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Just Rewards

What’s your party fighting for?

Traditional RPGs like D&D reward the party for overcoming obstacles and defeating foes. Many modern RPGs reward the party for advancing the plot, playing to character traits or goals, or even for losing a challenge (Dogs in the Vineyard). Some groups simply give a standard reward each session. 

Why is this important? Because your players will work hard to earn those rewards, and you can use them as incentives to create the game that you feel will work best for your group. Simply put: Reward the behavior you want to see.

Consider your average D&D 4E game. Overcome an obstacle, receive XP, and loot the bodies. Rinse and repeat. What’s the incentive here? To kill things and take their stuff, which maximizes XP and loot. 

But let’s say you want more from your game, like maybe some plot or creative problem-solving. Slash XP for overcoming obstacles in the traditional ways, but also give XP for helping to move the plot, for staying focused on the game, for creative approaches to problems, or just for showing up at the table. Even though the total amount of XP hasn’t changed, I’d bet good money on your players taking a different approach to your game. 

Some Things Are Their Own Reward

While looking at the rewards in a game, consider that some things are their own reward. Killing a Dragon usually results in a treasure horde big enough to buy your own country; should you also get a ton of XP along with it? Negotiating an incredibly profitable trade agreement (by way of skill challenge, earned trust and respect, killing off your competitors, or even actual negotiations) is going to result in incredible profits; should you also get incredible amounts of XP for it? 

But ridding the countryside of the plague of Owlbears (who don’t have much treasure) for the local farmers (who don’t have much treasure, either) isn’t going to be exactly lucrative. The selfless action may impress some future patron, but until then, a little extra XP or other rewards might come in handy. 

Thinking Outside the XP Box

There are many other ways to reward characters and players than experience points. Let’s divide them up into mechanical rewards that affect the rules of the game, and in-game rewards that affect the shared virtual reality of the game. Most of these rewards can be given individually or collectively.

Mechanical rewards could be action points (of any flavor), ‘second chance certificates’ good for one re-roll, or a draw from a deck of rule-breaker cards. Rule-breaker cards are exactly what they seem; they allow a character to do something outside the rules, but only once. (Or until you draw that card again.) I’ll cover rule-breaker cards in a future article [1].

In-game rewards can be the traditional money and items, or an intangible like a useful contact, a favor owed by a powerful group/individual, good press, free lodging, fame, etc.

Have you used any nontraditional rewards in a game? Care to address anything I’ve missed? Don’t like the idea of messing with the rules of the game? Sound off and let us know!

13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "Just Rewards"

#1 Comment By Rafe On July 13, 2009 @ 6:54 am

For D&D, I think you hit the nail on the head. Having both story-based or in-game awards as well as mechanical awards is a good idea. As you noted, other systems have this already built in: Engaging in conflicts and taking a hit or two in DItV earns or boosts traits, etc.; artha in Burning Wheel directly fuels the ability to go after Beliefs and play out Instincts and earn more artha to continue the cycle of “I want to be rewarded, so I’ll push my character’s interests in the story to be rewarded so I can continue to push new elements of the story.”

Rule-breaker cards seem like an interesting idea. Would those be, for instance, “You may use an Encounter card twice in a single encounter. Discard after use.” or “Use an action point to take a Second Wind as a minor action (free action if you already use a minor action). Discard after use.” ?

#2 Comment By Ameron On July 13, 2009 @ 6:57 am

I think this is a great idea. Recently I’ve been playing a lot of LFR adventures and most of them have “story awards” that the PCs can earn by accomplishing goals in each adventure. These awards are pretty much limited to in-game benefits, but they have really fostered additional role-playing with my group.

I agree that it gets boring and repetitive if all you’re doing is “kill monsters, take the loot, repeat.” My group decided that good role-playing should earn better rewards than simple hack and slash so we give out more XP for skill challenges and any situation where you do something in-character even though it may not be the most productive thing you can do on your turn.

#3 Comment By deadlytoque On July 13, 2009 @ 7:33 am

This is a good idea (and it’s good to see it spread to traditional players 😉 ), but it’s one that needs to be undertaken carefully.

This with many tweaks and drifts, if you try making a change this drastic to your game, you might find your players rebelling. People come to a D&D game to play D&D, not some “sissified” game about “telling stories” (I kid because I love).

