Consequence and Reward in RPGs


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
 

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Shayuri

First Post
Reading the thread, and using it as a frame to think about my own history gaming (not as long as some of y'all, but not exactly short either), I kind of get the sense that RPGs are working as intended. That is, we have a lot of different experiences because we've been playing different games. I don't think that the experience of consequence or reward is something that arises from a specific system. Not really.

It comes from your GM, and from the pressure of the group's consensus...expressed or silent. I've played a lot of different systems. A lot. But I've only had maybe five or six groups that I regularly play with, and many of them have been very stable over time. What I've observed is that we find a pattern of plot-vs-random, reward-vs-consequence that suits us rather early on...and then just stick with that. I haven't seen 3e to be any more or less forgiving than 4e, or 5e or World of Darkness, or GURPS, or Mutants & Masterminds, or BESM or...etc etc etc. Because it's all just us. We're doing it, not the rules.

I'm reluctant to wade into the whole 'which is better' subdiscussion, because this fits solidly into my idea of a 'hey, you do you' topic. There's nothing innately better about people struggling to survive against a merciless demon-GM and the vicissitudes of cruel dice as compared to people working together to craft a deep and involving story with richly detailed and developed characters who are offered a degree of protection from deletion from the story by plot armor. It's okay to say, 'this story is too good the way it's going to let a bad roll just steal it away from us.' It's also okay to say, 'victory means nothing without blood and sweat and the gnashing of teeth.'

Every game I've ever played finds a balance between those extremes, and I suspect the same is true for other gamers. Where that course is plotted defines our different groups and our different games, and that's a really good thing. Not a thing we should be arguing about, or belittling one another for. It's what makes Story Hours awesome to read...here are games that are totally different than the games I've played. I may never play a game like that, and honestly...I might not even LIKE a game like that. But it's a blast to read about. Or talk about.

I will say though that if there's a sense that RPGs are moving 'towards' games of reward and 'away' from games of consequence, that sense may arise from the quintessential bugaboo of human perception. All perception is relative.

RPGs developed from wargames. In a wargame, there's rarely a 'story' and the 'characters' are just pieces on a board. They may only have a few stats, and are likely to be functionally identical to any other 'character' of the same type. The players are eyes in the sky, and the emotional commitment is generally to the game as a whole...not to Pawn 18, who's untimely demise was a momentary annoyance in your grand strategy.

RPGs moved the focus. Players went from commanding armies or units to commanding one person. But there was still a sense of remove, I think. The scenarios tended to be 'characters appear at a dungeon from *a town* and go room to room fighting things.' In short, they were still wargames in many cases, just games of tactics rather than of strategy.

The movement away from pure tactical 'encounter sims' towards a more narrative, story-based game IS ongoing, in the same sense that the universe continues to expand in the aftermath of the Big Bang. Those of us who played 1st Edition D&D can see that change. Go back farther though, and find a Warhammer player scoffing at you because you 'need loot to play.'

The good news is that each iteration of gaming doesn't replace the old. We can each have the game we want. That can't be a bad thing, right? :)

So! Good discussion, everyone. Trophies all around? (^_^)
 

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pemerton

Legend
Example 2: Same two characters, A and B. This time, identical elves. Same stats, same everything. Both proceed in a dungeon and do exactly the same things. However, in Character B's case, his elven find secret doors 1/6 (for passing by), discovers a secret door leading to a significant treasure trove while the DM in Character A's case rolled a 2 instead of a 1 for the automatic check and thus the treasure was missed. So, Character B's group gains a significant reward - treasure, XP, possibly magic items - where the player of Character B did absolutely nothing to earn it. Blind, random chance. Drop your quarter, pull the level, get your prize.
I don't think I agree with this one. If you don't notice it via elf-iness then you spend a charge from your wand of secret door detection, or your wand of metal and mineral detection, or use a detect magic ability of some sort. The default "classic" D&D game assumes a very high degree of commitment to, and actual playing out of, exploratory activity. Hence the fact that around one-quarter of magic swords (some of the most common magic items) have some sort of detection ability which is only useful in dungeon-scale exploratory RPGing.

