Reward Systems

October 18, 2010

Seeing the “I don’t reward roleplaying” thread on rpg.net got me to thinking how much people don’t understand what reward mechanics do.

Action vs. Organized Action

So, kicking a ball can be fun. But the kind of fun you get from playing soccer/football is based on organized kicking of a ball- and the thing that organizes it is “goals”. There’s a value attached to a certain action, and all the tactics and strategies of play come around that one reward system*.

Kicking the ball, or kicking the ball into a goal isn’t fun by itself, the fun comes from the whole game, and the whole game organizes because you have this simple reward system in place.

Now, if you’re playing a roleplaying game, the fun isn’t the reward system, the fun is what you get from the game that organizes itself in light of reward systems.

In old school D&D, the gold isn’t fun, figuring out how to get the gold, which monsters to avoid, which monsters to fight, which to ally with, which to trick, which treasures to take, which to leave behind, when to turn back, when to press forward- that’s the fun that comes out of gold = xp.

In Burning Wheel, the Artha isn’t fun, the drama around pursuing your Beliefs, figuring out how the heck you can live up to them, fighting against them, figuring out they’re completely wrong, trying to deal with your friends and allies who have Beliefs that conflict, deciding when and where to draw lines, deciding to give up one Belief for another, that’s where the fun comes from.

The point of the game vs. optional

Notice, too, that when you have a reward system that organizes the game, those things become “non-optional” to deal with in play. In D&D it’s about character effectiveness in the dungeon crawl, in Burning Wheel it’s about dramatic beliefs.

In D&D you’re probably going to roleplay because all roleplaying games depend on playing with the fiction, but it’s going to be incidental to the character effectiveness. In Burning Wheel you might deal with the issues of gold, or combat, but only as it fits with the situation of Beliefs.

If the game isn’t organized around it, in any fashion, the whole issue is optional. How many D&D characters have names for their parents? Notice how this ends up shaping EVERYTHING, including character creation.

This is often why the easiest and most direct method for game design is to directly reward the thing you want players to do: “I want players to fight to protect their friends, so they get a point everytime they fight to protect someone on their Relationship List”

Indirect, but intersecting

By no means do you need it for these things to happen. In fact, it’s quite possible to make game goals that aren’t quantified systemically at all. BUT for those to work, the actual reward systems need to work in a way that they do inform and affect the player’s choices in face of the actual goals.

For example, Dogs in the Vineyard, the goal is to try to help people and be a decent human being while doing so. The reward systems promote two things: putting up with other people’s drama (getting hurt, insulted, etc.) and pulling out guns when you REALLY want something to happen. Notice that, both of these things impact the idea of both what it means to help people, or be a decent human being. Rather than rewarding either helping people or being a good person, they challenge them and create divergent goals.

“Awesome roleplayers don’t need rewards!”

This is one of those myths that comes out of a poor chain of logic:
1. I play a game where the system gets in the way of roleplaying
2. Therefore ALL systems get in the way of roleplaying
3. Good roleplayers never need a system

Of course, if you shift your view to look at reward systems as organizing factors to play, maybe it’d be a lot easier to find people who play the way you want to play, when the rules of the game explicitly point you towards that kind of play.

It has nothing to do with “skill”. And as much as roleplaying can be artistic, pouring in the ridiculousness that there is some nobility in doing art without regard to something as “petty” as reward is pretty much the height of pretentiousness. The reward organizes play. Nothing more, nothing less.

If you have awesome roleplaying without reward systems- great. But also consider if you’ve had to go through several players who “just didn’t get it”. Maybe they were too focused on what the game did reward. Imagine if there was less confusion and more clarity from the start about what game they were playing and how it was supposed to be played.

*ETA Ron Edwards states the idea of reward as an organizing tool concisely in this post:

…although I may want my character to level up, what makes play fun is whether the mechanics reward cycles are contributing to the relevance of leveling up, and whether play is socially validating my efforts – so play can indeed be fun when my character is totally fucked over by events.

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