Frame: Freeimages.com / Billy Alexander;
Dice Image: Freeimages.com / Armin Mechanist;
Numeral & Compositing: Mike Bourke
This 15-part series is an attempt to answer the question, “what advice do you have for a beginning GM?”, three articles at a time – while throwing in tips and reminders of the basics for more experienced GMs. This is the last article of the current trilogy.
Rewards: Tabula Rasa
To most beginning GMs, and many more experienced GMs who really should know better, Rewards are a way for players to keep score, track when they are ready to advance in capabilities, and something to be either dreaded (because they can lead to a complete loss of control over the campaign) or reveled in (bribing the players not to use their capabilities to completely destroy the campaign after all control has been lost). Beyond these functions, rewards are devoid of purpose and meaning, a Tabula Rasa, a blank slate.
This mentality has probably destroyed almost as many campaigns as the wanton distribution of rewards without regard for their potential impact on the campaign and on the power level of the PCs.
I realize that this is a bold statement, but I think I can back it up. It’s too easy to give away too much in rewards, indeed the system seems to encourage it (one of the reasons I House-ruled it way back in A Different Experience: A variation on the D&D 3.x Experience Points System. While some GMs learn to “live” with the resulting Monty Haul catastrophes, most respond by becoming misers when it comes to rewards, a solution that is no better than the disease; it makes players unhappy, and without players, you have no game.
There was probably more advice on this one issue clogging up bulletin boards and newsgroups than anything else, back in the days of AD&D and 2nd Ed, and even today, with 4e and 5e being very clean in this respect, there are still 620,000 results from a Google Search on the subject. Heck, there are 200,000 results from “Monty Haul campaign” alone!
A pair of articles that I wrote back in 2011, Experience For The Ordinary Person and Objective-Oriented Experience Points, began to point me in a different direction. Just as the latter was an expansion of the principles proposed in the first, so what I propose in this article is an expansion on what is contained therein. You don’t have to have read those articles to follow the advice that I offer herein, but reading them afterwards might definitely be helpful.
Rewards: In Finum
These days, I tend to think of rewards “In Finum”, which means “with purpose”. In fact, there are four types of purpose that any given reward can provide as a system function for the GM: Character Evolution, Campaign Development, Keys to Background, and Plot Service – and, of them all, the last is most important, because it offers a metagame framework for the defining of how much reward the GM should provide to the PCs.
I should emphasize before going any further that this approach is definitely not canonical. Bear that in mind.
Purpose 1: Character Evolution
Character Evolution is the player-perspective on rewards, and is a function of increased capabilities (either direct or indirect) as a result of rewards, or of increased capabilities obtained through the accumulation of experience points.
Level-based systems generally are more granular in their awards but less granular in translating experience into enhanced capabilities; as a rule of thumb, there can be considerable difference between two characters separated by a single character level.
Points-buy systems tend to be relatively frugal in the awards they hand out but since these can often be instantly translated into a weakened form of whatever enhancement the character wants to acquire, they can be considered far more granular in terms of their impact on the character. Instead of a large number of enhancements all coming into effect at the same time, they arrive in smaller increments over a shorter span of time.
Either way, characters getting better at adventuring is a definite function of rewards, enabling the GM to continually increase the danger posed by the enemies that are encountered in the interests of a more thrilling story.
Purpose 2: Campaign Development
One of the best ways to illuminate a part of the campaign that the players have not yet encountered is by presenting them with a legacy of that part of the campaign. If you’ve never met an elf, finding a ring with some obscure elvish text engraved on it is a great way to start “leaking” bits of elven lore into the players’ (and PCs’) awareness.
Another example: The PCs discover a crown with Dwarfish inscription revealing it to be the one true crown of the King Of The Dwarves. So who is the person on the throne and what is it that he seems to be wearing, and how did it come to be where the PCs found it?
Purpose 3: The Keys to Background
Similarly, obscure passages in campaign history assume fresh relevance when a non-standard magic item designed and constructed in that period comes into the possession of the PCs. They might have little interest in the campaign background per se (some players don’t) but investigating what the magic item is and does will inevitably let a little of that history leak into their consciousness – and make it relevant to their day-to-day lives.
One of the first questions to arise when you come into possession of a treasure map is “who made it, and what treasure are they likely to have had?” In other words, “is it likely to be worth following?”
Purpose 4: Here Comes The Plot
Rewards can “push” a campaign plotline in a certain direction – or, at least, open a door to that direction (its’ always up to the players whether or not they step through it). Other rewards “pull” a campaign in a given direction, but do not provide a specific response, simply changing the circumstances surrounding the PCs.
