I originally thought I'd write about ideas for punishing or rewarding the player, but the question of what a "player reward" looks like turns out to be complicated.
Recently, in a long post on the SexLab Survival forum, addressing amputation mechanics, I alluded to an "iceberg" that amputation mechanics were the tip of, but I never explained what iceberg I had in mind. The broader topic of punishment and reward mechanics was what I was referring to.
On reflection calling it an iceberg doesn't do it justice.
For brevity in future, we need a jargon term to describe the general class of mods I'm talking about. Some can probably guess right away: slavery mods, combat defeat outcomes, "sexist" mods that create continual penalties and hazards on female characters, with an emphasis on the sex part, and other disparity mods that try to create varying experiences for the PC, from pregnancy to running a brothel. The PC doesn't have to be female, but usually is. There's also usually some kind of intentional conflict between a submissive role being imposed on them, and the tasks that vanilla Skyrim makes available (or requires to progress).
I'm going to call this very broad category "oppressive" mods. Oppressive mods all have significant capacity to punish the PC.
Punishment and reward are at the heart of so many LL mods, particularly those with an emphasis on slavery, combat defeat, or bondage games.
In short, oppressive mods are about punishment and reward.
Punishment and reward are also at the heart of why so many of these mods don't work well together and why authors aren't inspired to make them work well together.
I will present an argument for why this is so.
I suspect that conflicts between punishment and reward are also the underlying reason for many players ultimately getting tired of this kind of mod and turning away from it. They're certainly the cause of many frustrations.
I will also try to argue why this is not simply an arbitrary claim.
Bondage and slavery mechanics add new and exciting ways to punish and reward the PC. Isn't that fun?
You may ask, "Why is there a problem?"
Let's take a step back...
Player character punishments and rewards are NOT player punishments and rewards
There are two ways of looking at punishment and reward, we can look at them impacting the PC - the character - or we can look at how they impact the player. The two are different things; potentially a world apart and often in direct conflict with each other.
For example, the player fails at combat and the PC is defeated. DCL combat defeat is enabled. The PC is raped (brutal punishment for the PC, but amusement for the player) and then gear may be taken (punishment for both PC and player), and the character may be teleported to some annoying place (punishment for both PC and player), and they may be left wearing devices (punishment mainly for the PC, because the player might enjoy this quite a bit).
In oppressive mods, there are many events that take place that are horrible for the PC, but amusing for the player. The kennel in SexLab Survival is a good example of the contrast, the conflict, and the confusion. It's typically an amusing event for the player, but it may well be awful for the poor PC. Unless she is deep into SLS cum-addiction, there is no upside for the PC to be raped by the kennel-keeper or his pets, and she probably isn't going to get a good night's sleep.
SLS is a great example of how things get complicated and ambiguous. Is being forced to drink cum a good thing or a bad thing? In SLS, is shifts from one to the other as the addiction increases and it becomes necessary to satisfy it. The player has limited options to prevent the onset of the addiction. Self-gagging might help a little, but it comes with numerous down-sides. The player's reaction to cum-addiction may vary considerably with where they are in their game. At early stages they may seek it out, but at later stages it may start to become a tiresome annoyance.
Not only do different mods have different ideas of what events are good or bad for the PC, but the same mod may change its idea as play progresses.
The player's idea of what is entertaining remains relatively constant, unless they're over-exposed to a repetitive event that turns what was once amusing into fatiguing boredom. Even this isn't a solid rule. As noted above, the player tends to start to drift away from the oppressive content as their character levels up, and clearing vanilla content (or vanilla-like content) often becomes more of a priority.
One thing that's deeply lacking in the majority of mods is any kind of alignment between PC and player punishment and reward. Combat defeat mods are supposed to be punishing the player, but often what they're offering is a lot of sex scenes - which players may find rewarding unless they grow boring - and it's only the character that is getting punished. Even when the PC's items are taken away, the player suffers a great deal less than the PC.
