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What games have no mechanical reward cycle, leaving character rewards and improvements entirely within the fiction?

By "mechanical reward cycle", I mean a sub-system that:

  • ties a resource gained through play (e.g., XP, bennies, hero points, karma, opportunities to test skills, etc.)…
  • to a way of improving the mechanical portion of a character (attributes, to-hit rolls, resource points, level, wealth stat, etc.)…
  • so that the character is more effective at acquiring that resource of advancement (those same XP, hero points, etc.).

Most games feature such a system. I'm looking for games that don't.

For clarity's sake, money counts as being within a reward cycle (for the purpose of this question) only if acquiring monetary treasure is a major point of play and treasure allows you to somehow buy mechanical improvements to your character.

  • D&D 4e could arguably feature money as part of its reward cycle through the purchase of magic items, which are required for the advancement system to work as written.
  • Money in shock: social science fiction is entirely fictional because it can't be used to improve the character's mechanical stuff.
  • Money in AD&D is definitely part of the reward cycle since it can be traded for XP.
  • Money in many AD&D 2nd edition campaigns isn't part of the mechanical reward cycle because it can't be traded for XP and can't be directly used to buy magic items, because magic items are mediated by GM fiat and not player resources.
  • Money in Burning Wheel is part of the reward cycle because (financial) Resources is a character stat. Same with d20 Modern.
  • Money in The Riddle of Steel isn't in the reward cycle because it's mostly fictional, and the things you can buy with it that impact character mechanics do so in ways that aren't strictly improvement, just trade-offs. For example, buying heavier armour or a bigger sword changes your fighting style so it's different but not necessarily better—money gives you different choices, not character improvement.

The mechanical reward cycle is also distinct from the social reward cycle, which can be loosely defined as, "Why this game makes us want to keep playing it," and is a much more complicated beast.

This question is inspired by some of the answers to Which RPGs primarily reward playing the role. Since the question specified games that pinned character advancement largely on roleplaying rewards, games that have no mechanical character advancement like Mars Colony don't really fit there.

Since this is a Community Wiki (CW), please give one answer per distinct game or system and feel free to give multiple answers.

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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!

Amber actually has mechanical character advancement. If I could think of a game that didn't, I'd edit it in, but I can't. – Bryant Sep 24 '10 at 23:30

10 Answers 10

up vote 5 down vote accepted

carry. a game about war has no mechanical reward cycle, really, at least not the way you've defined it. You get to change your character by shifting from one Profile to another, but that doesn't necessarily make you more effective. There's also a mechanic that refreshes your dice pool when you run out, but you don't have to do anything really to earn that refresh, so it's not a reward for anything except rolling dice.

The reward cycle in carry is entirely focused on the fiction. You survive, you make choices, and you see what happens based on your choices. At the end of play, you narrate a sort of epilogue that describes where your character ended up.

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Montsegur 1244 has no reward cycle at all. There's a sharply delineated narrative arc that all the action takes place within; there's no system for resolving conflicts beyond seizing narration, which is an uncommon last resort.

My own game Fiasco has been aptly described as "incompetence porn", and there is no reward cycle. Characters definitely change, and that's entirely supported within the fiction.

Primetime Adventures. In PTA you emulate the tropes of television drama, so the unfolding story is its own reward, after a fashion. Character effectiveness ebbs and flows, but the only reward cycle (fan mail) is player-based, not character-based.

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GHOST/ECHO has no reward or advancement system.

It is two artful pages long, and more of a roleplaying poem than a complete game. It requires a fair amount of buy-in and group consensus, and is elegant minimalism at its best.

Despite this, it's definitely a very playable game. Hashing out the whole world and the PCs went faster than character generation in just about any RPG I can name.

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Traveller has a fairly intricate "life path" system for character creation, and then once gameplay begins the players don't generally advance at all. It's possible to advance mechanically (correspondence school and such to gain a skill, for example), but not really the norm. The rewards that the players get by playing within the universe, and becoming better able to play their character, are considered enough motivation to keep playing.

It would be possible to play a Traveler game without any mechanical advancement at all, if desired.

