Long ago, a theorist named Wolfgang Iser writing on the subject of literary anthropology came up with a concept that's very valuable in game design: the distinction between free play and instrumental play. It's how you answer the question "why are you doing the thing you're doing?" during play. When your answer to that question is, "because I felt like it" or "because it's funny" or anything about its intrinsic appeal, then you're engaging in free play. When your answer is "because it's what I should do" or "because it's how you win" or anything about pursuing a goal, then you're engaging in instrumental play.
Picture Bob watching Alice play a video game. Alice is getting really frustrated with a hard challenge, or like, spending hours doing something monotonous and repetitive. Bob asks "why are you still playing that game if you aren't enjoying it? That's such a waste of time when you could be doing something you find fun instead." It's easy to see Bob's point. But if you've ever been an Alice, you probably understand that a person can be motivated to do something unenjoyable if it's in service to a desired outcome. The process might not be fun, but winning is fun. Or leveling up, or unlocking collectibles, or getting every ending, or whatever.
In short: this is why Minecraft has a survival mode and a sandbox mode. Some people genuinely do not understand the appeal of survival and others don't understand the appeal of sandbox.
Let's talk a bit more about this and how it ties into RPGs specifically.
What is best in life?
Free play is often elevated as the superior of the two. It's fun in its "purest" form. But the fun of free play is subjective and fickle. Instrumental play is much easier to design for. This feeds a perpetual tension in how we design and play and discuss games.
A prominent example from RPG design would be experience points (XP). Their primary purpose is to act as an incentivizing tool. The kinds of actions that you offer XP for will shape your players' behavior, and by extension, the sort of game you're playing. It's a handy way for a designer to embed themes and genre into their system.
But some people are critical of the very idea of XP, calling it misguided and distracting. You shouldn't need to be incentivized to go on an adventure. You should be doing it because you find it fun to go on adventures! The players don't choose to pull off a heist of the pirate king's treasure hoard because you tell them they'll get a big fat chunk of XP for it. They choose to do it on its own merits. Heists and capers are fun and getting the best of pirate kings is fun and diving into a big pool of gold coins like Scrooge McDuck is fun.
That sounds fairly convincing on its face, and I have to admit that the best fun I've ever had is the fun I chose for myself. But it's not a realistic philosophy regarding the way most people play games. A lot of players have trouble self-motivating. There are even some players who straight up do not know how to have fun without being given a goal of some kind.
This isn't a bad thing and they aren't "bad gamers" somehow. It's just reality. Running around aimlessly for hours is exhilarating when you're a small child, but it loses its fun pretty early in life. That's why we have games like tag and hide-and-go-seek. An older child or even an adult can more easily sustain their interest in running around if there's a "point" to it.
Even as I try to invite and validate free play at the table, I instinctively think in terms of instrumental play. It's more reliable. Having a goal, having incentives, getting a reward, acquiring practical benefits and resources, etc. provide clear answers for "why are you doing the thing you're doing?"
The truth is that neither is superior and most games have room for both to coexist. In fact, most games go out of their way to try offering something for each type of play, to appeal to as wide a range of players as possible. When you play a First-Person Shooter, you shoot these guys to complete the level and win the game, yes. But you also shoot these guys because the programmers, artists, animators, and sound folks worked hard to make shooting people feel punchy and satisfying.
RPGs and free play
I'm constantly amazed at the ability of players to engage in free play in an RPG, often pretty instinctively. Even as a player myself, I am frequently doing things without there being any "payoff" for it, which is occasionally hard to rationalize in hindsight. The only reason why is just "because I wanted to."
The reason why I find it so much weirder for RPGs to achieve free play is that they're just so... intangible. Abstract. Sports and video games are forms of play where you're very clearly doing something. You can feel your muscle strain and adrenaline rushing when you kick a ball. You can nail the complex timing on a combo. You can race against a timer to perform a task faster than you did before.
RPGs, on the other hand, are just a conversation. They're about imagining doing things. This is a very flimsy illusion requiring a lot of buy-in, so the ability of players to seamlessly engage is all the more impressive.
What does intrinsic fun look like in an RPG? Well, some forms of gameplay have it built in. Any kind of mechanic with a gambling element, like dice rolling, chaos magic, taking a devil's bargain, and so on all appeal to the thrill of trying your luck against the odds. Some people like being presented with long lists of options, even if they're mostly arbitrary, just because they enjoy picking their favorites from lists! Solving puzzles is intrinsically fun even if it leads to nothing, and rolling a natural 20 hypes up everyone in the room even in games with no rules for critical successes.
But by far the most common and potent source of free play is simply roleplaying itself. Pretending to be an imaginary character and describing yourself doing imaginary things that are cool or funny or clever is intrinsically enjoyable for a lot of people. You don't really need to incentivize that sort of thing. That's what role players already want to do. There are tons of gamers who are more than happy to just speak in character and joke around with other made-up characters for hours, with no aim or end to it at all.
