Saturday, September 10, 2011

Hand-Waving Rewards

I realize that several of my regular Thursday night table-mates read my blog, so I need to preface this post a bit. I’ve got some harsh words…or at least “potentially inflammatory” ones…regarding our recent forays into the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, and most of these are going to be directed at the style of our GM, Luke, because it illustrates something I want to write about. I want to be clear that I do not mean this post as an indictment of Luke’s GM skills or his ability to run a fun game; I’ve been having fun along with the rest of you, and I wouldn’t bother showing up if I thought his game was total garbage.

That being said, I’m going to be blunt here and, anyway, Luke’s a big boy.

All right, let’s get down to it.

Thursday night’s game had the usual cast of DCC miscreants at the table. I had missed last week (being in Montana), but I wasn’t the only one. As with the last two sessions that I attended we started in town. Luke (our GM) asked who wanted to “carouse” (a random roll that spends money and has the potential to earn you XP…though there’s a better than average chance of an interesting “mishap” occurring). This particular game mechanism is one Luke first adopted a couple weeks back. As I did previously, I chose to abstain from carousal; though this time I was doing so due to a lack of funds (in the earlier session, I spent my cash instead on a suit of chain mail…go figure).

A couple members of our party suffered misfortune due to their carousal checks, earning the enmity of a local cult. To atone for their sins, they were tasked with stomping out a slave ring at a rival temple. They in turn got the rest of the party involved; we invaded the place, and kicked everyone’s ass. A couple of PCs were knocked out in the process, but all ofthe character’s survived.

At the end of the session, the evil shrine had been all but cleaned out and our charming of the high priestess ensured we took every available scrap of treasure. Luke said he didn’t want to bother adding up all the treasure in the module and simply ruled we each received 100 gold pieces worth of treasure. He then awarded XP and informed us we each had earned 200xp for the evening.

This was not an unusual evening as far as rewards go. Luke always hands out XP at the end of a session, and the amount we have received has always been some flat, arbitrary number. This was the 2nd time I had used this particular character (since he became 1st level). In my prior session he had received 300xp.

Arbitrary, flat numbers. Regardless of character action.

Some of the PCs have a LOT more experience points (for those who don’t already know, in DCC you earn XP in order to go up in level, just like in D&D). The guy sitting next to me had 1300 by the end of the night…close to three times my character’s total. Part of this has to do with his character being present for an extra session or two compared to mine. Part of this has to do with him “hitting it big” on the carousal table and earning an extra couple-three hundred XP (or more).

Um…what exactly is our goal here?

Hmm…perhaps the question isn’t really specific enough. How about this:

What is our motivation for playing this game? What is the objective of play? In-game, what the hell are we trying to do?

Reward systems influence behavior. That’s not up for debate; if you don’t agree with it, you’re probably reading the wrong blog. Systems of REWARD in a game INFLUENCE BEHAVIOR. Period. If your game provides “reward mechanics” it is going to have an influence on player behavior, i.e. the actions they take within a game.

For me, good game design includes system mechanics that reward behavior meeting the designer’s objectives of play (JB's Axiom #3 of good game design…remember those?). The reason why it’s “good” game design? Because the reward will influence behavior, and if that behavior enforces the game designer’s objectives, then you have designed a system that will get people to play the way you (the designer) want it to be played.

In Old School D&D, the reward players play for is increased effectiveness. Characters go up in level and gain the ability of having more dramatic impact on the imaginary game environment. While the acquisition of magical equipment often provides increased effectiveness, such acquisition is generally left at the (arbitrary) mercy of the DM’s generosity/stinginess. However, ALL players can count on LEVEL improving their characters’ effectiveness, and they know the way to gain level: by earning experience points through the accumulation of monetary treasure and the defeat of opponents. Gaining XP is a non-subjective means of earning reward: if I acquire 2000 gold pieces, then I acquire 2000 experience points, and if I am a fighter, that will mean I advance to second level.

So what does that compel me to do? Fight monsters and look for treasure of course!

Now if I simply receive X amount of experience for showing up and sitting down, what does that compel me to do? Show up and sit down, sure. What does it compel me to do in the GAME, though?

Not a goddamn thing.

Why bother formulating plans or carrying on elaborate manipulations of a charmed enemy if the GM is simply going to award you a set amount of gold? Why bother taking risks, or doing ANYthing interesting/courageous if the GM is going to award the same amount of XP to you as the guy who holds the torch and fires his crossbow every other round?

Right now, my character has absolutely ZERO motivation to take any kind of bold action, or attempt anything particularly clever. Hell, right now, the MAIN things I can choose to do (as a player) to increase my character’s effectiveness is A) make sure I show up (and survive) every single week, and B) spend as much money as possible on carousal rolls and hope I get lucky. These are the only two things that will bring my character the promised reward of increased in-game effectiveness.

