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.


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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J.L. Duncan

First Post
I remember reading Lewis' articles in White Dwarf ca 1984 and he was pretty obstreperous back then too, so I don't think y'all special snowflake Millennials should get too het up about it, he was slagging off the kind of people who liked gonzo Arduin Grimoire style play long before you were born...

:p
[MENTION=463]S'mon[/MENTION]; I prefer... "before you were an itch in your Daddy's pants."

Just remember kids, I will be passing out participation trophies and the end of this comments section (too combative?) :lol:Seriously though, good article. Unlike some here, I think it is appropriate to evaluate the trend in specific RPG (and see how that has changed) rather then blanket them all together. I'm going on 40-ish and the changing trend of what a RPG does or what is supposed to do can cause a gap based on player generation...

And get off my lawn, while you're at it.
 

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S'mon

Legend
And, I killed far, far more PC's in 3e than in 2e.

Yeah, aside from intra-party killings in 1e, 3e was definitely my most lethal edition. Monsters can kill Fighters so very easily. 4e & 5e row it back, but I get similar death rates in my Classic BECM, 4e & 5e games (I'm running all three currently so easy to compare). BECM it's usually from a failed save, whereas in 4e & 5e it's from massive damage.
 

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.
Is it even a consequence, if there are zero ramifications and nobody cares at all? If you're playing 5E, and you take damage that reduces you down to 1hp, but then you rest and you're good as new, was there any consequence of getting hit? Certainly, from the perspective of the next morning, there is no difference in the current situation based on how well the previous fight went; there's no way to even tell that whether or not you got hit, let alone how hard. If the outcome of an event isn't even observable after the fact, then that's a pretty solid argument for saying that the event has no consequences.

So while it may be a matter of degree, if one of those degrees is zero, then that radically changes the entire experience. If the penalty for committing a foul starts out at 10 minutes in the penalty box, and that penalty is steadily reduced over editions down to 3 minutes and then 1 minute, then you're still going to get a radical divergence in gameplay if you reduce it down to zero.
 
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pemerton

Legend
A lot of discussion of consequences seems to focus on consequences to the PCs, which take place in the fiction. But those consequences are purely imaginary. From the point of view of gameplay, surely the relevant consequences are those that happen in the real world, to the players.

In classic D&D there are more ways for the numbers on a PC sheet to get smaller (level drain, magic items failing saving throws, permanent PC death requiring generation of a new PC, etc). But what is the significance of this for the player? If s/he is still allowed to roll up a new PC and join in the dungeon-delving, what has s/he lost?

The context for most contemporary D&D play is so different from classic dungeon-crawling - and, therefore, the consequences of changing those numbers on the PC sheet - that serious comparisons are very hard to make.

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.
This just suggests that you have little or no familiarity with "fail forward" as a technique. It is not "rewarded, but less so". It is "failure as consequence that drives the game forward rather than stalls the action." The technique was pioneered in indie games like Sorcerer and Burning Wheel.

Typical examples would be things like: a failed casting roll means that, instead of the desired spell effect, you've summoned a demon; a failed lock-pick check means that, before you can pick the lock, the guards arrive; a failed searching or perception check means that, instead of finding what you were looking for, you find something that you would rather not have (eg because it is evidence of stuff you were hoping wasn't true).

You seem to be conflating "fail forward" with "success at a cost". The latter is what "fail forward" can mutate into in games that are more-or-less driven by a pre-conceived story (eg the GUMSHOE system uses this to make sure the players get the clues). But that is not an artefact of "fail forward", that is an artefact of games driven by pre-conceived stories. Which goes back to the point about the very great differences between contemporary and classic D&D play.
 

billd91

Not your screen monkey (he/him) 🇺🇦🇵🇸🏳️‍⚧️
Is it even a consequence, if there are zero ramifications and nobody cares at all? If you're playing 5E, and you take damage that reduces you down to 1hp, but then you rest and you're good as new, was there any consequence of getting hit? Certainly, from the perspective of the next morning, there is no difference in the current situation based on how well the previous fight went; there's no way to even tell that whether or not you got hit, let alone how hard. If the outcome of an event isn't even observable after the fact, then that's a pretty solid argument for saying that the event has no consequences.

So while it may be a matter of degree, if one of those degrees is zero, then that radically changes the entire experience. If the penalty for committing a foul starts out at 10 minutes in the penalty box, and that penalty is steadily reduced over editions down to 3 minutes and then 1 minute, then you're still going to get a radical divergence in gameplay if you reduce it down to zero.

