This is the first work for Drama and Dragons, my work on “intense roleplaying.” I decided to create a reward system for role playing first because it requires that I define the kind of things I want players to do during the game. I ended up with a much more elaborate role-playing reward system than I’ve seen in any game I’ve played. However, I have played games that the basic mechanics alone are so well integrated with roleplaying that the mechanics alone creates ample rewards for all the behaviours I’ve identified as part of role playing.
Behaviour Analysis of Roleplaying
First, “role playing” is a very complex behaviour. Lets begin a list of what goes into it:
- Acting, voice acting, speaking in character
- Making choices consistent with a character’s personality
- Implying through the subtext of a player’s acting, or the subtext of a character’s actions, the character’s personality, morals, motivations or goals.
- Creating a rich and detailed character personality
- Creating a rich and detailed character history
- Creating a campaign journal, to create an in character commentary on the events of the campaign
- Having a character’s mechanical play be consistent with their personality and history
- Having a character that grows or changes over time
- Having a character history that impacts events during play, either through character controlled advantages (like allies) or by working cooperatively with the GM.
Enabling other players to role play more or better
Having discrete, achievable in-character goals, and working towards them during game time.
- And probably more.
For a behaviour this complex, “roleplaying” is not well defined enough to be used in a reward mechanic.
A Published, Mainstream Game that does it Right:
Lets look at a system that is very simple, but well defined: Nature, Demeanor, and Willpower rules from the old White Wolf games. They might also be in the new White Wolf games; I never bought the new ones, so I don’t know. They are very specific in how a character gets rewarded for roleplaying.
Willpower is a ressource that can be spent to get automatic successes on skill checks and to succeed at resisting mind-effecting supernatural powers. It is replenished by acting in a manner that is consistent with a character’s Nature: a broad description of that character’s psychological makeup. Most of the time, however, a PC acts according to their demeanor. Their demeanor is chosen from the same list as Nature, but it is merely the face they put on for the public. By combing Nature and Demanor, a character can be a badass with a heart of gold, a class clown who’s actually a complete visionary, or a pubic hero who is actually corrupt to the core. There is no reward for acting according to a player’s demeanor.
This system mostly rewards roleplaying behaviour 3: implying through the subtext of a player’s acting, or the subtext of a character’s actions, the character’s personality, morals, motivations, or goals. However, it works very well for doing that.
The number of ways a character can create a subtext about their character is limited more by the player’s acting ability and the player’s creativity when choosing their actions. It is very open ended, and it is still very well defined. If anyone ever tells you that rewards for roleplaying lead to rote behaviour, tell them to play a campaign of Mage: the Ascension. The proof is in the pudding.
But I don’t Want to Play White Wolf Games:
Don’t worry, it is very easy to make reward systems for discrete behaviours that involve role-playing. The hard part is combining multiple rewards into a system, while maintaining some degree of elegance. That’s for later, though.
First, I’m going to say that all roleplaying actions fit at least one of the following three categories: acting, character development, or story development. Developing one of these skills makes it easier to develop the others. A character can only be so well developed if the player can’t act, and the player can’t act if the character has no personality. The character can’t change over time if they don’t interact with the plot. Now lets divide the role-playing behaviours into their categories. Some things fit into multiple categories, so I put them in the category that best represents the skill that is used the most.
Speaking in character
Creating a Rich Personality
Creating a Rich History
Voice acting to convey emotions
Making choices consistent with a character’s personality
Writing a Campaign Journal
Acting with facial expressions, props, and physical movement
Enabling other players to role play more or better
Using history to impact events during play through collaborating with the GM or using specific rules
Having a character that grows or changes over time
Pursuing achievable goals during sessions
Often, the limiting factor on a player’s acting skills is just their comfort. Even though they’re playing with friends, players often feel silly acting. That’s why I divided it up into so many steps. The last step, implying subtext, is the first step that requires a well developed character. It is also the hardest to do, as it relies a great deal on how a player says or does something, not what they say or do.