A player who relies just on elf-iness is making a choice, and is gaining a benefit or suffering a (hypothetical) loss on a basis in which that choice plays a significant role.

What I really feel your example does is (i) drive home how little most contemporary RPG play reflects those classic defaults, and (ii) how early in the game's history a significant quantity of players were playing the game in a way which didn't prioritise those defaults. I mean, a really obvious thing is to swap out the inane detection abilities of intelligent swords in favour of something that resonates at least a little bit thematically (eg thinking of swords like Stormbringer, Narsil/Anduril, Excalibur, etc). But once you do that - eg the sword, instead of detecting gems in a 60' R gives a bonus to reaction rolls with NPCs who honour its lineage - then the ability of a player to mitigate his/her sole reliance on elf-iness is lost.

The same thing will happen if a GM thinks "It would make more sense for these goblins to have a wand of fear rather than a wand of detecting random treasure stuff at short distances."

So as soon as people start to take the theme/story elements of the game seriously - which is such an obvious thing to do in this sort of game, and something Gygax himself advocates for in his DMG (p ), then the foundations for classical play as a game of "skill" rather than luck start to erode dramatically.

And to add some more controversy to the above analysis: on the whole the replacement takes the form of "setting/story tourism" of the sort that Lewis Pulsipher was well aware of back in the day, and advocated strongly against.
 

pemerton

Legend
RPGs developed from wargames. In a wargame, there's rarely a 'story' and the 'characters' are just pieces on a board. They may only have a few stats, and are likely to be functionally identical to any other 'character' of the same type. The players are eyes in the sky, and the emotional commitment is generally to the game as a whole...not to Pawn 18, who's untimely demise was a momentary annoyance in your grand strategy.

RPGs moved the focus. Players went from commanding armies or units to commanding one person. But there was still a sense of remove, I think. The scenarios tended to be 'characters appear at a dungeon from *a town* and go room to room fighting things.' In short, they were still wargames in many cases, just games of tactics rather than of strategy.

The movement away from pure tactical 'encounter sims' towards a more narrative, story-based game IS ongoing
I read this as quite consistent with my reply to [MENTION=22779]Hussar[/MENTION] just upthread. It's inherent in the RPG genre that players should develop emotional, author/audience-like attachments to their PCs, and this - I think pretty naturally - changes what they value in play, and hence how their RPGing works.

(My own view it that the difference between classic D&D as an RPG and wargaming is (i) the player takes on an individual role rather than the "eye in the sky" perspective you describe, and (ii) fictional positioning matters to resolution. The latter is what caused endless, often misconceived, debates about whether or not 4e is "really" an RPG, because the way 4e incorporates fictional positioning into resolution is often quite different from a "trad" RPG.)

It comes from your GM, and from the pressure of the group's consensus...expressed or silent. I've played a lot of different systems. A lot. But I've only had maybe five or six groups that I regularly play with, and many of them have been very stable over time. What I've observed is that we find a pattern of plot-vs-random, reward-vs-consequence that suits us rather early on...and then just stick with that. I haven't seen 3e to be any more or less forgiving than 4e, or 5e or World of Darkness, or GURPS, or Mutants & Masterminds, or BESM or...etc etc etc. Because it's all just us. We're doing it, not the rules.

<sip>

It's okay to say, 'this story is too good the way it's going to let a bad roll just steal it away from us.' It's also okay to say, 'victory means nothing without blood and sweat and the gnashing of teeth.'
I tend to disagree with this bit, though.

In particular, I think your example of ignoring a "bad roll" shows how significant system is to the sorts of RPGing outcomes we're talking about in this thread.

For instance, if the only way to stop the "story that is too good" from being "stolen away" is to ignore the dice roll, there are (as far as I'm aware) two main approaches.

(1) The GM does it secretly ("fudging"), which has been widely advocated in RPG rulebooks especially since the late 80s/early 90s. This means that now the players are no longer aware of or in control of the resolution processes. I think this pushes the game very strongly in the direction of "setting/story tourism".

