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Reward Systems – Cues and Judgments

January 7, 2010

Reward systems fall into two types- those based on Cues, and those based on Judgments.

Cue based reward systems

Cues are the things in a game that you can measure, count, or point to- dice on the table, a number of points, notes on your character sheet. They’re mostly used to perform Yes/No or If/Then kind of mechanics.

Some examples of reward systems based on Cues:

Old D&D: “If you get gold pieces, then you get 1 experience point per gold piece.”
Inspectres: “If you roll a 6, you get 2 Franchise dice.”
Dogs in the Vineyard: “If you defend against an action, you get as many Fallout dice as the number of dice you used to defend.”

These systems are really good at getting people to do a type of thing in the game. Because there’s no room for ambiguity, people tend to pursue that activity really hard, and really well. The trick is, that activity isn’t the fun thing itself, but it should produce the fun stuff as a consequence.

In D&D, the quest for gold leads to exploring the dungeon (which leads to traps, monsters, etc.) In Inspectres, conflicts lead to player narrated antics and adventure. In Dogs in the Vineyard, conflicts lead to fallout, fallout leads to your character changing.

The other interesting thing about this is that when you have reward based on cues, you can very easily have players handle the process of their own reward – for example, in Dogs in the Vineyard, the GM has actually no hand in the reward process, each player handles their own as a result of the mechanics.

Judgment based reward systems

Judgment based reward systems require a player to make a Judgment about the fictional events to work.

Some examples include:
White Wolf games: “Give an extra experience point for good roleplaying”
Sorcerer: “Give a Humanity Roll when the character (acts with empathy)”
Shadow of Yesterday: “Give 5 XP when the character risks their life to protect their true love”

Notice of the three examples, they’re kinda along a spectrum of specificity. Each one becomes more specific and clear on when a reward can be given. Generally, the more specific the reward trigger being judged on, the less work it is for the players to judge AND the more useful it is in guiding play.

Judgment reward systems make the reward system into a form of input about play, through play. Someone is rewarding others based on a judgment they’re making about the input they’ve made into the fiction. As roleplaying makes the group into both the creators and audience at the same time, Judgment based rewards take strong advantage of this, allowing groups to also shape play towards their personal preferences.

An interesting difference

Theory heads will note that this is basically Vincent’s thing about the flow of what we imagine to the things at the table as applied to reward systems. Notice in both types that they connect both the fiction and the cues – the stuff we imagine AND the things at the table. The big difference in the two, is at what point reward mechanics kick in.

Judgment based rewards go direct from fiction to cues- once someone fulfills the reward conditions as judged by the appropriate player, the resource/reward is granted. One feature of this is that players become more attuned to each other’s inputs.

Cue based rewards catch the reward on the way -back- from cues to fiction. You were already involved with cues, whether for a conflict resolution or adding Gold Pieces on the character sheet or whatever, and now you’re getting a reward at the end of the process. One feature of this is that players are encouraged to engage mechanics more often, usually by initiating certain events in the fiction.

Obviously, you can have a game with both types of systems in action, though which one dominates, or what avenues for reward you create by doing so, can get pretty intricate.

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