Rewards of Risk

While reading a post on Compromise and Conceit about acting in-character, a question of the nature of risk in roleplaying games was raised, namely that of character mortality. As one of those who feels that a lack of risk and challenge obviates the purpose of playing, I was initially surprised to see the assumed correlation between the term risk and character mortality. There are many more things that can be placed in peril for players than just the lives of their characters. At first, I didn’t get why this would be an instinctive or assumed connection.

Death is the thing:

After a little thought, I realized that the problem must arise more often in games which are built on the premise of the character merely being a combat and action resolution tool for the player, rather than a persona to roleplay. If the player is not in the sort of game which requires or encourages character development, and therefore they do not form attachments to things in the game world through that character, then it stands to reason that the only sort of risk that GMs could use to heighten tension would be death. If the only thing to value in the game is just the ability to play it, the only thing to fear losing is the life of the character.

Death is not the thing:

Clearly, it doesn’t have to be that way. In the comments section after the initial post, the author spoke of having given a set of players plot immunity, and so they did not need to fear death in the game. Descriptions of player actions in the game were from the point of view that ‘even though there was no fear of death, players still…”

From my point of view, this is a great experience, and one to use as a primary example of what a roleplaying game can be. Player involvement in their roles and the world in which their characters live and breathe is essential in my mind to incorporate the roleplay aspect into a roleplaying game. The question I imagine being levied in response to this, however, is “Does this not reduce the game aspect?”

I say, “No.”

It’s how you play the game:

A game, at its base level, is about winning or losing. While the concept of what constitutes a win or a loss is expanded in RPGs, the requirement of winning and losing does not change. There are always victory conditions; even in those ultra-sandbox games wherein there is no plot – just setting.  A roleplaying game can be so much more than using the character sheet as a means to control a mindless automaton as a vehicle for player distraction. The game, through its development of plot, development of character, and ever-growing scale of risk and reward, can create a living story that refines skills and provides entertainments on an entirely different scale than the memorization and mastery of rules and charts will. This is not to cite one as better, just different, and while the extremes surely exist somewhere in their pure forms, I am certain that a more balanced position between these two poles is what one would actually find were one to explore the lairs of gamers around the world.

What is risk?

In my mind, risk is fear of loss – not fear of death. In a game that encourages active development of character, the options for loss are broader than simply removing things from a character sheet, such as hit points, items, or funds. The ongoing story is woven of interconnections between each character and everyone they know. A character might fear losing status, or having their reputation tarnished, they might fear for the safety of a relative, or the welfare of a community, they might fear the loss of an opportunity to strike a blow for justice or to right an ancient wrong. The story may embolden the character to risk loss of face, or may cause them to maneuver and scheme to cement an unassailable position. A good risk will motivate the player certainly, but more importantly it would motivate the character, were they a real person. We as people are motivated by many more things than death. Why not our characters as well?

What is reward?

Reward is both the fruit of a character’s labor, and the escalation of opportunities for risk. While certain challenges will get easier to deal with as the character amasses rewards in all their various forms (contacts, allies, tools, information, etc), and while meta rewards the player earns will increase a character’s ability to perform (XP, new skills, etc), all of these things are investments of time, energy, and passion which will result in a connection few players enjoy seeing diminish. A good reward will not only balance out a risk, it will entice both player and character while promising future gains, presenting the GM with tools to create future risks, expanding areas in which the character can explore new experiences, and providing the player with a broader scope of interactions.

As a player, if I feel that die rolls are rigged to provide me with a false sense of success, or if the story moves along a preordained set of events that will make my character cool by association, but which offered no real risk, then there is no way for there to be any real reward.

As a player, I want to ensure that the story goes on for each character, and that the character develops into something unique from whatever starting point has been arranged between me, the GM, and other players. It is up to me to preserve the life and consistency of that character. If the GM is constantly goading me onward with the threat of death, or simply luring me onward with the promise of reward, I have to ask myself – and them – if they truly expect me to play in their game. If the risk is always the chance of death, then eventually my character will die – and the game ends. If the reward is always easy to obtain then we might just as well sit back and listen to the GM tell the story than exert the effort to pretend to play.

13 Responses to “Rewards of Risk”
  1. faustusnotes says:

    Thanks for the comment. I don’t know if you’re aware but the OSR blogosphere is very big on the idea of death as a central part of the game. They not only see it as an essential way of “controlling” behaviour, but some GMs pride themselves on TPKs, and players expect their PCs to die often and early. Hence my note about “even though there is no death…”

    I agree entirely with your opinions about loss and risk being broader than this though. If your players are invested in the world they’re in, then civilian deaths, failure of missions, loss of credibility, exile, etc. are all significant failures. In a world where your only definition of failure is loss of treasure or life, then I think players will have a lot less interest in certain types of scenario.

    Or maybe it works the other way…

    • Runeslinger says:

      That was fast~
      Thanks for dropping by!

      I didn’t realize that that was a core concept of OSR, and the idea of the TPK or being a killer DM was definitely not something to aspire to back when the red box was all there was. How did it change? Better yet, why did it change? There is a lot I can get behind in the movement, but that would not be one of those things.

      I like and expect challenge, do not expect to succeed at all things, and reserve the right to try to slay a dragon without help at first level wearing only leather armour if dying that way is what I believe is necessary. I expect the GM to be fair and let me go to hell in my own way, not curtail my explorations ‘off the map’ with threat and delivery of death for my effrontery. In return, I will do my damnedest to play my part in the group, and by extension – the story.

