Why Games should Reward instead of Punish Players

Tabletop games reward their players with intricate gameplay, but some games insist on punishing their players for things they don’t do or don’t do well as opposed to rewarding them for things they do or do well. Most people enjoy rewards. Getting rewarded for good deeds is a positive thing, and tabletop games work best when they reward their players instead of dole out punishment.

Often times you can turn a negative into a positive by a simple word change. I’ll use a common occurrence in pencil and paper RPGs as an example:

You’re an archer. You have a bow and arrow that has a max range of let’s say 100 yards (you can’t hit anything beyond 100 yards, so don’t even try—you’ll fail every time), and an optimum range of 20 yards. Now let’s say that you have to roll so many fives or sixes on a standard six-sided die (d6) to hit a target. You could express the effectiveness of your bow and arrow, and your skill by saying that you roll ten d6s if you’re within 20 yards of your target, but you’d lose two dice if you travel beyond 20 yards. Wording the ability this way punishes the player for not being 20 yards from their target.

Now let’s use the same example and make it a reward:

You’re the same archer with the same bow and arrow, and you still have to roll so many fives or sixes on a standard d6 to hit a target. But this time your base attack is eight d6s, and you gain two dice if you move within 20 yards of your target.

You still roll the same number of dice in both scenarios, but you’d be surprised by how many gamers would complain about losing two dice in the first version versus gamers who read the second version and think of it as a challenge. Now I have to sneak toward my target to gain two dice. But it’s the same thing. That’s the power of staying positive.

I’m not saying that there aren’t any good games that use punishment instead of rewards. Agricola comes to mind, and it’s an excellent game. But why do I have to lose points for not having a type of animal on my farm? Can’t you reward me for each type of animal I do have on my farm and give me a zero for each animal I don’t? Give us a pat on the back, not a boot in the rear.

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