Problems with Fanmail

edited July 2012 in Game Design Help
Thanks to the excellent playtest on The Walking Eye podcast I have identified a problem with my game (Spark). The game doesn't support roleplaying per-say. You get rewarded for entering into conflicts that challenge your beliefs, but you get nothing for good roleplaying or for taking risks.

Currently I am considering including a fanmail style mechanic that would allow people to grant fate to the person who "portrayed their character the most convincingly" or "took the most risks". I am looking for any advice about the potential downsides of Fanmail mechanics. Other than the notable Gaming as Women blogpost, are there other breakdowns on the flaws of these styles of mechanics?


  • I am a fanmail lover. Like "rolling more than one die", I love fanmail and related mechanics to death, and seek to bring them into every game I play regardless if it helps or not. Well, I've never seen it Not Help, actually.

    So honestly, from a fanmail lover? No. There are no flaws with fanmail. Especially if you love fanmail mechanics. If you don't, or are iffy on including them, do not do so.

    One friend pointed out that in Tenra Bansho Zero, which also has a very prominent Fan Mail system (far more than PTA, I'd say there's the "equivalent" of "3-4 times the fanmail thrown around in a session"), you could game the system by seeing who is handing out fanmail, and then changing your roleplay to suit the tastes of whomever you're trying to get fanmail from.
    But that's a friggin stretch (I'd say "unattainable", actually, but hey you might have a group of professional actors) because most people are trying hard enough to stay in character, that to stay in a Version of that character to appeal to a Single member of the player pool at a given time... nigh impossible, at the very least more cumbersome than it's ever worth (in "fun").
  • My concern is that the system currently rewards the player skill of "focussing drama on specific types of content" and not "portraying a character convincingly" or "Taking risks". I don't know if Fanmail would be an effective tool to entice people into roleplaying or if it would lead to more rewards for good storytelling.
  • Well, PtA has players being actors starring in a TV Show. It is not their focus to do drama, or have their character take risks. It is their focus to appease the audience, the viewers of the show. In case of PtA that's other players. And you want to appease most tastes of those of your fans, that actually mail the studio.

    Those fans may or may not be focused around "portraying character convincingly" or "having character take risks". Then again they could be fond of a character who makes cool one-liners etc. In fact, the only real criteria for getting fan mail are the tastes of your fellow players, not something arbitrary. Just like acting in front of an audience.
  • Currently I am considering including a fanmail style mechanic that would allow people to grant fate to the person who "portrayed their character the most convincingly" or "took the most risks".
    That doesn't sound like a fanmail mechanic, but it may just be how you phrased it. Fanmail in PTA does not specify things that 'deserve' it -- you can give it out whenever, wherever, to whomever, so long as there's some sitting in the pool. It is not an effective way to guide roleplay towards something the designer thinks is awesome -- it's a tool for players to encourage each other and reinforce what they like to see at the table.

    Also, and this may be where phrasing comes in, but it sounds like you are talking about something that gets awarded retrospectively, either at the end of a session or a scene -- this is also not how fanmail works, and it's a very important difference. Giving people extra XP for 'good roleplaying' at the end of the session is dramatically different from allowing players to reward each other in the moment, precisely when whatever they want to reward is happening.

    These two things are related -- if there is some specific criteria for getting the fanmail, and especially if the criteria is comparative (e.g. "took the most risks" or "portrayed... the most convincingly"), then you can't just give it out right then and there. You have to at the very least check the criteria, or in the case of 'most' or 'best' you have to wait -- because maybe someone else will suddenly do an even better job in a few minutes! That is basically death to fanmail mechanics, as it hinders their function as a momentum-builder and -reinforcer.

  • While fanmail as in PTA is a great mechanism with no known defects… I think it's unlikely that the addition of fanmail will fix your problem with your design. From what you told us about it (i.e. very little), what you need is probably a way for the fictional positioning of the characters to feed back into your conflict-resolution mechanics.
    Otherwise you're knee-deep into the gameification trap: trying to incentive people to do a thing (in your case, "role playing") by "rewarding" them with resource points they only care about if the thing they really want to do is not the one you want them to do — i.e. "role playing" becomes a chore.
  • edited July 2012
    Thanks all; I have not had a chance to actually play PTA yet and apparantly woefully misunderstood how the mechanic worked in the first place. I had thought that the core of Fanmail was a player distributed award system at the end of session. My proposed appoach did feel very clunky, which led to these questions.

    My concern is that rewarding people for roleplaying at the moment will pull them out of immersion, and rewarding them later will fail to reward the behaviour.