Not that you really need “in-game effectiveness” when your main actions alternate between drinking/whoring and cowering in the back of the party.

[actually, I believe character level IS added to the carousal roll meaning you party better as you go up in level, and extra hit points DO mean extra survivability while cowering…still, that's not exactly what I call “adventure”]

What a bunch of horseshit.

Now, it may sound like I’m railing against good ol’ Luke’s style of reward allocation (and I am) but this is not the first time I’ve heard of this…only the first time I’ve experienced it. Many times I’ve read posted (both on my blog and elsewhere) with ideas of XP allocation for similar non-merit play. Ideas like:

  • “I just level PCs up after a certain number of sessions,” or
  • “I just hand out X number of experience points per hour,” or
  • “I just reward PCs for the completion of missions (sometimes the same amount whether they succeed or fail!).”

Every time I read one of these suggestions, I cringed inwardly at the thought off what it would do to the game play experience. Now, though, I’ve actually had a chance to experience this style of reward system and I can tell you exactly how it makes me feel:

Pretty irritable.

Not outright angered perhaps, but definitely annoyed. And it has nothing to do with an anti-commie agenda or anything…it doesn’t piss me off that everyone receives the same reward regardless of action and/or merit. That doesn’t irritate me…in fact, if you’re handing out arbitrary rewards, I think you’d BETTER do it consistently.

What does irritate me is this: my actions make no goddamn difference.

Regardless of whether I play smart or stupid or cautious or reckless or brilliant or bonehead. Regardless of whether I crit every roll or fumble every roll. Regardless of whether or not I play in alignment or whether or not I even play cooperatively with my fellow players…or instead try to stab them all in the back. Regardless of ANYthing…

Flat 200xp. Thanks for showing up.

Galling is what it is. The whole bonus-XP-for-random-carousal-die-roll is hardly worth mentioning in light of the main issue. At least with THAT you can make a statement about your character by whether or not you choose to participate.

I suppose for some people, the idea of hanging out with their buddies, rolling dice, laughing, and drinking beer is enough…that the fun of the game is NOT in any imaginary objective, but in imagining you are a big strong warrior, or a furtive thief, or a mutated sorcerer, or whatever. I suppose that there is enjoyment to be had in “playing pretend” with likeminded adults in a safe, non-judgmental environment, and that the game mechanics are present simply to provide some structure for what would otherwise certainly devolve into something sordid…or worse, “zany.”

Hell, what am I saying? “Suppose?” OF COURSE, there is enjoyment to be found in exactly these things…that’s why I still enjoy showing up to the game despite the overall pointlessness of the exercise! But even so, I find myself wanting more from my game (otherwise I wouldn’t bother venting my complaints across the blog-o-sphere!). I mean, if all I want to do is drink and blow off steam and shout obscenities and make off-color jokes, I could do that over a game of pool or darts or in a karaoke bar. If all I wanted to do was imagine myself as a strapping fighter, I could daydream or write short stories with myself as the hero.

Getting handed a couple hundred XP after a moment’s reflection from the GM makes me think, “why bother?” It feels condescending. To me, it’s pretty f’ing lame.

*sigh* I’m sure I’m going to catch flak for this post.

[by the way, one thing I didn’t point out is that the DCC RPG…at least in its Beta form…does NOT have any type of reward “system” built-in. It has levels, it has XP needed to earn levels, but it has no rules on how that XP is acquired. Luke’s decision to hand out flat amounts of XP per session is a perfectly valid choice…as I said at the beginning of this post, this is not meant to be an indictment of him. What I AM trying to indict is the whole “play for pay” idea and what an irritating concept it is. I say this having experienced it firsthand…I think it SUCKS and believe that any reward given without merit or deed is a pretty damn paltry reward]


  1. "What does irritate me is this: my actions make no goddamn difference."

    Player agency strikes again!

  2. I agree wholeheartedly. I personally prefer more than one reward track mind you, but I really integrate that into classes, how everything works.

  3. 1. I could not agree with you more.

    2. You just made (in gaming terms) the core argument conservatives/capitalists make against socialism/communism. Cheers!

  4. Great post, as usual. And yes, this would annoy me to no end. Like –C said above, this is just as much a violation of player agency as railroading is a violation. Both this “egalitarian” (to use a nice word) XP system and railroading serve to diminish player enjoyment and ownership of the game. What is Luke’s experience as a GM? It might just be a function of a lack of experience, if he’s still new to the job.

