Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Second Pillar – Reward

The second pillar that is fundamental to the integrity of the D&D game is reward. Participants who participate in game play (whether as a player character or Dungeon Master) can expect to be rewarded for their actions.

Some might say the act of play itself is its own reward, and to a certain degree that is true (we’ll address that in the 3rd Pillar). However, actual compensation for the merits of one’s in-game (imaginary) action has been true through almost every edition of the game and is an identifiable part of the D&D game’s foundation. If characters are not being rewarded for their action, I’m not sure what you’re playing can be called “D&D.”

Similar to what was discussed in the prior post, the rewards to be had are different depending on the role one takes when participating in the game; I’ll discuss each in turn.

For player characters, we can see that one’s reward is one of improved effectiveness, decisively tied (in most editions) to the player’s response and success to challenges issued. A player character that meets and overcomes all challenges will progress quickly in game effectiveness, gaining experience and thus level, increasing attack ability, saving throws, hit points, number of spells, etc. A player character that chooses to face fewer challenges will find his (or her) effectiveness increased at a slower rate, as will player characters that seek many challenges but fails at overcoming those challenges.

This has been the case since the earliest editions of the game, when PCs were considered scurrilous rogues seeking fortunes within dark dungeons. The measure of a character’s “score” was, in the main, directly attributable to the value of treasure brought out of the ground. Recover a great deal of treasure and your character received more points, increasing in level (game effectiveness) and allowing the character to recover MORE treasure…though with a gradually diminishing rate of return.

By the 3rd (D20) Edition of the game, the experience points awarded were solely due to overcoming challenges commensurate with ability; whether or not treasure was recovered was of secondary concern (at best), except with regard to magic items (we’ll get back to those in a moment).

In addition to in-game effectiveness, the reward of game play also includes MORE game play and DIFFERENT game play, as the rewards reaped open up greater avenues of exploration for the player characters. A character that increases in level (and thus effectiveness) is able to delve deeper, darker dungeons and face greater challenges, presumably reaping greater reward. A character that acquires a spell or magic item allowing planar travel can journey to other dimensions, even across game and genre boundaries (see the notes on Gamma World and Boot Hill crossover in the original Dungeon Masters Guide). A character that acquires Name (9th) level and enough gold to build a stronghold fortress can begin exploring the adventures only open to a ruler of men: opening territories for expansion, drafting armies for conquest, making treatise and alliances, and seeing about putting an heir on the throne.

“Reward” is a fundamental pillar of the D&D game. Reward informs play; it explains why it is that player characters take action, why they behave as they do. Reward provides the motivation for character activity; some players may be uninterested in facing a challenge simply for the sake of a challenge (not all of us are “adrenaline junkies,” even in our imaginary worlds!), but for the sake of REWARD they will participate.

The promise of power can be a strong lure for even the most recalcitrant adventurer. Spell-users, especially the unarmored, lightly armed magic-user, will find that the best way to increase his (or her) survivability is take on challenges, to act heroic rather than stay home studying their tomes for it is only through adventuring that the wizard’s spell-casting ability improves.

To some, this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense; the RPG Ars Magica, for example, makes the acquisition of magical power a product of staying shut-in for seasons at a time, poring over dusty scrolls and pursuing alchemical study and experimentation. Perfectly sensible and realistic, and Ars Magica is a very cool game (I’ve owned a couple editions). On the other hand, except as a mental exercise, this type of game play (tracking seasons and study points) is DEAD BORING to play. The Dungeons & Dragons game rewards active participation; it rewards PLAYING the game. As an activity of group participation, I prefer my RPG game play to have more player activity and less mental masturbation.

Since we’re on the subject of magic, I will mention that magic items in the D&D game are a stylistic trope that provides an additional “piece” of the reward system. After all, magic items are not simply gifted or sold to PCs (well, not in most editions of the game). Instead they must be found or earned/awarded through game play. They provide a similar bonus as experience points (i.e. they increase character effectiveness and open up other avenues of game play, depending on the effect of the item) and provide “crowing rights” to players: “Hey, I got a portable hole!” “Yeah, well I have a sword of sharpness, so there.”

Crowing (i.e. bragging) is part of the out-of-game reward that players receive; again referring back to the Forge article on the gamist creative agenda, players play the game in part to test their mettle and feel a sense of accomplishment at overcoming challenge. Whether that turns your crank or not, the game of D&D (at least in its pre-2007 editions) rewards players commensurate with the challenges tackled and the results achieved; whether or not you feel like bragging about it is entirely up to you.

