Players & The Pavlovian Response

black puppy looking at cupcakesPlayers, DMs, countrymen. Before we go into full on Dungeons & Dragons mode, I’d like to start today’s post by going a bit into psychology. Don’t worry–you didn’t click on the wrong blog column. There is a method to my madness.

Do you know a guy named Ivan Pavlov? Probably not personally, since he hasn’t been alive for centuries, but you’ve probably heard of the phrase Pavlov’s dogs. To keep it brief, Pavlov was a Russian scientist who studied and performed experiments on something called the “conditional response,” which is basically a fancy way of saying that a reaction becomes directly associated with or being caused something else that is seemingly neutral and unrelated. In this case, Pavlov would ring a bell every time he fed his dogs, and so his dogs came to associate the sound of the bell with food. Eventually, their mouths started to water at the sound of the bell (before they were even presented with the food) because they knew what the bell meant. You might recognize this kind of conditioning from literature (ex. the “aversion therapy” in A Clockwork Orange), or even every day life. When a random, seemingly inconsequential detail continually produces an unrelated but consistent reward, that’s what Pavlov was all about.

Why am I talking about psychology? Has Dungeons & Discourse changed ownership? Nope, still me! But it’s more relevant to our favorite tabletop game than you might think.

I don’t want to call our lovely players dogs, so let’s call them Pavlov’s Dragons. It’s popular lore that dragons love gold and shiny objects; they like adding to their hoards, just like real players. While at times campaigns can fly off the handle, your party is more likely to aim for the objective if there is an incentive to do so. And what is that incentive? Why, gold and XP, of course! While for more experienced players, that motivation might also stem from established character traits and backstories, you really can’t go wrong with dangling loot in front of them. Think about it: why else would your players want to search every single room in the dungeon for treasure? They want m-o-n-e-y and shiny objects. We are all just dragons (real dragons?).

Your players will most likely be developing their characters as they go, so don’t expect them to have a firm handle on their motivations early on. While they’re working on that, they need something to keep them going. This mechanic is built into the game for a reason. It’s the launchpad for a bunch of scraggly travelers from all over the world to team up and form a party. They know if they go into a cave, they’ll probably be able to search dead bodies for loot, find hidden passageways, stumble upon hidden scrolls and gems. It’s a Pavlovian response at its core: a quest comes up and they’re already salivating for gold, even if a monetary reward doesn’t come up in the conversation. They’ll see dollar signs in their eyes the minute the request is presented to them. That’s how games (both tabletop and video alike) have taught us to respond time and time again.

Though now that I’m saying this, how funny would it be for a DM to make players go on a quest, only to not reward them in money and loot? Is that cruel? I think it would be hilarious.

Until next time, players. Let the good dice roll! ⚀⚁⚂