I’ve been bugging a couple of other designers about their games, one because he asked me to and one because I’m helping with playtesting. I really like both of these games and I think I see ways they can be improved. As with any critique, it’s up to them to decide if there is value in my comments, and value is what is forefront of my mind right now.
Games have values hard-baked into them. Whether intentional or not, a game has activities it values and others it does not. Just because an activity is necessary for a game to function does not necessarily mean the game values that activity. All my games include rolling dice as a randomizer, but the games do not value this. I can confidently say/write that because none of my games reward dice-rolling. They reward the results of dice-rolling, but that could be the result of any randomizer, and I have chosen dice because they are the randomizer I understand the best.
Right there I revealed what I’ve been thinking about: rewards as signifiers of value. A game will reward what it values. The main mechanical reward in Dungeons & Dragons is experience points. There are other rewards which have a mechanical function – they effect the “behind the scenes” system that gives structure to the narrative/story – but they also exist within the story. Experience points – at least as I understand them – are wholly mechanical. PCs gain experience points from defeating enemies. In 5e, one can provide story rewards or rewards for noncombat challenges, but these are optional. The system rewards defeating monsters, so the game obviously values defeating monsters. You can do a lot of things with the D&D system, but if you are running it “rules as written,” your PCs will be fighting and defeating monsters and other opponents because that is what the game values and what it rewards.
If there is a reward in the game, it is because that is an activity in which the game wants you to engage. However, when designing a game, I think it is easy to disassociate rewards from values. Sometimes, we design at an instinctual level and only later review and consider what we have created. Rewards are a part of design, and the giving of rewards is not bad, but it does make the activity one is rewarding a required part of the game. Sure, one does not need to engage in that activity – no one is coming to your house to force you to defeat monsters – but the character will actually be penalized for not doing so. The character will not be rewarded while other characters undertaking the activity will be.
In my experience, when designing a game, it’s super important to ask yourself does the activity I am rewarding have value? Do I feel it is valuable? If it is not and does not, why am I rewarding it? So in Sword’s Edge, there are two activities which the players control that provide rewards – hitting Pivots and having a character act in a way that might seem sub-optimal, but that fits in the genre being replicated. Like D&D, there are other optional ways, but these two are “rules as written” (basically, Luck exists to reward players as a way of reinforcing activities at the table to which the GM or group has assigned value).
Why do Pivots have value? Pivots are the signposts that tell everyone about the character’s goals, quirks, and style. They are also signposts to help GMs design adventures. By hitting those, the player is reinforcing the character as expressed by that player. This in turn means that if the player wants to change her vision of the character, there is incentive to change the Pivots which then assists the GM in fashioning adventures that will speak to the player and character. There are two levels of reinforcement, but the mechanical one is likely the one that will motivate as the other – the enjoyment of the game – might not be significantly impacted.
Why does following genre conventions have value? Following conventions has value as it helps to support an atmosphere and approach which the group has agreed it wants to foster. There’s no problem playing a Stormtrooper in a Star Wars campaign, but remember that the characters in Star Wars are basically good. They can be anti-heroes, but they fight the good fight, so that Stormtrooper needs to abandon the Empire/First Order and help the Resistance. The player still gets to play the character desired while being rewarded for sticking to the genre on which the group has agreed. This balances the desires of the player and the group.
So when designing a game, consider what your game rewards. That signifies value. Did you intend your game to value that activity? Is it in keeping with the concept or stated aims of the game? Rewards are good. Values are good. Consistency is better because it generally delivers a better play experience, closer to the stated aim of the system.
At least that’s what I think.