Penalties Over Rewards

A wonderfully lively discussion has arisen around the “Rewards, Not Penalties” column.  It’s been particularly difficult to remain quiet while knowing that today’s column was coming.

You see, Luther read my last article before I posted it.  Two days later, he sent a rebuttal.  The italicized paragraphs which follow are entirely in his words.  This rebuttal is a testimonial to the nuances of in game design.  The post was written to share his “rewards over penalties” philosophy with the world. Luther stepped in to remind me that there are absolutely no absolutes.

Penalties Over Rewards

I wanted to expand some on the idea of “bonuses are better than penalties.” Reading your writing about it had it back on my mind, and I was reevaluating my thoughts about it. I still agree with the general idea that bonuses are more emotionally pleasing than penalties, but I wanted to think about “okay, when are appropriate times to use penalties?” I came up with three major categories.

1) Clarity

Sometimes it’s way easier to express a mechanic as a penalty than as a bonus. If you have a game where you move slower for each wound you’ve taken, it’s much easier to express that as a penalty than trying to say you get a speed bonus for every wound you haven’t taken. Other times it’s more about frequency; if you need an attack that does less damage to blue monsters, it’s awkward to say “bonus to non-blue monsters”.

2) Using bonuses with penalties

Using a bonus along with a penalty takes a lot of the sting out of the penalty. If your sword is +2 against fire but -2 against water, or your shotgun is minus accuracy but plus damage, that can use penalties to massage a mechanic without just “feeling bad”, because hey, check out that upside right there.

3) Evoking emotion

This is the big one, I think. The major issue with using a penalty instead of a bonus is that it evokes negative emotions instead of positive. If you’re a mighty superhero, you want that player to feel powerful and strong. Sometimes, though, it makes sense to try and evoke a different feeling in the game mechanics. In a gritty zombie survival game, where you’re accruing penalties left and right, it’s going to feel tough. You’re going to feel like it’s harsh. And that’s the way the game wants you to feel.

So yeah. Generally I still feel like if a penalty can be rewritten as a bonus, that bonus should be the default. But there’s certainly appropriate times to use penalties too. They’re all tools in the toolbox, and there’s no shame in being an Allen wrench instead of a screwdriver.

How do you employ rewards and penalties in your games?  Which do you employ more?  Which do you prefer?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.


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