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October 20th, 2006

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09:26 pm
A few thoughts on mechanical reward systems. So, Vincent Baker had his post "Reward system", where he suggests "The answer is: the reward system is how play is its own reward. If play is rewarding, there's a reward system, just EXACTLY like how if play happens, there's a system in action." Now, I'm not sure what the point of that is, since it just turns into a general discussion of what one likes about games. But to specify, here I'd like to talk about mechanical reward systems.

On the non-indie side of things, Ryan Dancey, former VP of WotC, has a new blog where he recently commented on Experience Points & Player Rewards (found via theRPGsite thread, "Ryan Dancey comments on D&D"). In brief, he suggests that there should be rewards for using your class features to overcome challenges, rather than rated challenge rewards.

I'm most recently thinking of Don't Rest Your Head, but this is a general issue. I think it helps to consider a few games.

Example: D&D

So, D&D has three main currencies: hit points, gold pieces, and experience points. The first, hit points (and spells) are regained by in-game rest time. In game design terms with dungeons, this is an enormous pitfall, because it encourages players to constantly take time out resting. If they can arrange it, the PCs should camp out for a night after each room they explore in the dungeon. They'll regain hit points, whereas usually the monsters they fought are dead. Gold pieces sort of work as a currency, but it does encourage looting which some see as non-heroic. Lastly, experience points reward the confronting of challenges. In principle these need not be combat challenges, but in practice the listed Challenge Ratings are entirely based on combat ability. So essentially, it doesn't pay to avoid fights.

Example: Champions

In contrast, Champions has STUN points as it's main combat currency, with BODY being secondary -- while positive gains are a single lump of character points. STUN returns almost immediately after combat, though, so it's really a temporary track rather than a long-term issue. BODY damage does stick around and is healed by in-game time. So in principle this is similar to hit points, but within superheroics wounds are less common and less central to combat. A wounded superhero will tend to keep going rather than sit out to heal.

The other currency is character points, which are very loosely awarded at a base of 1 per session of the adventure with bonuses if the situation was difficult (+1) or the PCs outnumbered (+1), and bonuses if the characters "were clever, inventive, subtle, or role-played well" (+1), solved a mystery (+1), or achieved resounding success (+1). The bonuses only apply to the whole adventure, not per session. Thus, it rewards finishing the adventure quickly -- but only if it is done well. This of course leaves open what a distinct "adventure" is (

Flat Mission- or Goal-Based Rewards

These are mechanical awards for succeeding in particular goal or mission, regardless of what it is. Example would include James Bond 007 (which I like) and the Lord of the Ring RPG (which I dislike). The key is that the JB007 assumes that the PCs will be assigned an explicit mission as spies, with little choice. With that as a given, the mission-based awards make sense. JB007 awards 1000 XP per session, with a 1000 XP bonus for completing the mission. So it is a fairly flat reward, with a bonus for completing the mission, so players are encouraged to complete it quickly.

On the other hand, Lord of the Rings RPG assigns XP based on accomplishing each goal. There are no per-session rewards, but rather awards for incremental goals. So compared to JB007, it is more focuses on goals, but the game lacks the structure of PCs being given explicit assignments. So in play, we mocked this as it clearly rewarded us for setting our sights as low as possible.

This is generally the point. On the positive side, having a flat reward for accomplishing a goal encourages the players to accomplish that goal as quickly as possible. On the negative side, if the players have choices over their goal, this encourages them to set their goals as low as possible.

Basic Role-playing

BRP is the system for RuneQuest and Call of Cthulhu, and a similar system is used in HârnMaster and other games. It has hit points which are recovered with in-game time, similar to D&D. Call of Cthulhu also has Sanity Points, which can be recovered at the end of the adventure by defeating foes or by slow, long-term treatment. This is a form of mission goal. Experience, however, depends on the resolution roll. Under certain conditions for a successful roll, the character gets a "check" in that skill -- with a maximum of one check per skill for each adventure. Each check has a chance of increasing that skill. This leads to the well-known syndrome of "check hunting", where players will try to use different skills until they get a check, then switch off to other skills. (This is also known for switching off among a golf bag of weapons.)

This encourages using a broad range of skills, but that reward is regardless of what the skill is used for. Thus, it can lead to searching for excuses to roll on a variety of skills. (This might be reduced if additional checks on a skill had some effect, but is still there in principle.)

Dogs in the Vineyard

Like BRP, the main Dogs reward is based on the resolution roll. For Dogs, you get an experience fallout if you roll a "1" while rolling fallout. An experience fallout lets you get a D10 (by increasing a D10 trait). You can also get D4 rewards by regular long-term fallout, but this is much less valuable. So roughly, the most rewarding action is having a setback while in a social conflict (i.e. you concede a point, though you may still win the conflict as a whole).

That's an interesting action to reward. However, in principle it has a similar issue to check-hunting. The players are rewarded for conceding points in social conflicts regardless of what that conflict is about.

Flat Awards

This is more properly an "escalation mechanic" rather than a "reward mechanic". It means that a mechanical award is incremented regardless of what the player does. A purely flat award is not common in RPGs, but many award systems are primarily flat like James Bond 007. The games Blue Rose and True20 have a mostly flat award, with levels being given "whenever you feel the heroes have reached a point of development in their story". Any connection between player actions and the heroes reaching a point of development seems loose at best.

Approval Awards

These are game mechanical awards which one game participant gives to another for doing things he thinks are cool. (Or, less commonly, penalties.) These include GM awards such as roll bonuses for cool moves (as in Sorcerer and Over the Edge) as well as XP rewards for "good role-playing". A few games also have awards given by players to other players -- notably Fan Mail in Primetime Adventures. I have played using several home-brew voted awards.

Approval awards essentially mean currying favor. In a positive sense, this is contributing to other people's fun. On the negative side -- With a GM, this can be seen as sucking up. With players, this can be seen as popularity awards. In general, this encourages a state where players don't so much enjoy their own play as watching other people's play.

An interesting variant which I haven't seen implemented would be self-awards. Each player announces how much XP they would like and takes it. So this is just another reflection of the social dynamic. If this were from a limited pool (like PtA's Fan Mail), then there would be strong pressure to simply take an even share which amounts to a flat award. I think it would be more interesting to have an unlimited supply, and to try variants of what you say the award is for, thus changing what players feel they should award themselves.


Mechanical reward systems can serve very different functions. I think a simple approach would be to consider play which has only flat awards, and then ask how you would like play to be different than that. For example, if you want to emphasize teamwork, or competition, or showmanship -- then you can try to arrange mechanical awards which highlight these.

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