So I would add the proviso that if you want to try something like this, you run it by your players first, and everyone involved in the game takes the time to decide if they like it. If not everyone is on-board, offer some compromises, or just avoid it altogether.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

#4 Comment By LordVreeg On July 13, 2009 @ 7:42 am

As a preface, I need to say I liked averything you wrote, and I think this is a really great topic. Kudos.

Rewards are positive reinforcement for good player behavior. In this light, it is also important to make sure you are penalizing (or un-rewarding) poor player behavior.
Social rewards are something most of us do automatically. “Great Session”, etc. But don’t overlook this. Letting a player know when they excel as a player can’t be overlooked.
Similarly, when a PC does well or poorly, ‘visually rewarding’ them with an unorthodox, semi-over-the-top description makesevery PC smile. We had a mysteriarch last night launched into the air by another player trying to attack a floating wraith armed with chains, and the whole group oohed and ahhed when they simulataneously struck each other as he spun through space with his claws.

I like to reward my bards for writing their own songs and ditties, my priests and religeous folk with adhering to their tenets and holy days, and since we run a social heavy game, I reward good interactions and good networking.
(It’s a skill based game with exp kept in each skill, so I can reward the applicable skill with a bonus).

#5 Comment By Zig On July 13, 2009 @ 8:17 am

In my old Shadowrun campaign I would give rewards of karma for overcoming the problems the group was presented with. The reward for the adventure would be the same regardless of how they overcame obstacles — firefight, trickery, diplomacy, whatever. Then there were the rewards recommended in the rules — karma for role playing, karma for coming up with an idea that surprised me, etc. I also gave them more intangible rewards such as favors owed from people both rich and powerful as well as poor. The players made great use of these owed favors and good will in several adventures.

In D&D I’ll also give XP for an encounter no matter how it is handled. Recently while confronting the knights of a rogue Duke holding a bridge the party needed to cross the paladin in the group parlayed and got the knights to agree to a champion from each group to fight. The winner kept the bridge. The player took down the head knight, so the others left the bridge without fighting. I gave full experience for the encounter and gave the paladin a small bonus for his role playing and quick thinking. I had the reward of having several NPCs I’d be able to use in the future that the party now has a history with.

I like the idea of rule-breaker cards and look forward to the article on it. Sounds like something I could make good use of.

#6 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On July 13, 2009 @ 9:43 am

[2] – Stay tuned; the article on rule-breaker cards should arrive this week. Same Gnome-Time, same Gnome-Channel!!

[3] – As you say, every change to a game, especially one as fundamental as this, should be cleared with the players. Good call!

[4] – Definitely reward good player behavior! Even a verbal kudo (like this one) goes a long way, so… “Well done!” 😉

#7 Comment By pseudodragon On July 13, 2009 @ 10:01 am

I’ve used XP for various actions in my D&D campaign for years. I pop off a small reward on the spot if someone comes up with a particularly creative, entertaining, or useful idea. If the players take the time to write up a short background and description of their PCs (which I can use for later adventure hooks or simply to better craft my storylines), I allow their characters to start with a unique, minor magic item (I call them legacy items).

Your rule-breaker cards sound a lot like the old “Whimsy Cards”. I think I’ve got some of those in my closet, though I’ve never used them. I remember that the RPGA used to give out occasional reroll or modify roll coupons as rewards, too.

Other in game rewards that the PCs might obtain could include tracts of land or keeps, knighthoods or appointments to special positions, recognitions, feasts of honor, henchmen, services, etc. It doesn’t always have to be something valuable. Just knowing your character is being treated specially and is receiving some exclusive benefit is a great ego stroke.

#8 Comment By LesInk On July 13, 2009 @ 11:01 am

A previous poster on one of the other articles mentioned a ‘golden action point’ that also falls into the article. I believe the concept goes as follows: At the end of a game session, the best role player is voted on by the players. That player’s character receives a ‘golden action point’ to use at any time in the future. They’re just like regular action points, except they never expire until used.

#9 Comment By d3n3b On July 13, 2009 @ 11:35 am

This is a great topic discussion. For DnD 4e, I came up with Boons for my players, which are just a free re-roll to any roll they make. They can only have three at any one time.

