Getting Players to Act in Suboptimal Ways

So in a story game, it’s often dramatically interesting for the characters to act in suboptimal ways, right? I’m talking about things like making dumb strategic decisions, giving in to personal weaknesses, conflict between otherwise aligned characters, portraying negative emotional states, and so on. We see this all the time in scripted stories (think about the inter-character conflicts in Avengers, or the emotional growth narratives of Steven Universe) but they’re tougher to do in RPGs. You need the right group, and you need a tacit understanding that you’re going to act dramatically rather than tactically, and, in general, what you’re doing isn’t *strictly* part of the game rules as written.

Right now, I’m working on a game that’s primarily about working together as a team, but I also want there to be dramatic tension between characters & with the world around them. What are some mechanics I can use to incentivize players to play their characters in “suboptimal” ways that are narratively interesting?


  • Obviously this is not a new question, and there are plenty of games that try to address this (D&D has Inspiration, Blades in the Dark has Vices, Masks has Conditions, etc). Some of these mechanics work, and some of them don’t. I’d like to get a sense of which ones out there work well, and maybe brainstorm some new ideas.
  • I think Masks conditions work well because a fictional input (destroy something important) has a mechanical output (recover from anger). I think this keeps it tied to the fiction while being clearly rewarded. It also has a kind of causal logic that players can grasp right away.
  • The fundamental technique (I mean, one that underlies many mechanics) in my experience is to engage the players in a dialogue about the internal lives of their characters. This dialogue will then produce an internal justification for why the character not only might act in a certain way, but actually has to do it to stay true to themselves.

    This is obviously something that won't do anything with a true drama-disinterested player, but if they're merely drama-blind due to inexperience or whatever, a Socratic dialogue will often work. The idea is not to bribe the player or force them, but rather to help them express and project their own understanding of what the character is like.

    An example of what I mean. This is from our soon-to-be-concluded Chronicles of Prydain D&D campaign:

    Getting players to accept combat penalties

    Two player characters got betrothed during the campaign. One of the two got kidnapped by a villain. As this was going on, the actual plot of the campaign was rolling on as well, so the heroes had to choose: go save the PC-in-peril from the vile wizard, or go save the world.

    The players decided to split the party, and it just so happened that they sent the free lovebird out to save the world while their best friend led the rescue mission. Something to do with perceived effectiveness vs. the nature of the threats - I believe that it was the smart play, the adventure would probably have ended in defeat if they sent the doughty warrior against the evil wizard and let the party's magico-religious contingent try to seize the Black Cauldron from the hands of a raving lunatic.

    The character whose betrothed lied in captivity ultimately ended up in a combat situation in their own adventure while the rescue mission was on-going. This is what I asked the player:

    I imagine that you must be worried about the safety of your betrothed. You decided to trust their fate to your friend's competence, after all, and what's worse, the rescue team also includes an old enemy of you both - she actually threatened to kill your love ten sessions ago, do you remember that? Do you take a -2 to all actions due to the distraction, or is it not that big of a deal after all?

    As you can see, it's a very loaded question. You could rephrase that as a claim instead easily: if you care, then this is how we mechanize that caring, so do you care? Either way, the player is not answering a question about whether he wants to take a combat penalty, because that's sort of obvious, isn't it? They're telling us, free of any mechanical force, whether their character cares about their betrothal on an emotional level, or if it is merely a political marriage. (The marriage has extensive political implications, whence the possibility of interpreting it that way.)

    The player chose to take the penalty, which worked neatly as a concrete expression of the character's internal state. They really did care, not just in some mealy-mouthed formal way that does not mean anything and influence the world. They cared so much that they actually fought less effectively for the worry and heartbreak.

    Note that what I did here was not a bribe or force, it was an entirely honest question. It was loaded with pointed rhetoric only because I wanted it to be crystal clear what the question really was, not because I expected any particular answer. If the player chose to not take the penalty, I would have run with that just as much as I did with the choice they made: it would have been great if the character had proved when push came to shove that their matrimonial actions were not really backed by genuine emotion.

    Also: if you don't have moments like this in your game, then perhaps you are not in a legitimate position to demand the players to "act suboptimally". I think that the reason for why we often see the players being callous is that the GM has a much more sensitive perspective to the situations that crop up in play than the player does. If you don't explain to the players why you think that their characters might care about something, then they might well miss the situation altogether. It's not because they would be unwilling to play suboptimally, but rather because they didn't realize that the opportunity for powerful character statement was there at all.

