Today’s guest article is by Gnome Stew reader Azrof Darkwood, and it’s all about PC advancement and different ways to handle it within the boundaries established by a particular — and common — style of play. Thanks, Azrof! –Martin

Disclaimer: Many tabletop roleplaying games include a risk-reward system. As PCs advance in power, they are given opportunities to take on ever-increasing challenges in exchange for enhanced rewards. These rewards might take the form of character points (to enhance the player character), goods (such as funds to purchase new equipment), or story enhancements that allow the game to progress in a favorable manner. This article is written for those systems, and specifically deals with one of the pitfalls of assuming that certain risks will be challenging enough to earn discrete, specific rewards.

It’s game night and you’ve set up your ideal sandbox adventure. You’ve lined up a literal army of potential challenges for the players to deal with, all perfectly balanced for the group to overcome as they explore the scenario. You’ve also built a ton of content for the players to utilize in order to overcome those challenges; you’ve named key NPCs, set up unlikely allies, provided plenty of room for the group to A-team (trap) their way to victory, and so forth. Over the next six or seven game sessions (or more), you figure the group will whittle the enemy group down while simultaneously having tons of “no rails” fun.

Then Johnny does the unthinkable. He’s done it before, but you felt certain that he had no possible means to do it again. He overcomes the majority of the challenges in the first session, and with relative ease.

Given that you planned on rewarding the group incrementally, allowing them to gain in power/abilities/gear slowly, over the course of several adventures, what do you do now? Do you give the party (or just Johnny) the rewards for their conquest? If so, what are the ramifications to future sessions?

This article is intended to discuss how to handle situations when you’re running a game and the rewards you should give your players far exceed what is appropriate for their relative place in the game.

First, we should take a moment to discuss some of the ways these scenarios arise, which can be for a variety of reasons. For untested homebrew games, they often happen due to a flaw in the setup or poor planning. These situations can also arise when players have access to some resource that you, as the Game Master, forgot or overlooked. Perhaps Johnny has access to a piece of kit that you granted several sessions ago and forgot about –- it just so happens that it is pivotal in bypassing all of your carefully planned challenges. You aren’t always the culprit in these situations, either. Sometimes your players really are that cunning or lucky and are able to overcome even the worst no-win situations.

Players aren’t limited to overcoming robust, carefully considered challenges with combat either. They may overcome seemingly impossible obstacles through clever use of mechanics, lucky rolls, or roleplay and story-engineering (knowing the game world and using it in unexpected ways). In any variation of the event, however, the Game Master is put in an unfortunate place. If the players legitimately “earned” a reward of some sort, be it experience points or material goods, they will expect some portion of it. As a Game Master you are well within your rights to withhold the rewards or use plot to carry the goodies away for a future session, and perhaps that is the best choice to make in some cases. However, I would argue that failing to meet player expectations can be dangerous. Instead of withholding or removing some of the reward smart players earned, I suggest altering the reward slightly. Consider the following possible solutions:

Bonus Pool

In the bonus pool method you provide the players with an appropriate reward for their current state. In a game with levels, for example, you might grant the characters the maximum experience/goods that they should have to reach their next level. In a game with alternative methods of advancement you regulate this based on where the characters are in the story. Any excess rewards are deferred to a “bonus pool” of some type which players will be able to access at an appropriate later time. This method can be useful for drawing out rewards and allowing players to receive some sort of benefits even in sessions in which they would otherwise receive few rewards. You may even rule that X percentage of the bonus pool may be applied each session. For example: if a character has earned 100 credits more than they should have for their level, you may defer the credits to the bonus pool and offer the player a 10% return each session. Thus, each session, regardless of what happens, the character gets 10 credits added to his account or adventuring funds.

Integrating this system from a narrative perspective is fairly easy. If you are withholding goods, introduce an NPC caretaker who is reviewing the group’s earnings. Perhaps a local government official is considering taxing unearned income and will be releasing funds as they go over the events that allowed the PCs to accumulate such surprising wealth. In an experience or power-based rewards system, it might make sense for characters to be able to “absorb” only so much X (experience or whatever) at a time.

Offset Rewards

If you choose to use offset rewards you provide the group with rewards that grant them some cool benefit without increasing the group’s overall power level significantly. Instead of giving the group the 10,000 credits stored in the Master Bad Guy’s personal vault, reward them with an advanced gadget that behaves in some abnormal, but interesting, fashion. Perhaps the Bad Guy had a fondness for a specific rare material and had invested his fortune in a device that would help locate it. Not only does this device potentially give the PCs new hooks, it lets them hunt for their rewards while providing them with something obscure and possibly unique in the world. In a D&D-style setting giving the party a useful wondrous item might be the ticket. You might also consider giving the party a reward that can be “powered up” with the abundance of resources they’ve earned. A run down suit of basic power-armor that would cost 6,500 credits to repair and be in solid working order might offset that extra 10,000 the group found. Alternatively, you may allow the PCs to invest their additional rewards in character powers that are below their current point in the game. This allows them to add some versatility without increasing in linear power.

Using offset rewards can be a great way to introduce additional plot or resource sinks, or just provide players with unexpected benefits for their unexpected successes. They are fairly easy to weave into the story and don’t usually require a lot of stretching, however, be careful if you use this method. Party balance and power levels can spike or creep in unexpected ways, particularly if you allow players to add additional powers to their characters, no matter how innocuous those powers may seem.

Setting Advancement

The final method you might consider is setting advancement. Since we’re ultimately talking about deferring player rewards without making them feel cheated, this is probably the simplest to implement. Instead of granting the PCs all the additional benefits they’ve “earned” due to their unexpected success, advance the setting in their favor. First, give the PCs a list of all the excess rewards you will be withholding to prevent premature advancement. Next, generate a list of possible ways they can spend their reward to advance the setting. This list might include things like forging alliances with specific NPCs, gaining access to special knowledge, finding a way to travel to an otherwise inaccessible location, or even making the outcome for the scenario more positive than normal (perhaps none of the town’s children were ever captured thanks to the PCs’ quick thinking?). In this way, the PCs will feel like their good luck and quick thinking didn’t entirely undermine the sandbox you’d prepared.

Of all the presented methods, setting advancement is probably the most artificial. While it is possible to tie the choices players make in their buffet-style rewards selection, it can be more difficult and immersion-breaking. On the other hand, it might be the most up front and honest way to handle unforeseen situations while maintaining some semblance of continuity in the world.

Ultimately, as the Game Master you are in charge of the ebb and flow of the games your players participate in. Sometimes any form of reward, even one that is “offsetting” is inappropriate and should not be given out. You may just as easily decide not to reward the players at all or that “the reward shall equal the effort.” You may rule that using any method to overcome a seemingly impossible obstacle does not merit the full reward you had planned (or that was listed in the adventure). Be careful if you choose to do this, however, as the sentiment is a double-edged sword. Savvy players will remember your ruling and be quick to remind you of it the next time a multi-session obstacle rewards the party with what they consider a pittance compared to their perceived effort.

Commenters, have you experienced challenges like this in the past? If so, how have you overcome them?