I would also like to see a list of Setbacks, things that are the opposite of rewards, other than dying or exp loss but that would still remain between encounters even with rest. I haven’t tested it out yet, but I’m planning on using this thing called Weak Will, where every roll made is at the negative of that level’s magic bonus. It lasts from one encounter to the next and goes away with a successful save at the beginning of an encounter. But, yeah, I think that would be a good discussion perhaps for another topic.

#10 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On July 13, 2009 @ 1:17 pm

[5] – I’ve got an idea for a future article on ‘alternatives to character death’ that might work for you. Stay tuned…

#11 Comment By drow On July 13, 2009 @ 1:39 pm

as my eberron campaign progressed into epic levels, the players never failed to note that a) they were gaining levels too quickly, and didn’t have time to enjoy what they’d achieved before moving on, and b) there were more feats that they wanted than they could take. thus, awards upon completion of a quest often became “10,000 xp or a bonus feat of your choice”, and the players almost always chose the latter.

i also introduced a few artifacts of xen’drik called “mentors”, which could permanently grant a user knowledge (10 skill ranks in a specific skill, to a maximum of 20 ranks) or ability (a specific feat) in exchange for an xp cost. the party enjoyed using those, as well.

#12 Comment By Tacoma On July 21, 2009 @ 3:41 pm

I used to use the XP awards for individual actions from 2E, and I would give call-in XP for players who called on Friday to say whether they’d be there or not for the Saturday game. Plus the monster XP awards and some objective awards. And if the game had been mostly RP and little combat, I’d give them role-playing XP to make up for it. After all, I want to encourage role-playing!

But I’ve come to realize that XP is not the only reward. Relationships and gold are important too. Now I give 100 XP per HD for monsters, 1 XP per GP for squandering treasure Conan or Lankhmar style (to no other benefit that is), and nothing else. This has a few effects.

First off theyre not so supernaturally bloodthirsty. They’re willing to capture prisoners because they might tell the party of hidden treasure for their freedom or might fetch a ransom.

Second, they avoid wandering monsters that carry little treasure, trying to penetrate to the more dangerous areas for the treasure caches. This is lovely because it’s how it should be. Their motivation is the shiney gold coins.

Third, they’re always poor because they spend their money to buy booze and partying and donations to the church and training in town. When you can get 1 XP in exchange for 1 GP, you tend to look much more critically at just how much money you need. The roleplaying of them squandering their loot is fun.

Fourth, because they’re poor, they don’t mind that there aren’t any magic shops. There just isn’t a flood of cash sitting around in their bags. They always have a reason to adventure.

Fifth, because their focus is finding treasure instead of grinding Orcs, they’ve become more strategic and use stealth and misdirection far more often. They’ve become more creative in general.

One might argue that with no incentive to call in every week, I’m left wondering if we’re going to play. But there is an incentive – if you call in for the game, I tell you whether or not we’re playing. But if you don’t call me, I’m not calling you. There have been a few weekends where players have shown up and there’s been nobody home. You’d better call for your own sake!

Same with the owlbears threatening the farmers. If the players want to tackle that, they know they won’t get much loot and the owlbear monster XP won’t be great. And they won’t get a story or roleplaying award. That’s cool, because the’re not on rails, so what story are they completing exactly? But their efforts at driving away the owlbears may yield friendships with the local lord, the merchants who travel through the area, and the farmers. Maybe one farmer has a legend or two about where there may be some treasure to find. And of course the owlbear pelts and feathers have got to be worth something to the local wizard …

I’m sure it’s not for everyone but you should try it sometime. It becomes very easy to handle XP awards, puts more control in the hands of the players, and encourages more intelligent gaming habits.

#13 Comment By Zig On July 21, 2009 @ 9:13 pm

[6] – Wow! I love that idea of trading 1GP of “blown” treasure to 1XP.

I am definitely going to do that in my new 2nd edition D&D campaign. Great way to funnel money out of their hands, get them to do some role playing while seeing a concrete benefit to themselves. I think it will be fun having them blow some of their money on living it up, or if they view their character as charitable they can sponsor an orphanage or something.

In an old Shadowrun campaign I was able to take money out of their grubby hands by giving them subtle ideas of things that would be neat to have like safe houses, caches of equipment…all the way to the character who bought an old church and turned it into a night club. Her decking money is what kept her place afloat.

Also, love your ideas of the non-physical rewards — being in good with some people can pay great dividends to the PCs down their adventuring road.