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?
 

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.
A remedy that you can't afford isn't actually a remedy. You might as well argue that nothing mattered in AD&D because you could always Wish yourself out of any problems.

If your level 5 character is reduced to 0hp in 1E, then the consequence is that the character is dead forever because nobody can afford to resurrect them, and you (the player) are set back three months of character progress as you bring in a new character at level 1. There is a strong incentive to avoid being reduced to zero. That's a real consequence. Everyone can look at it, and see what happened.

If your level 5 character is reduced to 0hp in 5E, then chances are high that they won't actually die, and you're back up to full after you take a nap. The actual, literal in-game difference between the character getting reduced to zero and the character not getting reduced to zero is nothing. There is no incentive to avoid being reduced to zero. There is no consequence.

If you compare the consequences of being reduced to zero in 1E to the consequences of being reduced to zero in 5E, you don't get that it was much worse in 1E; you get a divide by zero error. Dropping down to 0hp in 5E is entirely meaningless.
 

Hussar

Legend
Depends if your DM is/was also properly using and applying the rules that drained said wealth:

- training for level-up
- magic - and mundane, for that matter - items having to save every time their bearer got hit with anything big e.g. fireball (save vs. magic fire) or a giant's boulder (save vs. crushing blow) etc.
- living costs during downtime, including mundane gear replacement (small amounts but they can sure add up)
- for clerics and paladins, sacrifice (direct to deity) or donation (to one's temple) of a portion of wealth acquired (I think something similar may have also applied to Monks but I might be conflating with a houserule here)
- costs for services e.g. spellcasting (for example: to get an NPC to cast Raise Dead for you is, by RAW, mighty costly)
- for arcane casters, spell research and acquirement costs
- for thieves and assassins, guild dues and contributions
- payment of henches, followers, and similar

Further, as I mentioned a few posts back treasure of all kinds was the primary reward mechanism in 1e. Given that, seeing a lot of it only made sense...though (and this is another difference between 1e and the recent ones) there was much more of an easy-come-easy-go mentality kind of built in - lots of wealth and lots of things you had to spend it on.

Lan-"gimme some money"-efan

EDIT: p.s. something else to consider with 1e published modules is that while there's often boatloads of treasure in them to be found it was a rare party indeed that found all of it, or even a large portion of it.

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%.

But, the thing is, I'm kinda confused. I'm told that the point of play in 1e was to get the treasure, more than kill the monster. So, if you're getting the treasure, where is it going? Doesn't that mean that most of your XP is coming from treasure? So, a 5th level character with about 30000 xp, has likely amassed about 20000 gp. Sure, it cost him 15k in training, fair enough, but, that still leaves 5k left over. And, let's not forget, he'll amass ANOTHER 20k gp before 6th level as well.

The idea that a group couldn't afford a raise dead? Seriously? Individual PC's could afford it. And, the notion that parties didn't find the treasure in modules is simply not true. Go back and read those modules. The majority of treasure isn't hidden. It's right there to be found. The overwhelming majority of the treasure in modules is not hidden at all.

In fairness, I do tend to ignore Dragonlance modules as written - and have done so pretty much since they came out - largely because of both this can't-die aspect and the lead-'em-by-the-nose railroad they insist upon. That said, a few of those modules can make fine stand-alone adventures if one reskins the backstory.

Now I've got to look to see if I can find this...I'm reasonably familiar with the 1e DMG but don't recall seeing this bit.

Not sure how you could have managed this in 2e without some rule-bending; though I can easily see it in 3-4-5e.

Lan-"the Dragonlance novels were very popular, but the modules?"-efan

I have to admit, in 2e, I tended to throw in a lot of demons. Buckets and buckets of XP in 2e even for fairly minor demons. IIRC, even something as small as a Mane was worth 1000 xp. So, it did tend to accelerate my xp rewards.
 

Rygar

Explorer
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.
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

I think this is an excellent post.

The other thing I would say needs to be kept in mind is: 1st edition D&D was designed around creating a world where the Players were challenged to survive, 3rd edition was where it shifted to trying to create a game, thought 3e was still pretty world oriented. 4th and 5th edition are about a game where Players are given a carrot on a stick to keep them playing and aren't expected to face a serious challenge.