    I tell my players that they earn XP in my games for treasure, slaying creatures, and I also give some bonus XP for roleplaying well and for creative solutions to in-game problems. And I guess I don't do things exactly by the rules, because I give everyone the same amount of experience, rather than divide it up equally. Meaning, if the four-character party earns a combined 1000 XP, each character gets 1000 XP. This is how I want it for my game, since I am looking forward to having the PCs leveling up without having to wait an eternity to do so. This is motivated on my part because, honestly, we are adults that can only meet once a week to game, and though we’ve so far been able to meet almost every week, there are times when either one or all of us can’t make it. So I am trying to avoid game stagnation with regard to leveling.

    In all, I think the way I do things motivates the players to work together for the good of the party, as their actions add XP to the group’s communal XP “pool.” It also motivates them to show up, since the more players there are, the more XP the group can earn as a cohesive unit. The players in the group know that if they work together, encourage each other, and support each other’s ideas, they can foster more creative thinking and therefore increase their XP earning potential. I’ve definitely seen my group play to each other’s strengths as we get more and more sessions under our belts.

    Anyway, good luck with your situation, man. I hope things turn a corner and you can get back to a better gaming experience. By the way, it seems like DCC is rising in your approval, am I correct? How is it stacking up against B/X in your mind these days? I have to admit, I’m getting curious to learn more about the end product coming out in February next year…

  5. Chello!

    In the Palladium XP system (to reinforce your point about xp system influencing behavior), a character gets xp for attempting a skill whether he fails or succeeds. What this does in the game in encourage people to try things in the game and not just sit back.

    Also, characters can get xp for a clever plan with the amount varying on how clever it really is (somewhat subjective admittedly) and whether or not it succeeds (objective).

    Of course, I've run under several Palladium GMS who ignore this systems and just give out flat xp rewards. I feel your pain, brother.

    (Note that there are things in that system; I wa just pointing out a couple.)

  6. P.S. I guess my own method of assignment of XP can also be considered "egalitarian" because everyone gets the same amount of XP, but at least the amount of XP is still related to the actions of the party, and not just some flat "just because you showed up" XP unrelated to in-game actions. There's a big difference.

  7. @ Drance:

    Luke has many years of experience as a DM...possibly more than me (he's a year older, though I'm not sure when he started playing). He has DM'd every edition of D&D in the past; I don't think it is a lack of experience behind his decision.

    I can guess at his reasons, but they would only be guesses:

    - there are no rules (yet) in DCC regarding awarding of XP, and this method is expedient.
    - on the surface, it appears just as "egalitarian" as D&D (XP is divided equally between all surviving party members in D&D, regardless of performance. The difference HERE is that the actions of the PCs in DCC make no difference to how much XP is awarded, besides the aforementioned "carousal rules").
    - player/character motivation is not a huge concern for Luke and he just wants to "run a fun game" and provide some sort of reward and a couple hundred XP here and there seems like "a fair amount."

    As I said these are only "guesses." Perhaps he has some sort of tricked-out app on his IPad that does quick calculations or something that I'm not seeing. But to me it FEELS arbitrary...with the corresponding irritation.

    The point of my post (besides whining in general) is that, for me, this type of "hand-waved reward" is unsatisfying. Perhaps my creative agenda is a bit too "gamist" but the game feels gamist...we're fighting monsters, right? Trying to one-up folks with our cool "mighty deeds," yeah? Risking death itself for fortune and glory?

    Luke's choice is a valid one...he had to choose SOME way to award XP after's just one that irritates ME.

  8. I've struggled with these issues, too. Keeping track of all monster damage done by each PC, and each gold piece earned, is too much for me these days... but something so arbitrary as you've outlined above is far too little. I think the system I outlined here approaches a happy medium.


    Which is better than:

  10. <- Luke here, been playing/DMing since '79

    Yeah, I'd prefer to add up the correct amounts for monsters and treasure, but DCC is in beta and doesn't have clear rules for XP rewards. The monsters all have "XXX" where their XP value should be. I also don't have as much prep time as I'd like (busy job and three kids).

    I try to give out XP that's at least proportional to the number of monsters defeated and treasure discovered. More blood and gold = more xp. There's no intention on my part to hand out an attendance prize.

    I expect to adjust quite a bit when the final rules and modules come out for DCC.

    The carousing thing is from Jeff Rients. I think it's fun.
    Party like it's 999

  11. @ Cygnus: That's actually a pretty badass little system. I'll have to mull it over for future rip-off.
    : )

    @ Fumers/Luke: The carousing thing is definitely good for a laugh, without miring the game down in "tavern crawl adventures."

    I appreciate the insight into your motives...that "more blood and gold = more xp." Knowing this, I fully intend to do my best to ensure maximum bloodshed and gold acquisition.
    ; )

  12. That's one thing I always LOVED about Old School Runequest. Your character improved by using his/her skills in extremis and rolling for an advancement when they had time for reflection. so if you got into a lot of fights, your combat skills would tend to improve. Pick a lot of pockets, you got better.

