Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Gaming Psych 101 (Give 'Em What They Need)

As referees, we want engaging and challenging scenarios.  So we craft unique adventures with interesting NPCs because, well, after all, these are important.  But we should never forget that the players (not to mention their characters) are people too, and fully motivated by human needs and desires.

Note before reading on: This post refers to campaign play, and not to games like Paranoia or Call of Cthulhu, where part of the enjoyment is dying swiftly... 

Abraham Maslow proposed a Hierarchy of Needs, being not only a listing of things humans require, but suggesting that higher needs can only be met once the lower ones are secured.  For instance, worries about personal fulfillment will always take a back seat when faced with starvation or certain death, etc.

These needs include: physiological (called here, survival), safety, belonging, esteem, and self-actualization:

From bottom up, these are the things 
people, and players in fantasy RPGs, require...

These are important because they tell a referee what things to provide in their adventures, but also serve as a warning that some can only be had when base needs are fulfilled.

SURVIVAL: This means immediate survival.  No one is bored or distracted when fighting for their very lives, and most RPGs have this aspect nailed.  However, good referees will pace this out, otherwise, players may become exhausted, and there's little time to progress beyond just staying alive...

Remember: If all the characters have to look forward to is the dubious "privilege" of not being dead for another few minutes, you really aren't getting the most out of your game.   

SAFETY: At this point, characters aren't fighting for their very existence, so they have time to worry about long-term planning, like finding a safe place to camp underground.  These things also help keep the players both engaged and interested, but only if there are actual rewards for doing so!  Or penalties for not.

Of course, you can't get here until basic survival is seen to, and good referees will keep this fact in mind...

BELONGING: Obviously, having friends and gaming together does provide a sense of real-world belonging.  But characters can also seek and attain membership in exclusive guilds or other honors denoting some singular achievement and fraternity with a very select group, including honorary titles, etc.  The key here is to make these meaningful and useful to the players, like being able to get help from others within their particular group.

In one session, the players were named "Knights of Nirvella" for their part in saving the eponymous village.  Chests puffed out and at least one character used it for all it was worth, so never underestimate the power of this.  Who doesn't want their name spoken in awe - this is stuff adventurers crave!

Sure, we do it for the experience points, but the
best and most memorable experiences are ones that make you
feel like a living legend... 

ESTEEM: No one likes to be a failure, and while the players must still earn their success, hard work should be always be acknowledged because, ultimately, victory is the best reward of all.

When every adventure is a humiliating kick in the codpiece, players might stop showing up.  Really...     

Again, this very important juncture is only possible when the characters are (1) alive, (2) reasonably sure of staying that way, and (3) somewhat accepted in the world. 

SELF-ACTUALIZATION: This is the ultimate prize.  Here players are free to seek out the really big goals and be the best they can possibly be; building a stronghold, running a guild, or crushing the armies of the Demon-lord, etc.  From here on, players are pretty much initiating their own goals and plans, and this is never, ever boring for anyone.  It's our own fate, after all...

Observant readers will notice that this progression mirrors level advancement as shown below: 

Low level - survival (being weaker, death is ever-present) 
Mid level - belonging/self-esteem (now a matter of surviving well)
High level - self-actualization (greater goals and purpose)

Even so, players might easily progress through all five levels within the span of a single session, going from combat (survival) to making camp (safety) in the room just cleared, forming alliances with the nearby goblin tribe (belonging), slaying the wicked dragon on level 10 (esteem), and ultimately, being immortalized in song when doing so (true self-actualization)...     

Interesting scenarios that are challenging and attainable are definitely part of keeping players engaged.  But so is appealing to their human need to survive, thrive, and achieve their wildest dreams, and the Hierarchy of Needs is a nice way to address these within your own (and all-too-human) fantasy campaigns!  

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