(2) The table as a whole decides to do it. This then requires the players to take an "eye in the sky" perspective on whether or not the story is good, which is at odds with one of the very things that (we agree) makes RPGing distinctive and worthwhile.

Hence, if I want to avoid circumstances in which "bad" rolls have the sort of unhappy upshot you describe, I want that built into the system in some fashion. One example: all the systems I'm GMing at the moment use some version of "say 'yes' or roll the dice", which means that the GM never calls for a roll unless the situation involves something being at stake which matters to the player, as that player has been build and played by its player. In which case a bad roll doesn't spoil the story; rather, the story is one in which, at the moment of crunch for that PC, things went wrong (this happens to Gandalf multiple times in The Fellowship of the Ring, for instance - first with Saruman, then with Butterbur, then with the Balrog).

"Say 'yes' or roll the dice" works well in conjunction with other techniques, too, like "fail forward" - so that allowing failure as a regular part of play doesn't mean the end of the story. But certain resolution systems (especially but not only sim-oriented ones) are very hard to adapt to "fail forward" adjudication.

So my own view is that, in fact, system matters a lot. (But I also agree with [MENTION=6688937]Ratskinner[/MENTION] that many systems are actually not very different in the relevant respects from D&D. Eg changing the resolution mechanic in D&D from d20 to 2d10 or 3d6, or changing the spread of PC ability scores and the way they're calculated - all of which many people would regard as important system changes - probably won't change anything relevant to whether or not D&D supports alternatives for avoiding bad dice rolls other than my (1) and (2) above.)
 

AriochQ

Adventurer
(1) The GM does it secretly ("fudging"), which has been widely advocated in RPG rulebooks especially since the late 80s/early 90s. This means that now the players are no longer aware of or in control of the resolution processes. I think this pushes the game very strongly in the direction of "setting/story tourism".

(2) The table as a whole decides to do it. This then requires the players to take an "eye in the sky" perspective on whether or not the story is good, which is at odds with one of the very things that (we agree) makes RPGing distinctive and worthwhile.

I tend to do both. I say 'yes' and also roll in the open and let the dice fall where they may. Any story I have in mind should be affected by both player actions and randomness, otherwise I would just write a book. I view campaign as 'cooperative story telling' and the twists are what makes it interesting. Otherwise, it is just railroading.

My early (1978-1985) campaigns were nowhere near as evolved. They were basically 'break down the door, kill the monster, take the treasure'. I view the change as both an evolution of my DM'ing style and abilities and the evolution of RPG's in general. Both are steps forward IMHO. I do not pine for the old days. The rules were quirky, unbalanced, and inconsistent.

All that being said, if someone still enjoys the 'break/kill/take' adventure, more power to them. It is just not enjoyable for me to run that type of adventure any longer.
 
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Hussar

Legend
I don't really disagree with you Pem but I'd point out that "switching out" magic items wasn't that easy since you were entirely dependent upon the DM providing them. And, again that was mostly random chance. You had to find an item that did that and you certainly weren't able to decide that on your own.

Again the reward is mostly randomly determined. There's no awarding for play involved. Yay you pulled the lever and out popped a magic item.

Which is the point I'm trying to drive home here. Random chance is not award driven play. And random chance describes an awful lot of game design prior to the 90's.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
Considering there were plenty of remedies in earlier editions, this argument is really just a matter of degree. Death and damage were entirely undoable in 1e - just a bit more expensive as far as resources and/or time went. So that makes the game mostly a question of pacing. So again the article mainly comes down to a matter of things not being done as the cantankerous old geezer remembers them being done. And why should I care about that?

A lot of it was not completely undoable as a matter of course. Energy drain had a very limited amount of time until the level loss was permanent, and even if you did get the level restored you still weren't back to where you started. Not unless you very, very coincidentally got level drained at exactly the amount of XP you needed to place you at the beginning of the level. Otherwise you forever lost the experience you had already earned towards the next level. Death was a large risk. You had to make the survival check. Failing meant you were dead forever. Even if you succeeded, you checked off one of your raises. Get raised a number of times equal to your Con and you were done. No more raises, and that's if you weren't an elf. If you were an elf you got raised 0 times if you died. Poof! Done for.

