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Hot Button: Homework Assignments

Posted By Walt Ciechanowski On December 9, 2008 @ 9:19 am In Hot Buttons | 17 Comments

Traditionally, being a player is an hourly job while being a GM is a salaried position (although both are usually unpaid). Players are expected to show up on time to a session, play the game, and clock out after the session, often giving it little thought until the next one.

GMs, on the other hand, have many responsibilities that transcend the session. While there certainly are GMs that can just show up, wing it, and forget about until next time, most of us need time to design and prepare adventures. We often have to deal with unexpected fall-out from previous sessions, prepare for changes in the player status quo, seek out and digest new rules supplements, and other duties. If you are the host as well as the GM, the burden is even greater.

At times, I’ve given (and seen other GMs give) “homework assignments” to the players. These are tasks that the GM expects the player to perform outside of the session. A few examples:

  • Designing a character (or at least developing a character concept).
  • Upgrading a character.
  • Writing a short character background.
  • Reading relevant sections of the rules.
  • Sending an email to describe what the character is doing during the downtime between adventures.
  • Writing 2-3 plot hooks that the GM could use against the character to add spice to the sessions.
  • Reading your prepared campaign background and notes.
  • Set a course of action for the next session.

In my experience, expecting full compliance with homework assignments is futile. There is always at least one player that refuses to do anything outside the session or believes that she can do the bare minimum necessary to comply (e.g. you ask for a detailed character background and she simply says “my character is from the North”).

To be fair, there are many players that don’t have a lot of free time between sessions and it’s simply a struggle to show up to the session on a regular basis. Demanding jobs, growing families, end-of-semester studies/projects and other issues can really drop “design 2-3 plot hooks” on the priority list. In some cases, the player intended to comply but simply forgot due to the pressures of real life.

Usually, GMs are understanding enough to make allowances. That said there are many GMs that expect homework assignments in order for their campaigns to run smoothly and effectively. If one player routinely blows off homework assignments, then other players will start to do the same.

So today’s hot button is this: Do you have expectations of your players between sessions? Is there a minimal level of compliance or are your homework assignments optional? Has a homework assignment ever caused a problem in your group?

About  Walt Ciechanowski

Walt’s been a game master ever since he accidentally picked up the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set in 1982. He became a freelance RPG writer in 2005 and is currently the Victoriana Line Developer for Cubicle 7. Walt lives in Springfield, PA with his wife Helena and their three children, Leianna, Stephen, and Zoe.




17 Comments (Open | Close)

17 Comments To "Hot Button: Homework Assignments"

#1 Comment By Rafe On December 9, 2008 @ 9:31 am

___Sending an email to describe what the character is doing during the downtime between adventures.___

I really like this one. It gives players a chance to draw their own connection between the two sessions and keep them fresh in their minds.

We have a player in our group who takes it upon himself to write up a narrative account of what occurred in the last session. He usually sends this out the next day and asks for input to ensure he’s remembered everything (particularly who did what as the “who did it” part can often get lost in the shuffle of action). It’s great to have!

#2 Comment By Vagnaard On December 9, 2008 @ 9:58 am

Well, I never expect players to comply with those. As you said, too much stuff gets in the way.

But, I still ask player to do a lot of those things, only, I do not require it. Instead, if they do, they get cookie points that they can trade in for bonus (reroll a very bad roll for X number of cookie points, change something I just said or other interesting things that the player can think) or for a real box of cookie they can consume at their leisure.

I found out that motivating my players with cookies worked better than just handing out Homeworks assignments.

#3 Comment By deadlytoque On December 9, 2008 @ 9:59 am

I regularly assign homework, but keep the parameters vague and don’t expect compliance. I’ll say something like “if you can, give me a write up on a location or NPC your character might like to interact with” and leave it at that. If a player doesn’t come up with anything, then they get nothing. If they do come up with something, then they get some kind of in-game reward. I’m running Changeling: The Lost right now, so I’m giving a few xp per session as a reward for enriching the setting. It’s not a huge award, but it’s enough that the other players are seeing the difference and hopefully will want a piece of the pie.

