Be honest, role-playing used to be this thing that “other people” did. It was okay for “those people,” but you wouldn’t be caught wasting time on nerdy make-believe games. Then a friend asked you, “Hey what are you doing Saturday?” Now you’re trying to juggle your career and family while desperately hunting for your next chance to wield a greataxe, stick-n-shock pistol, or grimoire to face whatever the gamemaster throws at you.
What happened to you, man?
The rewards built into role-playing games are (for many) what make role-playing fun. They give a sense of accomplishment or closure, and make games more satisfying. It’s worth it to consider how to provide rewards, because correctly managing them is the key to making your role-playing sessions enjoyable.
There’s a wealth of great articles about role-playing games which discuss different role-playing personalities. Many of them are based on Robin's Laws of Good Game Mastering, by Robin D. Laws, and others (including these one, two, and three from the HLG archives) play around with applying psychological theories to gaming. While these articles talk about motivations behind these personalities, little time is spent talking about the rewards role-playing games actually give players to keep them coming back like Candy Crush junkies.
Here are five things that I’ve noticed people want from role-playing games. This is not an exhaustive list, and if you can think of any other rewards built into game mechanics, please mention them in the comments!
1. Levelling Up/Character Advancement
I can’t wait to get to level 12!! With another feat and the ability score increase I’ll be shooting so many arrows into so many knees that they’ll start offering arrow-to-the-knee insurance along with accidental death and dismemberment.
Some games have specific rules governing how a particular character class advances, while others leave the assignment of character points to the individual player. However it’s done, this classic feature of role-playing games has something for everyone. The power-gamer gets to do more damage. The specialist gets a cool new trick or ability. A new spell learned can either mean more damage, a new trick, or both. In class-based systems, there usually an aspect of world-building, where characters can uncover different aspects of a race/species, or class as they gain experience. Any game worth its salt must have a means for character advancement if they want to foster a sense of accomplishment.
2. Gear and Money
Aanoor spread the coins on the table. The merchant’s eyes bulged.
“I want the sword. Please,” Aanoor asked quietly.
The merchant hesitated, about to ask something, but closed his mouth. He turned and reached for the masterfully-wrought sword and scabbard mounted behind the counter.
“This sword has been waiting a long time for the right person,” the merchant said,
“I’m glad it finally found you.”
Gear lists are often criticized as rules-heavy or interfering with role-playing. However, for many players, the thrill of locating and obtaining gear makes the game. For some, locating an artifact or ancient tome can be an important part of worldbuilding. Big guns and axes are fun for everyone, not just the power gamer. Gadgets and tools can enhance a character’s capabilities, and new spells (yes, I mentioned them already) are often things that need to be tracked down and learned. Don’t underestimate the attraction of equipment lists for your strategists and gear-heads.
Graft stood, his head bowed, for what seemed like an eternity. The dragon finally spoke in his mind.
<You have done well.>
“Thank you, Ghostwalker.”
<I grant you part of the history of what you seek. Sit on the divan.>
Graft sat. The dragon paused, then looked directly into Graft’s soul.
<Tell me,> he asked. <What do you know about Dunkelzahn's Will?>
For some players, especially storytellers and actors, nothing is better than the thrill of piecing together the fabric of the larger world that serves as a background to the characters’ story. This can mean unravelling the plot behind international intrigue or influencing world-shattering events. It can mean co-creating new realms that have not yet been defined. It can also be as simple as discovering what force is behind certain strange happenings. Regardless, developing a sense of mystery about the fictional world builds another reward that characters are able to uncover and enjoy.
4. Problem Solving
Everything worked like a charm.
The explosives detonated just as the column was fully in the ravine. Surgical strikes from the commandos eliminated the officers, while the infantry concentrated fire on the gun turret of the tank, immobilizing, if not completely destroying, it. Lazlo and his team secured the armoured van and the area around it, while the rest of the group accepted the surrender of the remaining hopelessly disorganized troops. Mission accomplished.
It all took about six seconds.
Another overlooked hook for gamers is the emergence of problems to be solved. Good tacticians can make short work of combat encounters far beyond the group’s skill level. Social intrigue and mysteries provide opportunities for a character’s non-combat skills to shine. Finally, good old-fashioned puzzles and riddles provide challenge and foster a sense of fairy-tale fantasy. A game of Munchkin-like door-kicking and monster-slaying is fun for a while, but if there aren’t any non-linear problems to solve, the players will likely get bored.
5. Resolving Story Arcs
“Where you gonna go, Doc?”
Silas clicked his suitcase shut. “Out east. I’ll see if Sherry will take me back. I’m getting out of this life, for sure. I think I’ve redeemed myself.”
He thought of the prisoners they’d released, and the PR mess they’d made for Biomart by leaking information to the media. It felt good.
Silas turned, said goodbye to his old friend, then left without looking back.
Story is kind of a big deal. As I mentioned in a previous article, there are some role-playing and storytelling pitfalls to avoid - but in the end, role-playing games are really about telling a story with a group of friends. Most games approach this differently, from leaving story entirely in the player's’ hands, to creating defined story arcs through published modules and campaigns. What is most important (and most satisfying), though, is when the characters have the opportunity to resolve player defined plot points. The feeling of closure when your Inigo Montoya finally kills the six-fingered man is something that can’t be traded for gold.
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!
Links to other articles, in the order they appear in the text (just in case they don’t transfer to the blog).
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.