Luke Gearing gives a challenge to reward driven play

In a blogpost, Luke Gearing challenges the idea that we need rules-incentives or rewards for certain types of play. Since this is a staple of many PbtA type games, I thought I’d share it here and see if there’s some discussion to be had.

I have been thinking the same type of thing. If you like doing it, isn’t it a reward in itself?


Rewards can be used for teaching & learning various things.
I was schooled by Master @Rickard Elimaa on the topic, so I prefer to get the same result like this: if you materialize a rule, like through a token, people will remember it (this is also sort of linked to affordance). I’ve read Vincent Baker saying something like: and if the token is beneficial to someone, they’ll signal it. That’s not necessary, but the contraposition is true (I’m looking at you, encumbrance rules).

In Prime Time Adventures (2004), that was for cheering for others’ propositions.
In The Shadow of Yesterday, that was for playing your character and eventually lead them through a personal arc.
In Dream Askew (2014) that was for playing your character in a way that supports the others’ roleplay.
I see progress!

My question is: what could be the next things on the list? the things you think would make for “better” play but are often unseen or forgotten?


I think regular social friend-group managing. Keeping things safe and fun and remembering that the friends trump the game.

People > Play

But that’s an entirely different discussion.

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I can just say what I always say:

  • According to the overjustification effect and Cognitive Evaluation Theory, a tangible reward like XP (extrinsic - something given on top of the actual task) does nothing to or may decrease the (intrinsic) fun of doing the actual task. Some are more sensitive to the reward than others.

  • The two main exceptions are if the tangible reward is given while 1) it’s a competition (for example, in a RPG combat) or 2) if it’s a social reward. Then the reward can even increase the fun of doing the actual task.

  • A die roll is a reward mechanism in itself - a really strong one as well. It’s like a slot machine, where the roll sometimes gives you a reward (success).

  • XP for tasks creates a clear goal, which is nice. A “clear goal” is a requirement of getting into flow, which is a one way of describing (intrinsic) fun.

What if we designed without dice (random elements) and XP? We would start to need to think in terms of making the actual tasks fun by themselves. I’m not saying that we always should, but what if…?


You give an example for the competition reward, but I’m not clear what the social reward is. Praise from your peers? An MVP reward?

Isn’t this what Fall of Magic kind of does? Or Happy Birthday Robot and Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple?

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Yeah, but how do they work in order to create “fun”? (if we ignore that “fun” is merely a buzzword, and instead assume that “game X is fun for you”)

Fun is an emotional response to learning, which is said in Theory of Fun: 10 Years Later when it quotes Chris Crawford. We are learning machines, and we get dopamine release in our brain to reward us when we learn. So “fun” … it’s chemical, not emotional.

  • In order to draw advantage of us as learning machines, we need to create a process in our game that creates a learning experience.

  • The easiest way is by using a game loop, which is basically how you get into a flow state.

  • We can also look at what 1) XP and 2) die rolls do: the first one creates a clear goal. The second one inflicts uncertainty. In Western narratives, we always use “conflict” as a mean of creating uncertainty. Tabletop roleplaying games also uses escapism, like fantasy.

  • In order to get to a goal, something stand in it’s way, so a challenge is created. Bernard Suits defines a game as “voluntary effort to overcome unnecessary obstacles”, which is both hilarious and has some truth to it.

We need challenge and uncertainty. When it comes to decision-making, both Keith Burgun and Greg “Star Wars d6” Costikyan says that a meaningful decision occur when the solution is not obvious and when it’s not at random, but in the middle of the scale. I even wonder if that doesn’t go with everything we do.

However, in order to replace “XP as goal describer”, we need to separate the thought that the game designer’s goal should be the players’ goals: “Hit an orc and get XP” - the game designer shouldn’t want the players to have to same goal, to hit the orc, but to have a goal of their own and then the orc must be a way of getting to that goal (a challenge!). So the game designer’s goal should be part of the players’ actions to get to their goal.

The game designer should focus on making the task in itself fun, instead of bribing with rewards. “Interaction making design” instead of “goal making design”.

Acknowledgement from other participants, like having someone building on your idea or just including you in the ongoing dialogue. Having someone saying “cool” when you do something, or retelling a moment that you were a huge part of. You can create all these by creating interaction between the players.

Emily Care-Boss had some nice ideas on this topic: creativity, reinforcement and mirroring, and positioning.


“chemical, not emotional” I’d say both. The neuroscientific framework is one perspective. Not that I deny the role of brain chemicals you present. But as neurosciences are being instrumentalized by some politicians in my country, I felt the need to make that clear.

“Most Valuable Player” introduces competition: you can’t take this individually, you’ve got to see the whole system of the group. I find individual prizes can degrade social reward mechanism fast if they’re not actively compensated for (rewarding the most ridiculous story, basing rewards on silly arbitrary factors and most of all, spreading rewards evenly to deprive them of meaning) Cheering wears off fast, too. There are social rewards more subtle than that.

For me what works best is this (thanks for the SG link): meaningfully aknowledging contributions, throughout the game. Reincorporation alone is very empowering, and “narratively” satisfying. Playing the impact, staying with the moment: these are some techniques that show you appreciating other players contribution, and being int the collective, in the moment. Priming the pump with some cheering, a meaningful smile, or a thumb up (not in some african countries) is very efficient.

Of course, that goes with a style of play. You can’t just “slap cheering on top” and call that a sure-fun game. Like every other game design, a mechanism works in a system. I’d say we’re just used to seeing rewards as “money” and economy as “how money flows”, so the lexicon is tainted. It’s easier to say a game is “narrative”. However blurry a “cloud eating” concept that is.


Thank you for all the nice feedback! Sweet!

In the absence of mechanical incentive, how do you guide players into doing what the game does? How is a sentence like “this is a cowboy game, act like cowboys” ideologically different than “this is a cowboy game, you get XP for rootin’, tootin’, and shootin’”

And if the response is “why should players be limited to acting like cowboys in a cowboy game?” Why did they pick up the cowboy game?

The core of the argument suggests to me that ttrpgs are special magic in which you can do anything, which describes the activity of “roleplaying” but I don’t think that’s transitive to any specific game and components any more than saying novels shouldn’t be beholden to pages, sentences, grammar, or plots because you could write any word you want in there.


What if it’s not even in the rules, just an illustration of a cowboy on the cover, and the title copied from a Sergio Leone film? Is hitting the right keys a reward in itself?
(I guess so for most of the people and part of the games, and yes it’s a kind of magic, and novels are what you describe, too, for me)

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Again, it’s chemical first, and the response is an emotion. So we need to look at what sparks that chemical reaction; of what releases dopamine (or endorphin, or adrenaline).

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On the other side of the comparison, why do we sometimes take upon ourselves a role to play in games that do not have any rules supporting that?

I’m thinking about when we used to play Machiavelli in our game group, you basically get a certain role each turn, which gives you abilities etc. Nowhere in the rules is it stated to act out and portray these characters when playing. Still, some of us always did, and it was lots of fun.

I’m also thinking that in Fall of Magic you just basically get prompts for storytelling, but no reward other than the intrinsic satisfaction of dreaming up a story together.

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Isn’t the pitch for Fall of Magic that magic is dying and the “motivating reward” is the quest to save it?

To expand on my early post, I’m not against moving away from XP or power-advancement as a player incentives, but I think framing those specific design tools as the entirety of reward driven play is a bit much. To me it presumes a larger wall between “roleplay” and “gameplay” than actually exists within ttrpgs.

You can roleplay while playing any game in the same way that you can eat pretzels while playing any game. If we’re corralling our scope to ttrpgs, I feel like it’s an abdication of your job as a designer to not create systems that interact with roleplaying. Like if you’re not going to provide play motivating rewards, roleplay motivating rewards, or even themes as the blogpost suggests, what are you providing the players?