    Sorry for not including more details about the mechanics. For reference, the open beta of the game is available right here

  • My concern is that rewarding people for roleplaying at the moment will pull them out of immersion, and rewarding them later will fail to reward the behaviour.
    In terms of PTA this isn't really a problem. The awarness, that you are doing a TVshow remains with you somewhat stopping you from immersing "too deep".
  • Fanmail works less well in a more reserved social structure, especially one where "quite good" is an equivalent of the American "awesome".
  • edited July 2012
    My concern is that rewarding people for roleplaying at the moment will pull them out of immersion, and rewarding them later will fail to reward the behaviour.
    In terms of PTA this isn't really a problem. The awarness, that you are doing a TVshow remains with you somewhat stopping you from immersing "too deep".
    What I've picked up from talking with folks online that would describe themselves as having a very high appreciation for being able to immerse in their character is that they can be wildly all over the map in terms of what supports vs. what detracts from that kind of fun.

    The only real commonalities I've seen have been that they want to be almost excusively playing the character from a first-person mind set during in-game time, don't want things that remove them from that mind set, and really don't want a part in creating things outside of that mind set during in play times.

    Beyond that, prefernces can vary wildly. Some like very complex represntational systems in chargen because it helps them understand the represented capabilities of their character.They may also prefer detailed pre-game character building of fictional elements. These two tendencies may support one another or may be exclusionary, depending on player preferences.

    During play, they may vary from person to person. Some always want those systems to be important and are happy to engage them. Others would prefer not to touch a die themselves, or have the GM handle the mechanics "behind the screen" for them in all but the simplest form. They may well still want or even need to know that those mechanics exist and be able to trust that the GM is using them as written, even while avoiding direct use of those mechanics themselves.

    They might be willing or even inclined to talk about the game or offer feedback and suggestions or request certain elements of setting/situation to come up in future games or mini-sessions on the side when it is not-gameplay-time. A player may have a ton of cool ideas, but would consider it really poor play and annoying to bring them up in a anything but a first-person sort of way during a game session.

    Some kinds of out-of-character mechanics might be acceptable, if couched in terms of reinforcing a character concept, even a changing character concept. So something like experience points ( even if only to change a character's capabilities around rather than buff them) used between gameplay times is likely more important and desirable than some sort of points to modify die results (unless there is some sort of in-game/in-fiction justification). In-game points to outright create non-personal-character fictional elements are pretty much a no-go.

    To make it even messier to analyze, there are also the players who would be exceedingly content to go with next to no mechanics at all, other than the simplest GM judgment calls and simple mechanics created on the spot, and those used only erratically . In this case, a big driver is simply a shared understanding of the setting and its norms. When you get someone reporting enthusiastically about that session when they barely touched the dice, that's likely where they're coming from.

    On the up side, folks like this seem to be the most truly appreciative types of gamers when it comes to the contributions of the GM and the portrayals by the other players of their characters.

    In this case, actual recognition with no mechanical impact might be a viable solution. IOW, giving fanmail is just that- an indication, given between friends, that their play helped you have fun.

  • Fanmail and "immersion":
    If you're giving it out: in tabletop role-playing games, a lot of time is spent being audience to other players anyway. Fanmail gives you definite, mechanical choices to make while you're being the audience.
    If you're receiving it: my experience is that having small tokens thrown toward you (by sliding them over the table) while playing is not particularly distracting. You tend to collect those at the end of the scene anyway.
  • So... if you import fanmail directly from PTA it's probably not going to work, because fanmail is designed to do a specific thing in PTA and your game probably isn't doing the exact same stuff. That's true of directly importing most mechanics.

    BUT... if you create something that's vaguely like fanmail but instead serves the roles that you want the mechanic to have in your game, it's probably not a terrible idea (though, of course, you'll only find that our through play). FOR EXAMPLE, danger dice in Danger Patrol have some similarities to fanmail in terms of providing a way for other players to pat you on the back, improve your chances of success, and remind each other what the game is about. But they also reward risk-taking in a way that fanmail doesn't necessarily do. Which makes sense for Danger Patrol because it's about doing dangerous pulp stunts.

    All of which is to say: yes, please steal good ideas from other games, but you still have to do the necessary design work to incorperate these pieces together and make them do what you want, which often involves changing them in major or minor ways.
  • Thank you all. Based on your feedback, I don't think a fanmail style of mechanic will entice people into more actor-stance roleplaying rather than director-stance storytelling.
  • I'm sorry I didn't get a chance to chime in on this one since the Pavlovian Power of Fanmail is one of my favorite new paradigm trends. But I agree with the other posts: Fanmail is about player empowerment, not gm/designer control. If there's something you want the players to have to do, encode it into the strategic options they have available.
  • The only thing that ever goes wrong with fanmail is that tastes differ and sometimes you really think you deserve a fanmail and nobody gives a shit about what you're doing, and you feel bad, and then the dude next to you makes a Monty Python reference, and everyone else loves it, and he gets a shit-ton of fanmail, and then you're even more mad. But (and this is another reason why one-shots are not as good) over time people will pick up on what you're trying to do (or you'll tell them) and they'll start to reward you for it, or you'll figure out what the group is about and start making hilarious jokes and get rewarded for it, so it works out.
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