Good game design rewards behavior meeting the objectives of play.
By which he means, an effective game rewards the sort of play that the game is intended to create. To whit, if you make the Tarantino Cinematic RPG, it should involve lots of people sitting around and communicating who they are as people by using pop culture references when discussing matters of morality and psychology, or invoking the creative process, punctuated by periods of horrendous and blood-spattering violence. A Star Wars RPG should be able to handle swashbuckling action between individuals ranging from tiny droids to giant monsters as well as the clash of large armies and massive fleets, while encompassing not just the physical results of such conflicts, but also their spiritual implications as well.
So far, so good, and I’m in completely agreement with JB. He chose as his example the Elf Quest RPG, and I’ll admit that while I’m a fan of the comics, especially the original series as collected in the first four TPBs, I’m going to take his words as an excuse to leap off into areas that I think he only brushed up tangentially against. So this should not be seen necessarily as a criticism of what JB wrote. As I said, I’m largely in agreement with his theme, and believe that a mere character creation and combat system do not an RPG make.
JB is primarily talking about reward systems, but too often people conflate rewards with mechanics. It’s easy to do, because once you’ve mechanized an aspect of an RPG, you’ve made it quantifiable and thus easy to handle in terms of rewards and difficulties. If you have rules that quantify a character’s chi, for instance, it’s then easy to use those numbers in other aspects of the game and control the level of a character’s chi. You can know what amount of chi a character should have at certain points in the game, and you can easily see what sort of obstacles are appropriate for a character who has that much chi.
Life, however, is full of messy things that are difficult to quantify. Measurements of status and prestige, as JB suggests, would have been an excellent addition to the Elf Quest game, but things are very fluid and somewhat chaotic among the Wolf Riders. Cutter is the chief, but that doesn’t stop Strongbow from challenging him constantly. And that, contrary to how things might appear on the surface, is a source of strength for Cutter.
Even worse, however, is that once you quantify something, you stop playing the fuzzy, human aspects of the thing and start playing the numbers. As much as I love BioWare’s games, they tend to boil romance and respect down to a system of potlatch, and while there are certainly historical precedents for such things (like the relationship between a chief and his warriors among the ancient celts), bribing someone to be my girlfriend doesn’t exactly feel like romance to me. Making your romance system more complex only helps if that complexity serves to hide the numbers from the players; taking my lady out for a night at the opera because she happens to be a classical music lover is a far cry from spending $150 (probably the cheapest you can get away with for a night at the opera and a decent dinner) for a +4 bonus on my “Get Lucky” roll. ;p
In short, throwing bonuses at players for going through the motions isn’t the goal. Rewarding and encouraging the sort of play we want should be the goal, and this must often be done obliquely. Old school D&D is about exploration, but it doesn’t reward you for every 10’ of dungeon corridor mapped or unusual geological formation found. It rewards you for gathering treasure and penalizes you for being inefficient about how you gather it.
So in our Tarantino game, maybe every character starts with an artistic obsession and a secret existential crisis that is referenced by those obsessions and a pile of poker chips. Getting another character (that is, the player, in this case) to agree with your argument as to the worthiness of your obsession earns you a poker chip, and two if you can turn their argument towards promoting the worth of one of your obsessions. However, if they guess your existential crisis, you have to surrender most of your chips to them, and those chips are the only things that will keep you alive in the extremely brutal combat that is always threatening to erupt. In our Star Wars game, every strategic-level conflict can include a spiritual goal that might actually be served by losing in the physical realm (“If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.”). And in our Elf Quest game, perhaps the resolution of individual conflict results in stronger cohesion between an entire group.
The one thing I would stress, however, is that how the game is played is more important than the rules. In the solo Labyrinth Lord game Oddysey is playing in, there was this past year a near TPK. It was, by every measure, a disaster for her character and that character’s companions. However, the end result has been the creation of a very potent and powerful association. Friendship isn’t anything like the right word, but this relationship is one that Oddysey’s character knows she can rely on. There are no rules to cover this situation, no way to measure its worth in terms of EXPs or gold pieces, and yet it has been a large part of the transformation of the campaign. Oddysey’s character is no longer a single, lone individual in a large, uncaring world. She’s now “plugged in,” with all the privileges and responsibilities that go along with it. Neither of us knew the game could go where it’s gone when we started, but by playing off each other, things have taken some very interesting turns. In short, sometimes the best reward of all is to let the chips fall where they will, and give the players something interesting to play with.
UPDATE: E.G. Palmer (aka Mr. Green) riffs off Tarantino gaming to come up with an intriguing way to use music in your game.