In my early days of playing roleplaying games I was still in the mindset of playing the game to ‘win’. This ‘winning’ took the form of two things, defeating foes and gathering treasure. In general, the entire incentive of playing the game was to garner as much gold and treasure as possible and therefore ‘win’ the game.
But as time goes on you have to ask what is the point of playing to this end. While the initial aim of the game is to win or earn gold there should be more to it than just that. Any in-game rewards do give you a sense of achievement but it’s ultimately hollow as there is nothing you can do with said gold. Playing a boardgame or wargame and winning is remarkably different as you are competing against opponents which, even though you are not physically taking anything from the experience, there is a sense of accomplishment in defeating others.
In a roleplaying game there are no true opponents other than the NPCs or events a GM throws at you, but a GM is representing both the friends and enemies of the players and so cannot be considered a true opponent. The other players in the group are usually working as a team so they are not opponents, either. So where does the satisfaction come from? Is it in the attainment of in-game wealth?
At first, I think the promise of in-game gold and riches and how much you get is a measure of achievement and this is true of both new and experienced gamers. I can easily say that this was what drove me as a new player but the habit has not been lost; when I joined a Pathfinder game last year my main intention was to make as much in-game money as possible and, indeed, there was some dishonesty in the group to get that wealth. This may have been the initial incentive but now we (or, at least, I) have other, more story-driven reasons to quest.
But the truth as I see it these days is this – the incentive to play a roleplaying game is the game itself. When I run games now the original conceit for the reason to be adventuring - that there is gold and glory to be had - has been sidelined unless the game specifically calls for that approach. To me, the reward in playing roleplaying games is the experience, and winning is an enjoyable evening of collaborative storytelling that makes an impression, or a game in which all attendees come away with a sense of satisfaction of a job well done.
It’s the game itself that should drive the experience, not the outcome. Having events making an emotional impression on a person lasts a lot longer than the imaginary gold that has been earned. When my roleplaying friends and I talk about games of old, we never talk about how much money we made.