Hello. My name is Landrew, and I’m a role-playing game junkie…
Hello fellow junkies! In an earlier article, I talked about some rewards that games give players to keep them hooked. After listening to the feedback I got on the article and giving it some more thought, I decided it might be nice to hook my readers up with some solid tips on where to get the rewards they want. In this article, I point out some games (we’ll call them ‘dealers’) that do a great job of providing players with the rewards they want (e.g. a ‘fix’).
These recommendations are limited by word count (all hail the corporate leaders) and by my own experience - which is heavily based on Dungeons and Dragons 3.5, the original Rifts, Marvel Superheroes, Fate, and Shadowrun. If you have your own recommendations for reward mechanics, please post them in the comments!
1. “Uppers:” Levelling Up/Character Advancement
There’s nothing like good old Dungeons and Dragons for enjoyable character advancement. Although there are definitely some cool things about 5th edition, I’ll take 3.5 any day to get a good high. Feats, skills, and base attack bonuses... the rules are crunchy, maybe, but that’s part of the fun! It’s like a tinker gnome assembling nifty trinkets into a deadly whole. While I prefer simplicity during gameplay, complexity during character creation and advancement is a heck of a lot of fun.
Pass that rare, dangerous, and somewhat broken source book, please!
Honourable mentions go out to cool combat tricks and spells that can be earned in Kevin Siembada’s Rifts, and the power stunts mechanic in Marvel Superheroes.
2. “Bling & Benjamins:” Gear and Money
The nominees for the ‘best gear’ award are tied, in my mind. If you want cool gear with its own stats, you can’t get much better than the gear lists from Rifts and Shadowrun. The detailed weapon descriptions add an irreplaceable layer of realism to the game world in both settings.
I would be remiss if I didn’t include the gear lists from Dungeons and Dragons, as well. Again, recent game design theory is often critical of gear lists, saying that gameplay gets bogged down in the details.
“Do you have a ten-foot pole on your inventory list? Doesn’t that make you encumbered?”
However, removing gear lists also removes the fun of neat equipment-specific tricks and having exactly the right piece of gear at the right time. There’s got to be a happy medium out there somewhere...
3. “Hallucinogens & Immersion:” Exploring Game World Settings
Which games have the best settings to discover? With all due respect to the many worlds based on Dungeons and Dragons (or were they called realms? I’ve forgotten), this award goes to Shadowrun first, with Rifts as a close runner-up. In the funny world of game publishing, game mechanics are not considered intellectual property - check out the first two paragraphs of this handy pdf from the US Copyright Office. Given this, a lot of the effort that goes into game design is poured into things that can be copyrighted, like setting, supporting characters, and game history.
Hands down, nobody does this better than Shadowrun. It is based on an alternate timeline beginning in the 1980s and winding up in a dystopian cyberpunk future where magic and dragons have returned. The history of this alternate timeline is compelling, detailed, and strangely realistic. It features complex interactions on both the geopolitical and local level. For example, the last will and testament of the great dragon Dunkelzahn, late president of the United Canadian and American States, features enough loose ends and just enough interesting detail to provide plenty of role-playing hooks, while also just being a great piece of fiction in its own right.
Also, Rifts. Thank you Kevin, for successfully describing a world in which literally anything can happen. Because, magic.
4. “The Mind Job:” Problem Solving
Again, not to play favourites, but Shadowrun is my favourite for built-in problem-solving opportunities. The many heist-style modules lend themselves well to sitting down with your buddies trying to figure out a way to beat the odds. I like it because, though it is frankly combat-heavy, there are still a very large number of non-linear possibilities. Oh, that powerful security team can outgun us? How about when the commander is persuaded to give just one poor order to his team because his cousin’s buddy has the BTL he wants? Now the security goons are in the wrong place at the right time for them to notice our distraction, while the mage hacker ghosts in undetected. There’s nothing like the satisfying click of an opening safe in a heist gone right.
5. “The Happy Ending:” Resolving Story Arcs
Jumping off the Shadowrun train for a bit, the best story-based mechanic that I’ve encountered so far is Evil Hat’s Fate system. I say ‘so far’ because I know there’s a ton of games emerging that have built-in story mechanics… I just haven’t tried them yet. Fate has a lot of cool points. The use of descriptors, called aspects, as part of the mechanic means that conflict has a built-in narrative quality to it. More importantly, however, is that character advancement is tied to story development rather than arbitrary monster XP values. Gameplay is divided into chunks like a TV show: scenes, scenarios (think episodes), arcs (seasons), and campaigns. The characters advance by reaching different ‘milestones,’ which are reached at the end of each chunk of the story. Advancement happens because of the characters’ experiences, which makes a ton of sense and is super satisfying as a player. With this structure, it becomes very easy to enjoy the feeling of closure you get from finishing the latest season of your favourite show.
As you can see, no single game has everything. There are enough great games out there, however, that it’s not too difficult to find the reward you’re looking for. I hope this article helps you put a handle on what you want out of your games as a player; or maybe it will help a gamemaster find out what to give his/her players to keep stringing them along. No matter what, post your ideas in the comments, and let’s take our games to the next level.
Landrew is a full-time educator, part-time art enthusiast. He applies his background in literature and fine arts to his favourite hobby (role-playing games) because the market for a background in the Fine Arts is very limited. He writes this blog on company time under a pseudonym. Long live the Corporation!
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.