Sunday, January 2, 2011

Rewards and Character Progression

There are several different layers of character and player rewards that can and should be part of the game. I’m endeavoring to find a perfect balance (at least for my play style) of crunch and flexibility. I know that experience awarding (or whatever economy you use for character progression) runs the full gamut from overly complex to far-too-simple. Here are a few things I want to avoid:
- minutia of counting individual experience awards, with all manner of factors for bonuses, penalties and the like (divide the level of the most powerful foe by 15 and add the number of players in the group x3… count every henchman or summoned creature as ½ a player).
- hand-wavey experience that gives the referee few concrete examples to work from (if your group did well, give ‘em 20 more XPs)
- ‘role-playing’ based rewards. This is tough, because you want to reward players for exceptional play… but this leads into a general thought about play styles…

Several GM/Referee sections I’ve seen discuss how to deal with ‘problem players’, or how to characterize the play style of different people in your gaming group. Really, I think that the referee section just needs a paragraph on social dynamics- this is a social game, and the more you know your players and what they are like as people, the better you are going to be at running games for them. You need to listen to and adapt the game for the group of people you are with. For every specific piece of advice you give for how to deal with a ‘rules lawyer’, you are going to have a ‘rules lawyer’ as a player who defies those descriptions. This sort of thinking also fosters a really negative approach to gaming- putting each of your players into a narrow definition before you even start playing. These people are all as complex as you are (and in many cases probably more so!), and deserve to be approached that way.

This applies to rewards in that many GM sections infer a ‘correct’ way to play the game. If you are a social person who has his characters make sacrifices for the group and who tends to play quirky characters, you tend to get rewarded. This is generally the way I play. However, the people I most regularly game with (which is sadly rare these days) have a wide range of styles.

- One player likes to break stuff. As long as she is hitting and dealing a lot of damage, she’s fine. She doesn’t want a lot of tactical options; she doesn’t want fiddly details to worry about. She wants to swing the biggest weapon possible and do the most damage each time.
- Another player likes to encounter epic fantasy elements. She likes dragons and castles and elfin kingdoms. She doesn’t like slogging through dungeons particularly or worrying about the contents of her backpack. She wants to be heroic against medium challenges; she doesn’t want to have to face exceptionally difficult foes or barely escape with her life. She’d prefer to win most fights with only a few scratches on her armor.
- The third player likes to think through all problems. He doesn’t like to get into the heart of a battle. He’d rather sit back, survey what’s happening, help develop strategy, heal, provide support for other characters and generally get as much utility out of his character as he can.
- The fourth player wants to be cool, and find creative new ways to solve every situation. He wants to use flaming arrows to cause the roof to cave in on the group of goblins rather than just firing the arrows at them; he wants to use his pet raven to blind the sorcerer to help the team overcome him, rather than just dishing out as much damage as possible.

At the front end, I’ve endeavored to build the game to tailor all of these styles. The first two players are not going to purchase a lot of resolve; they want to know what they can do and do it. The second two players are going to purchase more resolve; they want flexibility and creativity in the moment. Player three is going to pick up lore, leadership, storytelling, healing, stun, boost spells and energize weapon… he’ll have tons of options for helping the group. Player four is going to take a lot of resolve, allowing him to use his intuition to improve his bow attack, pumping his own fighting into his raven’s talon strike, and generally doing all sorts of whacky things (often successfully, because he built his character to do that).

At the back end, the game shouldn’t penalize players for approaching the game a certain way. If you always give a bonus for ‘heroism’, player three is always going to miss it. He sits back and lets others take all the damage, but he also makes sure that they stay vertical. He typically finds the safest spot on any battle field. That’s how he plays. Penalizing him for this (or rewarding other players for not doing this) will not ‘encourage him to play better’… he plays just fine! All it will do is build slow resentment against the other players, the referee, or the game itself. All of these are detrimental. The same is true for ‘role playing’ rewards or for using special skills or abilities. A thief should not get a special bonus for finding a hidden door; isn’t that just part of his role in the group?

To summarize, the way that experience is doled out should be fair, dynamic, and easy to adjudicate…