And what is the point of putting mechanics into mods that are intentionally boring? Even in a combat defeat mod? There is limited scope to punish the player, and such an approach needs to be used sparingly if players are not to grow disinterested. A certain amount of peril increases excitement, but inevitable failure and punishment are simply annoying and frustrating.
To what extent are modders thinking about their mechanics in these terms? Are they considering the difference between PC punishment/reward vs player punishment/reward?
Some may be doing this, but I suspect that most have not crystallized that distinction clearly in their minds (until reading this?) There's no doubt that modders are trying to create mechanics that are consistently fun for the player, but the design of existing mods and the way that their authors write about them suggests that they conflate almost everything their mod does with an attempt to deliver player reward, even if it's indirectly. For example, SLS amputations are, to in part, an attempt simply to deliver more excuses for kinky animal sex with a kind of sexual frisson from the underlying reluctance.
Only combat defeat mods have reason to seriously consider the topic of player punishment, which they deliver via a very limited toolkit: item theft, disruptive teleportation, and various other annoyances that amount to time-sinks. SD+, if considered as a combat defeat outcome, consists almost entirely of extremely tiresome time-sinking.
SexLab Adventures (seems to evidence thinking that the bounties for doing forbidden things are a punishment for both the player and the PC, but in practice they punish the PC far more than they punish the player. The player doesn't set up punishing bounties unless they think they are going to be fun somehow.
Loss of time is really the only punishment that can be inflicted on the player, and all other punishments are just indirect routes to this.
The things that are lost can almost always be regained with sufficient effort. Whether the PC is being robbed, fined, sent to an inconvenient location, locked in a cell, or chain-raped for two real hours straight, it's all just something that soaks up the player's time in a way that doesn't seem to offer any kind of satisfying progress. In some extreme cases, the punishment takes away from past progress. To what extent the player is genuinely troubled is another matter. After all, they are installing these mods because they like them, and as often as not, they rather enjoy having PoP suck up hours of play while their character is dragged around the countryside on a leash by NPCs who path badly and frequently get stuck.
Even when things the player has struggled for are taken away - fancy armors, money, titles, reputation, NPC relationships, levels or skills - it usually comes down to a measurement of time invested that was lost. The things themselves can always be replaced with other things, given more time.
What is Player Character Reward or Punishment?
How can a collection of data in your computer be punished or rewarded? Is it punishment when her simulation values are modified in a non-advantageous way? I don't believe so. That sort of thinking is nonsense with no reference point or connection to any meaningful context. Reducing the PC's health value is a negative simulation outcome, but without assigning a meaning to it, it is neither punishment or reward.
Only the player can assign meaning to these events. Does that mean that there's no such thing as PC punishment or reward?
The reference for what is a punishment for the PC is always the story of the PC. There are events that she, as a story character, is supposed to enjoy, and events she is supposed to hate. The player (whether they intend to or not) to some extent cannot help but have some empathy with the human-looking graphic on their screen. She is not just there to create a pornographic visual; if that were the aim then why play Skyrim at all? You could just run SexLab animations in a loop, and a SexLab theater would be the most popular mod around. Instead, there is only modest interest in such mods, and most of that is from people who really are only interested in screen archery - and many of those are still telling stories!
However, player empathy with the PC doesn't mean that they player feels misery when the PC is imagined to feel it. Often the PC relishes the horrors inflicted upon their character. There are many reasons for this, but they are topics applicable to media in general, and not Skyrim oppression mods in general.
Nevertheless, the determinant of PC punishment or reward is simply the resulting story that the player creates in their head to explain the events and how the character reacts to them.
So what's the problem with any of that?
The lack of alignment between PC and player punishment and reward leads to a weak and uninvolving experience, shallow immersion, and incoherent story events.
