5 Meta-Game Tips About Rewards

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0051

A Brief Word From Johnn

Supplemental Issue #2 Released

I’m glad that so many of you requested the first supplemental issue of Roleplaying Tips Weekly about “What To Do When Your Players Aren’t Taking It Seriously”.

In case you missed it, you can request it by sending a blank email to:
[email protected]

This week I have prepared another supplemental issue “Alternative Forms Of Character Reward”. There were too many excellent posts to include in this week’s Readers’ Tips, so I decided to turn it into Supplemental #2. You can request it by sending a blank email to:
[email protected]

This week I’ll be adding both supplemental issues as web pages to the Roleplaying Tips web site for those of you who cannot request autoresponders. Check Wednesday on the home page in the ‘What’s New’ section for the links.

Lower Mainland, BC Gaming Convention

I have information about a gaming convention that’s taking place in February 2001 in Mission, BC. As most of you are not from BC, Canada I won’t trouble you with the details.

Contact me privately for more information:
[email protected]

I hope you enjoy this week’s issue. It’s more theory than specifics. I try to keep the issues as practical as possible–real stuff you can use right after reading them, such as the villains tips series–but I’ll include the odd meta game theory tips, such as this issue’s, once in awhile. Let me know if you have an opinion about theory articles vs. practical articles, content-wise or frequency wise.


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Having Fun Is The Biggest Reward

I believe the best reward in roleplaying is having fun and enjoying the roleplaying experience. It doesn’t matter whether you are playing a hack ‘n slash dungeon crawl, a political diceless Amber game or a serious World of Darkness horror game, if you and your players do not enjoy yourselves then you won’t play again.

Different games require different behaviors, playing styles and GMing styles. So, “having fun” isn’t just sitting down and playing a game. You need to attune yourself to your group’s overall wants and desires.

For example, if after playing several espionage stories your players want to try something different, but you start another espionage story, there could be trouble…

Other player wants can include:

  • Genre (i.e. fantasy, sci-fi, horror, cartoon…)
  • Game system (rules light, rules intensive, systemless…)
  • Playing time (i.e. playing late into the night may make some players uncomfortable or miss the end of sessions)
  • Location (distractions, other people, comfortable seating, easy to get to…)
  • Game style (lots of joking around, very serious, character intensive, story intensive…)
  • Group size (small and intimate may make shy players uncomfortable, large and boisterous may turn-off players who like lots of character development)

So, make sure your game tries to cater to everyone’s preferences to ensure you all have fun.

Success Is The Second Biggest Reward

Having fun is a key to feeling rewarded for roleplaying, and so is success. Success means, among other things:

  • Character goals are achieved
  • Player goals for their character are achieved
  • Players’ plans succeed
  • Plots and stories move forward

There was a time when I’d throw a wrench into every player’s plan. I’d make sure all group efforts and plans were met with almost overwhelming complications. And every success was tainted with a secret hitch.

I’ve learned, as far as my game style goes, and perhaps this suits your group’s style too, that it can be just as rewarding planning things as it is doing them.

Planning is like a puzzle. It’s problem solving. It’s a different kind of “encounter” than combat and action. And if you insist your players do their planning in-character, it is a tremendous roleplaying encounter/opportunity too.

However, if you reward every good plan with failure then your group will learn planning is useless. They’ll say “it doesn’t matter what we do so let’s just charge”.

So, nowadays, if I’m presented with a *good* plan by the group, I’ll often let it succeed without serious complication and with high compensation. If the players have just spent two hours bickering back and forth in-character, tailoring a solid plan, I’m going to let it succeed. To me, that’s equivalent to a two hour combat encounter, or a two hour difficult puzzle encounter. It’s good gaming.

Other ways you can help your players feel success:

  • Automatic knowledge (i.e. a player asks you if their character knows about “xyz”; you can turn this around into a character development opportunity by saying yes and then asking the player why or how).
  • Easy and average tasks/skill checks.
  • Having NPCs react favorably when spoken to.

I’m not advising making everything incredibly easy (and thus boring) for the characters. But, constantly grinding your players down with trivial skill checks, negative reactions from NPCs and always saying “no”, can take the fun out of the game for them.

Let them succeed more often than they fail and celebrate their successes.

Understand What You Are Rewarding The Players For

Just like Pavlov and his dog, the actions and behaviors you reward will be re-enforced and (hopefully) repeat themselves. If you reward for action and combat, then you’ll get players who seek out combat and action. If you reward for roleplaying, you’ll get more roleplaying.