I recently playtested a game (I’m not at liberty to reveal the name) wherein one player per session could take it on themselves to recap the previous game session in return for a small but meaningful in-game reward.

I think one of the most interesting forms of this comes from Amber Diceless, which gives extra points for the auction/point-buy character creation system in return for volunteering for long-term investments in the game, like keeping character diaries or session notes, and if the player who volunteered in order to get the extra points starts slacking off, then the rules have a “bad stuff” system to bring the character back into balance. I’ve never tried it out in practice, but my gut tells me that it’s a good way to reward the player who was going to do it anyway, and anyone who doesn’t realistically think they are going to benefit simply won’t take the extra points.

#4 Comment By itliaf On December 9, 2008 @ 10:17 am

I used to write my own recaps for session, but busy schedules have removed such luxuries. I am working on getting one of my players to do it for some sort of treasure based reward. What’s nice about 4e is that you are supposed to give players treasure fitted for characters, so “Whoever does this writeup can choose a level 14 item and have it show up in the next hoard” makes a good small, specific reward that also saves me the trouble of picking treasure. As for expectations of players, it varies. I have some who I know will do almost no DnD related work, not even leveling up their characters, outside of the session. It slows the game down to have them do this during game time, but I refuse to hand out rewards for something I think is pretty fun (picking out new feats and powers). In the past I have given out rewards for everything from writing character backstories to statting out the entire crew of the PCs pirate ship. This post is a good reminder to try and foist more of this stuff off on players and think about new ways to compel them to do it.

#5 Comment By Scott Martin On December 9, 2008 @ 10:44 am

I’ve done a lot of different things for/as homework over the years.

Prior to encountering Amber Diceless I never really had the idea of demanding written character backgrounds or adventure recaps. That system codified the idea, though, by giving you extra character points during character generation for promising to produce specific things between sessions. I didn’t like the way it worked out in play– campaign logs and character diaries can be fun to write, but once they’re homework [and for no reward-- the payment was all up front], the weeks that you’re uninspired are painful. And trying to catch up once you’re behind… ugh.

In other games, I’ve had the players rotate taking notes during the session. While the end product was nice, there was a huge variation in what was recorded, and everyone felt note taking detracted from their roleplaying. XP bribes didn’t work either; it’s hard to pay as much as the hassle deserves, particularly if you want the group to remain somewhat close in power over time.

#6 Comment By Scott Martin On December 9, 2008 @ 10:56 am

@Rafe – I’ve written logs for several campaigns. It’s nice, particularly if you have a writing itch you want to scratch. I’ve found it’s hard to keep up over time– I hope your player doesn’t have the same issue!
@Vagnaard – Cookies sound like a good reward; useful in avoiding a bad roll or getting more chances to be awesome, but not permanently changing the power level.
@deadlytoque – I liked the idea of Amber’s “power now, pay later” as a concept… but in practice found that it wasn’t enough to keep me going once I fell behind. Though part of the problem may have been the plot my character was writing about…
@itliaf – I like the “pick an item to find” reward idea. I find that it’s very hard to foist assignments out– it’s hard to find successful external motivation for these types of tasks. In my experience, from both sides of the issue.

#7 Comment By BryanB On December 9, 2008 @ 11:46 am

I ask for a short 2-3 paragraph character background prior to character generation. I have a few key questions that I ask the players to answer. The game benefits from this sort of thing.

I’m in the habit of having strategy e-mails between sessions, since I take a more sandbox approach and I want to know what the players have in mind. This facilitates player to player discussion about what happened in the session before and what might happen next. It gives me focus as a GM because I know what I need to place an emphasis on in my preparations.

This is also the time for rules discussions. Did a ruling bother them in the last session? Was there a rule that wasn’t too clear? Did the errata clarify a point in the rules that we may have been incorrect on?

Finally, I like to recap the session and announce any leveling information. If leveling occurs, I don’t mind the players doing their leveling from home. If they need to ask me about anything, they can send me an e-mail. At the very least, hopefully everyone will have an idea of their talent/feat choices when we meet at the next session. This will make leveling take much less time if it happens at the start of a session.