"It's what my character would do" has taken on a negative connotation, strongly associated with bad behavior at the table. But I think we forget that it is the guiding ethic of all roleplay, including good roleplay. It's amazing how much players enjoy simply doing things that their character would do.
Roleplaying childhood whimsy
Tricks & Treats is an ongoing project of mine that I talk about a lot. It's a game about having spooky adventures on Halloween. You roleplay as kids and teenagers celebrating the best holiday ever, taking advantage of a rare night of unsupervised freedom, navigating the complex and unforgiving social landscape of adolescence, and investigating a mysterious horror that needs to be thwarted in order to save the day.
It's built for one-shot mini-sandbox scenarios, each one revolving around a major Halloween activity (trick-or-treating, going to a haunted house, attending a costume party, etc.). They always prominently feature a cast of NPCs thoroughly stocked with conflicts, rumors, and various hooks, and a unique "puzzle monster" that can't be defeated without gathering clues and forming a clever strategy.
A big part of the appeal of Tricks & Treats is something I mentally refer to as "playground design." Every adventure is a small, contained sandbox, which the players are given a map for at the beginning of the session. Pretty much the first thing they'll do is begin poring through the map to identify which places they want to check out, debating as a party on where to go and what to do with their limited time. I try to seed the map with lots of cute attractions sprinkled throughout, many of which players are already nostalgic for from their real-life lived experiences. "There's a hay ride? Oh fuck yeah we have to go do the hay ride you guys." How much of this is authentically roleplaying "what your character would do" versus just doing what you actually like to do? Well, something beautiful about this game is its ability to blur that line completely. Players just know they have to go for it.
Which is weird because that part of the game is... not exactly deep gameplay. You see that there's a hayride and you immediately say "we have to do the hayride!" but literally all that results is me describing to you the experience of being on a hayride. And players are satisfied with that! Once it's over, invariably they'll just be absolutely beaming and say "that was great, I'm so glad we got to do that." Even though there was no part where they "participate" at all. It blows my mind.
Some of those attractions can be a bit more involving. If you go to the haunted house then I can make you roll to not get scared (maybe even offering a prize at the end). If you go to the corn maze then I can make you roll to navigate it. If you go bobbing for apples then I can make you roll to see if you actually get one. Don't worry, there are also ones that involve making decisions. When you pick out your pumpkin from the patch, you get to decide what qualities it has. When you go to the dollar store to buy a costume, you have to assemble it from the various accessories on offer.
But this is, objectively, a very shallow appeal. The good news is that it doesn't have to be load-bearing. The meat and potatoes of the game is the social gameplay and the horror-investigation gameplay. These sorts of surface-level charms fill out the experience nicely, but they don't take the lead.
So then I get to the amusement park episode.
I've been excited for this one for a long time. On the one hand, this practically writes itself. Most scenarios have a handful of attractions. This one is overflowing with them. I mean, come on. Spending Halloween night at an amusement park? Sign me the fuck up. This adventure will likely have the highest density of superficial attractions of any in the whole series, which obviously means it'll be a good one.
…On the other hand, it also runs the greatest risk of wearing that appeal out quickly. The players may enjoy the first couple rides easily enough, but by the third or fourth or fifth, do you think they'll still be giggling with joy? Yes, you are self-motivated to ride the imaginary Ferris Wheel, but after already riding the carousel, the tilt-a-whirl, and the drop tower, you'll probably be painfully aware that all the Ferris Wheel experience actually is... is just me narrating to you, like, the things you see from up there for a minute or so.
Some can be gamified easily. Roll to not vomit on the spinning ride. Roll to test your strength. Roll to whoop ass at bumper cars. But what about a roller coaster?
The real-life appeal of a roller coaster is a physical sensation. How do you translate that to an RPG? The intrinsic appeal of saying that your imaginary character did an imaginary fun thing has more mileage than you'd think, but does it have enough to carry this adventure?
I think we have to turn to instrumental play and fully gamify all the rides.
What I've come up with so far
All of this is subject to change. The whole thing could even be scrapped if folks feel strongly that I'm completely wrong about all this.
Every time you ride a ride, win a game, or otherwise participate in an attraction, you get points. Then, there are tradeoffs, complications, and bonuses that affect the number of points. Your goal, explicitly stated, is to get as many points as you can.
What are the points? Not sure. Probably nothing diegetic, for starters. The name I settle on will matter. "Fun" feels a bit on the nose. "Adrenaline" is a little scary but it might be closer. "Spirit" or "thrill" is definitely orbiting the idea.
Telling the players that their goal is to earn fun points is the riskiest part of this idea. But I suspect they might take it completely at face value. After all, when they begin a trick-or-treating scenario you explicitly tell them that their goal is to collect as much candy as possible. Every player I've ever had was perfectly receptive to that. "Makes sense. That's what my character would do."
