Thursday, October 29, 2009

Role-Playing Is Its Own Reward

At least it was in the past.

As RPGs are descended (at least in part) from table-top war games, it only makes sense (to me anyway) that the earliest RPGs cater to a sensibility that facilitates a gamist creative agenda; that is, an agenda in which the players attempt to score points or achieve certain victory conditions (allowing players to compete for both “wins” and “quality of wins”). Generally, all older TSR games (and many games considered “Old School”) carry this sensibility as part of their game system:

1) There are specific ways to score “points” promoting actual concrete behaviors/objectives in play.
2) Further rewards (generally advancement and/or improved effectiveness/opportunity) are tied to these points.

A list of games should help to illustrate this more concretely.

“Old School” D&D (OD&D, AD&D 1st edition, B/X and its derivative BECMI): Points are tracked through “experience points.” Experience points are gained through killing monsters and recovering treasure. Points advance characters in level. Higher level allows characters to improve in effectiveness. Improved effectiveness allows characters to encounter stronger monsters and recover greater treasures. Better play results in more adventuring “points” results in more effective adventuring.

Gamma World (1st & 2nd edition): Points are tracked by “Status points” (literally one’s status in their community). Status points are received for defeating foes in combat (encountered during exploration), recovering artifacts and giving them to their community, accomplishing “missions” (generally assigned by a community), and accomplishing special tasks. Status points allow characters to increase in Rank (the mark of one’s rank within a community) which equates to greater recognition and benefits being received from one’s community.

Boot Hill (1st & 2nd edition): Points are tracked through survival of gun fights. Surviving gun fights increases a character’s speed with weapons, bravery (which increases both speed and accuracy), and gun fighter experience (increasing accuracy). Increases in speed and accuracy allow for greater skill at gun fights. Points gained through gun fighting measures gun fighting and allows for more gun fighting. Simple.

Top Secret (1st edition): Points are measured through experience points and accumulation of money (payment). Experience and money are gained through accomplishing mission objectives, with bonuses being paid out by accomplishing objectives based on one’s chosen specialty (character class). Accumulation of experience increases character’s level AND increases one’s ability scores allowing greater effectiveness on missions allowing ease of accomplishing mission objectives allowing more difficult missions and/or greater accumulation of experience points. Accumulation of money allows purchase of equipment that increases effectiveness of accomplishing mission objectives allowing for more payment. Again: points (cash and experience) measure how well a player is “winning” and provide a reward (increased effectiveness) that increases a player’s ability to earn points.

Please note that in all of these Old School games, objectives (point scoring and awards) are truly objective, being up front and set by the game system. Experience points in Old School D&D are set at 1 XP to 1 GP of treasure with XP for defeated monsters being based on opponents’ Hit Dice and (sometimes) hit points. Status points in Gamma World are determined by hit points of opponents or Status points listed for various artifacts with a minimal point range given for “missions.” In Boot Hill, 1 gunfight = 1 gunfight. Top Secret has an extensive table for calculation points/cash awarded for various objectives.

In no case are arbitrary points awarded for the referee’s determination of “good role-playing,” “heroic action,” or “furthering the plot.” Please note also that there are no points awarded for “simply showing up;” all Old School games promote ACTIVE participation (one must perform the designated behavior in order to accumulate any points at all…sitting on your ass garners you NOTHING).

Contrast this with games post-1986 or so that awards points for “good role-playing” or simply showing up for a game session; contrast this with Palladium’s GM fiat in assigning “experience points.” Many of these games attempt to facilitate the same gamist objectives that Old School RPGs do…i.e. they say “create a story/plot with obstacles for players to overcome.” But the behavior informed is based not on the actual rules of the game but rather on the social contract created by each individual play group. In other words, can the players guess what is going to garner them points based on the GM’s interpretation (fiat) of the sketchy rules?

Well, at least they get rewarded for sitting down at the table, right? (Shadow Run, Vampire, etc.)

To me this is pretty lame. It feels like some of these games (especially those that award points for “role-playing”) were designed to reward gaming groups (or players/GMs) who enjoyed “play acting” and felt “those people should get something for their efforts.” It’s not surprising to me that a lot of folks that grew up on Old School games rail against this. For some folks, they simply refuse to play any new game that’s not based (at least mostly) on their set notions. For others, notably several Indie game designers, it leads them to write/design their own games that leave this shite out of it.

