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Ways to Play

Modifiers and Rewards

by Chris Chinn
Jul 14,2003


Modifiers and Rewards

Hi and welcome back to another installment of Ways to Play. Today we look at Modifiers and Rewards and how they work, how to change them to serve your needs, or create completely new ones.

Modifiers and Rewards in general

For any game you play, there simply are some strategies that make sense to achieve certain goals. These strategies are usually determined through the rules of modifiers and the rules for rewards. The first usually determine the probabilities of success for a given strategy, and the second encourages certain actions by rewarding them. In both cases each set pushes players through positive and negative enforcement to play the game in a "particular" manner. In other words, these rules determine how people play the game.

Modifiers & Difficulty

All roleplaying games have some system to determine odds of success and/or range of effect in outcomes. These rules are usually called difficulty levels or modifiers. I'll simply call them modifiers for ease of discussion.

Modifiers do several things in a game:

Modifiers limit what is and isn't possible, as well as what is more likely to occur or less likely to occur.

Modifiers also work as a reward/punishment system that encourages certain tactics or choices in play. Whatever modifiers increase the odds of success or effectiveness, encourage actions that accrue those modifiers.

Between these two effects, modifiers limit options, and encourage certain choices over others. In other words, modifiers work like an instant reward system that's always in play. Because of this, you'll want to use modifiers in conjunction with reward systems to encourage the sort of play that the group wants.

If you give modifier bonuses for tactics, players will play tactically. If you give bonuses for cinematic actions, then the players will play cinematically. Whatever you give bonuses for, will encourage the players to do more often. Whatever incurs penalties, will be avoided.

It sounds obvious, but it is something that most people just don't think about when choosing a system or modifying rules. If you know what kind of game play you want, you can achieve it through proper modifiers and rewards.

Dangerous Ground

Modifiers and difficulty levels are also a very dangerous tool, since they are one of the most often abused system mechanics to enforce railroading using the stick and carrot.

Most of the time, you can tell the stick is in force when a GM makes something impossible, or almost impossible, especially if it seems like a normal or reasonable action. This tactic is often applied to player choices that would disrupt the GM's predetermined plot.

Altering Modifiers

If you decide to alter modifiers to encourage certain play styles over others, first ask yourself what kind of play you are trying to encourage. Most games have modifiers based on realistic bonuses, such as having good conditions, equipment, help, or taking time. Some games provide bonuses for cool cinematic actions, and what would be cinematically appropriate, such as bonuses for cool descriptions. Yet, other games provide bonuses for a character's commitment or passion towards what they are doing, such as a bonus to do actions that save your true love.

Once you've got an idea of what you're trying to promote, ask yourself, "How much of a difference should it make?" The more it affects the odds of success/failure, the more the modifier encourages a certain type of play. Ask yourself if it should make a small difference, a significant one, or a major one.

In the first case, other factors mean more than the choices by the player, things like character stats, equipment, conditions, etc. If the modifiers are intended to have a significant difference, then they are likely to be frequently used in play. Finally, if they make the majority of the difference, you may find that the players all play their characters the same way, in order to take advantage of that modifier.

A good reference, is to look at the probability of success failure:

Modifier makesProbability of success
Minor differenceAbout 10% change
Significant differenceAbout 25 % change
Major differenceAbout 50%+ change

A Major modifier change means that you are significantly altering the way the game plays, and it borders on "dictating" a single way to play the game. This can be almost the same as making things a sure win or almost impossible, so be careful when altering modifiers to that level.

For example, let's say I want to add a modifier into my game that allows a character to do better about what they care about. Let's say that the game is a standard stat+skill+die roll vs. a target number type game.

I'll start by creating a new "skill" called passion, which would be either how much you love or hate somebody, with a different "skill" for each person you thought would be important to each character. I'll give the players a set amount of points to be used for their passions, as they see fit.

Now the game works like this: stat+skill+passion+die roll vs. target number.

If I haven't placed a cap on how high the passions can go, they work like a Major difference, making about a 33-50% change in the odds. If I choose to limit them to a lower number, say half of what stats or skills can reach, then they're a Significant difference. Or I could just say that a passion is something you either have or don't have and it gives you something like a +1 bonus to do things related to that person.

Reward Systems

What are reward systems?

Reward systems are any rules which reward certain actions, such as killing monsters, good roleplaying, etc., usually with greater power given to the character, although some games give metagame influence or other rewards aside from simple character improvement. Reward systems also includes negative rewards, designed to discourage or "punish" certain actions.