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Exactly. To some people or groups “playing the game” includes coming together with friends, chatting, eating snacks, drinking beer, etc. and that is the reason they all come together. Each table has its own kind of culture or way that games are played. For some game-night is very technical and rule focused, for others it’s a very social thing, with a bunch of little small traditions baked in.

In that way, game night can be a reward unto itself. It means hanging out with friends, which, as a person over 30 years old, I must say, is a hard thing to achieve, with all the carriers and babies and duties etc.

I agree that goals in a game aren’t a bad thing at all, but achieving the goal isn’t necessarily the reward, the journey towards it, together is. At least in some groups.

The idea of just letting the fun emerge and seeing that as the reward to play is put here as a challenge. I don’t think games need to abandon any reward structure, because there’s a type of fun to be had in achieving the thing you set out to do. But this challenge, I think, makes you consider, or think, if it could be possible having fun together consistently without a baked in reward system.

I think with story games specifically, whatever you do, story will likely emerge on its own, regardless of wether or not it’s mechanically rewarded, because it’s rewarded by the fun you have doing it.


There is no difference, so the XP is just an appendix. At least based on how you put it here.

… and this is (one reason) why I always say that the pitch (a selling one!) is the most important part of the game, because it sets up how the reader interpret the rest of the text.

“Go for guts and glory, and backstab your friends along the way” directly states what the game is about.

I also don’t think that a game should try to appeal to a lot of playstyles. Just focus on one - preferably the one you think is fun yourself, and sell that playstyle to the reader (or repeat the thought) all through the book.


I don’t really agree with the prevailing opinion here – I’ve played lots of games with a strong pitch and no mechanical followthrough and found them extremely disappointing. By the same token, there are reasons you would pick a game over another, and just putting a cowboy on the cover is insufficient to help me feel like I am playing a cowboy, or even that I am trying to play a cowboy, and certainly not that I should use YOUR game to try to play a cowboy. A game book can talk about what it’s “about” until the designer wears the letters off their keyboard and it’s not going to help me one bit if the game itself doesn’t drive the experience.

Maybe I am some poor, sad, emotionally stunted person who needs his game to reward him because he has lost his inner child and ability to “just have fun while pretending to be someone else” but I doubt it… because if I wanted to do that, I wouldn’t need a GAME.

There seems a bizarre abdication here of trying to actually design games to encourage things. Some people think Big Eyes, Small Mouth is an acceptable “anime game” – it’s basically a generic system with some “anime themed” things you can buy with your points and a bunch of anime-styled art. And I think it’s awful and that the stories you get when you play it don’t even resemble anime unless you’ve got such a mastery of the genre you’re going for that you don’t need a game at all.

So give me my XP rewards. Those at least make it abundantly clear what the game thinks is important to this genre, and odds are that if I follow that breadcrumb trail, I’m going to get something that feels more like the genre I’m going for than I would if I didn’t. Give me those intrinsic rewards – they are intrinsic, because they are part of the game. An extrinsic reward would be my GM saying “I’ll buy you dinner if you roleplay a cowboy.” but XP says “Roleplay a cowboy, and we’ll let your cowboy do more awesome stuff.” The idea that this entire school of extremely successful design is in fact a bunch of extrinsic rewards that have been decreasing everyone’s enjoyment since The Shadow of Yesterday came up with Keys or Primetime Adventures came up with fanmail seems out of touch with the fact that these games work extremely well for a lot of people – not just me, but most of the folks I play with.

Maybe the point that everyone is missing that I am dancing around here is that a game with good XP triggers and actions and things teaches you how to roleplay a cowboy. Maybe everyone else is already so good at playing cowboys that they don’t need that, but I routinely play games in genres that I havent’ been immersed in my whole life. And I’d be shocked to discover that everyone has such mastery of every genre they want to play a game in that they can’t learn anything from a well designed XP trigger. Honestly, if your audience is “people who know the genre you are trying to reproduce so well that they don’t need a game to help them” then I think your game isn’t going to be much fun for anyone, because the people you are aiming it at don’t need it or want it, and the people who do need it can’t use it. There’s no freaking way I’d be able to “just be a faerie!” without using something like Under Hollow Hills.


