Sunday, 26 June 2011

The poker chip game

One of the things I've been struggling with for a little while now has been for players to strongly engage with the themes of my games. In my most recent game, I tried to invert that – make the themes one of the biggest parts for the players to engage with. To do it, I used poker chips.

There were a couple of things floating around in my brain.

  1. People playing my previous games seemed to be happily engaging with the plot, each other and the world. They seemed to be engaging with everything that got thrown at them, except the themes of the games weren't being addressed directly. I put this down to the fact that the themes were too well hidden within the game for them to rise to the surface during play.
  2. My co-GM and I decided to make Eternal Companions a collaborative game. That is, we left space within the module for players to come up with facts and help steer the game in a direction the group preferred.
  3. A few years ago I played a module in which as well as the IC game, a teapot was placed on the table. The group I played with picked up the teapot and cups of tea as an OOC game during the session (this wasn't something the GM proposed, it developed during play). Within the premise, there was a hierarchy of characters, some nobles, some servants and so on. Players whose characters were of lower status would make tea and pour for those players whose characters were of higher status. As one of those of middle status, I only poured tea for two other players. And when my character was angry one of the high status character, I simply didn't pour tea for that player. This idea of OOC games separate from, but complimentary to the IC game has stuck with me.

Putting of all these thoughts together, my aim this year was to run an OOC game to help the collaboration between players and get them to address the themes more directly. Here’s how I explained it to the players during the game briefing.

The poker chip game
Along with the normal game, there is a second game we will all be playing which aligns with the player's dual role as co-creator of this module.

  • Players are encouraged to incorporate new facts into the game. These facts can be small (I have a wrench) or large (I have a billion dollars). To do so costs a poker chip.
  • Players may not contradict earlier statements with poker chips.
  • If they want to bring in a fact about another player's character, they must offer both the fact and a poker chip to that player. The second player has the choice to accept the poker chip and the fact, or not to.

There are two ways to get poker chips:

  • To have your character address the themes and questions of the game.
  • To agree to a suggestion about your character from another player.

A pot of poker chips was placed in the middle of the table and payers were encouraged to give each other poker chips as per the rules. I tried to be very clear that handing out poker chips wasn't a GM role, but one for both players and GMs. The last point I highlighted was that players were allowed to discuss possible facts amongst themselves, but once suggestions and scenarios were resolved into a fact, someone had to pay a poker chip.

All of this, along with the themes of the game was written up on the whiteboard in bullet points for ease of reference.

In play
It worked to varying degrees with different groups, with some players not wanting to use the physical token, but otherwise going for it:

There were poker chips that players could spend to introduce fiction and reward players for injecting cool elements into the game (sort of like Fate points), but as the game progressed we found that we didn't really need to spend the poker chips that much. We just threw things in and whatever we liked (usually because it was very twisted and nasty) we kept. Worked like a charm. I suppose the poker chips were there as a sort of safety net for players not used to collaborative fiction-building games, but I found they were also great for instantly gratifying player contributions. Always felt good when someone flicked a chip to me for something I said. - Nayaran

One thing I noticed was that when groups were discussing the game among themselves, it was never referred to in the same words - "adding to the fiction", "creating the world", "bring a fact". This lack of common language between groups says that the ideas in the poker chip game were new to most of the players. It's my belief that people discuss what they are familiar with in the same language, but when something is new, language must built.

The lack of familiarity came out in another way – players attempted a variety of different things with the poker chips. Among them were players wanting to create a statement about how their character felt in the past and stating something their character intended to do in the future. I also had players offering me (as GM) a poker chip when they wanted to do something skilful (such as searching a room), but then waiting for me to provide the answer rather than building something themselves.  All of this I felt was reaching to different mechanics players were more familiar with.

The last area was some players seemed to forget that they had the ability to reward each other. In some sessions, I was the only person handing out poker chips.

The cons
Apart from the confusions mentioned above, the only con was that the game didn't have as much deep immersion into characters from the players as some of the other games at the con might have.

While there were a number of players who I would consider to utilise that style of play, who did in fact attempt to play in that style in the game, they were by far in the minority and often their immersions were interrupted by a player introducing a new fact. I am uncertain whether the poker chip game precludes deep immersion dives as players take on a dual role, or whether it was the game's unfamiliarity stopped it. Possibly once players became used to the poker chip game, deep immersion might be more possible.

The pros
Player buy in. Players bought in significantly to the scenario, and were able to clearly delineate between ideas thrown around the room and facts important to the game.
Extrinsic reward for play. Players who did well got an immediate reward.
Interesting premises. Each session came up with different ideas and were able to send the game into areas / premises which interested them, rather than having to play a railroad.

On reflection, I think the pros of the poker chip game outweighed the cons. With some tweaks, I think I could cut the confusion and help players gain familiarity with the game before the module begins.


  1. During our playtest I felt that the poker chip mechanic was mostly redundant.
    People weren't using them much, weren't giving them to others and it didn't make much difference. As long as the other players accepted the ideas the mechanic was irrelevant as everyone just ran with ideas introduced.

    (And completely off topic, not impressed with the blogger comments system. I hit post comment and nothing appeared to happen. After playing with the buttons a bit turns out I need to hit preview first. If that is the case why CAN I hit post comment without hitting preview?)

  2. (Some of what I'm going to say here was contained in the comment on the Eternal Companions review article that blogger ate. If part of that gets written here, though, that comment will be shorter if and when I rewrite it, so it's all good.)

    Like Mark, I think the mechanic was basically redundant for my group. However, I can see that it would or at least could help some groups. Over on RPGMeetup, Mike has talked about systems helping up to a certain level of play, and not beyond that, and that may be the case with this mechanic.

    My group didn't tend to give out chips. That was left mostly to you. I think that was mostly because we were too busy throwing stuff out there, then building on what others had thrown out there. I could see the buy-in and approval from the other players without chips being handed around - there were lots of nods and "yes, that's good" going around, and immediate building on ideas of others is by far the best affirmation of the value of those ideas, and there was lots of that. (I only recall one rejection of creative input in the whole session, and that was my input and the important part of it was quickly reincorporated into our established facts. Oh, wait, there was a second, but I'll talk about that further down.) We were addressing the themes, just because we had been told what they were (and that's your creative input, and we like creative input).

    And you know, if someone had run out of chips because we weren't giving enough out, and that person had wanted to add some more good material, I think the rest of us would have just told you to drop the mechanic. It was a means to an end, and the moment it impeded out progress towards that end, we'd have tossed it aside.

    But other groups would benefit from that more obvious marker. Really, it's a communication aid.

    As for deep immersion, I believe it is possible, and that I achieved it. Remember when you told me that I crossed the ballroom floor successfully, and I interrupted and said, "No, I only get three quarters of the way across before I stumble and fall, breaking the heel of my shoe"? Well, I tend to compartmentalise in my mind, and I keep my character in a little box, thinking, feeling inside that box (and if I need to show everyone what's happening in there, I invert the box and put me inside and and the character outside). I inserted what I did because, inside that box where you couldn't see it, I felt Margaret shaking, stumbling and falling with that sharp pain in her ankle. By taking over the description, I brought that out into the game, but it started with a form of (what I would call) immersion. (And that's the second rejection of input I recall from our session.)

    So I think deep immersion is possible, it just requires people to get used to the format, and perhaps develop different techniques to surface that in play and show it to everyone else.

    (And by the way, blogger has eaten this comment too, when I tried posting it from my iPad. Luckily this time I managed to retain a copy of it, so I can retype it relatively easily.)

  3. @travis (in a rush so just hitting this for now) the comment got trapped in the spam filter, where I found it. Suspect it might have something to do with comment length? test pls with one line test comment to see if it gets through?

  4. Odd, spam filters usually tend to trap short comments.

  5. I observed much the same experience in the sessions I ran - the poker chips were used to a greater or lesser extent to begin with, but faded into the background later on.

    This doesn't bother me overmuch - if the purpose of the mechanic is to bring about a particular style of play, then once that style of play is established, it's no longer necessary.

  6. The poker chip mechanic is used as "Drama Dice" in the 7th Sea RPG - spend a chip to buy agency in the narrative or allow your character to break the system limitations, gain a chip by reinforcing the themes and atmosphere of the game (courage, wit and derring do), by voluntarily engaging with the narrative, and by empowering and validating the contributions of other players.

    Having played with variations of it for a few years, I'm pretty sure it's as much of a crutch as any system. By far the better way to address the themes of your game is to structure the characters, narrative and endgame so as to make it impossible NOT to reflect on the theme. But a crutch is always preferable to falling on the floor and I think there's probably a whole bunch more interesting ways of manipulating this mechanic to create desired play behaviours.


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