Wednesday, December 21, 2005


Ever since reading Alfie Kohn's Punished By Rewards I've been a little uneasy about the way Forge theorists throw around "rewards" as the key to game design.

Jim Henley articulated similar concerns a little while ago:

I promised Elliot I'd promote a developing comment-thread drift into the subect of reward systems to a top-level entry, but I don't have time to make it any better than I did in the comments. On one level, all I'm doing is saying "But the play is its own reward!" one more damn time, but I'm also trying to explain how I think that is necessarily the case.

If there's a formal reward system that gives me X, say, experience points, for doing Y, is the idea that I'll do Y so I can accrue my X? Because what is it about X that makes it worth having, necessarily? Chances are the function of X is to make me more effective yet at doing Y, right? (It has to do something.) So if I wouldn't be inclined to do Y in the first place, why would I do it just to get X so I can do Y even more? (Or even better.)

Take "classic" D&D. If I kill things and take their stuff, I get experience points. Which will make me better at killing things and taking their stuff. IF I want to kill things and take their stuff in the first place, I'm good. But if not, not. If I really want to kill things and take their stuff, why start me out bad at that, and only make me good later? This is probably related to why so many actual existing D&D campaigns start characters out at 3rd level or 8th level or whatever - the written reward cycle fails to match up with player desires.
"Reward" to me brings up the idea of "external motivation" -- "you do this and then you get that." "Be a good boy and you get a cookie." "Be a good employee and you might get a nice annual review and a raise."

Henley's post clearly articulates the absurdity of this... and the commenters agree and say that's not what "reward" means in context of Forge discussions. But I'm not sure what it does mean, and I'm not sure I will without reading a whole bunch of threads that I'm not gonna have time to read, about the concept of a "reward cycle."

And Jim didn't even find those threads that helpful:

Hi Mark: You might be right. I did read the "reward cycle" threads. I think it's an interesting term that is currently bound up in some circular definition (the it's what signals the end of an "instance of play" which is "enough play to figure out what the creative agenda is" etc). And the reward cycle threads did in fact seem to focus quite a bit of attention on reward mechanics too - hence the "what's the reward cycle for sim?" question segues into "most of the one's I've seen are actually negative, like punishments for 'bad roleplaying'" turn that one of them took.

So I'd like to learn: what do you think would be a formal, intentional reward cycle that would be distinct from a formal, intentional reward mechanic?
Perhaps the best commentary is from Neel, who brings up the Matrix Game, which has no explicit reward mechanics.... or does it? If you make an argument that seems "strong" to the referee, your stuff happens. That's the reward, right?

I dunno. It is a puzzlement.


Bankuei said...

Here's a freaky thought- rewards are not the "Stuff that Matters", but they're a very useful tool towards getting it.

For example, D&D IS about killing monsters- xp gives you new ways to kill monsters. It's designed as a focusing mechanism for strategy of combat.

Dogs in the Vineyard "rewards" players with being able to change their characters, improving or reducing Traits and stats accordingly, but all it serves to do is make it easier for the players to say something with their characters.

Rewards are never the end goal- it's like the "finger pointing to the moon"- they're an indicator and tool to drive play to the goal.

Frank said...

Chris - that's my thought too, and I think that's why Ron always talks about reward cycle.

My gut feeling is that's also why I discovered the players really weren't all that concerned with how I figured out how much XP to award in my D20 Arcana Evolved campaign (but they did notice, and were bothered by, the player who was getting way more XP than anyone else when we were using the Sweet20 keys system).

Of course the actual reward in D20 is levelling up your character. And as long as you get to do that often enough, and as long as players can see the reward cycle actually produce (and they're in tune with the reward cycle), they're happy.

Another thought I had a couple weeks ago is that the cycle around Vincent's Fruitful Void is the reward cycle. Which of course means what's in the fruitful void is the real reward.

If I really want to kill things and take their stuff, why start me out bad at that, and only make me good later?

I don't think the issue here is strictly that increasing character ability (levelling up) makes one bad at the start. The problem is that in D&D the character is too fragile at low level. It's too easy to get knocked off the path and then the reward cycle is broken.


Bankuei said...

Hi Frank,

What I'm saying is that killing monsters is the point of the game- the real "reward of play" is there, but the leveling up? That's a tool to focus towards that.

Ben said...

I agree. The reward cycle of Polaris is pretty much a direct cop to this.


Frank said...

Chris -

Hmm, is the actual point the killing, or the tactical play that leads up to the killing? Subtle distinction, but I think the tactical play is the fruitful void. The actual killing, the XP earned for such, and the levelling up (so you have more interesting tactical choices) is the cycle that surrounds that fruitful void.