In short, I don’t demand homework from my players, but I encourage some kind of discussion participation/input of thought, so that the game will be as good as it can be. Games are only as good as the GM and players want them to be. It is a collaborative effort in my opinion, even if the GM does most of the preperations between sessions.

#8 Comment By Cole On December 9, 2008 @ 3:45 pm

In my games, the general idea is that they just show up. There is only one person that takes it a step further from that. The group has vastly improved with him in it. Maybe one day the rest of the group will follow, until than. showing up on time is a great deal.

#9 Comment By Eclipse On December 9, 2008 @ 4:26 pm

I don’t really give homework on a regular basis. Usually, I’ll ask players who want to do obscure things that don’t usually come up to look up the rules for it between sessions (this is in relation to character builds), then show me the relevant rules when they have a chance so I can make a ruling and decide if it’s appropriate for the game. I also ask players to try to come up with at least an idea for a character before the first session, and encourage them to have characters built anytime we’re not using random stat generation. Naturally, life comes first though.

If I’m a player, I expect the GM might ask us to do things between sessions, but I also expect the GM to realize other things in life come first, so it might not get done. Also, depending on what the GM wants, I also make it clear they might need to work with me. I don’t do detailed character backgrounds at character creation for instance. It’s too much info to come up with at once, particularly when I don’t have a feel for the campaign setting yet. So, if the GM wants details before the game starts, it will involve a lot of talking with me, to help me get a feel for the setting and what I actually think the character will be like. I usually learn about my characters through playing them, not by defining them ahead of time. One friend of mine actually roleplayed through a few mini-scenarios with me before a game, so I could get a better grasp of what my character would act like. This was actually a great help in getting the details she wanted from me before the game started.

#10 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On December 9, 2008 @ 6:36 pm

I used to give XP for homework, but then I realized that I was making things needlessly complicated. That, and I fell in lust with Savage Worlds, whose Bennies (similar to Action Points, Hero Points, etc) are perfect for this kind of thing.

There will almost always be a disparity between the players at any given table. Some will spend more time out of game on their character than they do in-game. Some will only think about the game while they’re at the table. Most will fall somewhere in the middle. I wouldn’t make any rewards or punishments too significant, so as not to punish those (like myself) who don’t have the time they’d like to devote to gaming.

#11 Comment By Francis B On December 9, 2008 @ 6:38 pm

I use “Homework” as a regular feature of my campaigns. I call them “extra credit” though due to their optional nature. But, if you do feel the need to put in that extra little something, I offer in game experience points. Not much, but after awhile that level dependent amount starts to add up.

Also, the more difficult the assignment, the more experience you get. I have a difficulty range (pathetic-weak-average-challenging-difficult) that modifies the amount of xp you are getting (25%/50%/100%/125%/150% respectively). Average is equal to a standard monster of your level, for instance 100xp at level 1.

In 4th edition for example, the weak duty of finding a picture of your character and e-mailing it to your DM would at level 1 give 50xp, whereas giving it at level 2 would give 62xp. Giving experience this way keeps the ratio of reward equal across all tiers of play. Hence a level 15 fighter has no more reason to do extra credit than a level 29 fighter.

And the extra work does add up, two of my players are almost an entire level ahead because they tend to do all the extra credit work. Sure, it took a year long campaign (I gave extra credit the same way in 3.5) but the reward for those players willing to make the time can be substantial.

#12 Comment By Bookkeeper On December 9, 2008 @ 8:04 pm

I encourage my players to write up their character’s impressions – a practice that has increased since I started putting campaigns up on Obsidian Portal. As far as homework goes, I usually only really push for things during character creation – I have a questionnaire that I use to help me tailor the game to the PCs. Since I used a lot of pre-written material, having some stuff in hands about what sort of people the PCs are helps me edit and insert to make the story more directly about them.

I’ve used two reward systems – one is XP, the other is a Deck of Many Cool Things. It’s mostly comprised of cards that give you a +2 bonus on a roll, but I’ve put in some uncommons (Succeed on one skill check, cash in a favor with a church for healing), and a rare (One automatic “20″ when you need it). Draws from the Deck got more player input than XP in my most recent campaign.

