Hank: Hey, you want to go out in the woods of a medieval fantasy setting and camp, you’ve got to deal with some dysentery every once and a while. Remember…
Everyone: Oregon trail!
Lucy: Yeah, we know. But can’t we just assume we do this stuff?
Hank: And what if I ambush you in the middle of the night, we need to know that Yaolin is down a spell.
Kevin: It’s worth it not to deal with this stuff. I cast the purify spell and we drink and poop without worry.
Hank: You know what, it’s a freebie. You cast the spell every time you camp and need water anyways, and that shows good roleplaying and thinking about what your characters are doing beyond the combat. Since it likely won’t matter that much, I’m giving it to you. Whenever you do that from now on, it’s a freebie. But, If I decide your lack of spell points would be an issue later, I’ll tell you that you are one less. Sound good?
Everyone: Looks of shock at the GM’s kindness and uncommon generosity.
Kevin: Yeah, sounds awesome, actually. Thanks!
It’s likely that we’ve all run a game where we’ve wanted to play it more realistic or get the players to really focus on the ancillary aspects of the game. Too often our players focus on the combat, or the fact that the duke is obviously going to double cross them, or one of a thousand other tropes of gaming that we’ve all encountered and lived through. Sometimes, we can become embittered by games not going our way or our players wanting to play an entirely different kind of game than we envisioned. It can make us less forgiving in other games as we try to enforce a structure that gets at the game we wanted to run. If you find yourself being a little too strict with your game mastering, you might want to consider giving out freebies to your players every so often.
So what exactly is a freebie? Well, many things in more traditional role-playing games require an expenditure of resources to activate them. Spells, points to activate abilities, coinage to purchase mundane day to day items, etc. Often, the point of this is to require resource management. Whether it is casting spell slots in D&D, acquiring equipment in Shadowrun, feeding nightly in Vampire, or one of a hundred other similar situations, dropping your players freebies every so often, especially when you are trying for more control of the mood of the game, can keep a happy atmosphere going.
When and Why?
Dropping freebies to keep players happy is something that can help engender trust, but if it is the way your game works or is an accepted paradigm of your gaming style, then it isn’t going to work too well. It can still be effective, but it should be a token of faith and not a constant case thing. So when should you do it? The purpose is to give your players a treat and show them that you aren’t just doing things to screw them over, so whenever it feels appropriate to is when you should. Here are some thoughts.
- When it is something that the players do often (camping for the night – handwave it and assume they have an S.O.P., when casting the same spell in mundane circumstances)
- When it is something that has little effect on the game (the bard always busks for money to pay for supper – ignore the roll and assume they cover it plus a few coin, the hacker attempts to hack people’s goggles on the street just for fun – ask if they expect a benefit or are just messing around, when the survivalist lays markings to mark their route)
- When doing it would bypass a simple challenge and helps progress the story (the detective talks his way onto the crime scene so he can get some more information, the seductress seduces the duke – enabling the scene where she has to escape from the guards, the Doctor bypasses the lock with his sonic screwdriver to find the trap set up for him in the next room)
- When it is for cinematic effect only (the mage levitates her drink over to herself, the cyborg changes his haircolor with a power, the person with a jetpack flies up to the roof of the building to pose)
- When the situation is right and it helps show that you’re not working against the players (anytime that giving a freebie wouldn’t affect the overall game, undo the work you’ve done to create a mood, or prevent a challenge that you want to be actually challenging)
The long and short of it is that we as Game Masters often get seen in a stricter light. It just goes along with being the primary rules arbitrator. It is especially vibrant when we’re trying to create a certain mood or create a unique and memorable structure in a game. Something so simple as giving players freebies when they cast simple spells, do repeated tasks, or they are merely trying to shine the spotlight on their character and say “See how cool I am, I can do this thing!”, shows you are paying attention and are focusing on the players’ fun.
So, how often do you let players have a freebie on using a power or overcoming a situation? Under what circumstances do you do it? Or, do you think giving out freebies every so often hurts more than it helps?