I enjoy RPG sessions in which the characters face a situation with no clear solutions. They prod around the edges to form an intent. And then they dive into the execution.
In our Tomb of Annihliation game, we had four fantastic sessions that built on each other. In the first session, the characters waged a three way battle with Assassin Vines and a Red Wizard and their entourage; The PCs routed the Red Wizard.
In the second session the PCs tracked the fleeing Red Wizard, and pieced together where he was going. They scampered ahead and set up an ambush; A rather quick affair.
For the third session, they prepared an ambush for the next wizards, but did not have an opportunity to spring the trap. Instead, they concocted a grander plan. And set that in motion. And the fourth session became one of my most memorable combat-oriented game sessions.
Reflecting on Those Four Sessions
Digging into these 4 sessions we had an initial situation—challenging and dire. Emerging victorious though battered, the characters pounced and flipped the situation. With clear intentions, they disposed of one threat and gleaned information to prepare them to address an even greater threat.
They laid out a trap, and when their prey didn't spring the trap, the PCs shifted plans. With some social engineering, they partnered up with the Red Wizards. All while setting a second, potentially more dangerous, plan in motion—Silence a T-Rex and lead it into the wizard camp as a vanguard to a larger ambush.
Encouraging This Behavior
I want a game that encourages this behavior: planning, risk taking, stacking the odds in your favor, and rewarding risk taking.
Of those, I want a game that rewards risk taking. I also believe it to be important that the players establish the kinds of risks they are looking to take.
For the Tomb of Annihilation game, I'm just telling the players when they level up. No one tracks XP, because I'm lazy and don't want to reward characters for combat. For this game, the reward is intrinsic; Play the game for its own enjoyment, knowing that every so often the GM shall bequeath a level upon thine character.
I reward the players for risk taking by rolling with their hair-brained ideas. But I want to talk about system rewards.
5E has two system awards: XP and Inspiration. With XP you gain levels and abilities to face more and more difficult challenges. With Inspiration, you gain a momentary advantage.
First, lets talk about XP. By default, defeating monsters, completing quests, disarming traps all garner XP. However, you could chose to modify how you award XP. In OSR games, you get XP for defeating monsters and for gaining treasure (1 XP per GP). By explicitly defining the conditions for XP, you can incentivize different styles of play.
Imagine if you reduced the XP for 5E monsters to ⅒th of their normal value, and rewarded 1 XP per 10 GP gained? How might that shift incentives? What style of game might emerge?
What if you only gave XP at the end of the session for playing to your Bond, Ideal, Trait, and Flaw? How would that shift your game? Fight all you want, but unless it tracks to a Bond, Ideal, Trait, or Flaw, you won't get XP.
What would it mean to gain XP and level based powers that may or may not map to the acting on your Bonds, Ideals, Traits, or Flaws?
Second, let's examine Inspiration. At it's core, Inspiration looks like a good idea. Play to your Bonds, Ideals, Traits, or Flaws (BITFs) and gain Inspiration, which you can use for advantage on a dice roll. This system echo's Burning Wheel's Beliefs, Instincts, and Traits(e.g. BITs).
Yet, I find it clunky and awkward rewarding Inspiration. The primary reward mechanism of 5E, XP encourages fighting and defeating creatures. During these combats, BITFs are a bolted on design afterthought.
Gaining and using Inspiration is not critical to the game. Inspiration helps make tasks easier, but the difficulty of tasks is low enough that inspiration is a “nice to have” feature. If each roll in 5E resolved a conflict, inspiration would be far more crucial to the game—I'd need to make that one roll count.
Instead, 5E focuses on moment by moment, blow by blow, skill checks. The impact of a single successful action is less, you chip away at the hit point totals.
Closing the Circle
Out of the box, 5E rewards diving into combat and defeating monsters. That is how you advance. It also rewards, in bursts of efficacy, playing towards what should be your character's motivations and drivers. It would be somewhat trivial to shift rewards towards accumulation of treasure and ensure that ever tougher monsters guard ever more lucrative treasure.
I've been thinking how I might shift the mechanical reward structure of 5E. I concede that the level advancement tightly couples to ever improving combat prowess, which creates a disconnect. Why should playing to your BITFs about pacifism increase your combat prowess?
I guess it may be time to dust off Burning Wheel and give it a roll. Burning Wheel's advancement system requires taking risks. For those risky tests, success requires spending Artha—an analogue to 5E Inspiration.
Aside from the intrinsic fun of a game, Burning Wheel's tight rewards and advancement feedback loop models the kind of RPGs I look to play.