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In what games (either in-print or out-of-print) are the rewards for playing your character's role or depicting your character's behavior the primary means of character advancement, as opposed to rewards for other activities (such as combat or loot)?

Of course, many games over time have offered "bonus XP for roleplaying," but in which games is that the primary reward cycle?

For organizational reasons, please describe only one game (or common game engine) per response. Thanks!

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As this is a game-recommendation question, please adhere to the FAQ, the rules for subjective questions as outlined in Good Subjective, Bad Subjective and our rules for game recommendations. All responses must cite actual experience or reference others' experiences!

For what my five cents are worth, this seems like a really clear phrasing of the question. – Bryant Sep 21 '10 at 20:30
Possible duplicate:… – Daenyth Sep 21 '10 at 20:34
Definitely a duplicate in intent, but the former question was closed subsequent to an edit war. (Edit wars: nobody wins.) – Bryant Sep 21 '10 at 20:48

20 Answers 20

Any of the FATE-powered games, like the Dresden Files RPG, will give you in-game rewards (Fate Points) for playing your Aspects.

I would have given an upvote to the mxyzplk's answer about The Riddle of Steel if I had enough reputation to do so.

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+1 for FATE-powered games. My main experience with them is Spirit of the Century. It's a great one-shot/pick-up game if you wanted to try it out with a group. – neontapir Mar 7 '11 at 5:38

The Riddle of Steel works this way; a PC has "Spiritual Attributes" (personality mechanics) that give bonuses in play and are also used as an advancement mechanic; players get points (like XP) they can spend on improving their character when they act according to their attributes.

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Related to Burning Wheel is Mouseguard.

Advancement, such as there is, is based upon using skills and abilities. However, the characters are directly rewarded (via fate and persona points which can be used to help the character overcome obstacles) for "embodying" the character (in the opinion of the other players), working towards and/or accomplishing individual goals, acting according to the instincts and beliefs (set during character creation) - and even for acting against their beliefs if done so in a "cool and dramatic way".

Another aspect of the game which is unlike more traditional games and mechanically rewards players who "play their role" is the trait system. In addition to using thier traits to assist their die rolls (a typical approach) players are encouraged (via the mechanics) to use their traits to hinder their rolls: I.e. if your character has the trait "fat", by bringing that trait into play in a way that hinders your character, you are rewarded with additional actions that can be used to pursue your personal goals.

In short, the system strongly rewards playing your character's role, but that reward system is not directly tied to character advancement (which is a Learn by Doing approach).


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Interesting, I'll have to check it out. I'm an avid fan of the comics. – neontapir Mar 7 '11 at 5:39

There may be tons of games whose rules explicitly reward role-playing, but I never let that stop me. If I decide that I want to reward role-playing primarily in any game that I run...

...I do it.

"Well done sacking the dungeon, D&D group. You guys each get 300 XP for killin' monsters. Player A played his role really well, so 700 XP for him. Player B was not so much; only 500 XP. Player C was on freaking fire, so 800 XP for her. Done."

Why? 'Cause I'm the GM, and that's the game my players and I want to play.

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Strictly speaking, this answers the question "Which GMs primarily reward roleplaying your character?". As much as I appreciate the spirit of it, does the OP really need someone telling him he can reward RP by fiat? I'm saying this as someone who is a huge fan of your blog and other contributions to the RPG community. – cr0m Jun 22 '11 at 17:05
But praps a valid expansion of the question, pointing out that 'all RPGs can be run in ways that actively reward roleplaying.' – ExTSR Jun 23 '11 at 13:46
Thanks for reading the blog, cr0m! What ExTSR said is what I meant -- keep ever in mind that the game is what you make of it. – Dr Rotwang Jun 25 '11 at 2:55
Whoops. Meant to add that this question is interesting in a research-and-history manner, too. – Dr Rotwang Jun 25 '11 at 2:58

The Shadow of Yesterday is a great answer to this question. Players are rewarded for pursuing the things they are interested in: Keys allow them to define and highlight the roleplaying elements they care about and the GM can tailor the game to suit their interests.

Also nice: It's released under a Creative Commons license.

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Does "there's not any real character advancement or loot at all, so the only thing you can get out of the game is roleplaying" count? Because the super old Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game fits that category. RP isn't tied to advancement because there's no advancement; PCs don't improve. They are demigods; better/etc than anyone except the other PCs and they have fixed abilities that are better or worse than other PCs, and they can craft entire dimensions so loot has no meaning, so RP and intrigue is really all you can do in the system.

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Burning Wheel is centered around the Artha mechanic which rewards players with bonus points for role playing their character's Beliefs, Instincts, and Traits.

