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Effects on the game state that are negative to players regarding their position, progress, or abilities.

Changes to game states can be good, bad, or unrelated to players' interest in the game. Penalties are changes that are explicitly designed to be bad in some way to players.


Losing piece in Chess is a Penalty players suffer from the other player's attacks. In Monopoly, Penalties include having to pay rent to other players but also various bad effects from "Chance" or "Community Chest" cards. Losing lives is the Penalties in Asteroids, Pac-Man, and the Super Mario series. Players in the Left 4 Dead series can suffer Penalties in the form of taking damage, becoming helpless, and dying. In contrast, Penalties in Pandemic relate to outbreaks of diseases and possible chain reactions while in Space Alert they consist of areas becoming impossible to use.

Penalties that relate to players' characters in Dungeons & Dragons do not only include taking damage and dying but also various disabling effects as well as potential loss of equipment, money, and experience points. Further, Penalties can take the form of failing missions, gaining bad reputations and making enemies.

Using the pattern

Typical reasons for receiving Penalties include taking Damage, triggering Traps, or suffering from Death Consequences (e.g. from Player Killing events). Being the target of successful Enemies actions or Eliminate goals also qualify. More uncommon but still possible reasons include performing specific Actions Have Diegetically Social Consequences of a negative kind, e.g. failing to follow the requirements of Factions one belong to (which risks making one an Outcast) or attacking other in what should be Safe Havens. Critical Hits can motivate additional Penalties compared to ordinary hits, but Critical Failures or Critical Misses can be used to inflict Penalties on those performing actions or attacks rather than any potential targets. Failing with the Committed Goals (for example of accepted Quests) is another reason for receiving Penalties (and the Penalties are in fact what typically defines the goals as Committed Goals), as may be losing Area Control over places or entering places controlled by others. Applying Penalties to Ephemeral Goals can make them focus upon these goals but still let players have the choice to prioritize their efforts on other things; they are typically also applied to Quick Time Events but in this case players are forced to try and complete some actions. Penalties can also be added to various activities and tasks related to Attention Demanding Gameplay to emphasis and weight the importance of these different activities and tasks. The use of Player-Defined Goals can let players set what Penalties such exist for some goals in a game (including those outside the game system).

General categories of Penalties based upon their effect include Setback Penalties, Energy Penalties, Life Penalties, and Game Termination Penalties. Revoke Rules are another type of category based upon penalizing players for not following rules (in Trick Taking games typically). Besides these, there are many, more specific, Penalties that can be used as well. Downtime (e.g. through being made a Spectator), Helplessness, and forced No-Ops, remove Player Agency from players. Turnovers also do so by giving the turn in a Turn-Based Game to some other player. Ability Losses, Decreased Abilities, and Movement Limitations can make further challenges more difficult or impossible to complete but without removing all Player Agency. Lowering Resource Caps can serve the same purpose. Other common ways of creating Penalties is to negatively modify players' Resources or Scores, or to remove or destroy Game Items for players, i.e. making these into Destructible Objects. New Abilities that are negative, e.g. spreading diseases, is rarer but another way of creating Penalties; one example of this was found in Team Fortress Classic. In Single-Player Games, Game Time Manipulation can be used to slow down players or speed up Enemies (this is more problematic to do in Multiplayer Games since manipulating game time is likely to affect everyone). Penalties can also directly affect other goals, changing their requirements so they are harder to fulfill. Penalties that do this affect a goal with Dynamic Goal Characteristics.

There are several ways to modify how Penalties behave. First, a basic choice is whether the Penalties should be Individual Penalties or Shared Penalties (or, similar to the latter case, affect Shared Resources or linked to Mutual Goals). Second, the strength of Penalties can follow Arithmetic Progression or Geometric Progression based upon how bad a failure was, how good a success was, when in a gameplay arc players are, or some other measurable value. Regardless of the second possibility, Randomness can be used to affect the severity of Penalties and Rewards can be used to modulate Penalties to mitigate them somewhat (as can Penalties be used to temper Rewards). Letting players know how Penalties are applied lets them be Predictable Consequences and can let players choose to accept them for tactical reasons. Parallel Lives can make players have to handle several different reasons for getting Penalties simultaneous. One type of Privileged Abilities can make players immune to Penalties while another one can let players control how other players receive Penalties. Finally, Extra-Game Consequences - often bad ones - can be tied to the Penalties.

The possibility of using Save-Load Cycles in Single-Player Games can make any Penalties avoidable even though in reality few players may be willing to engage in Save Scumming often enough to avoid all Penalties.

Interface aspects

In Single-Player Games, Cutscenes can be used to highlight the effects of Penalties without disrupting gameplay for others.

Narration aspects

In games where players control Characters, Penalties can be more emotionally experienced if the game design succeeds in making players have Emotional Engrossment with their Characters.


Penalties are typically Ephemeral Events and the possibility of receiving Penalties in games create Tension in them. Experiencing them may break any Exaggerated Perception of Influence that players may have had, and can easily break Thematic Consistency if not following the diegesis or narration (e.g. killing a player's character but then letting them restart at earlier positions of a Level).

The presence of Penalties and other patterns give rise to other patterns. For example, Penalties related to hitting or touching Avatars, Characters, or Units that have Movement give rise to Evade goals. As another example, combined with Anonymous Actions and Unmediated Social Interaction, e.g. in the game Resistance, Penalties can make players have to engage in Roleplaying. Unlike Rewards,Penalties change the situation for players in ways that put challenges to Gameplay Mastery by requiring the ability to handle setbacks as part of what is required to master the game. This is especially try when the Penalties remove player abilities.


Can Instantiate

Destructible Objects, Ephemeral Events, Gameplay Mastery, Safe Havens, Spectators, Tension

with Anonymous Actions and Unmediated Social Interaction


with Factions


with Movement and either Avatars, Characters, or Units


with Optional Goals

Committed Goals

Can Modulate

Attention Demanding Gameplay, Dynamic Goal Characteristics, Ephemeral Goals, Player Killing, Quick Time Events, Scores, Resources, Rewards

Can Be Instantiated By

Ability Losses, Actions Have Diegetically Social Consequences, Area Control, Critical Failures, Critical Hits, Critical Misses, Damage, Death Consequences, Decreased Abilities, Downtime, Eliminate, Enemies, Energy Penalties, Factions, Game Termination Penalties, Helplessness, Individual Penalties, Movement Limitations, New Abilities, No-Ops, Life Penalties, Resource Caps, Revoke Rules, Setback Penalties, Shared Penalties, Traps, Turnovers

Game Time Manipulation together with Single-Player Games

Can Be Modulated By

Arithmetic Progression, Extra-Game Consequences, Geometric Progression, Mutual Goals, Parallel Lives, Player-Defined Goals, Predictable Consequences, Privileged Abilities, Shared Resources, Randomness, Rewards

Characters together with Emotional Engrossment

Cutscenes in Single-Player Games

Possible Closure Effects


Potentially Conflicting With

Exaggerated Perception of Influence, Thematic Consistency

Save-Load Cycles in Single-Player Games


An updated version of the pattern Penalties that was part of the original collection in the book Patterns in Game Design[1].


  1. Björk, S. & Holopainen, J. (2004) Patterns in Game Design. Charles River Media. ISBN1-58450-354-8.