This is a pretty good topic, and smarter folk than I have already said very clever stuff on this thread, so I won’t be long in giving my two cents.

Rules-incentive does not exist to underscore optimal play, but to undermine it.

Take Apocalypse World, for instance. A character will have some high points in some stats and low points in others. So the optimal line of play is to engage with the world in such a way that you only trigger moves for your best stats. Except that you gain XP for using your marked stats, and what do you know, the MC marked your worse stat! So now suddenly a suboptimal play becomes not so suboptimal, because if you don’t do it you get less XP and advance less often.

This happens again and again. In Urban Shadows, I could feasibly always go to a contact with my highest scoring faction every time I need to Hit the Streets, but since I need to roll with all factions to advance, doing so is suddenly not the optimal line of play. Dungeon World sets itself apart from OSR by giving XP for failed rolls: players want to engage with the moves even if they don’t use their best stats, because that’s how they advance.

This effectively means that players can’t optimize the story out of a PbtA game, generally; playing optimally in this way is effectively non-optimal in the long run. Does it make it so players are only running the threadmill? Perhaps, but it’s better than players who do act in accordance to the story being worse off at the game than agnostic min-maxers.


I think the important thing to remember is that, at worst, it only changes the treadmill – from “doing the mechanically optimal thing that keeps my character alive/gets me the most loot/whatever” to “doing the mechanically optimal thing that hits my XP triggers and coincidentally causes me to roleplay something other than a kill-and-loot-bot”. If players are looking for a treadmill in a game, they WILL find out. And if they’re just gonna “do what they want regardless”? Well, then I guess it doesn’t matter what the incentives are, because they’ll just do what they wany, right? :wink:


Well, sure. But in the early sessions, when a character isn’t well developed in the player’s mind, this can work as an aid. If I don’t have any notion of what Borga does as a characer, I’ll have her act in the way that’s most advantageous in-game. If that mode is to just punch stuff and steal gold, she’ll develop as a murderhobo. If that mode has her become entangled in the lives of other characters, then she develops in a way that engages thematically with the game.

Of course a player can always just run the treadmill or be a rebel and do whatever, but a treadmill can help steer them towards the “right” path (i.e. the one in which the game’s mechanics and theme work the best)


I feel like you feel attacked by our questioning wether rules-incentives to play actually work or hinder. This was not my intent.

• It’s not my intent to seem like a high and mighty super-enlightened role-player who doesn’t need the rules anymore. (there is no spoon!)
• It’s also not my intent to invalidate all the work you have done on games you made which emulate a genre or give incentive for a certain type of desired play.

To me, this is just a question to make us think about rules, and what they are there for, where we get our fun playing games, etc.

To me it looks like you are in a mindset of creating a finished game to publish. This is not at all where my mind is at right here. It’s at the experimental hobby table, to see what is fun. To see how things work and what fun experiments we could do. And maybe, perhaps, something gets made here that could be published, but that is not my end-goal at all. It’s not even my incentive or motivation. I am not really with what seems to be the current mindset, where everything you make has to be a publishable, professional thing. I just want to see and think and experiment to see what is possible.

I miss the time where games like “All outta bubblegum” and “Actual Cannibal Shia LeBoeff” and “Roll 4 Shoes” just popped into existence on a forum. Where people just saw something, where like: “Huh? What if I tried to make a game out of this?” and then did it. It was all barely finished and unpolished and to me that made it great. Cause people would make threads like “Hey, I wrote this silly thing to see if this works. What do you guys think?” and the threads would be full of discussion and creativity.

Anyway, all this to say. I’m not thinking about making a finished product. I’m not thinking about making money off of this or starting a kickstarter or selling a pamphlet. I’m thinking: “What could this inspire us to do?”