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The 7th Sea Role Playing Game has an emphasis on role playing, through a variety of techniques --

  1. Backgrounds -- Players are provided with an experience-point incentive for writing a past history for their characters: If the gamemaster uses it in his story, you get experience points for it. This helps ensure that players have at least a minimum amount of depths to their characters before starting.

  2. Drama Dice -- Drama dice are a small, immediate, usually tangible (they recommend using poker chips) reward for good role playing or feats of derring-do. The rewards are therefore clearly spelled out (if you do something awesome, you will get this set of mechanical benefits), and role-playing behaviors the GM wishes to encourage are called out as they happen.

  3. Experience Scale -- The experience scale for the game is based on how important a game night or adventure was to the overall plot, rather than dwelling on the specifics of what the players did. This makes it easier to apply to both combat and non combat situations.

The literature for the game also contains a lot of "soft" encouragement for both the gamemaster and players to role-play as much as possible.

With that said, 7th Sea is an action-based game with a mostly traditional point-buy system. If you're looking for traditional role-playing with a reward for staying in character, it'll be great. If you're looking for something more exotic, it may not work well for you.

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Thanks; hoped you'd be back. ;> Yah, 7th Sea is a good one. – ExTSR Sep 21 '10 at 20:29
@ExTSR It's one of the ones I'm playing right now, so it's easy to bring to mind :) – AceCalhoon Sep 21 '10 at 21:20

PDQ and PDQ# are free (but closed-license), rules-lite systems, with a Narrativist focus, heavy on roleplaying. One major idea I've adopted from PDQ for use in other systems I GM: Players learn from failure. I.e., PCs get experience points for trying something new and failing. In this way, PDQ encourages players to take risks and roleplay their characters, and discourages munchkins who just want steal the most loot or kill the monsters with the biggest xp awards.

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I'm going to say the Cortex system (Serenity, BSG, etc.), because of the plot point mechanic. I'm with Jagged in that I don't use XPs as rewards, but in managing the flow of the game. For me then, plot points are a great secondary reward system. I know a lot of other systems do this as well (Hollow Earth, Savage Worlds).

Cortex also has a low character mortality rate (it is very hard to kill someone in Cortex), so it doesn't punish players for doing something that is sub-optimal, combat-wise.

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Related to Cortex, is Smallville. Best superhero RPG I've played, IMO. It uses a modified Cortex and is entirely based upon player action. In order to advance your character, you have to take some kind of stress, whether that is getting punched in the jaw, or getting angry because someone insulted your mother.

It also has an action point system, which gives you the ability to activate your abilities in game, and requires you to either have an ability used on you, or for you to play into one of your distinctions (Such as lying to your friends to protect your secret Identity).

I'll also have to give a +1 to The Burning Wheel above, but I don't have enough rep to give you an upvote yet.

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Welcome to the site, mate. I'd love to see some questions on smallville and will happily upvote good ones. :) – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Apr 23 '11 at 5:14
That can be arranged, sir. That can be arranged. – Cthos Apr 23 '11 at 5:33

The "World of Darkness" set of games provide experience for playing the role of the character, and emphasizes acting out the character's personality within a sandbox type of setting. Only a marginal bonus for choosing to enter into direct conflict is given in the experience point awards section.

Of course, many players still play it as a hack and slash style game anyways, but such is life,.

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I'd like to propose the theory that most "modern time" or "science-fiction" themed games/systems are pretty much grind free. The reasoning for this builds on three main points:

1. Deadly combat

Usually modern/sci-fi games employ a game system that tries to correctly model the danger and lethality of firearms and explosives. Therefore, PC death is much more likely, especially when no (cheap) means of reliable medical emergency measures exists and resurrection is unknown. No matter how much you optimize and gear up your character, that other guy who just caught you off-guard and carries a gatling disintegrator cannon (or automatic shotgun using armor-penetrating sabot shells) will win. There's always a bigger fish in the pond and character optimization and focusing on mechanical aspects is not rewarded as much as it is in the "typical" fantasy game.

2. Familiarity

Everyone has a pretty good idea from his or her real-life what a character in a modern/sci-fi game could do. Hobbies, pastimes, and so on. With shows like ST:TNG, Space: Above and Beyond and Babylon 5 there are lots of sources that also describe the daily life in such a setting. There are much less sources (outside books) that describe daily life in a fantasy setting. Most modern/sci-fi settings do include well known things like "working for a company", "using something like the internet and other media like TV or radio", and "spending your free time shopping or in clubs/bars". The mental gap the players have to jump to portrait believable characters is much smaller.

3. Plot diversity

Many plots just won't work in fantasy settings. Prime offenders are games where strong divination and/or mind control and/or teleportation magic exists and is readily available for PCs. Most modern/sci-fi games however exclude just these elements and thus allow mystery, intrigue and location/travel based plots to again become important game elements. Also, in modern/sci-fi games it is usually not that easy for the PCs to wander around the countryside and simply murder other intelligent creatures ("but they were evil!") due to the law, thus making the classical "grind and loot" game-play very hard to justify.

