A lot of GMing is about motivating people. Players and characters are looking for reasons to undertake actions, and while some of these are going to be reasons they create themselves, other ones will be created by the GM. Often, this motivation takes the form of the bait for an adventure hook, and involves the promise of a reward or the threat of a penalty. Today I want to look at what makes rewards and penalties meaningful, and more importantly, at who you’re motivating when you offer one thing over another. The first rule of sales is know your audience, and it’s no different in gaming.
For a reward to be meaningful, it has to be something that people desire. A lot of RPGs use experience points, which serve as something everyone wants, and rewards for overcoming challenges are doled out in those forms. Spirit of the Century doesn’t have experience, and instead rewards people who, for example, defeat an opponent in combat, with the right to tell the story of how it ends, extracting concessions from their foe. A reward doesn’t have to be mechanical though. Understanding people’s goals can help you come up with other rewards which are tailored to individuals, or to the party.
For a penalty to be meaningful, it has to disincentivize an action or behaviour. It has to be meaningful enough that people genuinely want to avoid it. Most games incorporate this into their combat mechanics, because combat tends to create the most situations you want to avoid (like being on the ground with an orc bashing your head in). Character death is a form of penalty, though whether it’s a necessary one is an interesting question for another time. Games like Spirit of the Century, 7th Sea, and Toon don’t have any character death whatsoever. The penalty in those contexts isn’t the death per se, but the cutting off of that character’s existence, and usually the cost of starting behind the rest of the group a bit. Paranoia characters have five lives, making death less meaningful and more an amusing bit of gameplay, because dying doesn’t actually cost you much. The classic vocabulary for this uses the word “Punishment” instead of “Penalty”, but I think the latter is a better fit. GMs aren’t in a position to punish people or characters, because that implies the removal of choice and a kind of direct intervention that I don’t advocate.
Now, the mechanics are in control of some of the rewards. They usually take care of things like how many experience points people get, how much treasure, and sometimes even what kinds of treasure. They also govern penalties, setting out how characters accrue them and what they are. In D&D you’re rewarded for killing monsters and taking their stuff, and penalized for not being up to the challenge of doing so (usually with the death of your character). But these mechanics aren’t rewards and penalties that the GM uses per se, they’re built into the game. The rewards and penalties that interest me are the ones employed directly by the GM to motivate the players and the characters. The bait of an adventure hook is a reward, whether it’s money up front or the promise of treasure at the end. Characters being punished for crimes is a penalty, a factor of the world designed to disincentivize that behaviour. These kinds of things are directly up to the GM. There can be some ethical issues surrounding that, and I want to explore them, but not today. Today I want to look at the difference between rewarding players and rewarding characters.
Things like experience points are metagame rewards. They reward players by improving characters. Fate points and other mechanics like them fall under this, and the promise of them can help motivate players toward certain kinds of behaviour. The most ubiquitous example of this is roleplaying xp. Giving out ad hoc experience for good roleplaying is about motivating players to do something, and requires a metagame reward. If you were to offer them treasure for their characters, they would then have to explain that treasure in game, but experience works differently. Metagame penalties are harder to pick out, because I think they’re not used as often. The kinds of things over which you’d ask someone to leave don’t count because they’re about general conduct rather than behaviour relating to the game. An example of a metagame penalty is the practice of docking experience points when people speak out of character. The idea behind is is that the fear of this penalty will motivate players to spend more time interacting in character.
Motivating characters can be done through a number of ways. Treasure is the most obvious example, but there’s also prestige, which can help a character become part of the setting. They can also be brought closer to one of their goals. These also reward the player of course, but doing it in an in character context can help you create tension between the player and their character. If Steve doesn’t want his ranger to fight his nemesis for a few more levels, but you dangle a juicy bit of information about the whereabouts of said nemesis, Steve has to make interesting choices about what to do. The classic “in character” penalty that a GM employs to motivate a character to take on a particular challenge is “Save the princess” where princess can be replaced with anyone the character cares about. Not acting will mean they get eaten by a dragon or something else with lots of teeth and a large appetite, so it motivates the character to mount a rescue. Another form of penalty is the loss of some of the rewards mentioned previously. The possibility of losing treasure, prestige, or getting farther away from one’s goals can all be motivating to a character.
There’s a lot of questions which can be pursued here, and in the next few weeks I’m going to look at some of them, including using some examples from my own game to show how I try and motivate both players and characters. There’s a question about meaningful choices, about the difference between asking and telling, and about the ethics of setting up these kinds of rewards/penalties. What do you find to be effective when motivating players? How about characters?