Monday, November 16, 2009

Systems of Reward

I was just talking with a buddy at work about systems of reward in gaming. I think we started talking about video games but he is the friend I made the Ziggurat bachelor adventure for so we ended up with old school gaming.

I realize that systems in games can be counter-intuitive. For example, one would think giving experience for killing monsters makes sense-- you become more knowledgeable at how to kill a troll by killing trolls etc. But what happens is that system of reward pushes players to fight things, even things they have no reason to fight, even things they should by all rights be running from. Eventually you have players "clearing out" dungeon levels, which would be craziness in a world where living was considered a valuable thing.

The old school way of using treasure as a general, abstract reward solves that problem-- see a troll, hell run, why should I risk my life fighting it, we already found its hoard. But it makes every player out to be a treasure hunter. I've got no problem with a campaign where that is understood, but I am interested in other possibilities. Here are some ideas that I and Mah-Kuss the now-wedded brainstormed:

If rewards push players toward certain actions, you want to find rewards to push them toward actions that would work with groups of adventurers risking dungeons. But the best solution would also allow players a little choice in the goals they want to pursue. So, how about these general categories:
  • Plunderer - the standard Treasure Hunter
  • Collector - an artifact hunter
  • Scholar - a knowledge hunter
  • Defender - protects others pursuing their goals.
  • Adventurer - Glory/Faith Hunter
Okay, so instead of just raw treasure Bob, your player, makes an agreement with you that his character goal is knowledge. There could be several subsets of this, the two we thought of were exploration (knowledge of locations/wonders) and ecology (knowledge of botany/zoology). And to keep things as simple as possible, you assign goals just 3 levels of difficulty:
  • Common
  • Uncommon
  • Rare
These will represent how likely it is to obtain these goals as well as the reward for achieving them. Let's say I have a character who is a Scholar. Observing a giant rat might be common. So, the first time I see a giant rat, I get X experience points. Getting a sample of giant rat tissue/hide might be a little harder: 2X experience points. And, finally, observing a giant rat den and how it functions for a few hours might be harder to accomplish thus 3X experience points.

If we see the above as being a vertical example, horizontal could work as well. For example: giant rat is common, troll is uncommon, will o' the wisp is rare.

This three level reward could apply to all the categories above: common artifact an ancient sword; uncommon, a full suit of armor; rare, one-of-a-kind magic blade.

Defender might be a little different: common everyone comes back alive, uncommon no one takes a scratch on this adventure, rare no scratches and it was incredibly dangerous.

Adventurer is a different beast altogether. I was thinking of warriors doing things for the honor of it, or perhaps clerics doing it for the faith of it it. "It" being any of the above goals. And we realized this might be perfect for new characters, because they could receive multiple experience awards early on when surviving is so difficult. For example they might earn an XP award for finding treasure, an artifact, and getting everyone back alive. But then at some level they could be required to choose one of the other more specific focuses (so, Charlie, you're 3rd level now, what do you see your character wanting?).

This would be a way that players could have compatible goals that would give them reason to venture into dungeons/tombs together and yet not force them all to be tomb robbers. Your wizard player really likes the idea of finding spells, there you go: common, uncommon, rare. Your fighter is looking for better gear: common, uncommon, rare. Your player wants to pursue some other goal that can be reached by just raising money (house, clothes, good food), fine let her seek treasure the old fashioned way.

We envisioned a story emerging from these slightly different character goals. For example the party is down in a dungeon and coming back out. The Scholar sees what looks like a roper in the next chamber and desperately wants to investigate, the Collector has the Crown of Arpas and could cares less, the Defender is happy everyone is till healthy and strongly objects to investigating.

What do you think?


  1. Other options include good roleplaying, cooperative play, contributions to "fun".

    Thomas Denmark was working on his Dungeoneer RPG, I seem to recall him having some sort of alternate experience system, i'll have to revisit his site and see if my recall is correct.

  2. When you codify everything you may fall in unforeseen pit traps.

    That could be a bad thing, or even spring more opportunities later, but I don't know how for sure. In any case, your idea has great merit.

  3. Mazes & Minotaurs has different systems of experience for different classes. The warrior types earn XP by defeating things in combat. The magic-using types earn XP by fighting the supernatural and by discovering new things.

  4. I agree. This is a really interesting approach.

  5. Sorry for the delay in response folks.

    @Paladin: I think I'll post on the idea of rewarding roleplaying soon, because I think it's unintuitively problematic.

    @Marcelo: Yes, you definitely need to make this as loose as possible while still having it be an actual system that both players and DM can understand. That's why I limited the levels of reward magnitude to 3 and the categories of reward to just 5.

    @Matt: I'll check that out, though I don't see why you would need to enforce archetypes with rewards, maybe my fighter wants to be a treasure hunter and you mage wants to be a defender of the weak.

  6. This is actually sort of brilliant -- and leads to one of those characteristic "d'oh" moments on my part. Simple, yet elegant; why didn't I think of that?

    At the same time, I'd let them change goals from time to time -- not just at some arbitrary "level." As people get older (more "experienced"?) their personal goals change. I'll bet you money that your personal goals today are different from what they were when you originally wrote this!

    Still, this is a superb concept, and I'll be stealing it for my Fantasy Trip campaign....

  7. Thanks Jeff. I wrote this a while ago. I still like the idea of seeking out knowledge -- my class of choice is mage-- but my own games are still pretty traditional vanilla xp for gp found.