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.