So what’s with this rant? Well, I just wanted to throw down my own opinion on the subject. I should probably mention that one of my Bachelor degrees is in the performing arts (I studied to be an actor), so personally I don’t have the loathing for “playing in character” and “using funny voices” that some people do, and in the past when I have played these “non-Old School” games I have been fairly judicious with the awarding of “points.” However, that doesn’t mean they’ve equated to good game experiences, and ALL of my past gaming groups that played one of these games disintegrated after a short handful of sessions.

The main reason was the simple lack of an ACTIVE reward mechanic. Players showed up to the table and had no idea what the hell they were supposed to do. “Well, I get points for showing up, role-playing, and ‘learning something;’ great…” This is the standard way of experience gain in Vampire the Masquerade. WTF in other words. It basically forces players into a reactive stance waiting for the “plot” (or railroad) to happen.

I hate that shit. I hate it as a player, and I’ve hated it as a GM. Even though I loved the premise or “setting” or “genre” of a particular game, the actual play experience has always suffered when there were no defined objectives for the players.

I know there are some people who play role-playing games with non-gamist creative agendas. I myself, am not always interested in simply kicking ass – I actually enjoy stories where the good guys don’t always win, though sometimes they manage a literal “moral victory.” I am especially pleased to see all the recent games, most created by Indie designers, that facilitate this “narrativist” creative agenda.

But I know damn few people that simply want to “piddle about and be;” that is, folks that want to simply escape from the humdrum reality of life and pretend to be living in a different fantasy world. I mean, there ARE folks like that but you don’t have to play RPGs to do it…you can be an actor, or writer, or hell just daydream. I realize it’s just my opinion, but I consider role-playing to be an ACTIVE art form…players should be working towards SOMEthing, though it’s their prerogative whether it’s a gamist or narrative goal. Role-playing just for the sake of “how well can I evoke this character?” Wow…as a goal of play?! You’ve got to be kidding me.

In the “old days” role-playing was its own reward…you had fun portraying your character, but damn it that wasn’t the point of game play.

I suppose that’s part of the reason I don’t LARP.


  1. I only recently picked up the Palladium FRPG, and the book strikes me as Kevin S's extensively homebrewed AD&D game. All Palladium games thereafter used the same basic system, so Kevin's ideas of what the point of play is are built into the rules. I think Mark Reinhagen also built his own agenda into the VtM experience system, and all the old White Wolf games followed suit. (New White Wolf does not award points for "learning something," but it is based heavily about what players managed to accomplish.) I mean, hell, maybe you might consider it semantics, but D&D calls the guy who runs the game the Dungeon Master, White Wolf calls him the Storyteller.

    While I have had fun playing Vampire in the past, I will admit that sometimes that style of game leaves me with "what's the point?" running through my head, and I have a lot more trouble setting up a campaign than I do for something like D&D or Traveller, where you can start with a tavern, a dark forest, a dungeon, and fill in the rest of the details as they are needed. (Or for Traveller I guess a spaceport and a mysterious planet or derelict spacecraft.)

  2. Traveller is much less facilitating of a gamist agenda...which I like. It is more a playground for one's personal science fiction fantasy. But does it get old because there's no real "objective?" For me, no. But I don't know why this doesn't bug me and other games (like Vampire) do.

    I would guess it has to do with some innate incoherence in the latter's design. Vampires have different power scales based on age. "Opponents" (a very gamist concept to present obstacles in-game) are generally older vampires. The way to gain an equal footing is to gain in power (increase effectiveness). Gaining power comes from spending XP. XP are gained from...role-playing well? WTF?

    Traveller is a true game of exploration...hell, the Galaxy is unknown and explored by the GM as much as the players if using the random world creation tables. Advancement and "points" don't play a part in it. You may encounter obstacles, you may simply be finding the best cargo for trade...but regardless you will be discovering/exploring. The reward mechanic is play is rewarded by the discovery and exploration. If that doesn't interest you, you won't play Traveller. If that DOES interest you, then Trav will be great.
    ; )