A “Push” is a reward that offers the potential to cause a major change in the campaign’s circumstances if the PCs choose to pursue it, like a treasure map to something of campaign-level significance.
A “Pull” is a reward that causes the change in the campaign whether the PCs like it or not, but that the PCs can then choose to oppose or investigate, for example the discovery of a magic stone that makes undead immune to turning and that can only be destroyed after a difficult quest. This might be an effect that the PCs inadvertently trigger, or it might be an external event triggered by an NPC that the PCs first have to understand.
Types Of Rewards
Rewards can therefore expand the scope of a campaign, enrich a campaign, illuminate obscurities within the campaign, or drive the plot of a campaign further. Thinking about them solely in terms of the first of these options is like having an eight-cylinder engine in your car – and never using six of them. To suggest that it would be lacking in horsepower is an understatement!
But not all forms of reward are created equal. Some can perform several of these functions, others perform only one or two. Richness therefore exists as a function of variety of reward. It therefore behooves me to list all the varieties of reward that I can think of before going any further.
If you were to ask a non-gamer to list the first type of reward that comes to mind, this will be the number one most common response. Yet, money in itself is worthless; what matters is what you can buy with it. Always use the principle of what you want the players to be able to afford to determine what cash rewards you hand out.
Valuables: Art, Jewelery, Rarities, Maps, Consumables
Most valuables are like a zip file, compressing the money value into a more transportable form – you usually need the equivalent of the right software to “unzip the file”, i.e. convert the valuable into currency. That’s usually a buyer of such commodities.
One of the most common mistakes that GMs make is assuming that the first such buyer actually has the liquid funds on hand to purchase valuables from PCs. Most fantasy campaigns take place in an era before what we think of as banks, and certainly before chequebooks (which are themselves becoming things of the past) and credit cards. Most small businesses have enough liquidity on hand to make change, and even a prosperous one converts virtually all its profits into providing an appropriate standard of living. Very few will ever have the funds on hand to redeem a windfall.
The second most-common mistake is assuming that a buyer will come anywhere close to the actual cash value of an item. Their livelihood lies in quick turnover; they can’t afford to have inventory sit, waiting for “the right buyer”. That usually means that they will expect, at best, to get that cash value when they resell the valuable, and will usually need to discount it in order to achieve a quick sale. Even with such discounting, they have to assume that some items will linger for a while, effectively costing the business turnover (because the trader could have spent his money on something, or many smaller somethings, that would sell more quickly). On top of that, they have expenses and a reasonable profit margin, and taxes and licenses and fees to deduct. The rule of thumb in the modern world is that a fair price for second-hand goods is between 10 and 25% of retail value. On rare occasions, a store may go to 33 1/3%, on even more improbable occasions, 50%.
These numbers can’t be translated directly into a fantasy milieu; most legal codes require pawnbrokers to hold onto what they buy for a certain period of time in case it turns out to be stolen, in which case it gets returned to the owners and the store is out whatever they paid AND the item they thought they were buying, and all the overheads. That’s less likely to be a problem in a medieval time-frame, but counterbalancing that is the fact that there is no internet or official valuation source; an item is worth no more than the least they can expect to pay for it.
Throw in haggling, and the fact that the purchaser does it all the time and is therefore far more of an expert than most PCs, and 5-15% is the most reasonable result. For simplicity, call it d10+5 per cent.
This is the price paid for the portability of the value. It’s not ripping off the PCs, no matter what the players might think; it’s just the way the real world works. To save arguments, I will usually quote not the full price of the valuables when the PCs get them appraised; instead, I tell them what they can reasonably expect to get (i.e. 10%) and then get to the Haggling.
The third biggest mistake is in having most of the buyers be honest – and having them assume that the PCs are honest, too. But you can have fun occasionally changing that up on the players – in one game I ran, they “buyer” was a member of the watch, trying to get a line on the local thieves guild, who then became convinced that the PCs were trying to offload stolen merchandise. “We found it” doesn’t quite sound plausible to those folks!
On top of all that, some treasures are damaged by exposure to conditions and can be considerably more trouble than they are actually worth.
Tapestries and paintings are notorious in this respect.
I once persuaded a PC that I was offering him the bargain of a lifetime in rare coins, worth five or six times the face value – if he bought them for triple that face value right now. Unknown to him, word had recently circulated of an enemy nation counterfeiting that particular coin, dropping the market to about 1% of it’s usual level…
The long and the short of it is that valuables, generally, aren’t as valuable as they seem, but come laden with sub-plot potential.