Take an example of the PC developing a sex-addiction. This might be simulated as a constantly high arousal value which either doesn't decrease after sex, or doesn't decrease much, and can only be reduced by extreme sexual encounters, or a fast increase in arousal whenever it's low, or both these approaches. In addition, one or more mods may impose stat or XP penalties for this continuing high arousal state. Such additions are generally seen as improving the simulation.
In addition, the constant sex events may lead to Wear&Tear on the PC, with additional penalties as a result, again this is seen as an improvement in the simulation.
XP penalties are supposed to be a punishment for the player, but they are an ineffectual one because leveling in Skyrim is not terribly important for the player.
The stat penalties are inconvenient, and quite likely to involve movement speed or something else that mildly irritates the player, but in many cases may not even be noticed, and may very likely be drowned out by some other mod doing something completely unrelated (needs mod tiredness, for example).
The issue here is that a sex-addicted PC is supposed to long for orgasms, but getting them makes almost no difference to the PC or to the player.
There is no alignment between the supposed situation - the story you're creating in your head - and the game events. Instead we have a questionable simulation of sex-addiction, with mechanics that are inspired by the simulation concepts. Various conflicting outcomes follow from the simulation, which itself is the product of multiple mods that were not written to produce any single clear outcome or with any special intent - they are essentially simulation rules - they are devoid of any compelling story.
We're supposed to believe that the PC is constantly distracted by her desire, leading to impaired learning. If there's a Wear&Tear mod, we are also (probably) supposed to understand that the PC is physically (and magically) impaired by pain resulting from past sexual activities and abuse.
None of this simulation exists, or makes any sense in the context of vanilla Skyrim, where healing spells and potions cure sword cuts and simple praying cures diseases.
Some players struggle with the contradictions, and add more mods in an attempt to resolve them: needs mods with harsh diseases, limitations on potions, or potion consumption, limitations on healing capacity and PC recovery, wounds mods that create lasting effects for combat injuries that can't simply be healed away. It's more complexity and more mods to solve a problem that was created by the original mod setting up a questionable simulation that was at odds with vanilla Skyrim.
Players typically take the position that vanilla Skyrim is inadequate to support and enhance their fantasies for the PC, so they impose extra perils and dangers upon her. She needs warm clothes and fires, she needs to eat and drink, she needs to get a good night's sleep, she needs to pee (and fart!)... it doesn't stop there... she needs to sleep in comfy clothes, she she needs to eat good food, she gets tired of camping, and she gets hurt and penalized by ... just about everything. Players add mods where the PC can get pregnant, or seems to easily submit to forced sex, mods where she can resist forced sex up to a point, they add mods where everyone wants to enslave and sell her, mods where she can be auctioned, mods where she is hurt by sex, and mods where she becomes addicted to it, or to sex with animals. There are even mods where you can become inseminated with GEMS by animals and give birth to ROCKS! And of course they add mods that tie her up. Lots and lots of those. I could digress into a discussion of what this means about the female gender role in society, but that sounds hazardously close to politics.
The point is that the simulation rules we apply to the PC get ever more complex and perilous. They are profoundly weighted in favor of punishing, humiliating and terrorizing the poor PC. If there is something she is ever allowed to enjoy, you can be almost certain that it's some kind of destructive addiction or submissive mental break.
This is where player frustration can set in. A player initially believes that modding can deliver new and surprising experiences in their game. As time goes by, modding becomes more of a struggle to balance the conflicting ideas of reward and punishment in the web of mods that they've installed, or simply to get some beloved feature to work as they want it to. Frustration and exhaustion, combined with a loss of belief in the idea that oppressive punishment-oriented mods can deliver any substantially new content leads them to look to other genres, or to abandon the undertaking completely.
There's a real shortage of mods that emphasize PC enjoyment, fun or satisfaction. There is no mod where eating cakes gives the PC more happiness. There is no mod where she will pay a fortune to taste chocolate but not be addicted to it like a drug. There is no mod where she enjoys a smile from a child. I guess the majority of players don't want these things in their game for some reason. This isn't some political comment. It's just that game design has conventionally always been about peril and punishment, with the reward being from overcoming those hazards ... but there are games (like Candy Crush) that are composed only of rewards, albeit weak ones.
