Good Reward Mechanics

In boardgames, game design, mechanics, role-playing games on June 13th, 2011 at 12:28 pm


Over the last couple months I’ve developed a new view of what makes a reward mechanic good. It’s arisen from viewing, in close proximity, and thinking about this excellent Extra Credits video about achievements in video games and an old blog post by Dogs in the Vineyard & Apocalypse World designer Vincent Baker including an interesting discussion in the comments).

I believe that a good reward mechanic acts as a giant landmark or sign post, drawing players through the fun ways to play the game offers while helping them avoid viable but boring (or downright painful) options. If you, as a player, pursue well-designed rewards you will use the other mechanics in ways that are fun. Ideally, the more aggressively you pursue those rewards, the more fun you have, although roleplaying games have complicating factors which keep this a theoretical ideal. Boardgames or video games which violate this principle are missing the point and are much more likely to be outright broken. Often, designers of these games argue that the people that break them aren’t playing the game in the right spirit, but I would argue that the designer doesn’t understand what a game is.

Other factors – rewards that also serve as currency, largely – can be added to reward mechanics, complicating the picture. Good game design is more complicated than getting this aspect of the reward mechanics right, too. Nevertheless, I think any game that falls down on this front fails, or is at least horribly weakened, as a game design, and bells and whistles will not cover it up.

There are clear examples of games where the reward mechanics do not lead the players through the fun parts of the system. An important one is the original cycle of World of Darkness RPGs. In them, players mostly earned experience points for showing up and the annoyingly handwavey “roleplaying” rewards. Unfortunately, the interesting bits of the game are the powers – Disciplines in Vampire, Magick in Mage, and Cantrips in Changeling, for example – and, to a lesser extent, the combat system. The reward mechanics do little to draw players toward those mechanics, with no meaningful reward for playing with either of them, and what the games do reward are elements of player taste, not of gameplay. As a result, WoD players would often brag about not rolling a die all night, since that was what the game rewarded, leaving a bunch of interesting tactical game systems to rot on the vine. Worse, this could turn toxic if the group’s vision of what should be rewarded differed, especially if the GM used his authority to grant rewards to shoehorn his players into his preferred playstyle (and plot) and the players have no connection between the reward mechanics and the rest of the game’s rules to push back with.

Compare this to the reward mechanics in the Burning Wheel family of games. There are similar handwavey roleplaying rewards, but differ from the Storyteller reward mechanics in a couple of key ways: they are secondary reward mechanics compared to playing to (and against) your Beliefs, Instincts, Traits and Goals and BGITs are the mechanical heart of Burning Wheel, driving the fun, and playing strongly to your BGITs will also put you in the running for these secondary rewards. Of course this doesn’t tie into the conflict mechanics, which make those in WoD look like Candyland. They come in as the proving ground for the BGITs, though. The GM presses hard on the character’s spirit – as laid out by the BGITs – and, when the GM pushes hard enough to provoke the player (through his character) the player’s recourse is to engage the conflict mechanics. WoD GMs do not have anything mechanical to push against to provoke the players into conflict, so it’s all guesswork (or out of game discussion), which is fine, but nothing the game designer should take credit for).

Bad reward mechanics may not kill a game’s fun (there’s no arguing the success of the World of Darkness games), but I think it is inevitably the result of GM and player skill. Bad reward design inevitably causes problems – possibly easily overcome by skilled players, but unnecessary and annoying all the same – that take player skill and effort to overcome.

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  1. In that discussion thread, I think D&D “counterexample” of xp (as contrasted to the delve) sheds light. It’s like your WoD example, a mechanic important to the designer, but not really relevant to how the game is played. There are all of these xp tables for leveling and xp values various accomplishments, and yet, plenty of people dumped the whole mess and played advance-1-level-per-adventure. The formal, designed, reward mechanic didn’t align with the thing that people did over and over because they enjoyed it.

  2. To be fair promethean had an explicit experience mechanic which rewarded players for reaching character milestones, and could explicitly only be spent on buying them new powers. This did require the gm to decide what the milestones would be, but actually works quite well in practice, having tried it.

  3. Alex,

    D&D is a difficult topic because different editions do things so differently. If you mean the old editions where most XP was for gold, yeah, it fails this test and yet…hmm…

    I think early editions of D&D work better than oWoD, possibly because of the difference between “rulings not rules” and Rule Zero. I’ll leave it at that for now, because I need to think about it more, and if I come up with anything concrete I’ll do a post about it. If.

    Second edition AD&D was a mess worse than oWoD on this front because it did the same thing but with more crunch. I forgot about it because it gets less talk and I didn’t actually play it.

    3+ are all half-decent on thsi metric, I think, because they are built to make combat engaging, and most XPs come from combat. There are exceptions and edge cases (like skill challenges in 4e) that complicate things, but I think that, overall, their XP systems work.


    The reason I explicitly tried to limit myself to the old World of Darkness cycle is because I have no direct knowledge of, let alone experience with, the newer games and I’ve also heard good thing about them from sources I respect.

    Promethean and Changeling: the Lost are both games on the fringes of my “to check out” list.

  4. Couldn’t agree more on Old World of Darkness games, specifically Vampire which I have the most experience with. I never felt the reward mechanics pushed you to play the game the way the fiction would have you believe it should be played. I also felt that way about the morality system as well. It never stopped my friends and I from having great amounts of fun with it though, lots of great memories.

    I have a lot of experience with the New World of Darkness as well, and I don’t think it is drastically different in the reward mechanics department. One change that I really like with it is the fact that flaws give out small xp bonuses in play, as opposed to a lump sum payment up front. I find that it always works better that way. Up front flaw systems just seem to encourage bad behaviour in the best of players.

  5. I know this entry is focused on rewards in role-playing games, but I’m curious as to how you view this concept as it relates to board/card games.

    Do you have any examples of board or card games that could be good if only their rewards systems were more aligned with the fun parts of their game mechanisms? Or vice versa?

  6. Ex,

    I periodically ponder designing an Icons-weight supers RPG that uses Disads the reward the player with XP when they come up in play a la Keys or Beliefs. It would also use zones for tactical combat – sort of a streamlined Champions with a fixed reward mechanic.


    Actually, I meant to include board games (and video games) explicitly in this post, but RPGs ended up dominating. I think it applies equally to all games – even gamification, for that matter. I don’t have any explicit examples of board games off the top of my head, but I’m sure they’re out there. If something comes to mind in the next day or two I’ll mention it here.

  7. Aha! I have a perfect example of a boardgame with poor reward mechanics. Problem is, it’s a little obscure, so I can’t assume everyone will know what I’m talking about. Therefore I will cover it in another post in a day or two.

    HINT: I mentioned it as a (vaporware) craft post.

  8. [...] the comments to my last post, Ben Draper asked me if I knew of any board games with (by my definition) bad reward mechanics to [...]

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