The major exception to all of that comes in the form of consumables. Because these can save the party from having to buy them, which can involve time and trouble as well as the direct expense, these are actually worth more to the adventurers than their face value – if the adventurers can make use of them. Offer them a barrel of pickled sea slug (with appropriate descriptions of the flavor and texture) and few players will have the stomach for them, no matter how great a delicacy they are supposed to be.
And never neglect the potential for some rare allergy to provide amusement. A particular PC in one of my games used to break out in hives every time he ate the stew at a particular inn. Nowhere else, and no-one else; just him, and there. It turns out that the meat was troll; the owners kept a troll leg and sliced an inch off every time it had regenerated enough, then hacked it up and pickled it in vinegar before dumping a portion into the soup. It was a lot cheaper than goat or rabbit… The PC in question had once been badly wounded by a troll, sensitizing them to troll meat…
Equipment like weapons and armor (and so on) that the PCs can use directly to their benefit is, like consumables, worth more than base value to the PCs. If it doesn’t fall into this category, then it becomes a Valuable – unless there is some prospect of being able to use it in the future. Players rarely make this sort of value correction, they simply decide instinctively that an item is worth more to them than its cash value would be.
Forcing players to make hard choices with respect to equipment relates to carrying capacity, and another common mistake is too easily giving away magic items that permit the violation of that restriction. This is a mistake that I’ve made myself.
Opportunities & Training
One reward type that is more commonly overlooked is being granted an opportunity – whether that’s a chance to join the aristocracy, being granted a mining concession, or whatever. Less commonly overlooked but only usually offered is the chance to join an organization for some specific training (or even being given a certain amount of instruction without joining).
If these are commercially available, their value is whatever the price is that would normally be charged. If they are not, then the value is whatever it would reasonably have cost in bribes to make it happen.
Information is often given away gratis by the GM as a “bonus reward” simply because they don’t think of it as a reward often enough. One of the reasons for this is that it can be very hard to put a firm value on.
I had the same problem, but found a solution. I value information as being the greatest of: How much the character would have had to pay someone else to obtain the information on their behalf (using the least-expensive means possible), or 1/10th of how much the character MIGHT be able to earn in the immediate future as a result of the information, or one half of how much someone else would pay the PC for the information (assuming they wanted it), whichever is greater. I then halve the result if it’s information that I want the PC to have for plot purposes.
This tends to over-value information that only a character of a similar level as that of the PC can obtain, but that’s fair enough – they are taking the risks, anyone else would want danger money.
Some information only has conditional value – i.e. it’s only worth something if it is acted upon. Such information is discounted according to my estimate of the likelihood of the PC receiving it actually acting on it; if there’s only a 1-in-5 chance, it’s only worth 1/5th as much.
Information may also ‘decay’, i.e. be time-sensitive – worth something now, not worth as much next week, next month, or next year. Again, I apply a discount based on how likely it is that the information will be of use within the time-frame in which it is likely to be used.
The value of contacts used to give me a lot of trouble. Then I figured out how to value opportunities (as described above), and the problem of valuing contacts was solved as a side-benefit. The value of the contact is whatever it would have cost in bribes to achieve the same result. So, the more effective a contact is, the more it’s worth; the more reliable it is, the more it’s worth; the more the contact is ‘willing’ to risk, the more it’s worth.
Note that a contact is very different from an Ally; a contact will do something for the character, but will charge reasonable fees and expenses for his trouble. What the character has ‘bought’ with his reward is access without the need to jump through the usual hoops. That means that a contact usually costs a lot less than you initially think.
Allies, on the other hand, work toward what is perceived as a mutual benefit. They are more likely to take risks, because they potentially benefit as well. Nor do they charge (except, perhaps, for a share of out-of-pocket expenses). Reliability and loyalty don’t come cheap in allies, though; so a good ally can be a very valuable reward.
Balancing that value is the repeat value of the ally. They might be a whole-hearted ally who will stick until betrayed or the mutual goal is achieved (expensive), or it might be a matter of repaying a debt – good for one occasion, no more. Allies, then, range from ‘full value’ to little more than a contact. But the valuation is the same, in principle – it’s whatever the character would have to have spent in cash, either directly or indirectly, to achieve the same level of assistance.