    And, of course, sometimes it's just not what the game is about. The GM can cry all they want, but if the group doesn't want to play a drama game, then that's not going to happen by using tricks. This is why talking it out is so fundamental, aside from any specific rules mechanics: if the player does not admit even in principle that they might ever want their character to act suboptimally, then it's a fool's errand to try to force it. At best you get angry players.
  • Was going to say something about how a "tacit understanding" wasn't the most effective way of handling this, and then I read the above post.
    That said, any kind of symbolical compensation can communicate this to the players.
  • The other way to handle this is to give the player an actual boon for having his character act in a dumb way. For example, Mouse guard.
  • I tried to accomplish this with a mechanic very similar to Mouse Guards.
  • edited May 2019
    The Ur-example of this is Pendragon, surely. Characters have Stats, Traits, Skill and Passions. Traits and passions both allow for this kind of play (require it in some cases), which is in turn supported by the system with benefits and rewards.
  • I think it's probably good to have relatively few situations where it's 100% clear what "optimal" even is. Especially if you're going for a true Story Game feel, and not some sort of hybrid, such as the way I run 5E or FFG Star Wars. The sorts of conflicts one sees in, e.g., a game of Monsterhearts are just totally divorced from normal ideas about what's optimal. So to some extent this isn't a system design issue, or even a social contract one, it's actually about adventure / scenario design.

    Lots of PbtA games work this way when they're firing on all cylinders, including your HP game, I'd say, David. My Trek game, too, though that also has XP for failure, which is a huge incentive to roll your bad stats. Legends of the Elements, the faux-Avatar TLA PbtA game, also.

    At the other extreme is something like Burning Wheel, where the game is just very tough, inherently, in a mechanical and strategic sense, and is also about moral choices. Players actually should always be playing as optimally as possible in BW, but figuring out what that means, and balancing short-term versus long-term rewards, is immensely tricky. The way skill / stat advancement is set up means that even the most callous, cold-hearted, mathematical player (i.e. me) is going to be doing daring and audacious things that are not necessarily "wise" and will definitely, 100% get you into interesting trouble most of the time.

    Related: rather than forcing the choice on the player a priori, it can also be fun to interpret a failed roll as the character giving into a flaw or weakness. With the player's buy-in, of course.
  • edited May 2019
    If you're just trying to break them out of the mold so they'll do it themselves later, there's always the option of punishing them harshly for optimal actions and rewarding them for suboptimal actions, then having a discussion post-game of what that was all about and what it meant.
  • If you're just trying to break them out of the mold so they'll do it themselves later, there's always the option of punishing them harshly for optimal actions and rewarding them for suboptimal actions, then having a discussion post-game of what that was all about and what it meant.
    That's some serious Viking Hat GMing right there.
  • I mean, that's true, yeah. I'm bad at suggestions for players who don't already want the thing. It's something I've never had to do. I've only ever seriously worked with groups that I was already on the same page with.
    Also, like, this is one of the many, many reasons why I'm ethically against the notion of a GM.
  • Take a look at Fiasco, the ur-game of characters acting in suboptimal ways♥
  • That wasn't meant as a reply to Ems GM point directly because Fiasco is not about players don't already wanting to do the thing. They probably sign up for it when they see the cover♥
  • It’s built in to FATE, right? The only thing that I don’t quite like about it, is that it can turn in an out of character bidding war at times, with the invoking and compelling of aspects. But then again, I’ve only played FATE as play-by-post, which means that every step in the bidding war takes an extra posting turn, which draws it out timewise a lot. Then again, a compel like Eero’s example is just a take it or leave it (and pay up) situation, which doesn’t detract from the story. (but then again, there’s only five aspects slots to compel in unaltered FATE. And altering it messes with the FP economy which is it’s core mechanic, so ... I dunno. I kinda want to play it face to face once, so I can get a better feel for it.)
  • edited May 2019
    Linked to
    Horror paradox
  • Apart from the FATE-like compels mechanic that I was going to cite before I read the @The_Bearded_Belgian answer I want to propose Push-Your-Luck mechanics that may not be exactly what you asked for but might, nonetheless, mitigate a related problem: players that are too focused in the tactical aspect of the gameplay rather than on its dramatic side.

    The idea here is to include some kind of mechanic that penalizes going too far during your character creation or at any given roll. For example, the following resolution mechanic:
    Pick as many white D6s as your corresponding stat and as many red D6s as you wish (up to 6 red D6s). Roll them all at once and keep the biggest number that shows up. With 1, 2 or 3 your action fails. With 4 or 5 your action succeeds. With a 6 your action succeeds but you overacted and the GM imposes a suitable penalty.
    Many systems use some sort of push-your-luck. The Pool, for example, is based almost entirely in this idea:
    Roll as many D6s from your pool as you wish. Rolling at least a 1 is a success and rolling none is a failure. On a failure you lose all the dice you used in that roll.
    Cthulhu Dark also implements a push-your-luck mechanic:
    You may add a green dice to any roll, but if that dice is the one showing the best result you should make an Insanity Roll and roleplay its consequences.
    Finally, Daniel Solis' Split Decision mechanic goes like this:
    Roll 2 red D6s and 2 blue D6s. Pick the 2 dice that you prefer and use their sum as the result of your roll. Keep track of how many red and how many blue dice you used during the game and use red/blue ratio as a measure of whatever corruption mechanic is most relevant (insanity, dark-side stuff, etc...).
    All these push-your-luck mechanics are oriented to make the life more difficult to players that only care about "winning all the rolls" and encourage them to accept some sub-optimal results in the short term in order get a better overall performance. Resource management mechanics (like the FATE point economy) also encourage the same "it is better to lose now so I can win latter" behavior. This has less to do with "staying true to the character" than with pure tactical considerations, so it might work better with players that do nor really care about "being dramatic" (which is usually the case if you need to resort to mechanics to enforce suboptimal play...).
  • Thanks all! Lots of interesting starting points here. If I can boil down/synthesize the responses so far, it seems like the main ways to encourage players to act “suboptimally” are:

