Neil seems to be keen on filling up the forums with discussion threads, so here’s another:
Ever since Simon mentioned it, I’ve been thinking about mechanical rewards as an incentive for playing according to a character’s beliefs and traits. Such rewards, which go back all the way to early D&D, became very popular and well regarded in the indie games community, finding their way, in various forms, into a wide variety of systems. Now, they’ve come full circle, as seen in 5th edition’s inspiration mechanics.
Genre emulation is also an important tenet among indie afficionados, including those in this group, and I find myself agreeing. Among the things a game’s system can do, emulating the genre of the game seems like one of the most worthwhile.
Yet for some reason, these two things are rarely seen as being connected with one another. Disregarding for the moment whether mechanical bonuses for adhering to the traits on your character sheet inspire or restrict good role-playing, or serve player empowerment or DM control, what is their effect on genre emulation?
Not all genres are equal, obviously enough. If you’re role-playing a Poirot mystery, you want the protagonist to be unchanging, a constant in the evolving plot. Poirot remains more or less the same throughout the stories, from his love of logic down to his vanity, and encouraging a player to play their character in such a way makes sense.
There are plenty of genres in which this is the case. A good portion of plot-driven genre fiction, from mysteries to Westerns, falls into this category. A prime example are hard-boiled detective stories, which are not only frequently episodic in nature, but often include protagonists with a strong moral code as a central element. This is a perfect scenario for rewarding players for playing according to their characters’ traits.
An excellent example of an RPG that does this very well is Pendragon, as pointed out by Simon. Episodic structure? Check. Chivalric code central to a character’s existence? Check. The genre is perfect, and the game handles this very deftly.
On the other hand, there are plenty of stories in which character development is paramount. From The Lord of the Rings to the Vorkosigan saga, character growth is central to these tales.
Imagine if Han Solo’s player looked down at their character sheet during Star Wars’s climactic scene, saw that they’d get a karma point for hitting the ‘selfish loner’ or ‘scoundrel’ traits, and left Luke in the lurch. The whole movie falls apart.
In such cases, rewarding players for adhering to character traits is the exact opposite of what you’d want. Ideally, there would be a reward for departing from those established traits at crucial moments.
So what does this mean for D&D? Initially, rewards for staying true to character, mild as they were, fit perfectly with the goal of genre emulation. D&D had both its feet firmly in the sword and sorcery sub-genre with its limited focus on character development, frequently presented in the form of short stories. But D&D soon changed into a game steeped primarily in high fantasy, in which character growth is usually a critical element of the story. As a result of this shift, these game mechanisms, which made sense originally, are now misplaced.
(It’s an awkward fit in other ways as well. For one thing, it’s oddly hand-wavy compared with the precision of the rest of the rules.)
In other words, handing out rewards for sticking to character traits has far more to do with genre than most game mechanisms, and shouldn’t be inserted into just any game. Assuming, of course, that system matters, which is another discussion altogether …