For the Dungeon Master, there are rewards to game play as well:
  • The reward of creatively expressing oneself through a rich fantasy environment, not to mention interesting settings and scenarios.
  • The reward of cackling uproariously at your players’ expense when your fiendish challenge completely burns them.
The first item is something many GMs of other role-playing games can attest to as a “reward of play” (not all GMs…in some indie-style “story-games” the setting is too collaborative or too “set in stone” to allow much “world building”). But we’ll discuss some specific differences (with regard to D&D) when we get to the last pillar.

The second item, though, is something a lot fewer RPGs offer.

Because of the natural antagonist role placed on the DM by the Dungeons & Dragons game (i.e. the role of challenging the players), the DM has a chance to exercise his (or her) own personal brand of destruction in acting as an obstacle to the players. This can be in the form of a fiendish monster encounter or diabolical trap; it can be a cleverly mapped labyrinth or a moral quandary of epic consequence.

For an example of that last one, I advise checking out the fairly excellent Return to White Plume Mountain, the only 2nd edition book of any kind that still sits on my shelf. It forces players to make all sorts of ethical choices due to the nature of the adventure (wherein power is promised with a price, and mental possession is on the board for player characters)…and the climax (should the PCs reach it) is the real kicker: kill the baby or don’t kill the baby!

I mean, who would hurt a little baby?
; )

Anyway, as I said in the last post, the challenge of being a DM is in setting up challenges for the players that are neither overwhelming nor “softball.” The PAY-OFF (i.e. the “reward”) for the DM is in seeing those plans come to fruition and (if done correctly) feeling totally at ease with the self-indulgent hosing of the player characters.

Hey, I’m just being honest. A DM needs SOME kicks, after all…it’s not like we exist purely for the players’ entertainment, puffing them up with set pieces that are easy to knock down. We are required to “play fair” with the players (that’s explicit in every edition I've read), but providing we’re not throwing the might of the universe at ‘em, we’re obliged to try to knock the PCs down a peg. That’s OUR fun, and D&D is one of the few games that allow the referee to indulge in that kind of mayhem.

[in other RPGs, game moderators are working to build a world or story…sometimes in collaboration with players, other times “for the benefit of players” (and when the latter is done with respect to “story,” then you’ve got a railroad going on)]

Admittedly, not every DM “cackles” with glee (I was being superfluous there, though in my case it HAS been a literal truth at times), but DMs can take pride is their challenges and “stumping” the players, enjoying the push-and-pull of competition.

In building a new Dungeons & Dragons, care must be taken to build upon the pillar of reward, just as it is with the pillar of challenge…existing editions point to the way in which challenge is integrated with reward to provide a game that is both stimulating and motivating. If building the game in a modular fashion (as is the stated intention of current designers), modules can be developed that address this integral part of the D&D foundation. Some possible examples:
  • Rewards for increased effectiveness at different levels of play (low, mid, high)
  • Rewards coupled with new avenues of exploration (an example of such from the past might be the SpellJammer setting…by finding/building a space-worthy magic item or spell, it opens up “fantasy space” for exploration/exploitation by the party).
  • Additional rewards in terms of level-based minor abilities (similar to D20’s feats)
  • New methods of “keeping score,” new incentives to motivate players, “tournament style” add-ons for real crowing rights, etc.
  • Instruction and information for DMs to better gauge challenges so that they can “crow” on their own; modules that offer different ideas of how to “stick it” to players, giving DMs alternatives to the standard method of counting “wins” (I can think of a few, but listing them will sound more self-indulgent and sadistic than I already do!)
All right, that's enough to chew over for today.

Next pillar up: ESCAPE.


  1. Ars Magica (or any other games which pursue similar aims) may be dead boring to YOU. There are people who don't find it boring at all. Much like there are people who like the shift in gameplay which happens at name level, and engage themselves in realm-administration activities. Or have it as an important focus of the setting (e.g. Birthright.)

    I also would like to ask, in view of the fact that your "pillars" are essentially orthogonal to those described by WotC's designer, what makes you think that they are NOT applying these (or similar) "pillars" to their designs? It's not that your "pillars" exclude the ones they have defined.

    Actually, the same fact that they say they want to return to the playing "style" of older editions, seems to imply that, for example, at least Rewards WILL be taken into account implicitly.