#13 Comment By Lee Hanna On December 9, 2008 @ 10:37 pm

I’ve paid off when I am pleasantly surprised with homework. It’s happened twice in my next-to-last campaign, I got a wonderful description of a character drowning his sorrows at the pub, which advanced the romance sub-plot with his girlfriend, allowed a little in-game jab at one player who had played ball-hog and gotten his last PC killed, and gave me some hooks to play with in the future by unveiling some tension with his (absent) father. There was either a fat xp award, or the magic sword revealed some unknown power, I forget which.

I tried assigning 3x3x3 in my last Serenity game, and that got half my players to kick in, in exchange for Plot Points. (Describe 3 friends, 3 contacts and 3 enemies of your PC.)

I like to use email groups on yahoo to allow such stuff, but it’s rare so far.

#14 Comment By robustyoungsoul On December 10, 2008 @ 7:17 am

Almost never. Not because I necessarily think it is a bad idea, but I’ve found that if as a group you keep the gaming table or whatever as your gaming SPACE, focus increases when you are playing. Kind of like how you sleep better if you have a sleeping space free of distractions. Or how you leave work at work when you come home.

In other words, it just tends to take away from the head space of the gaming table. That’s not to say we haven’t discussed certain rules or things like that we need clarification on via email or whatever between games, but by keeping the gaming space sacred it just tends to yield more focused, energetic playing sessions with our group.

#15 Comment By SmallBlueGod On December 10, 2008 @ 8:12 am

I do much the same as Vagnaard does. Only instead of ‘cookie points’ I assign “Storyteller points” which is usually just an XP amount. Although I have to say I like Vagnaard’s ideas for uses of those reward points a lot. :)

My reasoning was/is that if they’re helping me write the story then they get points for being a storyteller. Nuff said. :)

Since I started assigned Xp rewards like this for the ‘extra-curricular’ parts of the game I’ve gotten a lot more interaction & excitement from my players away from the game table.

#16 Comment By Ostof On December 14, 2008 @ 9:41 am

I don’t do homework. My players either work Full-Time, have families, or both, and don’t have time for homework.

However, I do require – and by require, I mean “in order to play in this game” – a character concept and background with no fewer than a dozen points, and I expect this before character creation begins. I will sit down with the player and work through concept design with them, asking them questions that get them thinking about Who their character is. Before that sit-down session takes place I’ve given them a worksheet to read through that has open-ended character questions like “How does your character feel about the Law and how rigidly it should be adhered to?” for them to think about before we meet to talk.

I ask that they submit a modified 3x3x3 sheet, where-in they tell me 3 things they want to see their character develope, 3 things the other characters don’t know about thier character, 3 things their own character doesn’t know about themselves, and a couple others. I use this to help guide my session and story design, and will have them revise thier answers every couple years if needed (new directions, new thoughts and ideas, etc.)

All the “homework” is pre-game, up-front, and is done with full GM involvement. Once the game is running, there is little I ask for them to do between sessions. I offer XP bonuses (once per month limit) for anyone who wants to write up a bit of their character’s history – a significant event in thier lives, a turning point, an insight into something they do or believe – for the group to read, and to date I’ve had ALL my players take advantage of this. It’s completely optional, but it’s been very rewarding, and I”ve been able to integrate the revelations and details of thier writings into subsequent plotlines and world aspects.

I have one player that takes Game Notes for me and rattles off a summary at the beginning of the next session, but again, that’s something they offered to do and not something that was required. It helps to focus the group and mentally prepare for the session that night.

#17 Comment By Arcnsparc On May 9, 2009 @ 10:14 am

I assign homework all the time but I keep it really simple:
Update your spell lists / prepare spell lists
Create a shopping list
Think about where to go and what to do next (I always try to have a stock adventure or two ready, but they do a good job of finding their own)

Cool post with a lot of good ideas! I really like Ostof’s 3×3 sheet.


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