The first step to developing a character is to give them a personality. The second step is to ensure that all choices are consistent with that personality. This is the simplest way to show off a character’s personality, but it has the drawback of usually being reactive. You may notice that I put “Enabling other players to role play more or better” into the Character Development category. This is because the best way to encourage other players to role play more is to react to their role playing efforts. If Bilbosh the Baritone Bard reacts in-character to Bora the Brawny Barbarian’s actions, how Bilbosh reacts is a great way to further develop and define his personality, and also signifies implicitly that Bora’s actions are significant enough to acknowledge and use during play. PCs can also initiate in-character interactions with other players and accomplish very much the same thing. The big thing to watch out for is that players don’t end up fighting each other for the group’s attention. One drama queen stealing the spotlight from other PCs is not encouraging; it is actually quite discouraging.. The interaction between players presents an opportunity and justification for players to change over time. It allows a players quirks and foibles to be addressed directly. It allows a character to be introduced to new ideas, slowly become accepting of them, and maybe adopt them in the future.
Story development begins with a history, because it can be done mostly independently of other players and the GM. It isn’t very collaborative, so it can be completed at the very beginning of a campaign without any worry about the rest of the players. A campaign journal allows the player to re-describe the events of the campaign, and thus establish their investment in the plot. It also helps the player become more mindful of trends in the plot. This is very easy to do for the same reason a backstory is easy to do: it doesn’t need to be collaborative. However, unless it’s shared with the party it is questionable how much this will have an effect on storytelling or the plot. That’s why there is the next step: impacting events during play. This is for when a player convinces the GM to include a villain from the PC’s past in a mission. This is for when a player uses contacts from their criminal past to find a kidnap victim. This is for when a character who flunked out of wizardry school uses the only spell they ever learned, because the GM was convinced it would be fun to create the perfect situation for that spell.
Accepting where People Fall on the Grid
Some players might be strong enough actors to imply subtext, start each game with a rich personality and a rich history, but don’t interact with the GM or other players at all. Other players hate talking in character, but love everything under the story development category. Their characters can’t interact with others to encourage better roleplaying or foster character change, but they make sure they always act consistently with their established history. Everyone has different degrees of comfort or skill in these three categories. This applies to game masters too.
It’s important to remember that it takes time and effort to get better at any of these, and the GM ought to adjust their expectations. A player who is really good at writing an in character journal can write 250 words of pure poetry in fifteen minutes. A less proficient player will write 1000 words that are far less beautiful in a few hours. Some people can’t put 250 words together if their life depended on it, and that’s okay. I might accept one short paragraph from people. Heck, it could even be all in point form, if someone find writing really tough. The key part is the in-character reflection on the campaign.
With that in mind, remember to adjust expectations for peoples differing abilities. Some players might be skilled enough to skip a step, some might not. Some people may want to stay at a single step until they master it, and others may want to do the minimum on that step and move on quickly. Incorporating this breadth of preference is difficult, but it’s important to respect this so that players have fun.
Defining Grid Squares as Conditions for Rewards
Here is my attempt to define the role playing behaviours in terms that are useful as conditions for rewards. I’ve divided them up into tiers. The first tier doesn’t rely on other skills. The second tier requires tier 1 skills. The third tier requires tier 2 skills. A fourth tier has only one skill in it: having a character that grows or changes over time. Creating a character that evolves naturally over the course of a campaign is probably the hardest thing to accomplish in role-playing. A player has so much less control than a GM, so creating a pleasing character arc is much more difficult than making a pleasing plot line.
Speaking in Character: at least once per session, the player says precisely what they want their character to say.
Creating a rich personality: Define a motivation, a moral or political attitude, and 2 broad traits for a character. These must be kept private from the other players.
