[Fantasy World] - Question 4 Eero about KEYs

Hi @Eero_Tuovinen , I would like to pick your brain about your personal experience with KEYs. I'm borrowing that mechanic from my days running the Solar System and using it as the mein source of experience points in my PbtA project #FantasyWorld.

How did they play out, in your experience?

Imagining a "Key of the Dwarven Race" that reads like this:
1 XP = do something expressing a facet of dwarven culture, traditions or perks
3 XP = do something that puts you in danger or trouble because of dwarven culture, traditions or perks

...my absolute ideal result would be to somehow lead the Player to actually say/describe something glaringly related to the key.
If a dwarven PC is in a tavern, and someone makes fun of his braided beard, and the dwarf gets angry and starts a brawl... if the Player only describes the PC losing his temper, it could be for any reason: maybe he has a bad temper and short fuse, maybe he is particularly sensible about comments on his looks, or maybe it's a dwarven honor thing about beards, or anything else.
But, if the Player would actually describe the PC shouting something like "NEVER make fun of a dwarve's beard!" that would really hit the KEYs unequivocally.

So far in my experience most of the time Players just do their normal thing, and then later, in retrospect, see if anything fits to trigger the Key.

Which is fine, I guess.
But the result is, using the same example as before:
- the dwarf gets into a tavern brawl
- stuff happens, the story moves one
- at the end of the scene, or even at the end of the session!, the Player would go "Well my dwarven pride got us into trouble, right? I mean, how dare they comment on my egregious beard!?"

As I said. It's fine. But it somehow leaves me unsatisfied, as a "viewer".
I'm wondering, is this normal? Is this your experience too?

Maybe it's just what happens at the early stages of gameplay, when everyone is getting acquainted with the new system?
All my tests so far were performed with people new to the game, and only went on for a few sessions, so I lack real long term / veteran experiences.

Or maybe it's just personal narrative taste! I mean, maybe I like Players to describe things in a certain way, even a bit on the nose. And instead they simply have a different narrative stile. Or prefer just doing their thing without too much thought, be there, and only later think about it.

Or maybe it could be a lack of personal engagement with the Keys?
I mean, in TSoY and SolarSystem one would CREATE their own Keys during char-gen.
But I've seen such a thing take AGES, especially when you don't have a big idea for your PC, and are eager to start and find out who they are in play.
So in #FantasyWorld I provide 3 default Keys, related to some classic fantasy adventuring themes (new ones can be created later, after active play begins).

The thread is specifically addressed to Eero for obvious reasons, but if anyone else has experience with TSoY or SS or with their KEY mechanic, they are welcome to join in the discussion :)


  • I can't resist Keys.
    OK, so basically if I read you correctly, without the "dwarve's beard" line from the dwarf character, getting the XP would be abusing the rules. Add a general purpose flashlight dropping line in the XP sources if you like.
    The number of keys is a question of how much control you need on the XP flow, and how much readability you want for character ID, which in turn is a question of tone.
  • I think you're addressing a deep creative question here. Specifically, how players relate to their role as character players in a roleplaying game?

    I think that you and I both prefer players to make "thematic moves" with their character play contribution. So when the dwarf is in a scene and an opportunity to relate to their dwarfness comes up the player literally gestures for silence and then throws down as a creative poet. It's like freestyle rapping, you get your points from the appreciation of the other players, because you just threw down some considered dwarf-business on this here scene.

    A player accidentally hitting a Key is useful for pedagogical reasons (it's an opportunity for the SG to reward the correct behavior, which helps players learn what they should be doing), but it's not what we really want. What we want is for the players to make considered choices in how and when they play for their Keys.

    However, this only works if the players share in that joy, if they think that this is a worthwhile activity to engage in. If a player thinks that Keys are horribly superficial and exploitative, turning deep character immersion into a circus act, encouraging players towards superficial dramatics, then the player will actively dislike this type of interaction. They will obviously not play for their Keys the way we would like them to.