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+1 Traveller is the canonical example of this type of approach. Some say it was an oversight (Traveller came out in 1977) but it's popularity never really suffered because of a lack of an experience system. The popular campaign types (merchant and mercenaries) had built-in progression that was in-game. – RS Conley Sep 24 '10 at 20:24
And it's not quite true... there are (very limited) rules for advancement in CT, limiting to 2 skills at a time, and requiring 8 years to make it permanent. MT, TNE, T4, T5, and MGT all have advancement rules of much better caliber, with MT, T4, T5, and MGT being of the "Use it to get a chance to raise it" kind; TNE is spend XP to raise skills. – aramis Sep 24 '10 at 22:00

Spirit of the Century approaches the question of character advancement from the premise that you are already extremely awesome, and don't need to get any better. There are optional character advancement rules, but the default assumption is that the reward for adventuring is adventure. I've run the game for two different groups, and no one has ever missed progressive mechanical improvement.

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Mars Colony doesn't have a reward cycle. You either save the colony, leave a false saviour, or leave in shame. Only your character's fiction changes—status, emotions, personal relationships—none of which is reflected in the mechanics.

Arguably this is the point of the game. The mechanics are about the successes, failures, and moral compromises the saviour can make trying to save the Colony. The mechanics stay away from how the saviour might be changed by their struggle, leaving it up to the players to answer how their actions and moral compromises trying to save Mars Colony should change them.

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Universalis is an interesting edge case. There is a mechanical reward cycle, but it doesn't reward the characters. There is a cycle where the players are rewarded for adding interesting conflicts to the on-going story by rewarding them with more story-authority points, which they can then spend on creating more stuff and adding more interesting conflicts to the story.

These points can be used to add mechanical detail to a character (hence making them more useful/effective as story elements), but since no one player owns the characters this is no different than adding improvements to any other element of the story.

The key that makes Universalis not have a mechanical character-reward cycle is the last criteria: the reward resource doesn't make the characters more effective at gaining more of that reward resource. In fact, a player spending story-authority points on character improvements can make the player less able to steer the game in a direction that will give them more story-authority points.

As a caveat to all that, though, Universalis does include a built-in mechanic that lets you change the rules of the game using those same story-authority points, so it's entirely possible to re-write the rules of a game of Universalis enough that this answer is not longer meaningful.

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Almost no game has no mechanical reward; any game in which the rules include money has a potential mechanical reward, as is noted in more than one edition of Traveller.

The only onse which comes to mind are Sorcerer and Brute Squad.

Sorcerer even has a reward cycle, albeit a limited one, in that, at the end of the story arc, one may rewrite a continuing character to alter the stats.

Brute Squad is focused upon a "No survivors to the session PVP+PVGM" mode of play, but still has a reward cycle of sorts.

Now, certain of the odd games that are intended to be exclusively one-shot play-with-prepared-PC's only may have no reward cycle, but the question of whether or not the gain of advantage in play counts is another matter entirely.

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Acquiring money doesn't count any more than acquiring a new suit of armour or the favour of the Grand Duke counts, unless it's systematised like some systems do (e.g., Resources and Affiliations in Burning Wheel are mechanised money and power connections). – SevenSidedDie Sep 25 '10 at 0:44
Money was and is part of the reward cycle in most games I've seen written; in many, it's the primary reward for mission completion and/or adventuring. (RQ, Traveller, T&T, Palladium)... it's explicitly part of the rewards for adventuring in the GM advice in all these. Even tho in these games, money does not equate to XP's, it's still part of the reward cycle, because it gives the characters access to things they would not otherwise have access to. Unless the game makes no definitions of money and its purchasing power, and no abstractions of money, money is a mechanical reward cycle. – aramis Sep 27 '10 at 19:06

I recently learned about a game called Lexicon played on a wiki... might fit the bill.

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In the fantasy area, Everway has no mechanical rewards; characters are powerful when created but don't improve directly. The only experience awards are boons, which are in-character rewards for adventure (typically favours owed or magical items).

Spirit of the Century, like Everway, assumes that the characters are already capable and don't need to improve.

Paranoia has very little mechanical reward cycle in many styles of play, not because experience award is impossible but because it's almost irrelevant - it's hard to survive long enough to benefit from it, and probably won't be much benefit if you do.

For a game in which out-of-character mechanical rewards are inherently impossible, look at Bliss Stage, in which character relationships are the only meaningful power-up. 'Rewards' come by improving trust with other characters.

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