In video gaming the Achievement has become ubiquitous. It pops up around the borders of the screen with a glitzy soundbite and a tiny trophy cup, like you’ve won something, even if your biggest accomplishment thus far has been not cutting off your hands with safety scissors. These “gimme” achievements mean nothing, and do nothing to motivate the player, and they appear in almost every modern game despite the difficulty rating. But it’s the impressive, unforeseen trophies that mean the most. Trophies that you tell your friends about. Trophies that you dwell on. Trophies you can bring to your tabletop game…
When it’s something odd or interesting, like tipping the bar-wench $10,000 (Borderlands 2) or killing the enemy by throwing his grenade back at him (Day of Defeat) or master practically every achievement category in the game (Seriously 3.0, Gears of War 3) then it feels like the trophy has been earned.
Since childhood we’ve been conditioned to shit our Oshkosh B’gosh’s with glee every time we get a gold star, or go into fits whenever someone puts a little green check-mark at the top of our coloring book. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, unless you’re living in an age where goal-oriented thinking is on the decline, and everyone on the little league team gets a trophy so nobody feels bad (Fat chance, right!…Right?) So in the spirit of abusing this little by-product of social conditioning, I’ve recently started using an achievement system in my tabletop games. The results have been spectacular, and vaguely disturbing.
Award for what you lack:
My first piece of advice is to dole out Achievements for behaviors you want to encourage in your game, and not necessarily what would be badass to see on the table, or what’s mathematically difficult. If your players notice a relationship between how many trophies they get, and how many villagers they cut in half, you’ll have a goddamn bloodbath on your hands.
Likewise, if all of your achievements have to do with communication, solving puzzles, or kissing puppies, you’ll soon witness an episode of Blues Clues unfolding at your game table. When I say that Achievements can be powerful attitude adjusters in game, I’m not kidding. Try to reward for qualities your gaming group lacks.
Keep your list short and infrequent:
Since it will be you, the GM/DM who is awarding these suckers, many of which will require an active count, I would advise keeping the list short. I started with around 20 ‘chievies, and still found it taxing to remember just who changed clothes for the 4th time while everyone else was trying to slay the troll. (Achievement: Clothes Horse – Changes Clothes 5 Times “The clothes make the man…“)
My advice is to have a cheat-sheet with the names of the achievements sitting beside your campaign. Give each player a designation, and a letter or number to the right of the Achievement to indicate how many times each act/deed has been made. Example:
Players: Flavanoid, Ace, Vitamin B-2
Achievement: Snuff out 5 Goblin Orphans – F, F, F, A, A, Me
Achievement: Score a Crit on 5 Mechs – V, V, F, B, V
Achievement: For the love of God, roleplay the scenario –
It’s also important to make Achievements difficult or unlikely. As an experienced GM you’ll probably be able to adjust for whichever game system you’re running. But giving out an achievement in D&D 4.0 for every critical hit scored will make the whole process cheap. Giving an achievement to the player who doesn’t screw over the party at the end of a successful Cyberpunk run might be a bit too far-fetched. Try to give out one per session or so.
Achievements should be physical, but not necessarily monetary:
The first time you hand the player a tiny cardstock slip of paper with a trophy and clever phrase on it, to reward them for some inane task, will make you believe in miracles again. Players come alive when you validate the last 5 hours they wasted on plotting out a miniature siege on 1-inch grid lines, or skinning small sentient humanoids.
The last campaign I ran I gave out an achievement for a player who had truly terrible attack rolls. A player with math-defying, improbable odds who missed more attack rolls in a single round than should have been possible at his level. The name of the achievement was called “F*#@ Lady Luck!” and the player who received it went from chagrin and spitting to manic in 2 seconds.
For this reason I recommend physically giving tokens or printed scraps of paper to the players. It’s something they get to keep, and it’ll remind them of your campaign. Having a gold or credit or exp values assigned to your achievements may work for your table, but in my experience, the small sense of satisfaction and humor seems to work wonders on its own.