Debts & Favors
Of course, there is a wide range in between a Contact and an Ally. Having an organization owe you a debt, for example, or some noble who doesn’t have to repay it personally. Or simply having someone the party have helped say, “You’ve done me a favor, and someday I’ll return it. You have my word as a gentleman” – which permits them to choose the time and manner of assistance. Both of these variations decrease the personal inconvenience to the person making the promise, but risk others not feeling as bound by the obligation when the time comes. Such variations are always evaluated as though they were contacts or allies and then discounted to reflect the reduction in value. There’s not much in the way of real guidelines, here; the GM simply has to take the baseline, factor in what he knows of the organization and its culture, allow for his best estimation of the future of the campaign, and then go with his gut to assess the value. Some may even be worth more than a direct contact or one-time ally, simply because there are more vectors for repayment when dealing with a wide-spread organization.
Of course, getting anything in writing makes life a lot simpler because it turns it into a tradable commodity, allowing a direct decision on the basis of how much one would cost to buy. Posing this as a “what would the value be if…” is a great reality check for that gut-intuition-based valuation.
Rights & Commissions
Giving someone the right to do something can be a very clever form of reward from the perspective of the giver. It costs them relatively little, and may even be beneficial to them in the medium- or long-term. Clever people routinely find ways to turn liabilities into advantages. When a notoriously crafty individual is thinking about what he will tender in repayment of a debt, I always ask if there is something they can give that will also be beneficial to them.
For example, offering the PCs a mining concession, in a region where the NPC already has business interests, that are currently having problems with monsters and/or bandits is a great way of getting the PCs to solve the monsters-and/or-bandits problem.
A commission is a less underhanded form of the same thing. Granting the PCs a commission to build a road or scout out a trade route in return for permission to charge a toll on traffic gets them to work on behalf of whoever is granting the commission. They will then get paid from the profitability of the completed service or utility.
Sometimes, the right has no directly-tangible value. “You may hereafter designate yourselves as Consultants To The Crown.” Sounds grand, doesn’t it? The value here is indirect; it enhances and increases the amount that the PCs can demand of others for their services, and acts as an enhancement to reputation. The value has to be assessed as the difference that this will ultimately make to the income earned by the characters.
In fact, any sort of bragging rights has a definite value as a reward, even if it’s only a good story to tell at each new tavern the PCs visit in exchange for a free ale or two. This is often neglected by GMs when calculating rewards, but can add up to substantial benefits in the long run.
I’m always careful to track the current reputations of the characters in my campaigns, especially when these are inflated by rumor and gossip, because these in turn set expectations on the part of others, and that – sooner or later – always puts the PCs in a situation in which it’s impossible to live up to unrealistic expectations.
Not to mention the problems of people doing things in the PCs names that they think the PCs would approve of (because that is what their reputations suggest) but which are appalling to the PCs. Or simply trading on the PCs good names for their own benefit. Or deciding that the PCs reputations are exaggerated (hard to argue when they are exaggerated) and deciding to prove yourself better than they are. Or simply wanting to hang around them so that some of the reputation rubs off on you, too.
Reputations equal fame, and fame not only does strange things to some people, it definitely does strange things to the lives of even those who don’t let it go to their heads.
Sometimes PCs try to manipulate these situations, or even engineer them, for their own benefit. One time, a group of 4th-level PCs traveling from A to B responded (in jest), to the question of where they were going, that they intended to defeat the dreaded Lich Of Nagra-scombe Keep – making both the place and the Lich up out of whole cloth. This went down very well with the relatively-ignorant locals, who feted the characters and bought them free drinks and meals for the duration of their stay.
The PCs then went about their business, leaving a growing rumor in their wake – which became, in due course, that they had now defeated the dreaded Lich, and were slowly making their way home, burdened down with the hoarded wealth the Lich had accumulated in it’s protracted lifetime. Many local bandit organizations put their heads together; individually, they were no match for anyone who could kill a Lich, but by unifying into a bandit army, they could relieve the PCs of the burden of all that loot. And maybe pick off a few other prizes for good measure, before going their separate ways.
Meanwhile, some people under the thumb of a real Lich, and desperate for rescue, heard the rumors and started one of their own: that the PCs were coming here, next, to deal with their problem. Word of this reached the Lich, who hadn’t beaten death by passively waiting for it to claim him; she immediately sent her lieutenants – a Vampiric Troll, A Vampiric Half-Dragon, and a Vampiric Beholder – to attack the PCs. Who suddenly found themselves under attack on all sides from enemies who vastly outmatched them, in a hammer-and-anvil situation (three Vampires as the hammer, and the bandit army as the anvil). By playing one side off against the other, they narrowly managed to escape. hidden beneath a load of horse-dung being taken to market by a local farmer, only to discover that their reputation had grown as a result of their “victories” over the bandits and Vampires, and were now ordered by the King to deal with the Dark God on the southern doorstep…
For some years later, whenever the same players were in a campaign (any campaign) and the player who had thought up the boastful claims in order to score some free meals and a couple of ales opened his mouth to start a rumor, the rest would immediately plug his character’s mouth with soap!