    I realize that doesn't help YOU at all. I'm just gloating or something.

  13. I once played with a DM who handed out random amounts of xp at the end of the session. Trying to come up with plans, avoid unneeded encounters, act in character, and you roll the lowest possible amount of random xp. Meanwhile, the dickwad who didn't pay attention, attacked friendly NPCs, and wouldn't stop talking over the DM rolls maximum xp.
    I quit showing up pretty soon thereafter.

  14. I don't think the carousing rules work in an environment where the carousing XP can routinely amount to the largest portion of the XP earned for the session. In my own games I use HD x 100 for monsters (from OD&D) and 1 gp equals 1 xp in a fairly treasure-rich environment. Carousing was written as a dumb way of bleeding off a little GP while possibly generating new adventures and helping out the "Dang it! I almost leveled" players.

  15. “I just reward PCs for the completion of missions (sometimes the same amount whether they succeed or fail!).”

    Ah, that looks like it would be me. I disagree with your stated dislike of options it's presented with ("What does irritate me is this: my actions make no goddamn difference."), though.

    As written, it is true that the *success* or *failure* of your actions don't really bear on the outcome (unless an early failure means you got so spanked you couldn't complete the mission).

    However, given the expectation that rewarded behavior will be repeated, I should expect (and have observed) that I see more missions completed, usually in a reasonably efficient manner.

    It doesn't reward hunting down every last guard (for the XP), it doesn't reward exploring extra areas (for XP). Those actions might be rewarded otherwise (contents of the guards' pockets or the treasure hidden down the secret passage), but not with XP.

    Similarly, success and failure are in-game considerations and thus are rewarded (or punished) in-game, not at the meta level with XP.

    I did end up writing a more complete article on the topic, you can read it at for more explanation of why I do it this way.

  16. Jeff Rients, I thought it might be interesting to make your carousing rules the only way players can convert gp to xp. After reading all the Conan and Lankhmar stories, I noticed they never accumulated wealth. Every penny got spent on wine, women, and song.

  17. I agree with Kieth; this is largely the way I come down in assigning XP as well, and for the same reasons. Why does the character want to grow in level? To have greater capacity to achieve results in a scenario, for good or for ill. So what do we reward? Achieving results, for good or for ill, especially by using the capacities you've honed in order to get those results (i.e. doing class-related things).

    This is a concept which applies far more broadly than XP. As of late, I've been running more free-form games with my wife, specifically a rough, classless version of True 20. She prefers a few major combats to lots of random encounters. She doesn't want to play a class, she wants to play a concept - the village herbalist, a reincarnated planetary avatar, a runaway from the mages' college, a reformed enforcer of a death god. In large part, the reward she derives is from the world itself responding to what she does. The fact that she can do more as she goes along (by character advancement) is great, but the advancement isn't the reward - resolution, whether of the current mission or of the overarching threads, is better than another +1 to hit and a new feat. So our advancement system has shifted from XP through a continuous-transmission "buy one of your class abilities with these character points you just earned" method, with stops at arbitrary level-ups along the way, and it's heading toward simply advancing individual aspects of the character sheet when it seems appropriate, levels be damned.

    The reward isn't the XP, or the new level. The reward is taking the DM's carefully-constructed world and tearing it to bits. When you see him break down in tears, you know that your choices mattered, that player agency has prevailed no matter how arbitrary the advancement system.

    (Admittedly, there's a major difference here - I'm only dealing with one player in this example. When I've got multiple players, I need a fairness buffer, which is all XP really is.)

    Now, there's something to be said for getting a new shiny spell level. It feels good to acquire power. But as Kieth points out, that's not the end-all-be-all of rewards: there's magic loot, information, relationships with NPCs, and other in-game rewards which have equal - sometimes more - say in the acquisition of the true reward, i.e. the badass conclusion where you blow away Strahd with a dispel magic.

  18. if I was your dm, I'd be pretty irritated if you posted this instead of just asking, "hey man, how do you decide how much xp to award?"

  19. @ Aplus: Yeah, I'm a real jerk like that.

    @ Captain O: Gloat all you want. RuneQuest has its own bag of snakes, from what I understand.
    ; )

    @ Jeff: Thanks for the insight!

    @ Luke: I've read (on the blogs) about other campaigns that want to model something similar. My understanding is that they award most XP normally, but XP for gold is only earned on gold spent (finding it isn't enough). This forces you to make a choice between blowing your wealth (and advancing) or hoarding it (for your expensive item purchases: plate mail, castles, and such).

    @ RMDC and Keith: Dudes, don't you understand I want to blog about dinosaurs? Now you're going to make me write a whole new post explaining the "error of your ways." Jeez!
    ; )