically, we put permanent penalties on everyone with a certain resource. And that was a mistake in retrospect, I think. By applying a permanent across-the-board penalty we essentially said “if you want to play this kind of character, don’t do it in Highguard.”
It’s not impossible to penalise a type of character, but when we do it we probably shouldn’t be doing it to the whole nation. So it’s fine that farms are permanently less productive in Holberg… because if you really want a farm in the League you can go to a different city. But telling everyone in Highguard that their military units were going to be permanently worse than everyone else’s? That was a less than ideal.
It was also less than ideal that hit parts of the nation and not others. It felt like it became personal. Applying permanent penalties to individuals like that really risks straying too far across the line into punishment.
So we came up with ways to mitigate the immediate problem (the permanent penalty to some characters).
The trick, though, was to come up with a way to fix it that still potentially meant something. At the end of the day, the Highborn still chose to walk the trods even though they knew it would fuck them as a nation. To hand wave it and say “Haha! Psyche! We were just testing!” would be unsatisfying and dismissive of the sacrifice they’d chosen (and don’t get me started on the “test” theory of live roleplaying plot responses).
The Boss did the heavy lifting on the Wind of Fortune in question – A blessing in disguise – and I didn’t envy him the job of giving weight to the chance to mitigate the situation.
That Wind of Fortune was risky because it also cemented the potential for failure into the game. If the players had chosen to say “fuck Highguard” and make them deal with the consequences of their own action? Then we’d have left them to it for a year or two before trying again. Because the choice not to do something has to be as impactful as the choice to do something. By giving the players a chance to screw Highguard, we took a considered risk – but one that was much more satisfying than just hand-waving the penalties the Highborn took on when they chose to walk the trods.
That’s one of the reasons incidentally that I prefer situations where players know as much as possible about the repercussions of their actions as possible before they make a decision. An informed choice is a more significant choice, generally, in games. Arguably.
So where’s this ramble been going? Basically, the Empire chose to take a stand against slavery. They made the moral, ethical, heroic choice. That choice is going to cost them – and if we just hand wave that cost we water down the impact of that choice.
At the same time they signed their Liberty Pact into law, the Senate instructed the civil service to find ways of mitigating its impact. That’s mostly what we’ve been working on today. I obviously can’t go into too much detail, but there was a significant challenge to find and present opportunities that did not invalidate the cost of doing the right thing.
It’s not always (often) a popular way of doing things, I am keenly aware. There’s a fine line between consequence and punishment, and we try as best we can to stay on the right side of it.
Nerds can get feisty, when things don’t go the way they expect. As I write this I am keenly aware of a 400,000 name petition demanding that the producers of an entertainment change their story and make it go the way the fans want. As if those 400,000 names all want the same thing! But I digress again.
That fine line between consequence and punishment is tricky because too much in-game suffering can make the game less fun. That should be obvious, but its not as easy as it appears. The “always win” scenario is one that ultimately robs a game of its value just as quickly as the “always lose” scenario does, in my experience and opinion.
The trick, for me, is to find ways that the players can keep moving without removing the cost or consequence for the action they took.
Luckily, in the case of the Liberty Pact fallout, it’s not me that needs to lay out those ways. Instead I got to write a much more fun Wind of Fortune which basically amounts to a list of opportunities to do things as a tangent from the Pact itself.
So in many ways, arguably, learning about protectionism was a waste of two hours that I could have spent writing about trade opportunities. Oh well, that’s Profound Decisions for you.
This essay first appeared on my Patreon on May 19th.