    The same goes for a drama-blind player who perceives the adventure game chassis as directing them towards survival play or something else that they actually can understand. Only the most concrete Keys will be intelligible to such a player, and they will consider a thematic Key to be something the GM hits for them - they can't really do it themselves. Their keystrokes will mostly be boring and repetitive, like "I killed an orc again, and therefore I gain XP from my Key."


    So that's the basic interaction, what we intend Keys to be, and what they may be in practice in the hands of more or less ideal players. Note that the issue of who says what is somewhat a red herring; although I describe the moment of Key activation as an opportunity for the player to be a poet, the real fundamental core creative interaction is actually the recognition, not the spiel.

    This means that I'm cool with a less wordy dwarf player who expresses themselves very succinctly. There will be other people at the table to elaborate. It is enough if the player simply activates the moment. "This tavern brawl here, this - this is dwarf shit, isn't it?" he asks, and the Story Guide or somebody else enthusiastically responds, speculating about the ways in which this may relate to dwarfiness, or how this particular character might relate this event to their cultural identity. Who says what is not nearly as important as the player's recognition of the moment.


    Anyway, we know what we want, so can we get it? How can we get it? One way to go is to pick skilled and talented players in advance. Another is to train and teach. Neither method helps if the players fundamentally don't want to play a narrativist (yeah, I said it) game like this, of course.

    If I'm doing full-blown teaching, then everything you might speculate about helps, depending on who we're teaching to be freestyle rappers with sharp keystrokes. Making your own Keys helps create creative commitment, yes, particularly if you can get the player into the mindset of choosing the theme they'll be rapping about rather than "what is my character like" or some such ancillary issue. If the player buys in early to the idea that they're the guy at the table who hold the button that you can press to rap about dragons, you can bet that they'll be paying attention to a chance to use it.

    Hmm, that might be something you could try, that isn't documented well in the SS booklet I wrote (I think it isn't, anyway): explain Keys in terms of special narrative authority, rather than in terms of reward mechanics. The point of the Key is not that you get xp for it, the point is that you, as the holder of that Key, are the player who gets to go "Hammertime!" and stop play at appropriate moments to steal the spotlight and go out on your own personal tangent about this thing you care about. So if the thing you really want from this fantasy game is siege warfare, then damn son, give your character that Key of Siege Warfare, and when the time comes, lay down that historical fact for us to appreciate.
  • Thanks for the input Eero!
    It's spot on... and food for thought.
  • I can't resist Keys.
    OK, so basically if I read you correctly, without the "dwarve's beard" line from the dwarf character, getting the XP would be abusing the rules. Add a general purpose flashlight dropping line in the XP sources if you like.
    The number of keys is a question of how much control you need on the XP flow, and how much readability you want for character ID, which in turn is a question of tone.
    Not an abuse. No.
    I see how they KEYs are influencing Player behaviour anyway. They are effective. They work.

    I was just noticing how I would like better a more obvious way of using them. Just as Eero explained it.

    And now I'm really thinking about the possibility of addressing the Keys directly at the Player, rather than at the Character. To encourage and reward this throw down behavior.

    My only qualm is... maybe that's too invasive. Too ham fisted. Currently if a Player doesn't dig such style they can still play no problem. And if they get 1 more xp because they killed 1 more ork... in the end it's not really a problem.
    The games has so many other ways to invest Players with agency!

  • edited April 2018
    Sorry, I was unclear. I meant that I would consider it abusive to retroactively change the definition of a key just to get the XP.
    But maybe you meant : leaving the definition vague on purpose, like in "dwarf do dwarfy things by sheer dwarfiness" and add to it bit by bit. That's legitimate if each new bit of the definition is firmly established. Clearly, it's not a problem of who says or when.
  • edited May 2018
    What an interesting discussion!

    I never understood "thematic Keys" like this one; either never used them, or didn't see them get used except after the fact, as you describe. They never made much sense to me: they are too vague, too separate from actual character concerns.

    Now, Eero's explanation makes some sense of them for me. Seeing them as a prompt to expound on some aspect of the fictional universe means I can finally understand their purpose.