If you have a campaign where you feel there is too much combat and you would prefer more roleplaying, it’s most likely because your players are being well rewarded for shooting first and asking questions later, whether you realize it or not.

Consider this, rewards have four sources:

  1. Game master
  2. Other players
  3. Game rules
  4. Himself/Herself (i.e. the player)

Now, think about a good combat scene that recently took place in your game:

  • Game master: Did you have fun? Were you excited and enthusiastic? Enthusiasm is always contagious–thus a form of reward to your players.
  • Other players: Did the players have fun? Dice rolling is like gambling–addictive. A well-timed critical hit causes the whole group to cheer and brings glory to the lucky player. Was there tension and excitement? The peer social reward in combat scenes can be great indeed!
  • Game rules: Did the characters get some kind of experience/skill/hero points for the combat? Would they have received the same amount, if any, for talking their way out of that situation? Your game rules and house rules will encourage a certain style of play.
  • The Player: Did each player have fun during the scene? Did their character grow in power? Did they get individual treasure from the looting afterwards or a share of the group treasure? Were they able to put another notch or two in their scabbard?

This is just an example, as your group may have a completely different dynamic. But I hope it illustrates a few ways, which you may not have thought about before, about the different sources of rewards and how they may be re- enforcing an unwanted group gaming style.

Set Clear Rewards

You can really drive a campaign in a direction of your choosing by clearly communicating the future in-game rewards for the various actions the PCs could take.

For example, the king summons the PCs and asks them to vanquish the evil dragon in exchange for his youngest daughter’s hand in marriage and a whole lot of gold (bet you’ve never heard that plot hook before eh?). Fine. The PCs go out, slay the beast, return, one of them gets hitched and the others become rich as princes.

However, you could make the rewards perfectly clear to the PCs like this:

  • The king summons the PCs and offers them gold and his daughter’s hand in marriage.
  • But first, the king’s aide takes a PC aside and “leaks the story” about the king’s commission before the royal meeting takes place. He says that anyone who could slay a dragon would be powerful indeed. And the current King’s Warden is old and his health is failing. Any hero who could claim to have landed the killing blow on the evil dragon would surely convince the king’s advisors that he would be worthy for that position.
  • A different PC accidentally meets the Princess before the meeting. He learns she seeks a hero worthy of her hand, for only a man of great wisdom and intellect would be deserving of the title “King” which would inevitably be his someday.
  • A merchant meets with a PC after the meeting and says he has an interesting investment opportunity for the man with enough means (and the opportunity is one that would really interest the player/PC and would be clearly stated to the PC by the merchant).
  • The royal wizard draws aside the party wizard after the PCs have accepted the king’s offer and explains to him the wondrous magic items and potions which could be manufactured using various parts of an ancient dragon as prime ingredients. (The wizard mentions a few items which the PC is currently hunting for.)

In this example, making the reward clear was an exercise of creating a specific, customized reward for each PC. You don’t need to do this every time. The main point is to drive your campaign in the direction you want by letting the PCs know what’s in it for them, at all times.

To drive the above story towards a roleplaying situation instead of a legendary battle, you could make a few small changes:

  • The king’s aide informs the PC that the dragon is the only thing from keeping the goblin barbarians to the north from sweeping down into the kingdom’s villages, but the king must take the risk because too many people and sheep are being eaten by the ancient lizard. A hero who could solve both problems would be worthy of the title “King’s Warden”.
  • The Princess is a pacifist, and she will disobey her father by running away should he make her wed a man of violence.
  • The merchant needs the dragon alive for his investment opportunity to work.
  • The royal wizard explains that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity because dragon parts lose their magic-enhancing aura after a period of time and no other dragon in the land is so ancient. (i.e. a clever PC could try to negotiate an on-going supply of fresh scales, teeth, etc. from the dragon.)

Always Reward For Having Fun

Your first priority should be ensuring that your players have a good experience at your game table. If you create a negative GM vs. players atmosphere, you will just foster players who are out to get you and not the villains in your stories.

Be prepared to override your plans for the sake of rewarding for having fun. For example, if the PCs handily defeat your villain way too early in your game, feel free to get upset but don’t take it out on your players. Instead, reward them for their luck/skill and for having fun. Being the game master, you have an unlimited basket of villains to throw at them, so allow them their victory and do not ruin their fun by being vindictive.

