I’ve been thinking about an issue in game design, and in running games. The issue is the relationship between the frequency with which a player uses an ability and the amount of “payoff”, or impact on the fiction, that the ability provides. For this consideration, an ability might be an ability score, or proficiency, or skill, or move – whichever things a character has to influence the fiction directly. Whatever point of contact there is between the character sheet and the shared imaginary space.
I’m going to use 5th Edition D&D as one example, but I think this line of reasoning is important for any game, whether one you’re designing, or hacking, or running.
High and Low Frequency
When I talk about high frequency, what I mean is those abilities that get rolled or used often. A good example from many games is the perception skill, or whatever the equivalent is (perception, awareness, alertness, notice, listen/spot, etc.). I wrote about perception previously, and I won’t go over any of that here. The point is, simply, that some abilities get used significantly more than others in a given game. After a while, experienced players figure out what those abilities are, and often give every character at least a little bit of capability there. Perception rolls can be called for in every scene, to detect monsters or notice NPCs or find clues. These rolls can also provide a road-block to the game when the clue isn’t found.
Lower frequency abilities often include lore-related abilities. In D&D, knowledge skills are generally only used for two things: answering questions about the setting and background, which may or may not have any impact on the game, and giving the character knowledge about monsters that the player knows from the Monster Manual. Other abilities are aimed only at rogues, or in the case of performance, only at bards. These can be low frequency abilities, because only one class will generally be rolling them – though sometimes that class will roll them a lot.
I imagine, in an average D&D 5E game, there could easily be 10 or more Wisdom (Perception) checks rolled, 2 or 3 Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Stealth) checks rolled, 1 Intelligence (Religion or Arcana) check rolled, and zero Charisma (Performance) checks. Each of these abilities, though, costs one proficiency pick at character creation. In terms of character generation, they have the same weight, but in play, they have drastically different weights.
High and Low Payoff
I’m comparing abilities by frequency and also by payoff – by what the ability gets you. Charisma (Performance) is another example of a low-payoff ability. If you use it, you might get a small amount of money or briefly entertain a crowd. Importantly, it doesn’t help you do anything central to any edition of D&D – explore set pieces and fight monsters. By contrast, Strength (Athletics) lets you do things that are central to D&D, like climbing and swimming – things that actually let you navigate a dungeon or outdoor setting. Dexterity (Stealth) lets you avoid combat when you want to, or set an ambush, or gain an advantage in combat. And we’ve already talked about Wisdom (Perception).
Some abilities are high frequency and high payoff, like perception abilities in many games, while other abilities are low frequency and low payoff, like performance or artistic abilities in most games. Other abilities lie somewhere in the middle. I don’t necessarily want to go through an inventory here, just put forward this way of understanding abilities in games and game design.
Frequency and Payoff in Running Games
When running a game, it’s good to keep in mind what abilities your players have invested in, and to make sure that all of them come up in the game at some point. You can also give insight when planning a game, which abilities will come up most often. For an urban campaign, maybe investing in Wisdom (Survival) won’t be all that useful, but Intelligence (Investigation) could come up frequently. In a game that will focus on cults and the undead, Intelligence (Religion) might come up a lot more often.
Some payoff can be in the fiction itself. For the example of performance or artistic abilities, which tend to be low frequency and low payoff, you can have a higher payoff in the fiction. The crowd can go wild, and the character can gain new fans. Maybe they get to stay in the inn for free whenever they’re in town. Later, when they want a hireling to come with them, they get one that is extra competent, or cheaper, or at least really loyal and enthusiastic. For a more concrete payoff, maybe there is a noblewoman in the audience who decides to become the character’s patron, paying her will to perform when not adventuring.
In the example of a knowledge skill, instead of giving basic Monster Manual information on a creature, perhaps each creature could have a particular weakness, or condition that the characters can exploit in conflict. Something like T-Rex in Jurassic Park supposedly not being able to see things that aren’t moving.
Frequency and Payoff in Game Design
Ideally, the frequency and payoff of abilities in game design should balance out. Low frequency should correspond to high payoff, and high frequency with low payoff. I think that this option is more interesting than having abilities be low frequency and low payoff (why have them all). High frequency and high payoff would work well, though it might at some point become monotonous to have every ability have a huge impact every time.
The key to figuring out both frequency and payoff is playtesting. You’ll see how players use various abilities, and how much the enjoy the payoff you’ve designed in to them. You can not how often the abilities are used, and then when revising, tune the payoff up or down, or perhaps redesign the abilities so that they come up more or less frequently.
What are your thoughts about frequency and payoff in the games you design, play and run?