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“You Find a Box Full of Character Points”

Posted by on July 28, 2010

Award systems are tough in RPGs.  You have two basic varieties:

  • You get XP for accomplishing certain things like killing stuff, getting rich, blowing up the enemy ship, etc., to the exclusion of everything else.
  • You get an arbitrary reward from the GM basic on ephemeral concepts like “good roleplaying.”

The second system is what is outlined for the GURPS system, and it’s touted as being better because it encouraged roleplaying as opposed to munchkin killing machines.  Unfortunately it’s also totally unfair.

Everyone who considers himself a “roleplayer,” whether GM or player, has a unique perspective on what the hell that means.  To some people, it means acting in the persona of your character.  To others it means being impossibly well-versed in the lore and traditions of the game world (which in fact you probably just made up and didn’t really tell anyone else about so that you could lord your “superior roleplaying” over them).  To others it means playing your flaws well, and what better way than to take lots of really annoying flaws, thus giving you maximum roleplaying opportunity?  Who else but a master roleplayer could play this hunchback pyromaniac one-legged alcoholic pirate with delusions about being a space alien?  And so what if it takes two hours to pantomime the part out to the exclusion of everyone else?  Look what an AWESOME roleplayer I am!

Screw that.

Arbitrary point reward systems from the perspective of the GM don’t just appear stupid and unfair; they are blatantly stupid and unfair.  All groups that aren’t incestuously insular to the point of extinction have lots of different kinds of roleplayers who all contribute to the primary goal of the gaming session:  having a good time.  These can include (not an exhaustive list):

  • Gonzo roleplayers, who get into a character, like, a lot.  As long as the character isn’t incredibly annoying, this kind of player can be fun to have around, because they help move the narrative along and create an immersive environment for everyone to play in.
  • Fully mission capable players who go after the objective and try to figure out the best way to do it, within reason.  These are also good to have around because, well, you know, the mission will be accomplished, hopefully.  Accomplishments are fun.
  • Funny guys who may not be character crazy or brilliant tacticians, but who make the session fun by being entertaining, taking characters who are funny somehow (because maybe they’re funny themselves, or are there to be laughed at, or are just entertaining in some inspecific way), sometimes making OOC jokes, whatever.  As long as they don’t just think they’re funny (a -15 point delusion for a gamer), they’re good to have.
  • Inexperienced players who aren’t strong in any of these categories, but might potentially grow into one of them.  They don’t really detract from the experience, they don’t really get out of character, maybe they act as good straight men for the funny guy.  Whatever.  Not being center stage does not mean that you don’t contribute to the group dynamic in some way, not leastly by keeping the gaming group from dying off through superior gamer syndrome.

In a flat XP system for kills and treasure and measurable accomplishments, it doesn’t really matter how well you play as long as you get the job done, and the only consequences for being a good contributor vs a bad one are whether or not you continue to play in the group (by self-determination or otherwise).  You don’t suffer at the whims of a subjective GM, but neither do you profit from going the extra mile.  May as well be a spreadsheet.

In a purely subjective rewards system, theoretically you are encouraged to “roleplay more,” but what ultimately ends up happening is one of two things, usually one after the other:

  • Scenario One: The GM goes into the game with some weird sense of what roleplaying actually is, and gives out gobs of extra points to the players (not the characters) who fit that notion.  Other players who maybe think of it in a different way, or who play quiet dour characters, or who just aren’t comfortable trying to take center stage in a theater with one audience member (the GM) get hosed, because they didn’t “roleplay well.”  This isn’t really an incentive system to roleplay better, it’s a system to convince the players that the GM is a dick, or somehow the system is rigged, or maybe this RPG stuff really isn’t for them.  These other players either learn to game the system by lying to the GM for more points, or else they lump around because they really have nothing better to do on Wednesday nights (this is less compelling since the Internet), or they actively try and screw up the other players’ experience to punish them for this unfairness, or they just stop playing.  None of these is beneficial to the group.
  • Scenario Two: Either because the Gm doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, or after suffering the consequences of Scenario One, everyone gets a flat X points after the adventure.  Woohoo.  Now there’s really no incentive to play better anyway, so why bother?  At least in the XP for killing stuff equation you had something to shoot for.

NOTE:  Before anyone thinks, “Points don’t matter, you do it for the love of the game!”, fine, play without points.  I like to think that characters should be able to develop over time and learn from their experiences and get thrown a bone after making an otherwise geeky evening enjoyable, but it’s not necessary.  Obviously players don’t always learn from experience.

I do not like either system fully.  Therefore in the Cago campaign I am doing rewards based on the following criteria:

  • All characters get a flat amount of experience per adventure or story arc or whatever.
  • All characters automatically get a bonus amount of experience; this is the “good roleplaying” bonus.  You get this automatically, but may lose some of it if you do not follow your character’s behavioral disadvantages.  You got points for them at creation time, there is a cost, and the cost is restricted choice in how your character is played, so think carefully about taking Bad Temper, Bully, Bloodlust, On the Edge, and Lecherousness in order to buy up your attributes.  By the way, playing your behavioral disadvantages does not mean you make a lot of control rolls.  And yes, if you took no points for behavioral problems you also don’t have to worry about losing points.
  • All characters may receive bonus experience if they or their players somehow made the session more fun for everyone involved.

This system takes the onus for “good roleplaying” and sticks it right on the heads of the players who take “roleplaying” disadvantages, and provides a meaningful way of forcing consequences for these disadvantages.  It also does not penalize beginners or the shy; just don’t take those disads, size up how the game is played, and figure out how to make things fun for the group.

I sure hope it works.

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