    Still, it seems to me that it's just not that obvious how to use these in play - they're "soft", unfocused, and it's not clear to most players (I think) how to leverage them, nor for the GM/Story Guide to bring them into play.

    I've had great success with more specific, pointed Keys which address points of character concerns, priorities, and themes in concrete terms. Here's a good example from my Eowyn game:
    "I am No Man”

     When you give a woman an opportunity to do something normally reserved for men, add one circle.

     When you accomplish something no man has, until now, been able to, add three circles.

    To discard this Trait, admit to a man that he is your better. Erase this Trait and add five circles.
    You can see how this kind of Key creates very clear choices for the character, particularly if the GM/Story Guide uses them to set up fictional elements, Bangs, situations, and so forth for the PCs.

    There's no ambiguity here about how the Key comes into play: it's not about "dwarfiness", but about a concrete, weighty fictional decision the character makes in play.

    (I also advise players in games with Keys to connect each Key to some fictional element of the setting - a character, a place, a thing - so that the concreteness of the Key is solidified even further. If you have the "Key of Coward" and you tell that you're terrified of the Butcher of Seville, we all immediately have some sense of what kinds of things we might bring into play and what hitting the Key might look like.)

    Until this explanation here from Eero, I really didn't understand "thematic Keys" at all; they seemed rather "weaksauce" compared to the kinds of Keys I've gotten good mileage out of.

    You might find it interesting to review The Shadow of Yesterday's Keys; they tend to be more like the latter (I believe Eero calls them "dramatic Keys") and less like the former (the "thematic Keys" we're talking about here), if I remember correctly.

    Fascinating stuff!

    Based on this feedback, I'd be tempted to rewrite the "Key of the Dwarven Race" in some minor way, perhaps like this:

    1 XP = show the group, through words or actions, a new facet of Dwarven culture we have not yet experienced or learned about.
    3 XP = do something or make a decision which is dangerous, desperate, or stupid because you refuse to go against the Ancient Dwarven Ways.

    Dwarven culture won't be defined at the beginning of the game; it's up to you to bring to life, scene by scene, throughout the game. (Note that coming up with Ancient Dwarven Ways which might lead you into danger, trouble, or stupidity will earn you more XPs over time!)

  • Interesting indeed! Not much to add other than I enjoyed them in Lady Blackbird.
  • The two types of Keys in TSoY are "motivation Keys" and "dramatic Keys", I think their names are off the top of my head. There's a minor mechanical difference in their structures, but the real meaning is of course that the motivation Keys are intended to indicate character passions while dramatic Keys are intended to signal potentially existing story arcs that the player may choose to progress or abandon.

    The game does not intend for there to be such a thing as a purely "thematic Key" that would ding for you when a theme comes up, simply for it coming up; rather, the intent is for both motivation Keys and dramatic Keys (and presumably other types, were we to establish them) to include specific theming in the way they work. This is why most dramatic Keys have that "1 XP - when the plotline in question comes up" reward line, it's the "thematic" part. The big points are in actually doing dramatic progress on the storyline, though.
  • I've taken a closer look at the original SS keys and the text explaining them.
    My next iteration, still to be tested, turns Keys into proper Moves with no weird or unique exceptions to their functioning.
    Also, the text hopefully communicates a clearer intent to the Players...
    Key of Culture
    When you do something interesting or make a meaningful choice...

    ...expressing a facet of your people’s culture, traditions or ethnicity:
    - mark one experience
    - if that puts you in immediate danger or trouble, mark three experience instead
    Key of Fellowship
    When you do something interesting or make a meaningful choice...

    ...expressing why you joined the Fellowship or why you are sticking with it:
    - mark one experience
    - if that helps progressing the Fellowship Drive at the cost of a setback in your Personal Drive, mark three experience instead
    Key of Conviction
    When you do something interesting or make a meaningful choice...

    ...expressing your personal view of what is morally right or wrong:
    - mark one experience
    - if that puts you in immediate danger or trouble, mark three experience instead
  • That's pretty nice. Some sort of Lord of the Rings thing.
  • edited May 2018
    The "theme" I want to push as default is a classic fantasy adventuring one.
    Later, Players will be able to come up with new Moves/Keys for more personal exploration.