I keep harping on “fun” because I believe having fun is its own reward:

  • Players having fun are always in a good mood. Everyone gets along when they’re having fun.
  • It isn’t a struggle assembling your group for each session if they know it’s going to be a fun time.
  • The overall playability of your games will skyrocket if everyone enjoys themselves (i.e. rules lawyers will forgive more transgressions if they’re having fun…).

So, the formula could be:
Fun = Reward = Fun

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Personal Tip Request: Encouraging Roleplaying

Here’s a personal tips request for you: I receive several emails a week about GMs who have difficulties with players or groups who prefer combat over roleplaying. And these GMs would like to sway their players away from “shoot first, ask questions later” towards more in-character roleplaying.

Any tips or ideas? If I get enough responses on this hot topic I’ll share with everyone and either dedicate an issue to the subject or I’ll create a supplemental issue.


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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Non-Linear Stories & Be Careful About Spotlighting Shy Players

Non-Linear Stories

From: Toran

First of all: Thanks a lot for your great e-zine. I’m a GM most often myself, and I really enjoyed getting such a lot of help, campaign and organisation ideas. Without it, my players and I would surely have had a lot less fun up to now…

Now, here’s my Tip. In Issue #50, Bryan gave a few suggestions concerning ‘cut scenes’ – I’d like to go a step further, into non-linear stories. To explain this, let me tell you a really great story my players and I once played (maybe the best one we’ve had up to now)…

It was the first story for us in a completely new RP system; we had already gone through all that Prelude stuff (the PC’s backgrounds, how they got together etc.), but still, the game’s world was very unfamiliar to the players. I started them off with a car chase – they were sitting inside a pizza transporter, driving for their lives from quite a lot of black limos.

Of course, none of the players knew whom these cars belonged to and why they were after them. But they got into the scene quite quickly and managed to shake off the limos and drive out of the city – straight towards a crashed bridge over an incredibly deep chasm…

This was the moment I ended this scene. The magic words “Now let’s see how this all began…” followed and _now_ the story started from its beginning. The players were again confronted with the black limos and the people in them, this time finding out who they were and so on, and finally ended up in a pizza van, driving for their lives…

I think this approach is quite useful for catching the player’s attention up front – as any novelist could tell you, the first line is the most important one, so best start with an action scene, even if that scene happens later on during the story – you can get back to the _real_ (chronological) beginning of the story later on. Just think of most of the James Bond movies – they start with an action scene, without the audience really knowing what’s going on…

Another advantage to this kind of dramatics is that the players have got an orientation from the beginning – they know where they should get to later on, and they even have a first motivation – finding out what all the stuff in the beginning scene really meant.

Of course, there are also a few risks, so here’s my personal advice how to counter them:

First of all, the seemingly enormous danger of the players trying to disrupt the GM’s plans, just for the fun of it. In the above example, that would be the players trying to avoid pizza vans at all costs, never risking any car chases or dying before the chase could start.

I’ve found out that this is in most cases a GM-induced problem. If you get a good story going and the players really like it, they’ll do their very best to aid you in producing a filmlike dramatic storyline. If they’re not having fun with you – well, the next possibility would be to have fun _against_ you. In destroying your storylines and such. There’s only one good solution for this kind of thing: Check your relationship with your players…

Another problem might be that your players feel restricted by this kind of storyline, not being able to determine its path themselves… well, in this case, non-linear stories are simply not a good tool in use with your players. The best solution here is to leave it – it’s a great thing, but if your players don’t like it, don’t force them.

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Be Careful About Spotlighting Shy Players

From Alan K.

Useful info in your latest newsletter, which I received Nov. 19th, 2000.

But where it comes to spotlighting players, a problem arises where a shy person is concerned.

Not everybody enjoys being spotlighted, so it helps to know a person well enough to know when he would appreciate being the focus of the action.

The best way to do this is to observe your players during the course of a game.

  • When does the shy player speak up?
  • When is he most involved in the game?
  • When is he least involved?
  • At what points is he an active participant?
  • At what points is he a passive observer?

During non-game time, learning what interests your players can help in getting them motivated during the game, and will help with getting the shy player involved, when he wishes to be involved.

But remember, just because somebody is not actively involved doesn’t mean he’s not enjoying himself. Most like to do, a few would rather watch. Anybody who isn’t enjoying himself will either let you know, or stop coming to the games. If the player keeps coming, and stays in the background, he’s enjoying your game, he’s just not interested in being the focus of attention.