The remedies you mention started in 3e, where death and energy drains became a joke.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
Funny thing is, Raise Dead in the 1e DMG is EXACTLY the same price as it is in 3e - 5000 gp.

Note that clerics didn't have to tithe, although paladins were giving up 10%.

That 10% for Paladins was only the immediate tithe. You are conveniently overlooking this.

"They will never retain wealth, keeping only sufficient treasures to support themselves in a modest manner, pay henchmen, men-at-arms, and servitors, and to construct or maintain a small castle. (Your DM will give details of this as necessary.) Excess is given away, as is the tithe (see 3. below)."
 

Shayuri

First Post
System is important in terms of what 'tools' it gives the game, I'd say.

Earlier versions of D&D had many ways to inflict 'consequences' on player characters. Later versions had fewer. Whether or not to USE those tools was always up to the GM...and the GM's decision would be influenced by the players wishes.

That's all I meant. You're right in saying I pooh-poohed system a bit hard, then heel-turned and said the systems had been changing. It's a sort of complex organic process, I think...where new systems of game evolve to meet a simultaneously evolving need among gaming groups. The interdependency between what systems a game provides players with, and the kind of games people play with systems is not so easily quantified perhaps.

I mostly remember in my games of 3e...which still had a fair number of 'fail one save and yer out' mechanics intact...we fairly quickly reached a sort of detente in my groups where the players elected not to use stupid-broken mechanics to make characters and the GM elected not to 'overuse' hyperlethal scenarios outside of situations where they felt dramatically appropriate. It wasn't really -discussed- or anything. We just found our respective tolerances through a few tense moments and went along with that.

So even though 3e, as a system, could be played as fairly lethal (albeit perhaps not to the extent 1st and 2nd editions could be), we didn't play it that way. The tools provided to make it that way were voluntarily eschewed...always with the 'unless dramatically appropriate' caveat. What constitutes dramatically appropriate is one of the many places each group varies on.
 

Hussar

Legend
A lot of it was not completely undoable as a matter of course. Energy drain had a very limited amount of time until the level loss was permanent, and even if you did get the level restored you still weren't back to where you started. Not unless you very, very coincidentally got level drained at exactly the amount of XP you needed to place you at the beginning of the level. Otherwise you forever lost the experience you had already earned towards the next level. Death was a large risk. You had to make the survival check. Failing meant you were dead forever. Even if you succeeded, you checked off one of your raises. Get raised a number of times equal to your Con and you were done. No more raises, and that's if you weren't an elf. If you were an elf you got raised 0 times if you died. Poof! Done for.

The remedies you mention started in 3e, where death and energy drains became a joke.

As [MENTION=29398]Lanefan[/MENTION] mentions, XP isn't exactly the issue, it's the level. But, yeah, totally agree, 1e and 2e level drain were brutal. OTOH, System Survival rolls weren't exactly hard to make. Even a 9 Con gave you a 70% survival chance, so, it wasn't exactly a hard check.

But, that is precisely my point. That's just random chance, not difficulty. The player has no control here. No decisions to make. Why did you get to bring your character back? You got a lucky die roll. That's not "earning" anything. It's simply arbitrary roadblocks that have no actual impact on how you play your character. Since there's nothing I can do to change my chances of coming back, if my character dies and is raised, that's entirely random chance. Where's the "earning" that is being characterized of earlier game play?
 

Hussar

Legend
That 10% for Paladins was only the immediate tithe. You are conveniently overlooking this.

"They will never retain wealth, keeping only sufficient treasures to support themselves in a modest manner, pay henchmen, men-at-arms, and servitors, and to construct or maintain a small castle. (Your DM will give details of this as necessary.) Excess is given away, as is the tithe (see 3. below)."


Yeah, being limited to 10 magic items was such a strict limitation. :uhoh: And, exactly how much does it cost to construct a small castle? More than 5000 gp I'm thinking.
 

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