    Bribe Them – Provide a resource, benefit, or other mechanical reward for acting suboptimally
    Penalize Them – Take something away or skew the situation against them if they act optimally
    Tie Action to Mechanics – Make it so if they want to take desirable action X, they must also take undesirable action Y
    Social Buy-In – Create an understanding that the game is about playing dramatically rather than tactically
    Design Flawed Characters – Make building a character about creating flaws & drawbacks rather than strengths & benefits
    Pit Them Against Each Other – Create a PvP game & have the PCs sabotage each other

    I think that’s an okay summary of all the ideas that have been brought up so far. Am I missing any important ones? Are there any I didn’t get quite right?
  • Social Buy-In – Create an understanding that the game is about playing dramatically rather than tactically
    The best technique for our group in the category is when the tactical situation's outcome is basically not in question, even if the larger picture still is, so participants can focus on using their available Slack ( to Be Awesome, rather than feeling like they need to optimize.

    Not always a good thing to do, if folks are in a gamey mood, but it works well when the group's in a good mood for it.
  • I mean I think the most important one is to simply remove all idea of tactics from the game entirely, both in its premise and in the mechanics.
  • edited May 2019
    A narrative hippie system can have optimal moves and a tactical component, mind you. Only it's not those you might expect by default.

    I want to stress the fact that "symbolical", "social", "narrative", don't mean unimportant. Values, are what's important. By definition. And they are all this (symbolical, etc.)

    Winning and succeeding, refer to Strength and Fortune. Changing players perspectives on what is optimal lies in positing the right questions and letting them find their answers.
  • I've been toying with the idea of having a resolution mechanic that's entirely economic. Essentially, you spend a token to make something happen, spend more to get better things, roll dice to get something but want spend less. Dice have a chance to add chaotic outcomes and random complications. If you want to get tokens back you describe negative scenes or incorporate "bad plot twists".
  • I feel like there's a problem here from the conception of the post. I get what it's meant by suboptimal, but thinking on it in that fashion doesn't seem to help to make it a good thing. Fiasco was years ago and it's still great, but I think today we should already have even better ideas on how to get players into the idea that doing dramatic stuff is fun and not suboptimal by any means. It's optimal for drama.

    Related: rather than forcing the choice on the player a priori, it can also be fun to interpret a failed roll as the character giving into a flaw or weakness. With the player's buy-in, of course.
    From everything that has been stated so far this is the one I liked the best. As in "everything else mentioned is great but I like it best personally" way. Every player could have a list of 3 "character issues", one mental, one social and one physical, and would have to roleplay then as they pleased whenever they rolled a miss or failure, or let the GM decide on a fail forward, resource spent, equipment broken or other option.

    I was also thinking on a mechanic to have more dramatic play in a way that doesn't put all the blame in the player. I mean, whenever anyone does something that creates conflict in a game where players easily get immersed and tend to identify themselves a lot with their characters and actions, chances for things to go wrong inevitably go up unless this has been discussed previously and players are used to it. More commonly, things can go easier whenever the blame is put on the dice. "my character did something bad/stupid because of a missed roll". Mechanics like the one mentioned above do the same, bad roll triggers a defect from the character, which ends up being described as "the character did X which creates/makes worse further conflict".

    So you could make a deck of attitudes, actions, misunderstandings, etc that create conflict or make it worse. It must be things that suit your game and players of course, maybe you could take a moment to build it together with them. Then at the start of the session you could handle 5 to each player, have them choose one and pass the rest to the player on their left, then repeat until everyone has 3 cards. Each player reveals one card, that's one bad thing everyone knows about their character, related to something their character did before. Then in play any player can reveal one card or use the revealed ones to introduce conflict by roleplaying the element depicted in the card. Showing and using the card then becomes a gesture to get all players in the idea that there's nothing personal in their decision. They can "pass the blame" and reduce the chances for bleed. Using the card could be linked to mechanical effects, like getting XP at the end of the session or just redirecting negative consequences away from their characters for a moment, either to another PC, NPC, their group or another front.

    Hope this helps.

Sign In or Register to comment.