  2. faustusnotes says:

    Here is an example from one of my least favorite representatives of the OSR “tradition”.

    • Runeslinger says:

      On a surface read, I seem to agree with a lot of the points raised in the article in regard to lethality and the chance for character death. I run my Palladium Fantasy game in a similar fashion to what is described. While Palladium does allow for options to enhance low-level characters not present in the systems cited in that post, (Stop trying to kill me, and kill me) it still retains means to obviate defenses and earned hit points to ‘get at the meat of things.’

      I expect low-level adventuring to be dangerous, difficult, and be something to fear… for the characters.

      Where I seem to differ from the attitude touted in the article, is in an insistence on character. If the level of lethality in a game regularly kills characters that cannot outwit or outmaneuver the threats, I am fine with that. However, if the reaction to this sort of character loss is to simply roll up another generic character, then I feel that this makes dying as toothless as it is claimed to be in ‘new wave’ gaming. Further, it is closer to the tactical wargaming from which this all grew than it is to the roleplaying which we are ostensibly doing. I love a good wargame as much as the next gamer, but if I come to the table expecting to roleplay, there needs to be roleplay. Being able to deal with the death of a party member, go and gather more information, return with a bolstered party, or at least a replacment member, and trying a different approach may not be possible in all story set-ups, but such things are far more consistent than the sudden generation, appearance, and insertion of a new ‘avatar’ for a player who lost their last one a few minutes ago.

      What I see being missing from the approach seemingly being touted is a learning curve for players, and a balance between the tactical and dramatic elements the game presents. I see no inherent advantage in killing the character of a novice player with a trap over suggesting to the novice that life for characters in the game is brutal and short, traps can kill instantly, and that it is likely that they will encounter traps behind doors in places like this. Suggesting to them that it might seem logical and appropriate for a person actually in the room to consider alternate methods of access than simply opening the door may not result in survival, but it stands a greater chance of building a habit of creative thinking. In my experience, killing characters early and often leads to people feeling stupid, and doesn’t teach them anything at all. If your purpose is to build a solid gaming group, and a stable and enjoyable game world, putting all the emphasis on the risk, and none on the means of learning to protect yourself from it is a losing proposition.

      I don’t know about you, but I have met a lot more people who quit the hobby early because they, “entered a room and died,” than I have met who are still gaming 20 or 30 years later.

  3. faustusnotes says:

    It’s the arrogant pride in the lethality that bothers me.

  4. Morten Greis says:


    Two things. I discovered your blog after your comment on mine. I really like your posts, you write some interesting stuff, that lies close to my own preferences.

    And on topic (more or less) I recognize the issue. At one point I suggested a house rule for my D&D Wizard-campaign, which allowed the players to ignore the death of their character and take handicap instead. The option was voted down, since some of the players wanted the risk of death to be there. However combats in the campaign are few and far between, so the risk of dying is small. Instead the players risks all kinds of losses instead – the loss of their character’s loved ones, of their social status, their career, membership of secret societies etc.
    But then one of the characters died. He was felled in battle – and it was most intense – because it was the utmost important encounter (two allies not recognizing each other in the battle – even though the players knew). Many resources were spend to save the character, but in the end they failed, he was dead. This character death made an emotional impact on the whole of the group, because the application of ‘Less is more’ did the difference.
    Some of the house rules we employ, allows the players to reduce the risk of character loss, but it requires the expenditure of hard earned player-resources. You get the resources by risking your character’s integrity. It works great for us.

    I have also something like it for my Call of Cthulhu-campaign, where each character possesses a certain amount of Doom-points, that allow the character to survive any encounter – but they come with a price: To gain these points you have to estrange your character from his loved ones. The alienation we discovered were actually a steep price to pay, and therefore characters die once in a while, rather die than ruining the relations, that keep the characters human. It creates some powerful moments in the game, both in the fiction, and when you see the player making the choice whether or not to pay the price.

    • Runeslinger says:

      Thanks for the comment~

      It sounds like you have a good handle on what works well for your group, have found a good balance between adopting roles and playing a game, and that stories worth telling are being created.

      Your comment hits the point squarely: there are many types of risk in the game, and all of them should be treated with an importance commensurate to what the character would feel.

  5. faustusnotes says:

    Morten, I have some posts on my blog about a Japanese RPG game I’m reading and played once, Double Cross 3. It has a mechanic similar to doom points, where you estrange yourself from your mortal contacts in order to gain certain benefits (including a healing surge). I described it here. The rules include an in-game mechanic to stop you burning your relations lightly – it’s your relations to the mortal world that drag you back from being corrupted by your own powers, and if you burn those relations too quickly you’ll end up losing your character, which will then have to be put down like a dog by the other players.

    There are lots of mechanisms for handling risk other than death, and exploring them can make the role-playing experience quite different.

  6. Brian says:

    MOrten, I like the idea of doom points. I’ve been thinking of a similar mechanic for my Delta Green homebrew. .. some sort of mechanic to measure one’s estrangement from family, friend,s and work. Your idea has some real potential.

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] Green] Decline and Humanity Jump to Comments This post is inspired by this post about the rewards of risk and the comments at Casting Shadows. It is about some the house rules in my Delta Green-campaign: The Hoarfrost […]

Speak your piece~

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • Revelations of Glaaki

  • Invocation

    Do not summon up that which you cannot also put down:

    runescastshadows at the intersection of Google and Mail.

    Find us on Google+

  • Role-Playing Stack Exchange

%d bloggers like this: