The Problem With Fanmail
Posted by Nathan P. on June 14, 2008
(Long one. Skip to the 4th paragraph for the meat.)
For those who may not be familiar, Fanmail is the “killer app” (thanks Eric) of Primetime Adventures. Simply put, there’s an amount of Fanmail tokens in the center of the table, and when someone does something in the game that you think is really neat, you can award them a point of Fanmail. Players can use Fanmail to help them out in conflicts, and over the course of play the amount of Fanmail in the budget has an interesting ebb and flow to it, based on spotlight scenes.
Anyway, Fanmail is great! It really blew people away when they started playing PTA, and it still holds up as one of the seminal touchstones of design in the circles I run in.
It’s pretty easy to see why it works. It really codifies celebrating each others contributions at the table. As embedded in the overall “this is a TV show” framework of play, it’s a natural process to recognize scenes, lines and actions that would be picked up as “fan favorites” and thus generate the “fan mail”. It’s also a good teaching tool for the Producer to use when teaching the game to new people. “Hey Jim, you just applauded Sarah’s contribution there, you should give her fanmail!” Finally, it has a subtle global effect in the game, whereby people who have high Screen Presence tend not to spend all their Fanmail in those sessions, and then when they have a low Screen Presence episode they have a stockpile of resources, keeping them roughly even in narrative-effecting power over the course of a season*.
So whats the problem? Well, it works really well – in the game its written for, and embedded in an environment of supportive mechanics. And the soul of the mechanic is totally sound. Rewarding each other at the table for behavior that you support is always solid, in my opinion. But the mechanization of that reward, thats the trouble. Where do you go over the line from rewarding behavior that you enjoy, and automatically handing out Fanmail because thats how you play PTA?
Here’s the secret about PTA – the game works just as well without ever handing out or using Fanmail. Or rather, it is elastic in that however much or little you use Fanmail, it won’t hurt the game or gameplay.
The danger here is twofold. One, that games are designed with fanmail mechanics that are central to play, and don’t work if fanmail isn’t given. (This will be a subject of another post, with myself as offender). The other is the conception that the only way to celebrate input at the table is by putting a mechanic around it. I think the connexion with my earlier post on the subject is obvious, right? It’s another layer in the idea that there’s only a very rigid way to induce behavior in play, ironically drawn from an extremely flexible and innovative mechanic that works just as much because of the stuff around it.
Why make this post? Because it’s a trap I fall into all the time, and I think writing it out will help me be more aware of it. It’s not a slam on Matt, or on PTA. It’s just….something to keep in mind.
*This last, I’ve observed a little in my multi-session play and in reading some APs. I dunno if it always happens, but it seems to be a pretty straightforward emergent property of the Fanmail/Screen Presence economy.