I learned the "fanmail" mechanic for RPGs via Primetime Adventures. Here's how it works: there are some chips in the middle of the table, and when someone does something cool, you toss them a chip. When you get chips, you can use them to increase your odds of winning conflicts for your character. The number of chips in the middle is prescribed so as not to put too much of this currency into circulation (we don't want characters wining all the conflicts). "Doing something cool" refers to contributions to the fiction.
At first I thought it was weird. "The fact that I'm a good actor means my character is better at stuff?"
Then I thought it was awesome. "When I entertain my buddies, I don't have to look around the table to check -- they toss me stuff!" And even better, "Everyone wants chips, and the giving and receiving reminds us why we're really here! After all, the kind of roleplaying I like is about player interaction, which necessarily includes listening and appreciation!"
Later, though, I saw how it could make some people uncomfortable, being judged by their fellows. "Whoa, you actually seem pretty bummed out about not being awarded more chips, and now you're playing with less than your usual verve."
I also started to tire of the same old incentive, "increase odds of character success." It's too familiar, from "roleplay bonus" rules in games from Sorcerer to D&D homebrews. Just as the presence of fanmail drew my attention toward group storytelling, it drew it away from single-minded character advocacy. If there's any game where I'm just as happy to see my character fail as succeed, it's probably Primetime Adventures.
I thought I had a solution, whereby I'd replace "character success" with something that really mattered and fit the award -- namely, story-telling power -- but recently I've discovered that if it matters too much, then subjecting it to the whims of player taste runs the risk of a less fun game. If you don't get any Master Plan scenes in Within My Clutches, you're missing out!
It's easy enough to take away the judgment calls -- e.g. "you get tokens for doing this or that thing during play that I, as the designer, have decided that your group should value" -- but that ruins both the feedback and the spontaneity. I like using fanmail to gauge who likes what, so I can roleplay better to my table's tastes. I like not having to evaluate play for "that gets a chip" triggers -- tossing tokens while talking enables a smoother conversation.
I've tried to find an in-between, where the mechanics ask you to get what you need from another player, and then award them a chip when they deliver.
Example: The Villain player asks the other players for potential Distractions that could beset them if they choose to succeed in their Goal despite the costs. The ideal Distraction should render the Villain's achievement tenuous and high-maintenance without rendering it "not really a success". The first two players to offer Distractions that the Villain player deems suitable each earn one token. Villain player, hand out the tokens to indicate your acceptance.
It works well! But it's not perfect. It retains some subjectivity, but maybe not enough, and it discards spontaneity altogether. I still have the feeling that there are better ways to fit fanmail into roleplaying, to maximize its strengths and avoid activating its weaknesses.
What do you think? What have you come up with? What have you played?