A friend asked me this today while we were discussing my Shadowrun game versus his Dresden Files game. He wanted to know, from a design stand point, which I thought was more important or better to have in a game: a mechanic to throw danger and other bits of bad luck at the players randomly or something that helps to reward the player for staying in character especially when that means making a stupid decision. Now, I'm going to share my answer below the break, but I would also love to hear what each of you personally prefer.
My answer was that it depends on the kind of game you are running. For a game like Shadowrun that seems to revel in being the kind of game where you approach everything like a puzzle, work out the optimal solution, and then approach things as carefully as possible having the random bad luck mechanic is great because it adds the element of "you can't prepare for everything" without making the GM have to be a jerk and cheat the players to get them into those situations. That said, games that are clearly more focused on a particular story, narrative, or cinematic feel go the opposite direction. The World of Darkness doesn't need a mechanic to throw random bad luck at the character. However, it does need something to reward players and encourage them to play their character - and the monster their character is - out even when it could be the wrong decision.
Neither of these gaming types is wrong or better. One may appeal to a certain person or group more than the other but they're both valid and they're both good to have.
My Real Answer
Now, my answer was from the perspective of a game designer. So what is my real answer? Well, my preference is towards narrative and cinematic games. Because of that I like having mechanics in place to tempt or encourage my players to stay in character and do stupid things even if they think it'll be a "bad" outcome for the character in question. That is the kind of game I get more enjoyment out of.
To me though the ideal would be to have a game that had both. A mechanic, kind of like the one in Star Wars Edge of the Empire, where you can have bad things happen even on successful rolls - and vice versa - that also had incentives and rewards for players to stay in character even if that meant doing something stupid.
Why do I want that if I primarily like the narrative stuff? Well, as much as those random bits of bad luck will challenge the PCs to think on their feet or do other things to get out of the mess, they can also be used for some amazing narrative opportunities. Some bad stuff happening on a successful roll can be used to spice up the scene by putting others in danger, or to just ramp up the difficulty by costing the PC a favored item. At the same time though, it could mean that a friend or enemy shows up on the scene unexpectedly, or that an opportunity to do something amazing shows up. These are all opportunities to explore the character in question and to make the story feel a bit more real and awesome.
How About You?
So, that's my answer. How about you? Do you have a preference? Do you like both? What kind of game do you find yourself gravitating towards more? Sound off in the comments.