    Also... your Species (elf, dwarf, whatever) is an open fictional tag, as in, you can write anything in there and then explore what a Forest Gull is to you during active play.
    By the same token, the PCs start out as a fellowship, but nothing forces them to STAY that way. The Key is supposed to make the Players think about the reasons why they might want to stick together rather than go their separate ways (but if they do split up, that's fine too)

  • Looks very nice. I'm on board with this classic fantasy adventure thing, myself.
  • edited June 2018
    After more testing... the reality of actual play is putting me in front of a though choice.
    I talk about it in this short post on G+ here

    It's the same problem as before, but now it has clearer contours and is now pushing for a design choice.
    I would appreciate some opinions and feedback to help me decide which path to follow :)
  • edited June 2018
    Is it a narrow player pool that tested the game, like players who share the same game culture ? Like, for them it could be ill mannered to talk XP during role play or something ? Like : move goes with actions, XP goes with downtime. Reducing downtime could be as simple as ticking a box when you hit the key, with big box worth 3 XP, small one for 1 XP.
    In my game, Keys provide an extra action, which is often decisive. I put honey on my flags if you wish.Think Fate Point, Force, Karma or whatever. XP is considered during downtime (after conflict resolution). The two needn't be linked directly (they still are !)
    So I'd ask the players, their practice, or the playtest notes : is it about XP, about breaking immersion, about downtime. Or what ?
  • I've got both my personal testers and various external blind-testers.
    In both cases, I had the same effect with:
    - veteran D&D players
    - n00b D&D players
    - veteran PbtA players
    - people completely new to roleplay

    I'm sure that my data is by no means statistically relevant.
    But it's what I have to work with... and it is pretty consistent on that one point.

    The thing is... no one seems to enjoy the same playstyle I enjoy.
    No one seems to like (or be able) to roleplay their character immersively WHILE ALSO thinking "wait this is a great opportunity to show off this theme I care about".

    Somehow it is no problem to break the immersion by checking on powers and "rules to do stuff" :P
    This is why I moved the KEYs away from the CharSheet and into the Common Moves list... because that's where in PbtA games everyone sticks their nose on a constant basis.

    No go.
    It did not make a difference.
    People still only see the "action moves" and mostly ignore the "experience moves".
    And then, at the end of the session, they ask themselves "did we trigger any XP move?"

    Which at the moment is ALLOWED.
    The "harsh" solution would be to make this not allowed.
    Either a player pays attention to such moves during the game, and does what the move says in order to activate it here and now.
    Or... sorry... zero XP for you today... and tomorrow... and tomorrow... until you learn how to play this game.

    The alternative is to roll the core concepts of the Keys into the End of Session move check-list.
    It still influences the gameplay in a desirable way, but it doesn't foster the specific play-style I like most.
  • What's your experience with games like Burning Wheel or BRP games that feature "learning by doing"? Those games have experience mechanics that require players to track character actions in real time. In BRP, for example, you would make a little check-mark next to a skill when and if a character uses the skill successfully during a game session; you'd get a chance to improve that skill later during downtime.

    How about video games with fetch quests, would the players refuse to do that sort of thing as well? "This quest requires you to kill and flay three drakes for their skin. Here's a sheet, make a mark every time you collect a drake to keep track of your progress."

    Ultimately, though, if the players don't want to do it, then it's difficult to enforce it. The "it" being, of course, intentional thematic play.

    I'd say that you either need to go hard and pure, as you described it, or enable the players to do something that they find rewarding to do. I've gone both ways in different endeavours, which makes more sense depends on what you want to do. Being clear and strident is certainly an advantage if you want to teach and change things; facilitating existing preferences is better if you want to help the players proceed with their pre-existing creative ideas.