Problematic conflicts arise because each mod is trying to guess how their user-base feels about a certain scenario, and to provide events that are titillating. Each one envisages a slightly different scenario for the PC, then (usually) tries to produce it indirectly through simulation rules. Mods that are direct about the outcomes they want are less common, but the root conflicts begin with the stories. As the intended outcomes (stories) conflict, the simulation rules also interact at cross-purposes. There's no clear direction. Even if these mods can interoperate what would that interoperation look like when they have disparate concepts of a proper outcome?
Players tweak mods, put mods in, take mods out, and post on forums, over and over, seeking changes of one kind or another, so that they can get the outcome they imagine as perfect. However, for every modder there are numerous players (even for unpopular mods) who all have slightly different ideas in their heads. With only one modder and all those players, any mod can only please each player a certain amount, and the modder may not be pleased with what they delivered either. (I know I am never satisfied with what I make). Even among the most eager fans of a mod, there are different story expectations.
The conflicts are not only between the mods and vanilla, but between each mod. These conflicts flow directly from different concepts of what is a player or PC punishment or reward. It's inevitably the case that two mods get in a fight over some stat that they both want to change in opposing ways, or some situation or scenario that they want to resolve in profoundly different ways.
Superficially, Estrus Chaurus (EC+) appears to be punishing the PC for sex with chaurus monsters, or from picking flowers, or (if you have certain patches or extensions) from collecting chaurus eggs. Of course that's not its true purpose. Its core reason for existence is to amuse the player with tentacle-sex and violation fantasies, then to pile a body-modification fetish on top of it, allowing the player to view their character distorted with huge breasts and belly due to a foul "pregnancy", a parasite infestation that can easily end in a horrid mess of skittering creatures.
EC+ punishes the PC but rewards the player. Its pregnancies conflict awkwardly with other pregnancy mods (which have equally complex internal intentions), including combat defeat mods. The EC+ encumbered PC is weakened in combat, suffers additional defeats, and additional indignities, but we're now slipping into territory where the player is ostensibly to be punished for letting their character become inflated with alien eggs to the point that she can barely waddle along.
This is a recurring pattern. A mod that offers player entertainment also adds penalties to the PC, and other mods interpret those penalties as an intent to punish the player. And in some cases, they act on that intent, amplifying the "punishment", or attempting to counteract of moderate it. The different mods had different outcomes in mind. EC+ seems to think that the pregnancy is more or less the end of the problem, but don't get caught too often or you'll end up inflated for good. OTOH, DiD thinks that tentacle-sex is both a way to lose trauma and also to gain it. I can't figure out what DiD's overall expected outcome is, but it's clearly different to the original intent of EC+ otherwise it wouldn't need to add any new simulation rules.
The first problem is that mod X has no way to tell whether the things mod Y were done to amuse the PC, or are supposed to be some kind of disincentive.
The second problem is that mod X and mod Y almost certainly have a different outcome in mind, even given the same set of preconditions.
Returning to the EC+ example, the mod itself is also internally conflicted. It does things that please the player, while also doing things to annoy them (such adding little scuttling creatures to areas). Of course, the player can control some of these decisions, but the player was always controlling them, from the very point that they installed EC+ they were superficially in control. However, because mods rarely deliver a coherent experience to the player, we see, again and again, the addition of more and more mods trying to resolve a nest of conflicts that can only grow as a result of this approach - and I don't mean script or ESP conflicts, but gameplay experience and immersion conflicts - it's a way of modding that creates an endless appetite for more and more mods and features.