And the problem with 1st level play is not enough tactical options, due to fragility of the characters, spell casters not getting enough spells [only 1 spell in 1e], fighters not having many feats, etc.


Ed said...

I think I understand less now than when I started. :)

All I know is I don't think it's useful for me to use the word "reward" to talk about these things.

Here's a totally different metaphor.

We tend to have fun when we are challenged. Not when we are stymied, and not when there is no resistance. When there is enough complexity, and enough demand on us, to absorb our attention. State of flow.

You can think of reward systems in the context of challenge. A "reward" is feedback: an indication that you have met a challenge and there are further challenges ahead. In and of itself, "rewards" are nothing. But in the context of a challenging activity, where they mark the boundaries between challenge cycles, they become meaningful.

Then you can ask: in what context does the game challenge you? Instead of, for what does the game reward you?

That removes (for me) the unfortunate doggie-biscuite connotations of "reward."

Although I still worry that "challenge" is too closely tied to implications of win-loss, success-failure, and the like.

I dunno. Does modulating "reward" into "challenge" make any sense to others?

Frank said...

Hmm, challenge could be useful. It does automatically make one consider gamism, but for narativism, I think there is challenge. It is challenge of ideas/morals/whatever. Look at the advice in Dogs to take the statements the players make by their choices, and push them hard "What about THIS situation?" That's a challenge of the position the player has taken by his thematic statements.

I think challenge could be applied to simulationism also, in that it's challenge of the dream. Does the dream hold up under this input?

Thinking of challenge may help see that the reward isn't the doggie biscuit, but the satisfaction of meeting the challenge the game poses (whether that be gamist, narativist, or simulationist).


Ed said...

Right. Without getting too GNS-masturbatory, one might suggest that narrativist games use their rules to challenge you to deal with thematic conflicts, gamist games use their rules to challenge you to deal with competitive, win-lose struggles, and simulationist games perhaps challenge you to put the "what if" through its paces?

I dunno. It does make more sense to me personally to talk about "where/how does it challenge you" instead of "for what does it reward you". I don't know if it's a necessary distinction for anyone else but it helps me.

Bankuei said...


You're right- tactical is the point of D&D. Sorry for the shorthand.


Spot on. I look very closely at what sort of meaningful input the player is expected to give as a big flag to what the game is about. Reward is one way of focusing that.

A useful comparison would be to look at the role of money in Monopoly- the money is a reward system (and a focal currency unit), but it's not the real joy of play. At the end of the game, the money is still fake, but the game experience is what sticks with the player.

John Harper said...


Your "challenge" thing is what I mean when I say "reward" and "reward cycle." Exactly the same. If you want a different term, challenge seems problematic. If you want to reach some understanding, mission accomplished. Great post.

Ed said...

Yeah, "challenge" isn't quite right for me. Too many interpersonal, win/loss connotations, and that's not at all what we're talking about here. But it avoids the "doggie biscuit" extrinsic-motivator implications of "reward."

I guess I'm happy to know what "reward"/"reward cycle" is supposed to mean, but I'm not happy with the terms.

But that's OK. :)

Alan Kellogg said...

Rewards? How about...

A good adventure
Meeting interesting people
Solving a mystery
Accomplishing a task
Prevailing against overwhelming odds
Dying an epic death
Having Plan A work for once?

Any other suggestion?

Bankuei said...

Hi Ed,

I think the big tripping point is that we tend to think of "reward of play"(which is some kind of fun) instead of a specific tool that helps us get that.

I tend to use "Stuff that Matters" as the term to define the real reward of play, and "reward cycle" as a way to get Stuff that Matters- which might be anything in Alan's list or anything you might find worthwhile in a game.

Troy_Costisick said...


I wrote something about rewards on my blog. Rather than be redundant and sumarize it here, I'll just direct you to my post.



Ed said...

Thanks, Troy. Not sure I'm convinced by your post -- that a direct parallel from Ron's "System Does Matter" is relevant -- but I'm glad to have that to think about.

Sydney Freedberg said...

This recent Forge thread -- -- was really helpful to me. (It's also hotlinked to my name, I think).

The bottom line I took away: rewards/reinforcement/whatever is not about a mechanical thing in the game. It is about how the other real live people you're playing with treat you in response to something you do, thereby reinforcing (or discouraging) you the real live person from doing that thing again. Levelling up, rewriting your character sheet, etc. only matter in so far as they somehow impress the other people at the table.

Ed said...

Sydney -- totally yeah! I had seen that thread shortly before you commented and was happy at how well it addressed my wonderings.