    If you want to keep encouraging purposeful play, but aren't willing to take a hard line, then one thing you can do is to rework the Key system to be more up-front and easier to use for players who have difficulty with it. For example, you could do something like this to perhaps reach players more used to traditional fantasy adventure games:

    Quest Arc Mechanics

    Instead of Keys, you have "Quests", which are really the same thing with different semantics. Each Quest is on a separate sheet that the players manage. The GM might prep some Quests, or they could be developed through play, or whatever, just like Keys.

    Each Quest sheet has a Quest title and short description, a nice little graphic, and a bunch of check-boxes to be checked out as the quest progresses. The Quest also has a reward, which could be just "an experience level", or something more specific, depending on the game wrapped around this system. It'd be easy enough to have some "milestones" in the Quest, too, that trigger events partway into the Quest. And, of course, you want to have something like a Key buyout: when a Quest is abandoned, you might also get something for your troubles.
    The Good Dwarf Quest
    What is it to be a dwarf? Let's find out!
    Every time we learn a new lesson about dwarfhood, mark a box:
    Reward: You get to become an arch-dwarf [or whatever, depends on the overall game].
    Abandon: If you act in an undwarflike way after reaching the first milestone, you may abandon this quest and become a ghoul instead of a dwarf. If you do, you gain one ghoul secret for every three check-marks accumulated here.
    Stall: After reaching the first milestone, if you do not gain a single checkmark during a whole game session, you lose the quest.
    The core point of swapping Keys for Quests is cynical interface manipulation: players ignore Keys because they feel that XP is too abstract and plodding as a game mechanic, and because they are used to figuring XP out at the end of a play session. Those same players might, however, react differently to a concrete progress tracker: the only way to progress this specific quest is by doing the indicated activity, and you're rewarded with visually concrete checkmarks, and fictionally concrete reward items later on. The quest is not generic, it's on its own sheet, and perhaps the player will think that even if XP is supposed to be dealt with at the end of a session, that same usability logic does not go for quest tracking; video games do it in real time, after all.

    I don't know if something like this would work for your players, but I certainly know some people who would be better motivated by this than the traditional Key semantics. The Quest puts your progress front and center in a more concrete way, it feels like you're going somewhere instead of just pumping points.
  • I've been having similar issues with my players, the problem is actually quite old. I've tried different solutions with different degrees of sucess and learned some things in the way. You probably know all these better than me but I'm reasoning as I write (and I've been rewritting this post for quite a while) so bear with me for a moment. So far what I know for sure is:

    -As a GM you want conflict. You know how to introduce it, though it's way better if the characters get to start conflicts too... but in ways that add to the theme, not plain murderhobo stuff.

    -Mechanics like Aspects or Alignment get the GM to suggest/impose behaviors on the PCs. They make the characters generate conflict and players may run with it but it will always be the GM making the players roleplay, so no go with these, even when they have their place.

    -From experience as well as from many many talks here on SG: Whenever there's a clear XP button players will hit it mechanically, ruining the game unless it's for something they are already into. Rewarding players for something they like/want to do is a must with any mechanic of this sort.

    -As a GM you want to see the characters alive, you want to see them give the story richness, depth, meaning, even direction. So, you want the players to roleplay them. Part of this can be solved by better defining the game winning conditions. Players will probably be more keen to roleplay if they are told from the start that killing stuff isn't the goal of the game, but... I dunno, making the best story arch? Bringing their characters alive? Help me here, I'm still trying to punch something in the dark but at least I know it's there.

    I'd say that Keys work as good as anything with the proper group of players and the proper explanation. Your Keys already provide conflict and depth. As for the actual reward, XP at the end of the session may be the way to go, especially if there's barely no other way to earn it. I tried with rewards on the spot like bonus dice but whenever the players have to think on a side meta mechanic besides anything like roleplaying or other in-game mechanics, this distracts them and they end up doing a poor work of it.