I'm sure that there are exceptions and counter examples invalidating my theory. But from my personal experience with various fantasy/modern/sci-fi games the proposed theory is a pretty good estimation on possible campaign themes and game-play.

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Mmm, while this is an interesting point, I don't really see how it answers the question. After all, since game mechanics have no obligation to reflect 'realism,' the deadliness of a game is not necessarily dictated by genre - and even if a game is deadly, it doesn't mean that the game rewards roleplaying: Look at Paranoia. – GMJoe Jan 23 '12 at 6:52

I think you can say that pretty much any system that doesn't use a 'bounty' system (where xp is tied to in-game objects or entities) can be used to primarily reward playing a role. In such systems, xp is distributed entirely by GM fiat - at which point the better question is "can you recommend a GM (either active or not) who primarily rewards players for playing the role?"

Few systems that I've played actually use a bounty xp model. (AD&D is the only one that leaps to mind.) Even in D&D, though, you can alter the weighting to reward role playing more than kills and loot (I cut monster/trap xp in half and add arbitrary xp for good role play and story advancement to make up the slack).

Willfully or not, GMs use XP to induce player behavior. If you reward players for ganking a boss, they will gank the boss. If you reward them for playing a character well, they'll continue to do so. If you must find a system that explicitly supports this in its text I recommend "almost any system that isn't D&D." What you want to avoid is the bounty-based xp.

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D&D needn't be pure hack n' slash. In a 4-part article called "The World Beyond 'HackAndSlash '" by John K. D'Amato in Shadis magazine (still available on DTRPG), there are recommendations for awarding XP in D&D based on playing your class really well, rather than just killing monsters and looting treasure:

  • Shadis #1 (Jan 1990): XP for roleplaying Clerics, e.g., 2,000xp for completing a religious quest, 500xp for making a convert, 100XP for teaching, 100xp for making a pilgrimage to a temple of your faith, 20-50xp for saying a prayer, etc.
  • Shadis #2 (March 1990): Magicians, e.g., only get 50% xp award for killing monsters unless they have the ability to do magic, 10-50xp for experimenting with magic, 50xp for discussing views on magic with another magician, etc.
  • Shadis #3 (May 1990): Thieves, e.g., 50% for treasure gained by force, but twice xp for treasure gained by thieving skills. 10-100xp for picking locks. Etc.
  • Shadis #4 (August 1990): Fighters, e.g., 50xp for a man-to-man-duel, 250xp for saving a NPC 9th level+, 100xp for demonstrating leadership, etc.
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The Hero System has always been about xp awarded for the game session and their examples were more about experience gained and gaming than about critters killed. Of course pert of that is from its background as a Super Hero game where you never get to kill a super-villain ;)

As a GM I consider xps not as "rewards" but as one of the many controls you have over the pace of the story. So I have dished out xp at different rates in different campaigns, such as where the character are new and inexperienced vs hard-bitten and world wary. Of course that should be a campaign attribute and not a punishment for certain character backgrounds ;)

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AD&D 2nd Edition, despite what the core rulebooks suggest, was strongly geared towards this. Published modules often gave very large XP awards for completing certain objectives (that usually involved helping people) that overshadowed combat XP awards. There was even a tendency among DMs to not track combat XP at all. This is obviously a case of YMMV, but there was a large segment of role focused gamers playing AD&D 2e, and the XP system supported it well. The Kit system, which was also widely used, introduced role-play based mechanics for a number of characters, so while there wasn't an XP reward built in there, non-combat based roleplaying was rather explicitly encouraged by the mechanics.

Dragonlance 5th Age made this rather explicit by giving advancement by way of completing quests, and seemed to be a codification of that element/segment of AD&D 2e play.

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Chivalry & Sorcery in pretty much all of its editions (certainly the 2nd with which I'm most familiar) had experience point gains by profession. If you were a wizard, for example, you got full XP for doing wizardly-type things like researching spells, enchanting items, etc. and got very minor experience rewards from combat. Thieves got full experience from stolen loot or attacks made from stealth. Fighter types got full experience, naturally, from combat. This being an old-school game, of course, meant that you had very complicated experience point calculations as a result.

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I might suggest the games using the Ubiquity system (Hollow Earth Expedition, Desolation, and All for One: Régime Diabolique).

A core element of the system are Style points that provide an instant reward for good roleplaying and immediate benefit in the game.

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Badass is a game that literally rewards you mechanically for playing your character well. The points you spend to increase your dice roll are gained by portraying your character properly.

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