A motivation is not a concrete objective; it is a broad motivation for why a character participates in the lifestyle necessary for the game to continue (usually the lifestyle of an adventurer). A moral or political attitude are the beliefs a character has about how they interact with others and evaluate themselves: an honourable character is different than a rebel. Traits are just catch all adjectives about a personality: angry, kind, passionate, creative, analytical, stylish, glamourous.
Creating a character history: Write a short story about a character’s life before the start of the campaign, at least 125 words long, and no more than 10 000 words long.
Voice acting: at least once per session, the player speaks in character in a manner that successfully mimics a particular emotion, status, or role. When tier 3 is unlocked, this is replaced with implying subtext.
Acting: at least once per session, the player uses facial expressions, props, or gestures to replace or accompany speaking in character. When tier 3 is unlocked, this is replaced with implying subtext.
Making choices consistent with a character’s personality: at least once per session, the player chooses an action or describes an action that implies at least part of their rich personality. They may explain why the action implies this out of character, if there is disagreement.
Enabling other players role play more or better: At least once per session, a player responds by speaking in character to any other player who is performing one of the role playing skills.
Writing a campaign journal: No more than once per session, a player may write a journal entry at least 125 words long. It must be from the point of view of their character and comment on the events of the campaign. This must either compare the events of the campaign with the character’s history or make commentary that is consistent with their rich personality.
Use History to impact events During Play: No more than once per session, a player may conspire with the GM to make a part of their character history come up in game. The GM will attempt to include the element in the same session it is brought up, but this may not always be possible. This is redundant in some games and should not be used in games with ample rules support that can replace this. For example, complications in Mutants and Masterminds makes this redundant. Frequency of Appearance on social advantages and flaws makes this redundant in GURPS. When tier 3 is unlocked, this is replaced with pursuing achievable goals in session.
Implying subtext: At least once per session, the player uses voice acting or Acting while accompany an action in game, in such a way that other players respond as per enabling other players to roleplay more or better, and the responding player identifies how this is in line with the first character’s rich personality. This must all be done without the first player stating anything directly about their rich personality. This replaces voice acting and acting.
Pursuing achievable goals in session: The player must submit to the GM 2 goals for their character. These goals must be S.M.A.R.T.: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and on a Timeline. These goals must be consistent with the character’s rich personality and rich history. There must be some cause in the campaign, identified by either writing in a journal or making choices consistent with a character’s personality that has made the character begin to pursue the objective at this particular time. Once the goals have been submitted to the GM, the GM will be certain to incorporate these opportunities to meet these objectives in the course of play.
Having a character that grows or changes over time: The player must have implied subtext successfully about their motivation, moral attitude, and character traits. The player must have pursued an acheivable goal and either succeeded or failed. The player must also identify another PC to whom they have responded in order to enable the other player to roleplay more effectively. Then the player decides to change one of the following: their motivation, moral attitude, or a character trait. Then, when the player first succeeds at implying subtext about their changed trait, they qualify for the reward.
Over time, I’ve become less and less satisfied with XP as an RP award. So, instead I will take a look at my table from my previous post: https://creativegamemaster.wordpress.com/2013/05/07/reward-systems-in-rpgs-alternative-rewards-to-xp/
I want the players to end up engaging in role play to win Narrative Privileges. However, since this reward is already implicit in roleplaying a character, I need to think of something else to supplement it. I think I’ll start with a more intense rewards and fade it out. I will start with XP, and fade it to a short term mechanical reward. For the short term mechanical reward, the PC will get a choice from the following:
+2 on the check for the action they are currently attempting (if applicable).
+1 on any role at a later point in the same session. These are refered to as “stored mechanical rewards.”
To qualify for higher tier rewards, the party as a whole needs to demonstrate a similar degree of proficiency in role playing. This is described below, under D&D reward schedule.
Any specific numbers are based off of using this in a pathfinder game. Most of them can be adjusted for other games easily.
The first time a player does any Tier 1 skill, they get 100 XP. They do not get a reward for performing a tier 1 skill a second time.
Voice Acting, Acting, making choices consistent with a character’s personality, and enabling other players role play more or better will each receive a 200 XP award the first time a given PC performs that skill in a campaign. If they perform it more times, they may receive the short term mechanical rewards. Once players unlock tier 3, they are only rewarded for enabling other players to role play more or better.
Writing a Campaign Journal awards a PC the short term mechanical award. After they share the journal entry with the group, they may use the +1 bonus at a point of their choosing in the next session.
Using history to impact events during play is rewarded by the GM getting a “wishlist” of in-universe material rewards for the PC. The GM will craft a scene to incorporate the players history, as per their agreement, and will ensure that one or more item that list is present. This may be repeated, but the GM will give preference to players who have not yet this skill in the campaign. The GM may refuse items in the wishlist if they will significantly disrupt play. In a game that isn’t pathfinder, some other in-universe reward may be appropriate. When tier 3 is unlocked, this is replaced with Pursuing achievable goals in a session.
The first time a player implies subtext they get 300 XP. Afterwards, each time they get a short term mechanical reward.
Pursuing achievable goals in a session has the exact same rewards as using history to impact events during play.
Having a Character that Changes over Time is rewarded with the player receiving 1000 XP, and they have the option of starting again at Tier 1. They must change their character’s rich personality, although they may choose to keep one part of it (and only one part of it) constant. Instead of writing a new rich history they write a synopsis of the events that led to them changing, as though the events of the campaign up to that point were their character history.
Note that by this point the XP rewards will actually be quite small, since the PCs will be a level or two higher. This reduces the intensity of the XP reward system, making it effectively a token reward system. The Short Term Mechanical Bonus may be of greater interest to PCs at this point than the XP.
After completing all the tiers a second time, a player may earn Applause Tokens. Each tier they advance through earns them one applause token. They may turn in an applause token to force every player and the GM at the table to applaud them. The players and GM must think of nice things to say, shake their hand, cheer for them, and generally be as nice and encouraging as possible. This will probably be very funny. You may notice that the lowest kind of reward in my previous post is social praise, meaning that if a player is willing to exhibit the behaviour for social praise they are close to not requiring any motivation at all.
DnD-Style Reward Schedule
It sometimes seems really strange to have a reward for playing a game. Certainly playing the game is a reward in itself. If one considers the effect that experience has on playing Pathfinder or 4e D&D, however, I feel it is very clear that XP serves an important function. As the PCs go up levels the complexity of play increases. Experience thus serves to pace out how often the game increases in complexity. If XP is awarded too often, the PCs don’t get a chance to truly explore their new abilities. If it is awarded too rarely, they may get bored with the set of abilities they currently have.
So, with that in mind, I want to create a similar effect for the system of role playing rewards I’ve created above. The goal is to pace out how rapidly the complexity of role playing increases. The simplest skills are all in Tier 1, and they increase in complexity and difficulty up until tier 4.
A PC cannot earn rewards for a Tier that is locked. They can earn rewards from a Tier that is unlocked.
Tier 1 begins unlocked. All other tiers are locked.
Tier 2 becomes unlocked when all the players have completed all of tier 1.
Tier 3 becomes unlocked when all the players have completed all of tier 2.
Tier 4 becomes unlocked when at least two of the players have completed all of tier 3.
Once a player has completed tier 4, they may begin again. When repeating tiers, they must still complete all the skills of that tier to unlock the next tier. However, they do not need the other players to complete all of a given tier. They now progress through the tiers by themselves.
Using this schedule will make it so that players are exposed to higher standards of role-playing at a pace that matches the party’s ability as a whole. Hopefully this prevents less-proficient players from being overwhelmed, while having enough change to keep more-proficient players interested. It will also provide enough time for players to explore the strengths and limitations of the skills involved in each tier. The second time through the tier, the rewards are less useful. This means the reward is being faded out, and thus the players will begin to exhibit the skills more independently. The third time through, the only reward is social recognition. In theory, by the time a player has completed their way through all the tiers 3 times they will be skilled enough and motivated enough to exhibit all the roleplaying behaviours without any reward, at all.
This would leave these experienced role players with little incentive to use the tier system anymore. This is much like how I feel there is little incentive for a group of experienced pathfinder characters to start at a level below 7. Level 7 is where the game reaches it’s maximum complexity, in my opinion. Players who have the skill to create complex characters and have them evolve organically over the course of a campaign don’t need to be introduced to the skills involved gradually.
Gosh This is Complex. A Cheat Sheet Would Help
Here is a handout so that each PC can track their progress. It is both a cheat sheet and a tracking system. Roleplaying Reward System Cheat Sheet
This idea hasn’t been tested yet. I’m going to use the cheat sheet with my character in a D&D game I’m currently playing in. I won’t be able to comment on how effective the rewards are, since I’m intrinsically motivated to develop the role playing skills. However, I will be able to test how effective the skill analysis, tiers, and scheduling sytems are for improving the skills.
Credit Where Credit is Due
The conception of goals used in “Pursuing achievable goals in a session” is taken from a blog called Theory, Planning, Knowledge. They are very smart when it comes to RPG advice. I suggest taking a look at them. They frequently talk about goals, but here is the specific article that impressed me enough to steal their idea: http://tpkblog.com/home/goals2/
A more elegant example of roleplaying rewards:
The old White Wolf games were really good at incorporating character development and acting into their game mechanics. The game I’m most familiar with is Mage: the Ascension, so I’m going to talk about that for a minute.
First, there is the willpower, nature, and demeanor system I mentioned above. This means that right from the start a player has an easy to construct a relatively rich personality, and an in-universe reward for acting in line with it.
Next, there are “backgrounds.” Backgrounds represent all kinds of social resources, are pretty well defined mechanically, and are very useful during the game. However, they tend to take some work to maintain, by virtue of being social. There area also highly specialized advantages and drawbacks in the back of the book, many of which are social.
All white wolf games have a mechanic that encourages a character to withdraw from society. In Mage, that is resonance. As a mage accumulates resonance it becomes easier to work magic, but they start to become really freaky to normal people. The more resonance a mage has, the harder it is to pass for a normal person, and the harder it is to maintain their backgrounds. Resonance always has a theme, like “fire,” “controlling,” or “primitive.” It only strengthens magic that fits with its theme, and the characters appearance will change to match their resonance a little bit more closely. At high levels of resonance, random events might occur that match the resonance’s theme. A mage with high fire resonance better be careful when they go to a gas station.
Finally, a mage has an avatar, which basically amounts to a spirit guide of some kind. A mage can choose have a strong avatar, which gives them a few mechanical advantages, but then the avatar can also manipulate fate into forcing the mage to pursue certain paths. Following the avatars directions tends to help a mage become stronger at magic, but it is highly dubious whether or not an avatar has the best interests of a mage at heart. The avatar’s goal is usually to force a mage to become the most enlightened magic user possible, and the kind of requirements this imposes on a player often doesn’t line up very nicely with a character’s real interests. It is the GMs responsibility to use the avatar to present opportunities for character driven quests that will force a mage to grow as a person. Increasing Arete (effectively the Mage equivalent of going up a level) can only be done with the assistance of a mage’s avatar, so there is plenty of incentive for a PC to go along with this.
A fairly strong theme of Mage is the dangers of pride. As characters accrue resonance, they become more dependent on using their magic. Using their magic to fit into normal society requires them to be highly manipulative, and is easiest if it lines up with their resonance. This only serves to further increase their resonance. This leads mages into treating normal people like pawns. This creates play and narrative that makes the players really feel like their mages are higher, worthier, and superior to other humans.
