Self-Determination Theory (SDT) has studied the basics of human motivation for over 50 years. It all started with one experiment. The research team had people engage in a task and rate their intrinsic enjoyment of the task in the beginning. Then they created three groups: one received money for completing tasks, one received money unrelated to the task, and one group received positive encouragement. The groups rated their intrinsic enjoyment of the task after receiving their different rewards.
Who would say they enjoyed the task most? Surely the people who received money for their work.
Nope. The group that received money for the tasks had their intrinsic enjoyment decrease after their reward. The group who received money unrelated to their work had their intrinsic enjoyment remain the same. But the group that received positive encouragement? Their intrinsic enjoyment actually went up by the end.
This finding has been replicated over and over and over.
From this experiment, the researchers continued to explore motivation, rewards, punishments, and intrinsic enjoyment. They found that all humans have two essential tendencies: one, to engage in activities simply for the sake of intrinsic enjoyment; and two, the ability to take non-intrinsic tasks and integrate them into their identity so they actually become intrinsically enjoyable. This helps with society, because I think few of as kids found cleaning or other chores intrinsically enjoyable.
This integrative process—the ability to take an external requirement and actually make it intrinsically enjoyable—is supported by three basic needs. If these needs are adequately met, we will be naturally motivated and able to find enjoyment in a range of activities, learning to even enjoy things we started out disliking. But it these needs are not met, or actively thwarted, then that natural process becomes distorted. This can lead to decreased motivation, feeling “drained”, rebellious behavior, and just general dysregulation of our emotions/actions.
The SDT team identified these three essential needs, then tested them across the world in many different cultural settings, and found they held true across diverse groups. Those needs are: competence, the ability to (and sense of confidence that we can) overcome appropriate challenges; relatedness, the ability to feel known by others and connected with them; and autonomy, having a sense of volition and that our actions—even when follow the orders of others—align with our sense of self, e.g. personal values.
As I continue to play around with developing an RPG character sheet that revolves around the concept of identity, I have been experimenting with ways to use this structure of motivation and basic needs.
I like the idea of responding to challenges with our manager parts, firefighters, and exiled parts. It occurred to me that this taps into the idea of our need for competence: when we face a challenge, can we overcome/resist it? And how do we do that?
That left the basic needs of autonomy and relatedness. These needs do not fundamentally conflict with each other, but people often assume they do, especially it seems in the Western world (i.e. I need to be selfish OR I need to take care of others). This conflict reminded me another personality theory: the pattern system, which looks at different ways we can navigate interpersonal dynamics.
As shown in the diagram, this system places interpersonal dynamics on a spectrum, from completely other-focused (sacrificing autonomy for relatedness) to completely self-focused (sacrificing relatedness for autonomy).
This triggered the thought: what if Rootless is fundamentally about relationships? How the team relates to each other, but also how humanity relates to the Wild? I’ve known from the beginning that I want to treat the Wild like a person, with its own needs/drives/emotions. If people surrender to the Wild too much, they lose their own identity and become consumed by it; if they fight against the Wild, they will stir up progressively more dangerous conflict and likely end up dead.
This trait system also places a magnifying glass on interpersonal choices, rather than traditional skills.
I began tinkering with the different traits and turned them into seven different actions. When PCs engage in these actions, they received a bonus if they act in a way that matches their personality. If they act the same way too often, they might become progressively more “stuck” in their ways.
I decided to track these traits similar to the way Masks: the New Generation uses labels: they describe the character’s general traits/personality, but they can be changed through play. (In Masks, this is a cool way the game brings to life the idea that you’re a teenager, trying to figure out who you are, with a fluid identity as you experiment and develop).
Masks also uses the idea of “conditions” (e.g. afraid, angry) which create certain penalties, and are cleared by engaging in a specific action (e.g. clear the angry trait by breaking something). This lined up well with my idea of having tendencies to be more other vs. self-focused, with penalties incurred if you fall to far on one side of the spectrum or the other.
So now I have the core of the player character sheet:
You resist consequences/overcome challenges with either your manager / firefighter / exile part, which influences whether the consequences are short or long term in nature.
You engage in the world with seven interpersonally-grounded actions.
You have a tendency within each action to be either more other-focused or self-focused. The further you skew, the greater the bonus when you act in line with that tendency, but you can become too extreme in your bias, and incur a penalty that can only be dismissed by taking countering that trait.
In the example prototype below, this PC has 2 action dots in assess, 0 in fortify, and 1 in illuminate; these illustrate the base of their dice pool for each action. Each action has a trait assigned to it, which describes how they engage in the action. You can gain a bonus by performing the action in line with the trait, but each time you do it moves you further down the spectrum. Once you hit the end of the spectrum, you gain a "condition" which can only be cleared during the Bonfire phase of the game (similar to downtime in other games).
This character has taken a bonus to assess in an appreciate/strength based fashion one, and taken a bonus to fortify the group through leadership twice, which means they have gained the "tyrant" condition. During the bonfire phase, they will have to reveal something about themselves that counteracts the tyrant condition in order to regain balance and clear the associated penalty.
This blog is a mix of game design analysis, commentary on issues affecting indie dev spaces, and some personal reflections.