You could say the same thing about kids at an amusement park. When you only have a few hours at the park and the lines for rides can go on for 40+ minutes, you definitely find yourselves doing a bit of optimizing. While there are obviously some folks out there who'll cling to one favorite ride (doing the bumper cars again and again and again and again...), I think it's generally a pretty common instinct to instead hit up as wide a variety of rides as possible.
Not only that, but there's plenty more to the scenario. Remember: surface-level charm, not load-bearing scenario element. Players are also managing their social reputation as they brush elbows with classmates and neighbors at the park, and eventually there'll be a spooky monster to reckon with. But maybe most importantly, part of character creation in Tricks & Treats is setting a goal for yourself. Everyone has to have their own individual goal anyway, which they'll reliably be more invested in than anything else in the scenario. When my players went trick-or-treating, they also had to work together to help one PC fight off their bullies, help another PC check out a spooky ghost sighting, help another PC ask out their crush, and so on. The candy collection is just a convenient "group goal" to fall back on. It acts as a glue for the scenario's more interesting moving parts. I imagine that earning "thrill points" could be much the same.
So what kinds of variables modify the points?
First of all, one of my weirdest ideas is to categorize fun. That is to say, there's a list of general "thrill types" in the scenario. Here's what I'm working with so far:
- Spectacle (mostly views, but maybe sounds)
- Scares (jump scares and creepy atmosphere)
- Challenge (interactive elements like games)
- Prize (a plush toy or a souvenir)
- Comfort (junk food or something relaxing)
During character creation, you pick one as your favorite thrill type from the list. Then, every attraction at the park is keyed to 1 or 2 thrill types. All players can get the baseline amount of points from a ride, but if it matches your favored thrill then you can get a bonus point.
For example, the dunk tank offers a challenge, the fireworks show offers a spectacle, the tilt-a-whirl offers spinning, and the wooden coaster offers both speed and heights. All of them could give a point or two as a baseline, but Alice can benefit more from the dunk tank while Bob gets more out of the tilt-a-whirl. But Charlie and Dana point out that they should prioritize the wooden roller coaster because they both get a bonus point for it, making it more valuable overall.
Of course, a group focused entirely on optimizing this and gaming the system might conclude that the best strategy is to split up as individuals and just keep re-riding their favorite rides alone all night. That sounds both boring and unrealistic. Therefore, 1) maybe everyone can earn a bonus point whenever they go on a ride with their friends, and 2) maybe you can't get any additional points when you repeat an attraction (or at the very least, the points are significantly reduced).
Lastly, the rides have wait times. Gameplay is resolved in 15 minute turns, so every attraction costs either 0, 1, or 2 turns to complete once begun (I'm trying to be generous. Obviously it could go way longer). Generally speaking, longer wait times should yield more points. My hunch is that points and wait times should be listed directly on the map itself, visible to players from the beginning. Players need information so they can form a plan.
Between all these variables, I think this gives the players plenty to chew on when it comes to deciding how to use their time. They have a reason to choose between the cable car ride versus the house of mirrors instead of it being arbitrary, they can debate about how to make sure everyone in the party is getting a chance to earn bonus points, and they can decide if it's more worth it to focus on big rides with long wait times or lots of small rides with short wait times.
Most importantly, this means that something actually "happens" in gameplay terms whenever they go on a ride. I'm not just describing what they see from atop the Ferris Wheel. Now it's a meaningful game object. Many can also include a small interactive element, of course. Just like making players roll to bob for apples or pick out their pumpkin, I can make them roll to not vomit on a spinning ride or have a chance to pick their seat on the merry go round. But even without that, there's still an underlying "point" to going on rides.
Which brings us back to the main question: is all this instrumental design going to undermine the free play appeal? Does this go too far?
For one thing, I expect that there'll be plenty of rides that have an equal value to the party after all the calculations are done. So it's to be expected that the go-to tiebreaker is "what ride would you actually like to ride on the most in real life?" The same rationale that drives them towards these kinds of cute, superficial attractions in previous scenarios.
But even beyond that, the free play appeal is already validated somewhat during the character creation task of "picking your favorite thrill type." I suspect that many players will pick the thrill that's actually their favorite in real life anyway. If they already knew they were going to advocate the party hitting up any and all fast-moving rides, they can encode that preference up front by selecting speed as their favorite thrill.
Failing all that, if all this instrumental design isn't offering enough by itself, I have an ace in the hole: I can always make "thrill points" tie into the monster somehow. The players won't know that initially, of course. But they also didn't know that candy was going to be one of their primary weapons against the last monsters they fought back during the trick-or-treating scenario. There really was a practical benefit to collecting candy, but they were perfectly willing to pursue the stated goal simply for its own sake. So I have to wonder: how willing would players be to pursue abstract, game-y "thrill points" for their own sake?