In our current game, Heroes of Karia Vitalus, we’re playing with at least three kinds of rewards: immediate, periodic and cumulative. I want to briefly talk about each, and why I think it is cool to combine then whenever you can.
These are obvious – you get them the moment you earn them, in-game. In Heroes of Karia Vitalus, we use gems as immediate rewards. Either the GM or another player gives you a gem when they think you did something cool, something exciting, dramatic, something that moves the story along, and so on. Everyone rewards differently, so you get a good mix most of the time. These rewards work as straight behavior modification. Little treats for doing what we want to see at the table.
As time goes on, you can see behavior change as a result. What’s rewarded gets done more often, and people go into the game thinking “how can I earn some more gems tonight?” Which is the same as thinking “how can I be as cool as possible in this game session to impress my friends?” And that’s pretty much exactly what you’re looking for in a gamer.
MMOs like World of Warcraft or Everquest use immediate rewards extremely well. Every time you kill something, you get XP. Then you loot the thing and almost always get something for it. Its subtle reinforcement, but it works.
These are probably the most common type. In this category I include leveling in the sense of D&D characters – surpassing some kind of major threshold that changes your character suddenly and significantly. In White Wolf, as in most other systems built for extended play over multiple sessions, you get experience points or character points as a periodic reward at the end of the session.
In the case of D&D 3.x, you are sometimes awareded XP at the end of an encounter rather than at the end of the session, but the system is still the same. You know when the time comes to get rewarded, and you salivate like Pavlov’s dogs.
In HoKV, we use periodic rewards at the end of a session, handing out gems we haven’t distributed yet via nominations and also getting character points that we can spend on the spot or save for later.
Cumulative rewards are rewards that you work you way up to earning incrementally. In WoW, a good example is raid or endgame gear, which you must work you way towards by questing and doing instances and raising your reputation with various factions. Ideally, earning a cumulative reward will be a series of immediate or periodic rewards – that’s the triple threat.
In HoKV, the triple threat is the Kata Kariana, which are essentially super-powers that each character earns by spending saved gems and character points. These in turn build on each other in levels, with lower level Kata opening up higher-level Kata. In the game, these are the biggest payoff, and the most expensive thing that you save up for.
Unlike WoW’s endgame gear, however, if you don’t save up for the Kata, you can still have fun, because the gems you’ve been earning can be spent to add to your dice-rolls, making you a lot more effective in the game. So though there’s a huge payoff to saving up for Kata, you can also have fun not doing so – and players in our game vary in how much they’ve spent on Kata compared to other things.
I think its good to have all three kinds of reward in any game. I think that Burning Wheel does this pretty well, actually, with Fate and Persona Artha (immediate), Deeds Artha and Trait votes (periodic) and the way you advance your skills and abilities (cumulative). If you combine all three kinds of rewards, which, granted, is difficult in a game aimed at one-shot play, I really think that it makes the game a lot more interesting and enjoyable.