When you talk about Game Theory, most people may not always understand what you mean by that. For example, the Beautiful Mind scene about picking a girl gives us a prime example of this. People don’t grasp the mathematics that makes up problems around the world, much like when we look at how Sherlock Holmes deduces something can completely astound us. Of course, the fact of how probability and human nature can get us through most things can sound quite confusing when you try and explain it. The idea is that, in simplest terms, everyone wants to win, it is just a matter of finding out what winning means to them.
There are many articles written about how Game Theory can make games more complex, like this Gnome Stew posting about using it as a GM in plot design, but today am I going to present to you a way to introduce the idea of Game Theory into your game’s players. In Shadowrun starting with 3rd Edition, there is a group called The Exchange, famous for these little red pocket secretaries that would get into people’s possession. They were later changed to commlinks when the game took the change and went wireless. Either way, these devices would sit pretty dormant for most of the time, only occasionally asking you to do something. The task could be mundane like “Please give the hitchhiker in the yellow jacket a ride” or it could be something weird like “Scan these pages from this book in the library”. Either way, the device offers you a karmic reward if you do it. In the sample writeup in Target:Matrix, the in-game writer mentions doing a favor for this group, then when sitting down with a client it gave them a warning that the police just had an APB issued for that client. The opposite is also in play, if you do not help out, there is the chance that you will receive a negative karma payout, perhaps in a favor by The Exchange going wrong, perhaps by someone learning something about you that you don’t want, etc.
This may sound like movies Echelon Conspiracy or Eagle Eye. where some AI is having you do favors to reach some end goal, and it could be. There was the Oracle in Deus Ex that would provide information to people in exchange for information it did not have. However, a much better explanation I found from one person’s session reports from using it in the Tabletop games, is that it is an idea of using a bit of Game Theory on a global scale to try and bring back the idea of barter, having people doing things for karma points instead of cash money. They can ask the Exchange for things, they can provide it information and if they perform well, maybe even be given little bonuses by it. Basically, it gets resources to people who need it and gives benefits to the people who work for them, reminds me of the Global Frequency, a comic series and later tv pilot, where a thousand and one ‘ordinary’ people are brought together by a phone network to provide their skills to save people. One issue even has the team working to rescue their ‘leader’ by parcelling out tasks to different members like clearing security footage, detective work, various legwork and so forth.
If we figure the Exchange is a group trying to help get resources to those who need it, then what sort of things would this mean for a game? Since once we provide players with this, they can ask for a favor and hope their score is high enough, we need to make sure it isn’t going to be anything directly game breaking. So, favors could be things like making sure a door is open that you might not be able to get open otherwise, allowing you to sneak past the guards a lot easier. Another of the examples from the first writeup was having someone deliver penicillin to someone sick in bed, and if you’re thinking that sort of thing might be strange to be a favor? Imagine having the flaw of Dependant and needing to go on a mission while they were home sick. Peter Parker could have used this when dealing with Aunt May.
The favors are essentially little plot hooks to get the players playing beyond just the direct ‘I want to go do this’ type of scene. You could be creative and make them have to choose in time crunch scenarios where they only have a few hours before something happens and they want to do something but the Exchange needs them to be at another place doing something. I’d give them the occasional strike, sure, maybe have them hear some report about how someone died or how something failed depending on what the report might be. You could maybe even give them a small karmic slap on the wrist as something small happens like as they go to their vehicle, they have a flat tire.
Once you get past the small favors and onto the big things of them doing jobs for this Exchange or using the Exchange to help in jobs, it can swing both ways. The players can have whole missions given to them because of the rewards they could get, since what player might ever turn down the chance to get new toys? The opposite is they could try and circumvent your plot by creative request you didn’t see coming. If there ever was a ‘They Earned It’ moment, doing these missions for that reward is a great example of this. You should be able to figure some way to twist what they just did to cause some problems, but their creative approach gives some great power in that victory.
It may take a bit of time to figure how to make this work in a fantasy game, maybe a magic item that they can use to send or receive messages from? Perhaps a guild that they make a request to and then things are put in motion? I remember the first Fable game where the guildmaster would comment on when your health was low, so I could see a similar guild seal allowing for communication back and forth being easy to implement. I almost imagine the secret Shadow Group from Faerun, the Harpers, could use some great magic like that for clandestine meetings and arrangements. I just picture some main guild room with a bunch of receptionists like at old phone companies.