Consequence and Reward in RPGs
  • Consequence and Reward in RPGs


    Photo by Nick Youngson

    I like to compare trends in the game industry as a whole with individual segments, such as RPGs. Often what’s happening “out there” will turn up in the individual segments, if it hasn’t already.



    The most striking trends in hobby games is the movement from games of consequence to games of reward. Players in hobby games in the past have been expected to earn what they received, but more and more in hobby games we’re seeing games that reward players for participation. This is a general trend in our society, where schoolkids expect rewards for participation rather than for achieving excellence, and in fact excellence is sometimes not allowed!

    Reward-based games have always been with us via party games, and to a lesser extent family games. Virtually no one cares who wins a party game, and all of these games tend to be very simple and fully accessible to non-gamers. Mass-market games are much more reward-based then consequence-based. Hobby gamers might call them “not serious”.

    A reward-based game is more like a playground than an organized competition, and the opposition in reward-based games tends to be weak/inconsequential/nonexistent.

    Home video “save games” have always tended to make video games a “you can’t lose” proposition. We’re moving beyond that.

    With free-to-play video games dominating the mobile market and a strong influence in other markets, designers reward players so that they’ll play the game long enough to decide to spend money in it. We see players who blame the game if they fail, who expect to be led around by the hand, even in games that people purchase.

    Tabletop RPGs generally involve an unspoken pact between the players and the GM, so that the players can have fun and not have to worry too much about losing. But the game tends to be more enjoyable when there’s a possibility of failure - the triumphs are sweeter. The co-creator of D&D (Gary Gygax) put it this way in one of his last publications (Hall of Many Panes) "...a good campaign must have an element of danger and real risk or else it is meaningless - death walks at the shoulder of all adventurers, and that is the true appeal of the game."

    Classic games involve conflict. Many so-called games nowadays do not involve conflict, and there are role-playing "games" that are storytelling exercises without much opposition.

    Reflections of this trend in RPGs often involve abundant healing and ways to save characters from death, such as the ridiculous Revivify spell, usable by a mere fifth level cleric in D&D Fifth Edition, that brings back the dead on the field of battle.

    35 years ago, a young player GMed his first game for our shared-characters campaign. He really wanted to ensure the players had a good time - so he gave out lots of magic items. We wanted players to earn what they received, so myself and the other lead GM waved our hands after the adventure and most of those items disappeared.

    I’m a senior citizen, in my roots a wargamer, and I prefer games of consequence. But that's not where the world is headed.

    contributed by Lewis Pulsipher
    Comments 292 Comments
    1. Lwaxy -
      Rewards come from avoiding bad consequences and are thus a consequence of some situations. No risk no fun.
    1. Ratskinner's Avatar
      Ratskinner -
      I think it just depends on how or what from which people derive rewards. With respect to games, people often derive their sense of reward from overcoming opposition (achievement) or beating perceived odds (gambling).

      However, recent games from D&D to SimCity have focused in another direction, granting reward from a sense of creative accomplishment. This sense is similar to that derived by artists. Wil Wright once called SimCity a "software toy" rather than a game. I think that is not too far off from how some folks see rpgs and storygames.

