Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Just Rewards

In the comments of my post on what I called 'Plot Avoidance', JB of B/X Blackrazor and I got into a discussion about 'Game Rewards', more specifically 'Whether or not Mechanical Game Rewards [such as Experience Points, Stat and Skill Increases, in-game Wealth and Improvements in Gear] were the motivation for playing.' 

The question and conversation so intrigued me that I asked the question of the members of three different Facebook groups dedicated to RPGs; two of which were general and one consisted of only personal friends and those I actually game with. 

Do you - do most gamers for that matter - play in order to gain to XP and treasure and see your characters improve? Is this why you play RPGs? Is that the reason you play or the goal in doing so?

Before revealing what my research discovered, here's my personal take...

For me, XP rewards and other forms of mechanical improvement are simply not that important to my enjoyment of a game. They're not unimportant or uninteresting, I mean, sure I like to see my characters' abilities improve and it's fun to gain new talents over time, but it isn't my motivation for playing. 

I would best describe it as a fringe benefit. It's akin to a tip or a bonus. I don't expect it these days but I'm pleased when it happens.

This wasn't always my viewpoint, though I don't think I ever played BECAUSE of mechanical rewards.* It was certainly never the primary motivator.

I play to explore an idea, create a personality, and to follow my character's story. I want to see development, but development of the PC's personality, relationships, knowledge, and the fulfillment of their desires and goals. I am motivated to play because I love doing these things. I love seeing my PC and their tale form and evolve. Whether or not my Piloting Skill goes from 3 to 4 is a minor concern at best. 

The same is true for many of my players over the years, if not all.

Now to be fair, I have mainly been a Gamemaster over the past 42 years of my time in the hobby so I'm sure I come at it from a different perspective then someone in it mostly as a player. In addition, I long ago turned away from reward focused games like Dungeons and Dragons and other titles that are focused on that sort of thinking. 

For the majority of my gaming experiences I've run and played games with minimal or extremely slow [if any] progression such as Star Trek, Star Wars, classic Traveller, Superhero games**, Ghostbusters, Teenagers from Outer Space, Mekton, and others where the heroes are not known for obvious increases in their perspective stats, station, or abilities. 

To make it clear, I am not saying that there is necessarily no progression at all but it may come slowly, may involve in game story improvements over mechanical ones, or manifest in very small increments. 

Now...that's me.

As mentioned above, I asked the question of a large number of gamers across many different age groups, backgrounds, and interests and the results were quite interesting if not completely unexpected. 

The larger percentage of responders, probably 60% more or less, are very much motivated by the idea of mechanical, rules related rewards for their characters, as well as in-game wealth, magic items (or superior gear), and other treasures. It is, essentially, why they play or at the very least, what they are playing for. Not surprisingly, most of these individuals are Old School gamers, people who have been playing over 20-30 years. Likewise, the majority of them mentioned D&D, Pathfinder, or some other game with the traditional format of raising levels, finding/stealing gold and enchanted items, and the dynamic of doing so by slaying enemies. 

The remaining 40%, who were not principally motivated by the acquisition of money, power, and increases to their 'to hit' were a interestingly mixed group. While many fell in with my own views on the subject, some who advocated it as a genre conceit were largely of the Horror RPG persuasion. That is to say, a good number of those motivated to play in order to explore character, great stories, world build, solve mysteries, and the like were people who played Call of Cthulhu, the new Alien RPG, and other games where at best you hope to survive to make a rude gesture in the direction of death or madness for another day. 

From friends I know personally I've received a number of interesting responses, one of which said that the mechanical rewards were important to him because, in his mind, RPGs are indeed games and games have winners. I don't exactly agree with that myself as earlier posts have made clear, but I understand where he's coming from. To him, as I'm sure it is to many, a game is an endeavor in which you score points and achieve some goal like finishing with the most hotels on the most properties or something. 

Others noted their love of playing particular characters and how the very act of doing that is what brings them back to the table time and again. One of the fellows from my recent and current Red Dwarf / Yellow Sun game noted that his character is the most fun PC he's ever played. Experience points, new abilities, and such haven't even occurred to him. He just wants to play his character and continue having a ball doing it. 

So now I pose the question to you.

Is improving your PC's skills and abilities, finding treasure, and other mechanical or in-game rewards your reason or at least motivation for playing? How important is it to you? If you got one minor raise or a new talent every two dozens sessions, who that be enough? Does it matter?

Tell me what you think.

Barking Alien

*I once argued the Superheroes do indeed increase in ability and that rules for character improvement should be included in Superhero RPG. This was in counterpoint to the Marvel Heroic RPG by Cam Banks, which didn't really include a direct system for improving characters because, as he noted in interviews, it was his feeling that comic book Superheroes don't actually improve in a linear fashion. 

While I think they do, and gave my reasons why in that post, I am not really chomping at the bit to improve my Superhero PCs in general. It's nice to get a bonus every once in a while, but not a major concern. 

**This statement, which I've made before in some form or another has given me an idea for an upcoming series of posts. I want to detail to the best of my knowledge my first Dungeons & Dragons game ever. We're talking 43 years ago this August. It will explain a lot. LOL


  1. I like games where your character starts already "complete", such as Star Trek Adventures or Mutants & Masterminds, as opposed to those where you need to reach level X in order to have magic, dual wield or whatever. I find that need to plan ahead distracting (not because I don't like to do it, but because I do it too much). However, some of my friends have expressed that the lack of advance is a BIG turnoff (in fact, you do advance in those games, but very slowly).

    On the other hand, I like rewards such as fame, titles, castles, alliances and special magic items. Those are in-universe rewards. Gold by itself I find a little boring, since it rarely can afford you the rewards I listed.

  2. For me, the first and foremost reason for playing an any genre of RPG (as opposed to, say, a boardgame) is for my character's story to develop through a series of adventures (and misadventures). If he gains rewards along the way, it is the anecdotes surround those (the how they were achieved) that I like to recall. If it's just about hording gold, to me, you might as well be playing a video game.

    1. This is how I feel as well, explained in simple, direct terms I sometimes find it hard to muster. lol

      Board games, video games, are card games are not really my thing. Yes, I do play them, and yes I usually have fun doing so (to varying degrees) but they rarely hold my interest for long.

      I love RPGs but I am not really a 'gamer' in that I'm not in it for the game part and in fact, the more the game is evident in what I am doing the less into it I often find myself.

      Raising levels, getting new skills, and all of that is great in a video game I suppose but did I personally finish that video game? Maybe. More likely I got bored with it and focused on my next RPG campaign.

  3. @ B.A.:

    Oh, man.

    I can see I was somewhat (completely?) unclear in my prior comments. I don't think anyone (well, few) play games simply for the sake of updating their character sheet. I know I don't!

    What I was trying to communicate is that reward mechanics help direct and encourage player behavior in a way that simple "respect for genre" does not. This was in response to your post that players were not on board with pursuing adventure or mission objectives or whatever and simply content to futz around and "role-play."

    Regardless of which system you use, unless something encourages player behavior, you run the risk of your game becoming "becalmed." Look at a game like Cadillacs and Dinosaurs or, as I like to call it, "The Most Boring RPG Ever Written." An RPG based on Xenozoic Tales should be anything BUT boring, but there is nothing in the game system that drives play. Nothing! There is nothing to unite a GROUP of players in a single objective except (perhaps) the Heavy Hand of a GM-crafted railroad. And even then, nothing is going to force the PCs to care about it...hell, the "story" might be diametrically opposed to how the player views his/her character and just result in frustration for everyone at the table.

    3E D&D games are pretty dumb, but at least players have an objective of play: accumulating power. A 1st level character is okay, but a 10th level character is a consummate badass. Individuals who aspire to be badasses enjoy 3E D&D play, and are willing to run with the reward mechanic (leveling up) to acquire the badassery they want...and since the reward (x.p.) is based on kicking ass (defeating monsters gives you x.p.) which is why you're seeking advancement (to kick more ass), it's a self-perpetuating cycle. That's a powerful incentive, if it's your cup of tea (it isn't mine).

    But let's look at a game that doesn't have an "advancement system" as a reward mechanic...something like Ron Edwards' game Sorcerer. Your character has a (player chosen) "kicker" that drives your character to action, something you (the player) MUST RESOLVE. The GM's job is to make that an interesting challenge. Everyone who sits down understands what the objective of play is: resolve your personal kicker (if you're a player) or drive meaningful player choice with "bangs" (if you're the GM). Your REWARD for play is that you create a story of a particular genre addressing a specific premise chosen by the group...hopefully one that is interesting and meaningful. Don't play towards that objective and guess what? No reward, i.e. no meaningful story, just a bunch of piddling around. However, Sorcerer has mechanics in place that aim the players (and the GM) at the objective so that they can claim that reward.

  4. In your post lamenting your players' action (or, rather, inaction) you wrote:

    "My players are motivated by a desire to play a particular character in a certain kind of game. We have stories to tell and want to explore the telling of them. Getting to do so is the motivation AND the reward."

    Feeling good about playing to genre is not what I mean by "reward." It can be a motivation, but (as I wrote) not a consistent one, unless it's built into the game system. "We have stories to tell" only works if folks are in the mood to tell those particular stories that day...and it sounded (from your post) that your players just weren't "feeling it."

    There are some systems that enforce the kind of play you seem to be seeking. Look at The Riddle of Steel: players create characters with spiritual attributes describing the character they are that reinforce their play when they "explore" the kind of stories (they said) they want to explore (by making in-game decisions based on those attributes). Systems that only provide mechanics (e.g. GURPS) with no other incentive end up relying on a player "feeling up to it" at any particular moment. And without reinforcement from the system, that's a tall order.

    *sigh* But now I'm just repeating what I wrote earlier (except, maybe in a different way).

    Let me just answer your last paragraph's question(s):

    Being rewarded by imaginary stuff (level ups, skill increases, fancy titles and imaginary land grants, showers of gold, super-cool equipment...whatever) DOES NOT motivate *me* to play. The Game Being Played is what motivates me to play...I don't play games I don't want to.

    System-driven rewards drive my IN-GAME ACTION. If I have a better chance of winning a board game by taking a riskier strategy...and winning is the objective of play...then I'll play riskier. In a role-playing game, different genres/settings have different objectives. Gamma World shares similarities with D&D (explore ancient ruins looking for riches to obtain status/prestige and power) but are quite different in game mechanics (GW2E doesn’t increases character effectiveness, for example, whereas every edition of D&D does). Call of Cthulhu has an objective of play (investigation) similar to some James Bond scenarios...but the mechanics and expected outcome (death/insanity versus nigh-invulnerability) are vastly different. The point is, the games still have OBJECTIVES that focus and reward "playing properly."

  5. I think I understand where you are coming from a little better JB but I still don't 'get it' in my heart. I've not considering the reward mechanics for many of the games I've played over the past several years, largely because I haven't had to.

    Case in point, I've been running and playing a lot of Star Trek Adventures and one of the 'sub-systems' of that game is called Values. Values are statements that define the character, chosen by the player during various points of character creation. They provide a sense of who the PC is as a person, giving a sort of short hand reminder on how you intend to play them. Mechanically they provide...that use them to gain Determination when you...when certain things?

    Honestly I don't recall. Practically no one I know personally know uses them for anything. You generate Momentum (the 'Hero Point' or 'Plot Point' currency of the game so easily and so often that we've never needed to bother with Values. If I am not mistaken playing to or against (dealing with) your Values gains you bonus Determination which can be used as automatic Successes or broken up into regular Momentum/Plot Points, but again, no one does. That is, no player I have or that I game with points out their Value looking to get points. It doesn't feel right. It over complicates and makes mechanical what should just be you playing your PC. It feels forced and artificial.

    I'm sure many Star Trek Adventures GMs and players use it, whether to make sure their players are 'playing properly' or to say 'See, look! I played my guy the way I said I would. What bonus does that give me?" My players and I haven't felt the need for that or the desire to bother with it. It's more important to me that my fellow players learn what my characters' values are because I show them by the PCs' actions then it is for me to tell them what my Values are or to point out that acting X way should get me a bonus. I just don't find that approach particularly interesting.