There's a lot of signals that the goal today is creating a game, not a world. Without even getting into the mechanics (Some of which have been discussed endlessly), look at the changes to the flavor of the game. The "Legendary Heroes" aspect has been slowly removed (Tensor, Bigby, Mordenkainen), Dinosaurs went from being named Dinosaurs to being anime-style names, you don't have to worry about laws of physics (Underwater fireballs, Lightning bolts hitting Platemail, or Monks knocking over the Tarrasque).

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons described a world where Players were placed to survive, Dungeons and Dragons describes a game where Players are placed to enjoy a non-stop series of rewards with little risk. IMO it's a hugely negative change and why I ultimately went back to Pathfinder.
 

Saracenus

Always In School Gamer
Dude. I am happy that our hobby has left you in the dust. This is exactly the attitude that keeps our hobby segmented in to little tribal groups.

I have been playing just as long as you (maybe even longer) and what you are advocating is the exact opposite of my personal organizing philosophy, "More places to play, more people to play with."

I don't know what games you are playing today, but we live in a world of choice right now. There are amazing games coming out every month. It is hard to keep up. Even in the segment you call out, RPGs, you can find what you want. Hell, in the current published version of D&D by WotC you can turn some dials and make the game as grim and consequence driven as you could possibly want or you can go the opposite way. You just are lamenting that your personal preference isn't the default setting of the game.

Here is my recommended RPG system for you, Harnmaster (not the game world Harn, which is amazing, but the rules system created to support it). It has all the possible simulationist detail you could want. Combat is a horror show! Complicated, check. Brutal, check. If the combat itself doesn't kill you, the infection rules probably will. It does have an amazing character background generation system that really ties you into the world. I am just not sure you need to use it because if you try to do anything "heroic" you will be busy building a new Player Character. It sounds right in your sweet spot.

Meanwhile I am going to go have some fun (as I define it) and go play some of the following:
Arkham Horror: The Card Game - (a co-operative deck building RPG that is near perfect in execution).
Dead of Winter - Semi-cooperative boardgame with a betrayal mechanic. The zombies are just trying to kill you, the other survivors will put a knife in your back if you are not careful.
D&D 5th Edition - Rebooting a Greyhawk campaign set in the town of Hardby.
Dread - Quite possibly the most genius RPG system to run survival horror in. It uses a Jenga tower for task resolution, trust me, it is awe inspiring and will have you on the edge of your seat (just don't bump the damn table).
Fiasco - Ever wanted to role-play the movie Fargo, A Simple Plan, Treasure of Sierra Madre? This is your jam. Everyone has a hook, a link, and plan. Let the dice fall where they may and in the aftermath be a glorious (or inglorious) as you may.
Pandemic Legacy - A boardgame you play 12-24 times. But each time you play the board changes, cards get ripped up, and bad things happen. You want consequences, this game has it in spades. Season 1 has been a blast and Season 2 is almost upon us.
Time Stories - Genre bending boardgame each scenario you play. But you will remember what you did and how many times it took you to get it right. Time travel/multi-worlds meets groundhog day. Not a true legacy format game but once you have played a scenario you will not be able to play it again.
Dungeon - My 10 year old nephew loves this classic boardgame. Sometimes you just need to kick down the door, kill the monster, and steal its treasure.
Tsuro of the Seas - Gorgeous tile laying game where your choices bring you that much closer to doom. If you need some randomness/variance add in the Tsunami, Magical Vortex, and/or a host of Sea Monsters to make the game even more chaotic fun.
Karmaka - A game of multiple lives and reincarnation. Just remember that awesome screw your buddy play from a previous life can come back to haunt you in the next.

No how about you get off my lawn because me and the kids are going have a great time playing some games and not a single participation trophy to be found.
 
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[...]in the current published version of D&D by WotC you can turn some dials and make the game as grim and consequence driven as you could possibly want [...]
For all its talk of inclusivity, the most severe of dials and options available will still allow a character to recover from 0hp back to full after sleeping for eight hours. It doesn't bother me that the default options are more lenient than I'm used to; it bothers me that the default options are so far toward inconsequential that the system is literally incapable of describing anything reasonable. If I want it to take a week to recover from near-death, then I need to make up something out of thin air about how Hit Dice don't exist. And good luck getting any group to accept un-tested house rules of that magnitude! The whole point of including those dials in the DMG is so that we wouldn't need to invent new house rules for that sort of thing, because they knew that people would need them.

I don't know whether you're malicious or just uninformed, but this is a very real issue, and nothing will be solved by your pretending otherwise.
 

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