  2. @ Antonio:
    I like Ars; it's NOT a dead boring game, However, the "game play" portion of acquiring wizardly power, while a fun mental exercise (given a couple hours, some dice, and an Excel spreadsheet) isn't much fun to "play out." The "play" of the game (going off on "adventures") happens in-between studies, since being interrupted for an adventure ruins a season's worth of study.

    D&D, by contrast, ties the acquisition of power (reward) directly to game play (going off on adventures). While the style of Ars may NOT be a total snooze, I think it's fair to say that the pursuit of power in D&D is much more active and engaging (and thus, to me, more "exciting").

    What WotC has publicly stated (to my mind) appears to say that even if they are taking MY pillars into account by default or because they are "implicit," they (my pillars) are not the focus of the design team. Instead, they are choosing to focus on a very small part of the game (with regard to chargen and character interaction with the imaginary world) and hope to then extrapolate that to "all other areas of the design." To me, what you (and they) may see as "implicit" may well be included...there'll be XP gained somehow and applied to level somehow increasing in-game effectiveness...but that it's an AFTERTHOUGHT, at best, rather than at the forefront of the design process.

    And as an afterthought, who's to say they might not balls it up? What if they simply award XP for participation (i.e. "showing up at the table"). What incentive will that provide to players to engage the game? simply provides them incentive to show up at the table. Reward mechanics influence player behavior. It's something to keep central to the design process. For my money, the "combat-exploration-roleplay" part is the implicit afterthought.
    ; )

  3. Frankly, I see WotC "pillars" as definitely more "testable" and "verifiable" in a playtest, than what you propose. I really can't see why the things you propose should be crucial to D&D and not to other games. I see them as so abstract qualities that ANY game should satisfy them to one degree or another to even be called a game at all.

  4. @ Antonio:
    Ah...but not all games DO what D&D does. It's part of what makes D&D its own interesting bag of snakes.

    I'm not sure you can make WotC's "pillars" any more testable or verifiable, than my own. How do you test if a class lets you "roleplay better?" I mean we are talking RPGs here, not video games. About all you can do is playtest and analyze how players feel about the game.

    If you DO focus on pillars like "challenge" and "reward" you can ask, how well do you feel the rules allow you to meet the challenge? Do you feel like you as a player have incentive to take active part in the action (instead of just showing up and saying "what happens?").

    I'm not trying to play devil's advocate here; I honestly think that the idea that WotC's pillars are going to provide any empirical evidence is kind of crazy, though. Other than the player's feelings ("did you have fun?") what data points are you going to collect? How well a 3rd level bard was able to take down an ogre compared to a 2nd level fighter?

  5. "How do you test if class lets you 'roleplay' better?"

    By having roleplay mechanics. Just as you have combat mechanics (AC, hp, Dam, etc...) and you have exploration mechanics (find traps, climb walls, detects doors/slopes, etc...) you have roleplay mechanics (reaction rolls, followers, class benefits and penalties such as the Paladin's healing and detect evil)

  6. @ Nicco:

    'Social interaction' mechanics (rolling for reaction, morale checks, 'gather info' skill checks in D20), is NOT "role-playing."

    Role-playing is aligning player motivation with character motivation for determining in-game behavior.

    If this is what WotC means by "role-playing" as their 3rd pillar then they're more retarded than I thought.

  7. It seems pretty simple to me:

    1) Player vs. Monster
    2) Player vs Environment
    3) Player vs NPC

  8. You quite easily test WotC's pillars by evaluating whether the rules (and the game in general) provide support for them.
    For example: are the combat rules easy to run? Do they require a grid? How long does it take on average to run a combat at X level? Do combat effects rely on a grid? Does the game provide rules for the DM to adjudicate spotting clues (secret doors, traps etc.)? Do you even NEED rules to spot clues? (GUMSHOE style here) How does a PC interact with NPCs? Should it be left to player only? What about shy players who want to play a glib character? (one might want to play someone completely opposite to himself) and so on.

    WotC pillars seem more "ingrained" in the actual game or, if you wish, are at a "lower level" with respect to what you propose. Not a good or bad thing per se, so I am just calling you out because I think that your approach need not exclude theirs, nor is it provably better.

    Anyway, though I don't agree with your general position, I am curious to see your conclusions.

  9. I've posted my take on what I think they are talking about with the three pillars: