One of the most difficult things to do as a Game Master is to make sure that you are treating players fairly; in an experience as interactive and open as tabletop roleplaying it is critical to ensure that there is still a degree of equity at the table; not necessarily of outcome but certainly of opportunity. Outcomes, however, cannot be equitable in mechanical and narrative practice all the time, because some players will make better decisions or contributions than others, and to attempt to balance the players’ standing too closely will result in a lack of reward for clever or prudent play.
The first thing to consider when rewarding a player is how much of the skill they brought to the table was in a narrative, creative, and inventive sense versus the amount of knowledge that they brought in about the game systems and mechanics, or even the setting in extreme cases. For instance, the party of newbies in Dark Heresy may wind up getting themselves into a fight they can’t win, and only the genre-savvy veteran is willing to run. It’s a good idea for the players to run, and the reward for doing so will be the survival of their characters, but is it fair to kill all the newbies’ characters and spare the veteran because of out of character knowledge, even if the newbies should have had warning?
While it’s not necessary to reward only play that particularly engages the narrative, it’s still a good idea to reward certain behaviors. For instance, if the party wanted to stick and fight, they could win with outside assistance, which has a net consequence effect because the assistance they received was pulled from another much-needed task to bail them out.
On a more practical basis, certain narrative things get rewarded for common sense. Shadowrunners who insist on fighting every battle soon learn the brutal intricacies of the health system, including potentially astronomical hospital bills and criminal records the length of the Empire State Building, while those who sneak in carefully can make it out without a hitch. On the other hand, most players aren’t wanting to go to a game in which they play a desk job, so it’s a good idea to discourage players getting smart and outsourcing their shadowruns so that their characters never get into danger.
In addition, it’s important to consider the role that player skill matters. Many players learn to play the prudent way because they think it’s “how the game works” rather than because they’re making the cause-and-effect judgments that lead to an engaging narrative; I’ve found that the best experience in play comes from “We want to be stealthy because it makes getting out of the facilities easier and means less time in a protracted gun battle” rather than “We want to be stealthy because when we weren’t Kyle beat our characters up.”. Unfortunately, the tendency in gaming seems to be that it’s a time to unwind and turn off one’s brain, and that’s really not productive in terms of creating a long-term game.
Most games available on the market fit into a specific genre, rather than providing a true sandbox experience, and many more games are built to provide a customizable experience. This is to be expected, and is not a bad thing, since the narratives you build are most engaging when players find themselves in high-tension situations and risks for characters strike them less heavily than risks for themselves, necessitating high-stakes drama with life, limb, and social standing at risk. However, you also want to make sure that you know how your game works, and reward players for using the abilities they have cleverly, and discourage repetition. Just because something works once doesn’t mean it will work every time. Remember that telling a story means more than simply drilling players into a highly effective group, and characters’ general adventuring competence should be less competent than the roles they play in the actual storyline and setting of the game.
A consequence of this is that the GM must also consider their goals and situations presented to the players and consider the methods through which they are going to weave the narrative together. If you can’t follow a cause-and-effect chain through your desired goals, your players can’t either, and if you want to see critical thinking and clever, enjoyable play you need to do some critical thinking in your prep work and your narration presented to the players. Similarly, don’t go off on tangents all over the place. This isn’t to say that you can’t have a dungeon crawl or the like, but consider the effect of your narrative; are the players experiencing a “villain of the week” styled game in which there is little overarching plot, or are there more complex themes working throughout? Remember that even the most simple narratives that are effective feature either recurring protagonist development, recurring antagonist development, or both; Batman may face a different threat every week, but his character is changed by the experiences he goes through and the people he deals with are often pawns in a larger scheme.