Instead of using magic that matches their resonance, they can use willpower to get automatic successes. This allows them to use magic that doesn’t line up with their resonance, and delays the process of them needing to manipulate everyone around them. However, doing this often will exhaust the character’s supply of will power points very quickly, unless the player is such a good roleplayer that they are earning back willpower all the time. Being able to act out a character that effectively ends up making it seem like the character has a very defined personality and social role, which is sufficient to make it seem more logical for a mage to remain part of normal society.
It should be noted that following one’s avatar and increasing one’s arete is rarely a bad idea in Mage. It is much harder and slower than accruing resonance, but it doesn’t come with all the drawbacks. It’s the only way to become a stronger mage without having to eventually abandon society. However, a mage’s life is very dangerous, and often a mage will make a conscious decision to use magical artifacts or the power of holy site to strengthen their magic, even though these are often tainted with large amounts of resonance. As such, a player’s choice about how to handle difficult obstacles during play will
However, there is nothing saying that a Mage needs to remain part of normal society. They can always give up the perks of normal society, or even spend most of their time in the spirit world. This involves losing a character’s backgrounds, but some Mages might prefer easy magic and strong resonance to the material comforts of the modern world. However, “veteran” mage players I’ve met have told me that it is unwise for a player to aim to accumulate resonance and leave the material world behind. It tends to turn the game into (and this is a quote) “a bunch of angsty wanking.” This probably happens because the mage would get all depressed about leaving everything and everyone they cared about behind.
Lets take a look at the list of things that help make up roleplaying, and identify what rules from Mage support it:
- Acting, voice acting, speaking in character: Willpower.
- Making choices consistent with a character’s personality. Willpower and Resonance.
- Implying through the subtext of a player’s acting, or the subtext of a character’s actions, the character’s personality, morals, motivations or goals. Willpower.
- Creating a rich and detailed character personality. Character creation, through willpower, nature, and demeanor.
- Creating a rich and detailed character history. Backgrounds, advantages, and drawbacks.
- Creating a campaign journal, to create an in character commentary on the events of the campaign Nothing.
- Having a character’s mechanical play be consistent with their personality and history. Willpower and Resonance.
- Having a character that grows or changes over time. The conflict between resonance, willpower, and backgrounds. The impact of the Avatar on a PC.
- Having a character history that impacts events during play, either through character controlled advantages (like allies) or by working cooperatively with the GM. Very easy with backgrounds and advantages, although not as “automatic” as the other mechanics.
Enabling other players to role play more or better. None
Having discrete, achievable in-character goals, and working towards them during game time. When the GM provides a goal for personal growth through the Avatar might count. Although the player does not initiate these events, they get to choose how they react to them. However, since the player doesn’t initiate the events that lead to character change a person could argue it doesn’t qualify. I will count it, though.
The rules for mage manages to incorporate 9/11 (81%) of the parts of roleplaying identified in this post, and they are all intimately related to play. They are not tacked on after the fact, like my role-playing reward system. It is an ingenius work of game design. Most games barely manage to get 9% (1/11)
Wraith: the Oblivions has additional rules that help incorporate “enabling other players to role play more or better.” This is their famous “Shadow” system. However, Wraith requires such a dedicated group of players I’ve only plaid it for a very short period of time, and I don’t feel comfortable commenting on it at length.
Request for Feedback or Reader Contributions
I do not feel my list of behaviours that constitue role playing is complete. If you can think of more, I would love to hear from you. I also am not satisfied with the particular mechanical rewards I chose. I feel they are too general. If you can think of any more genre specific rewards that could make gameplay more interesting than “+1 to rolls” I would love to hear from you.
I’d also be interested in your ideas for how to adjust the conditions or rewards for game systems other than pathfinder. For example, Mutants and Masterminds has hero points and complication rules, which can be used to alter both the conditions for the rewards and the rewards themselves. White Wolf handles most, but not all, of the role-playing rewards implicitly in game mechanics, but the players will still need to be mindful of the roleplaying skills to get the most out of the system. How would you handle the few things White Wolf doesn’t handle, and how would you want to remind players to be mindful of role playing skills?