Reward systems are built into almost all games, and tell you what you're "supposed" to do in the game. Reward systems play a major role in defining what the goal of a game is and how people will play a given game. With all that said, no matter what game the group decides to go with, you will want to carefully look at what kind of play the group is looking for compared to what kind of play is rewarded. If it doesn't match, you may wish to alter the rules or play another game.

Analyzing Reward Systems

There are 4 questions you need to look at in order to understand the reward system of any game.

-What constitutes a reward in this game?(character improvement, metagame power, etc.)

-What sort of play results in rewards?(killing monsters, showing up to play, etc.)

-What is the worst thing that can happen to a player in the game?(removed from play, character death, corruption, insanity, etc.)

-What sort of play results in that? (Bad tactics, abuse of powers, bad luck, etc.)

Matching goals to rewards

Remember, the reason folks play games is to generate and experience interesting stuff. Whatever is interesting to you and your group, I leave in your hands to decide. But if you know what that is("Cool battles! Big Drama!"), then you know what you should be rewarding.

Let's say that I'm playing a game where I want to focus on political intrigue and drama, but the game system rewards killing monsters. Clearly this isn't the best match on my part, but for whatever reason, I still want to use this system. What I can do, is change the reward system to reflect the kind of play that I want.

Let's say that anytime someone creates some interesting stuff through their actions, I award them 100 experience points, as measured by the system. If they manage to foil someone's plot, or dominate them, they get full points as if they had killed the person in combat.

On the negative side, we'll say that anytime an NPC foils one of the PC's plans, he'll lose 50 points. If the PC is ever dominated, he loses 10% of his experience points. And if any PC hits 0 points, they'll be imprisoned, executed, or exiled by the court.

Instant alteration in the style of play! What you end up with is players who will not only see the advantage in doing interesting actions, but also in foiling the machinations of others and trying to dominate others politically and not be dominated.

This can be done with almost any system, provided that you can identify what it is that is the goal of play with your group and how to modify the reward system to reflect that.

Instant Rewards vs. Delayed Rewards

Most games provide rewards at the end of a session, or at certain intervals, such as at the end of a story arc. These are called delayed rewards, since the efforts of the players are not rewarded until later. This is the standard for most games.

Instant rewards are rewards that are given immediately after an action that would earn a reward. This could be points given out after battle, or immediately after someone does some exceptional roleplaying. Instant rewards tend to work a lot better at garnering a certain style of play. That is, whatever actions they reward, become a lot more common during play.

I find that instant rewards tend to work better at encouraging players to be active, and do more interesting stuff as part of play. It is much more effective at getting players to understand what kind of activities earn reward, and you'll find them pushing for it without the GM having to initiate the action.

Peer Rewards

Peer rewards are rules that allow fellow players to reward another player.

This could be established to be only along certain lines("Best one-liner", "Coolest entrance", etc.), or could simply be on the basis that the player did something cool (interesting stuff) that the other players felt merited award.

Some rules include a vote at the end of a session, in which case the winner(s) get extra points or rewards. In some cases the players can give instant rewards.

Peer rewards tend to also increase the amount of interesting stuff that players create. The key point is to limit its room for abuse, either by limiting how much reward each player can give out in a session("Ok, everyone can give out up to 100 xp during one session, in parts or all at once"), or by requiring GM approval("Hey, you're right, that does earn a reward, here!").

Metagame effectiveness rewards

These are a specific kind of reward, that allows a player to boost their character's effectiveness whenever they want to. Usually this is measured as "hero" or "luck" points, but may have different names.

What it boils down to is either rolling an extra die, or dice, getting a bonus to a roll, or allowing the player to reroll the dice if they don't like what comes up.

This rule is built into many games already, although if your game lacks it, you might want to consider adding one, or if you already have one, modifying it to support your reward system.


These are very general guidelines for modifying any game system you may be using, or for thinking about creating your own. The key point is to recognize what kind of play you find "fun" for yourself and using the rules to encourage that, be it gritty realism, cinematic action, dramatic roleplaying or what have you. When you use both modifiers and rewards to support your preferred goals of play, magical things happen. Your game becomes a "vicious" circle of fun, where the style of play encourages itself and the rules support and encourage what you've been looking for.

Next Time

Look forward to our next installment, where we tackle the fun, sometimes controversial idea of player narration and splitting narration control amongst the group, instead of simply letting it sit with the GM all the time.

Go Play!


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