    Maybe keys should get activated on specific moments where roleplaying can get their space, instead of in battle or while using skills. Like the dwarven one, it seems to work best on a tavern or any social situation where conflict is one misunderstanding away. It could be as simple as the GM calling for the players to check their Keys whenever a social encounter starts, like calling for initiative at the start of a combat. Just an idea though.
  • Eero_Tuovinen's suggestion seems to come straight out of Emmatheexcrucian's favourite game (Chuubo's Marvelous etc.)
    One more question : what is the XP for ? building story arcs, unlocking abilities to overcome harder challenges, or to unlock whole new areas of the game ? or what ?
  • @Hasimir:

    First, you might consider an alternative incentive rather than direct. Maybe something like Fate points where you get a Fate point for X and can spend it on bonuses or rerolls, but then at the end of the session, you get XP based on how many Fate points you spent.

    Secondly, you may need to direct your playtesting at a different audience. In 5e, I let my players use inspiration similarly to Fate points. They never, ever suggest compels or spend the Fate points on story details. They're only interested in spending inspiration on rerolls (when they really want to succeed). The single time a player spent an inspiration on a story detail was when I informed him he had overlooked a secret door, and he said, "I want to spend the inspiration to find a secret path to get to the secret door." Why? Because it had treasure. I audibly sighed at that one (gave it to him anyway). Some players don't respond to the same incentives as others.

    Thirdly, I think your suggestions of using keys as moves is a clever one, but I believe it is a bit vague for its purpose. You may have more engagement with players by writing out specific keys for them. Example:

    Key of the Horselords
    When you take time to feed and water your steed, mark XP.
    When you boast of your steed's greatness in comparison to another, mark XP.
    When you ride into battle upon your chosen steed, mark XP.
    When you suffer terrible harm in place of your steed, mark XP.
    When you abandon your steed forever, or dig his grave, or die in his place, mark XP.

    Fourthly, you may just need to be punitive with the XP handling for a few sessions to get it to click. When treasure is XP, it might take a few character deaths before players realize that fighting monsters is less efficient than avoiding them for the sake of gold. If the players fail to take any actions to get XP, they don't get XP until they do. Eventually, they'll form a connection...or they won't. In which case, see my second point.

    Don't know if any of this is helpful at all.
  • These are all very good comments, thank you all! :D
    I'll digest them and see if I manage to overcome this design hurdle :wink:
  • On the sidenote. My experience with Keys are mixed but a learning curve definitely exists. I noticed this several times:

    1. Trad gamers playing Lady Blackbird at my table generally became more and more conscious about Keys as the game progressed. Especially when we had more than one session.

    2. People from the OSR crowd after the first session of BitD realized that they could get one more XP per session for showing their struggle with their vices (its actually a 'Key'), and one played immediately started to incorporate that. Others were more laxed but most of them used one of these options.

    3. In my homebrew campaign players started to experiment with playing sidecharacters for other main PCs became that worthed XP. It was an external motivator and felt strange at first but soon they started to enjoy the process. So I think they got familiar with it and internalized it! Not as good as already internalized motivators but maybe the first time every motivator is external...
  • It occurs to me that we haven't discussed the purpose of experience points yet. If players don't seem invested in Keys, part of that could be because they do not find the rewards available from gaining experience points to be enticing. TSoY of course tries to offer interesting and story-relevant opportunities for gaining XP, but if the group doesn't "advertise" them at the table and set goals, then the XP thirst remains pretty abstract - "I gotta gain XP and level up because that's what you gotta do in these games" doesn't motivate everyone, shallow as it is. It's better if the player can think that "just 20 more XP and then my character can become a King!" or something like that.
  • Indeed:

    1. It can take some time for players to get used to the process of gaining rewards (both mechanically and consciously); it requires an understanding of the process and what it's for before they will go for it.

    Some people can get that just from reading the rules; those who aren't so minded might take a few sessions to "get it", only after seeing it in action.

    2. It needs to be clear that the XPs or rewards feed into something, and it's something the players both need and want. Highlighting that both mechanically ("you could die from one hit from the goblin... unless you collect 500 more XP!") and fictionally ("...and the my character can become King!") may be quite key here.

    If it's something visible and tangible, that works a lot better than an abstract reward which may or may not do something for the players two sessions from now.
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