Another conflict is that players wish to surrender control, while at the same time exercising it. They choose to add a mod that does things to the PC, but want to feel that the outcomes are beyond their control, or at least beyond the PC's control. They want the story of helplessness, or struggle. They want story events to take them by surprise ... but not too much surprise. They chose the mods they put in their game, and chose how to configure them, but then they want to play within the limits they've created for themselves, with the perils they have so carefully prepared.
This is a conflict over control rather than reward and punishment, but it manifests as reward and punishment. When mods go off the rails and break the game, or simply send it in an unwanted direction, the player (as well as the PC) is punished. Often enough, total success for the PC ends up being seen as failure by the player. Again, the mods didn't do the intended job.
Is Coherence Possible? (And would we want it?)
Is it even technically possible to create coherence between the PC experience and the player experience? Would this be better or worse?
It is possible for mods to agree on the nature of an experience, so they all augment it, instead of breaking it?
Now we're into more difficult territory. It took until now to crystallize the true nature of this problem, and I imagine that many readers are still not at all convinced there's anything here but a confusing web of points that they feel they have easy counter-arguments to. It's not easy to explain the network of ideas and realizations that have brought me to write this, and it will be a journey of its own for me to learn how to express those ideas clearly and succinctly. For now, the ideas are present, but they're still new. There's scope to improve and refine them, and even more scope to improve how to describe them.
But returning to the question at hand, I can offer some examples.
In the case of sex addiction, what if the player received increasing rewards for orgasms? The more extreme the addiction, or the longer the period of denial, the greater the player reward would be. Pay attention here, I'm talking about player reward, not PC reward. This could be applied to any addiction mechanic, but its most notable for sex-addiction, because orgasms are rarely a reward, even for the PC (not the player); instead loss of arousal is the reward, if it's even granted, and who that reward is aimed at is ambiguous. Is it the player, who is happy that her character is now better able to function? Or is it the PC, who is supposed to relish the reduction in danger that the sexual-satisfaction leads to? Or (as I suspect) some combination of the two.
In the case of combat defeat, can we genuinely punish the player for losing?
In the case of being caught without a license in SexLab Survival (SLS), there's a conflicted message. The player is supposed to be punished by losing access to items and abilities, but they may also be enjoying the peril that their character has been placed into. They may well get considerable enjoyment from their character being placed in punishment devices that are clearly intended to be a (story) punishment for the PC.
What if the sexist problems imposed by SLS were entirely punishing for the player, and overcoming them entirely rewarding? Is that even possible?
One thing is for sure, a mod that has an alignment between PC reward and player reward would be unlike the majority of mods we see, which have almost no consideration of PC reward, and are composed almost entirely of PC punishment.
Would alignment in PC and player reward help align mods together? I think it would, up to a point, because it immediately becomes clear what is supposed to be a player reward or punishment. In current mods, two mods that disagree are both trying to deliver player reward (and PC punishment).
It's impossible to intuit which player punishments are supposed to be producing player enjoyment, and which are trying to be player punishments.
But if the punishment and reward are simplistically objective, it's easier to get alignment between mods.
For example, Deviously Enchanted Chests likes to put the PC into bondage gear.
While this is somewhat a reward for the player, it's substantially supposed to be a punishment.
The goal is (ostensibly) to get out of the bondage gear as quickly as possible and return to business as usual.
Devious Training tries to mitigate the penalties of being in bondage gear long-term, while adding extra visual rewards (for body modification fetishists anyway).
It's a given you won't install DT unless you like the modification part, but the penalty mitigation is a bonus player reward.
DT is at odds with DEC in some areas, aligned in others.
However, if we have an objective way to know whether the PC likes being bound ... if the PC's rewards are aligned with the player's, then we also know whether the player wants the PC to be bound.
Given this data, a bondage mod no longer needs to guess what to do. The player wants mechanics that make being bound rewarding.
So, there's a light at the end of the tunnel ... we can potentially solve some problems by using data about the PC, or the player, and if we put the two into alignment we can create novel experiences, align mods together better, and store less data.