The Magic of Feedback

Modern smartphones have a fun little user experience feature called haptic feedback. Basically, when you touch buttons or controls on your phone, it buzzes just a tiny bit in your hand; it touches you back. This isn’t really so different from the little click each time you strike a key on your keyboard, or the satisfying “dink” sound effect when you hit a headshot in a video game . People like to see that their actions are provoking reactions, regardless of what form those responses take.

Conversely, it can be challenging and discouraging to do activities without feedback. If you tap a button on your screen and nothing happens, there’s an immediate moment of brazen frustration. If you’re shooting an enemy in a video game and they don’t react at all, you start to wonder if you’re even hurting them. This is all easy enough to understand.

 

What seems to be a problem, however, is integrating this kind of feedback into tabletop games.

 

How many times have you hit a monster, dealt your damage, and then the round has continued without any change? In D&D-like games, you’ll have to hit the monster several times before you actually defeat it. Each of those hits is important, because you have to reduce its health, but they’re also pretty boring, in large part because you’re receiving no feedback.

Fortunately, this problem can be fixed in mechanics or narration. All that is required is change – preferably meaningful change, but even just aesthetic change is way better than nothing! If you’re trying to get more feedback into your game, here’s some suggestions (geared for fantasy D&D-like games, but the concepts are applicable elsewhere).

 

Mechanics:

  1. Bloodied. Bloodied is a part of D&D 4E that many GMs use at their table in other systems because it is such a simple, powerful mechanic. Whenever a creature is reduced to half health, they are Bloodied, and you tell the players when they bloody an enemy. This is an immediately, visceral point of feedback that makes perfectly clear that their attacks are having an impact. In 4E, many monster abilities only trigger when they are bloodied, or player abilities have special incentives to target bloody opponents.
  2. Incremental growth. Games like Burning Wheel that track each skill test are great at this, but it can be easily welded to any system. If a player puts effort into doing something in-game, they’re showing you that they care about that thing. Show them that you also care by giving them incidental, measurable progress. Maybe each time they volunteer in the soup kitchen, more of the staff offers advice or aid; maybe each time they paint a landscape, the painting is worth slightly more. Any progression is meaningful feedback.
  3. Multi-stage fights. Take a page right out of the video game book and design your significant fights around multiple distinct stages. Maybe the berserker chieftain starts the fight with some allies and a handaxe, then draws her greataxe in a rage once her allies die, then summons the demon she serves once her death draws near. Let players feel the impact that their actions have on the battle, and create miniature transitions between “fighting” and “defeated”.

 

Narration:

  1. Describe gradual change. Which is more engaging – “You hit him. You hit him. You hit him. You hit him. You hit and kill him.” or “You hit him. You crack his armor. His helm falls off. His arm breaks. He falls to his knees, and you kill him.” Easy, right? Give some verbal feedback describing a gradual change over time.
  2. Mark milestones. If Jordan has to craft 10 daggers before they learn how to make a sword, give some positive feedback after the first 5. By focusing on milestones, you show the player that the increments of progress they’re making are adding up to something significant, even if they are independently insignificant.
  3. Craft a responsive world. Each time you revisit an area, think about two or three ways that it can respond to the players. Maybe the last time they were here, an inn burned down – you can describe bare, ashy ground in that plot, and barrels of water standing down alleyways. Show the players that their actions and experiences have an impact on the texture of the world around them. This will help to ground your players in the fiction, and provides feedback that their actions matter.

 

Giving players feedback is a simple but powerful step to advance the quality of your game. Everyone wants to know that their actions are having an impact, and you can give players this assurance in a number of ways. By spending some time on feedback, you show players that you’re paying attention to their efforts and reward them psychologically for their actions.

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