      Sent from my LG-TP450 using EN World mobile app
    1. The Dude's Avatar
      The Dude -
      This post doesn't make sense to me. First of all, party games games only "reward" people for showing up in the sense that participants have fun regardless of whether they win or lose, whether they master the games' rules or just enjoy interacting with friends. Secondly, there is a difference between a decreased risk of character death and a complete lack of consequences. PCs can fail to achieve their objectives while not getting permanently dead. While some players may enjoy having their characters die because of random die rolls, others may prefer that the risk of permanent death be more closely connected to their decisions and play style; spells like those complained of above give each gaming group tools to do that, if they want them. Which brings me to the third thing, which is that 5e D&D (like every edition before it) and other game rules are mere suggestions. Allow or disallow whatever is necessary to meet your groups' game needs. Don't hate on an entire generation of gamers just because the rules have options (like Revivify) for those game groups that want less random and arbitrary character death. And finally, this whole post reads like an old person complaining about how the current generation doesn't do things like the old person did when he or she was young. Yes, that's true; the world changes, but different doesn't mean bad. Let people enjoy what they like without writing posts complaining about how they are all wrong.
    1. geomarshal's Avatar
      geomarshal -
      I am also an old school gamer and not a fan of participation trophies, but I couldn't disagree with this more. The general purpose of a game is to have fun. Just like there are sports with die hard players and sports that are just friends having fun, games are the same way. Just because someone has no appreciable talents or inclinations to be a top athlete doesn't mean that they shouldn't be able to enjoy playing sports with friends. I may like video games and campaigns where you have to think and struggle to succeed but some times I just want to relax and have fun. To some people that is the whole point of games and all they really want. To you, the point of rpgs is to challenge yourself but to me the point is to tell a good story. TPKing my entire party due to bad die rolls has never helped me tell a good story and most often led to the end of a good campaign because there was no longer any continuity for any of the party members. People should play the game that they want to play. 5th edition offers options in the DMG to make the game harder and more gritty and ways to make it easier. DMs should tailor their campaigns to fit their and their players' play styles and not care what everyone else thinks is the "right" way to play.
    1. billd91's Avatar
      billd91 -
      I have no idea what the hell this article is saying. It would help if the author actually identified games he's referring to as "consequence-based" or "reward-based". It's just a lot of vague musing.
    1. Kosh's Avatar
      Kosh -
      I'm disappointed to see this level of content on this site. The other articles are informative, well-written, and thought-out. I read this twice, and I do not see the point or the issue. Please reconsider publishing this sort of voice.
    1. Sunseeker's Avatar
      Sunseeker -
      *facepalm* Oh boy, it's one of those articles by some older person complaining about how us young people are doing it wrong. All you left out was "millennials", "SJW"s and a complaint about common core.

      This isn't news. It isn't informative. It's barely blogworthy. I can grab any person over 50 off the street and hear this same complaint, just replace gaming with "sports", "work ethic" or some other garbage about how back in their time life was hard and we are all spoiled little wimps. What's worse is that this could have been a totally awesome awesome article about useful ways to ensure players feel the consequences of their actions as meaningful. It could have been a totally awesome article about balancing rewards to the content you're offering or finding ways to reward players for their actions outside of giving them +1 magic swords that are interesting and meaningful towards their character concepts.

      But no. It's a whine about how us young people are ruining the world. It's an old man on his porch shaking his fist at some youngsters walking in front of his house.

      Learn to screen your content better ENWorld.
    1. Lord Mhoram's Avatar
      Lord Mhoram -
      Games mean different things to different people. There is a word for that. Playstyle. The playstyle you like if fading from most modern games. Grab an old game and other people that share your preferences and enjoy it Phrases dripping with disdain like " such as the ridiculous Revivify spell," makes it sounds like you don't really care about games themselves, or the varied styles enjoyed by many, just the style you like.

      Me, I love really detailed numbers heavy games (HERO is still my favorite). Can't really buy games like that these days. I don't whine about the games coming out now - I just enjoy the way I play, in games that support it, with friends who also do.
    1. RevTurkey's Avatar
      RevTurkey -
      Okay so...this is an opinion piece. It's pretty obvious that it is and it doesn't try to be much else. Just like you can take or leave the rules in D&D one can take or leave this article and it's implied suggestion that the old way of playing was better. A few of the comments mention that they wouldn't want TPK due to bad dice rolling...well, that isn't what the author said. In the earlier days of D&D I remember a greater emphasis being placed on puzzles and figuring things out like traps and such. Much less the idea of a joint storytelling game and more a sense of a player orientated challenge game. Not to say that random rolls couldn't result in tragedy but then without the randomness one could argue that the whole thing becomes too predictable. I too have felt this shift in RPG gaming and I can see why the OSR movement has been so popular with many people (myself included). OSR doesn't mean hack and slash...to me, quite the opposite. I agree with this authour that many modern players have become too reliant on reward and expectant of it. I think many modern games are too easy on players and that they spoon feed them happy, cuddly experiences...to me this encourages hack and slash boring play. If I think back on my times roleplaying I always remember the moments of high risk and triumph the best. That said, I enjoy old and new games. It's easy to be dazzled by the nostalgia of the early editions without seeing the mechanical improvements of more modern systems. I think to a degree it is a matter of balance, style and implementation rather than the actual game system. I recently played through a campaign of Shadow of the Demon Lord. Boy, was that brutal. Too much so for my tastes. Running the published adventures, characters dropped like flies. This is a very modern game system trying (for my eyes) to replicate the old school sense of danger and challenge (like it's videogame cousin Dark Souls did). It's a great and interesting game but I think the published adventures focussed on challenge through combat danger too much. It didn't feel fair. That said, some of the character loses were due to player error and it was interesting to see them blame the game system and published adventures instead of themselves. This is the key thing for me. Players and people in society seem less able to accept or handle the responsibility of their own actions and the consequences of such. This encourages games that by default try not to upset them by scolding them for poor decision making...rather offering a slight nudge or tap on the wrist for their stupidity or naive actions. I'm waffling away now so I'll stop...My preference lies somewhere between the two styles but I see the author's point and would rather play an old school game with high risk and consequence than a game made too easy and predictable by being overly rewarding...etc etc...
    1. Kramodlog's Avatar
      Kramodlog -
      Quote Originally Posted by Christopher Helton View Post
      This is a general trend in our society, where schoolkids expect rewards for participation rather than for achieving excellence, and in fact excellence is sometimes not allowed!
      Leave the editorials out of game articles next time. People do not need more sources of reactionary thoughts.
    1. Lanefan -
      Quote Originally Posted by billd91 View Post
      I have no idea what the hell this article is saying.
      If I read it right, it's saying in brief that games in general and RPGs in particular are steadily becoming easier on their players as time goes on, in that fewer bad things (he calls these consequences) happen and more good things (rewards) happen either during or as a result of play. And it's correct in saying so.
      Quote Originally Posted by Kosh View Post
      I'm disappointed to see this level of content on this site. The other articles are informative, well-written, and thought-out. I read this twice, and I do not see the point or the issue. Please reconsider publishing this sort of voice.
      Why? There is a point, and there is (for some) an issue.

      Personally, I'm glad this article was posted; and at least from the RPG side I happen to completely agree with it.

      Let's look at the trends in negative events (consequences) over the years and editions without reference to specific DMs or houserules, just the RAW:

      Character death and revival:
      - it's harder to die in 4e-5e (though if you do die chances are the whole party's going down with you, as so much in-combat healing allows a group to spread the pain evenly)
      - it's become easier to come back from death (lower-level revival spells in 5e, much lower monetary cost in 4e-5e, chance of revival failure gone since 3e)
      - death has no lasting consequences (permanent loss of Con point gone since 3e, negative level gone since 4e)

      Other bad things that might happen:
      - level loss became negative level in 3e (easier to recover from) and went away entirely in 4e-5e
      - save-or-die / save-or-removed-of-combat spells and effects have become less common, also their durations have become steadily shorter over the editions
      - magic items and possessions have become more and more durable (i.e. are forced to save less often vs. destruction) with each passing edition

      The evidence is clear: negative events that may occur during the run of play* have steadily and dramatically decreased over time both in frequency and effect. For some this might make the game more enjoyable. For others, like me, it actually makes the game worse; as getting the reward without taking the risk just somehow doesn't feel as much like getting a reward. Hard to articulate; thus I just hope you can see what I'm getting at.

      * - there's a whole other aspect to this regarding character creation and how the race-class-build options available have steadily opened up over the editions and thus become "easier"; here I'm just looking at run-of-play stuff once the characters hit tie field.

      Looking at rewards gives a less clear picture, as while it's very debateable whether the rewards have increased there's no doubt they have greatly changed as the editions have come and gone.

      Early editions saw treasure - be it gold, magic items, whatever - as their primary reward. Level advancement, however, wasn't really seen as much of a reward - it just happened, now and then. Another reward, of a sort, was the followers-stronghold goal one could achieve at or after name level. And 2e - and only 2e - also seemed to see the story itself as a reward, in an odd sort of way.

      3e kind of tried to have both frequent level-ups and treasure as primary rewards - of all the editions it probably goes furthest toward a high-risk high-reward model. But the stronghold business went away, never to return.

      4e-5e have really gone for level-ups as the primary reward while sharply cutting back on treasure of all kinds. In 5e, for example, by RAW you can't even sell your magic items (such as you might ever get) for cash.

      Whether this shift in basic reward from treasure to level-ups is a feature or a bug is something we could argue about till the cows come home. But that the shift has happened is undeniable.

      Lan-"this may or may not have been more well-written than the original article, but it was thought out and I hope it's informative"-efan
    1. JeffB's Avatar
      JeffB -
      Based on many of the comments, I would say this article hit the nail on the head.
    1. SMHWorlds's Avatar
      SMHWorlds -
      I don't agree with the article at all, but what is most telling is the (again) bias towards a D&D paradigm. Of course let me defend myself first, by saying I love D&D and have loved all editions but 4th, which I still managed to play. Liked Pathfinder in its vanilla state. So I am not a hater, but you cannot have a logical and critical discussion of gaming, even old school gaming, where you only talk about D&D or D&D style games. You need to put them all on the table or at least the ones you have played and then take a critical look at how they exist and evolve. Gaming is changing and tabletop games do indeed have an element of risk. What they are getting better at however, is making it possible for everyone to have a better footing and role when they play, to give everyone agency as opposed to just a few. It also brings a different skill set to the table, as some people grok and understand the improv nature of role playing better than others. Since it is a role playing game, that is at least as important a skill as understanding how the dice work.

      What this and most articles like it ignore of course is the fact the consequences are almost entirely in the hands of the GM and to a lesser extent the players. All the rules do is offer tools that turn the desire for consequence into mechanical means by which we can adjudicate them.
    1. SMHWorlds's Avatar
      SMHWorlds -
      Also, as an aside I am not sure what parties the author goes to, but my friends absolutely do care who wins party games.
    1. amerigoV's Avatar
      amerigoV -
      What do I get for reading that article?
    1. Ratskinner's Avatar
      Ratskinner -
      Quote Originally Posted by SMHWorlds View Post
      Also, as an aside I am not sure what parties the author goes to, but my friends absolutely do care who wins party games.
      You wouldn't expect Apples to Apples to come to blows, but family reunions...

      Sent from my LG-TP450 using EN World mobile app
    1. billd91's Avatar
      billd91 -
      Quote Originally Posted by Lanefan View Post
      If I read it right, it's saying in brief that games in general and RPGs in particular are steadily becoming easier on their players as time goes on, in that fewer bad things (he calls these consequences) happen and more good things (rewards) happen either during or as a result of play. And it's correct in saying so.
      All you're really pointing out is that the severity of the consequence isn't as extreme. If a level loss is changed to a negative level or replaced by necrotic damage, those are still consequences - they're just less severe. And that, as far as I'm concerned, tends to make this sound like he's just an old geezer complaining about the kids playing on his lawn because they aren't "suffering" as much as he had to back in his day.
    1. Derren's Avatar
      Derren -
      Quote Originally Posted by JeffB View Post
      Based on many of the comments, I would say this article hit the nail on the head.
      Pretty much.

      Two things where this trend is in my opinion very noticeable is the change in D&D that races do not have ability penalties any more, only bonuses and the increasing popularity of "failing forward". Especially the latter one is the epitome of participation rewards as even when you "fail" you get rewarded, just less so than otherwise. One can even argue that it is impossible to fail that way.
      Also if there were any consequences for failing they were reduced to a minimum. Lets look at the ultimate consequence in D&D, the character dieing. Not only does it with the progression of edition harder and harder to die, resurrecting a character became more easy with every edition with no permanent or even long term penalties like it used to be. And of course many DMs do not kill characters anyway and rather construct a reason, no matter if it makes sense or not, why PCs do not die and are instead just captured or make a miracle escape.
    1. Lord Mhoram's Avatar
      Lord Mhoram -
      Quote Originally Posted by Derren View Post
      Lets look at the ultimate consequence in D&D, the character dieing. Not only does it with the progression of edition harder and harder to die, resurrecting a character became more easy with every edition with no permanent or even long term penalties like it used to be. And of course many DMs do not kill characters anyway and rather construct a reason, no matter if it makes sense or not, why PCs do not die and are instead just captured or make a miracle escape.
      Again, it comes to playstyle and what you are after.
      If you want to play Fantasy Vietnam, then death is easy, and permanent. If you want to play a game that feels like old serials, when you get a cliffhanger where the hero dies, but come back the next episode to see how he escapes, then death is hard, and ways to come back easy and plentiful. Neither one is superior to the others, it what the group wants to play at the time.

      Not unlike movies - there is dark horror, feel good sports movies, gut wrenching drama, popcorn flicks. Each appeal to different people at different times. The specific kind of movie it is (as opposed to skill of writers, actors etc) doesn't make it better or worse, it's just a different experience. No reason games can't appeal to different people in different ways.
    1. TwoSix -
      Quote Originally Posted by Christopher Helton View Post
      This is a general trend in our society, where schoolkids expect rewards for participation rather than for achieving excellence, and in fact excellence is sometimes not allowed!
      I'm always amused by boomers raising the specter of the "participation trophy" generation, as if it wasn't their collective parenting that would be responsible for that exact change in society at large.
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