The way to value fame is always to compare what the characters can get now for a given price with what those items would have cost them without the reputation. A reputation is thus a valuable commodity – but one that the GM can turn against the PCs when it comes time to pay the piper.
If you wanted to get all mathematical, you could equate the growth of reputation to compound interest, accumulated daily.
In the example above, the initial value was low – a dozen ales, four meals, and a night’s free accommodations. Call it one gold piece for convenience. The value then grew at a rate of 10% a day, let’s say.
In Eight days, it had more than doubled.
In 21 days, it was worth 7.4 GP.
In 42 days, it was approaching 55gp, all of which sounds entirely manageable. But then the second rumor started as a logical development of the initial story, and since it was that the PCs now had hundreds of thousands of GP, it had an initial value along the same scale. With two rumors now adding to the growth, it also increased – to about 15% per day.
In another week, the value was 266,000GP, and the bandits started talking to each other.
A week after that, it was over 700,000GP and the bandit army was formed – creating a source of a third set of rumors and gossip, and increasing the growth to 20% per day.
Another week on, and their reputation is now worth 2,535,353 GP, and the Lich hears of it, and sends his Vampires.
A week after that, and everybody comes together, and the PCs escape – generating a fourth generation of rumors and reputation, and a growth of 22.5%.
The story outraces the plodding animal cart in which the PCs are cowering, and is a week old in the capital when the PCs emerge from the hiding place with a reputation valued at more than 10 million GP – more than enough to buy the close attention of any Monarch, and completely impossible for a bunch of fourth – now fifth – level characters to live up to.
Showered with gifts and adoration wherever they went, famous throughout the land, the value of their reputation could be reset at perhaps 10,000GP – but with a new assignment, a new set of rumors, and a new growth rate of expectations of 25% per day.
This is an extreme example. Their reputation’s real growth was a lot slower than the inflation of rumor, but people reacted to, and based their expectations on, the rumor and not the reality.
But I don’t think the math is necessary, and don’t think the numbers would be that consistent; so I keep the basic principles in mind and set the value to what the reputation is really worth, which is always less than rumor would have it.
Secrets are another common form of reward that few GMs factor into their valuations. Initially, I tried doing so based on the principle of how much it would cost the PCs to pay someone to unearth the secret, multiplied by the chance that the PCs would actually know that there was a secret to be unearthed, but eventually I found a simpler approach that works most of the time.
If it was known to someone that the PCs knew this secret, how much would they pay the PCs to posses it? How much would they pay to suppress it? Highest bid is the winning valuation.
Who was ruler or primary political power in your country 200 years ago, in 1816? What value would you place on some dark secret about them if revelation were to occur now? At most, it might be of passing interest.
100 years ago? 1916? That’s a little more current, in that it would aid understanding of the foundations of far more recent events – but few secrets would still be worth killing for (never mind paying substantial sums of money for) from so long ago.
50 years ago – 1966? Now we’re getting into the realm of living memory. I was born in ’63, so I have vague recollections of ’66. My surviving Aunts and Uncles, who have 10 or 15 more years on them than that, certainly would. There will always be people with a passionate perspective on events that had a direct influence on their lives, Vietnam, the Space Race, “Paint It Black”, “Pet Sounds”, Star Trek, the Black Panther party, Dr Who’s first regeneration, Lennon first meets Yoko Ono, Barbados achieves independence – these are but a few of the events of 1966 about which people still have strong feelings today.
But it’s still so long ago that while the needle of the value meter might be starting to twitch, it isn’t rising all that much. With each year closer to ‘now’, the value will rise, sometimes quite sharply- depending on the subject matter.
There are still revelations coming to light about the Second World War, though I think we’re probably now getting close to being able to definitively understand the events. Every year since 1945 increases the number of secrets that are still held, each with the potential to rewrite our understanding of events that people care about very strongly. And that means that those secrets hold value. Some would pay to suppress them, others to have them revealed, but either way, they have value.
This is a much better approach because it keeps the GM thinking about who would be interested in the secret, which in turn identifies what the PCs can do with it, i.e. its plot value. I still factor in the likelihood that this group or individual would know that there is a secret to buy, and also think about the ‘half-life’ of the secret, i.e. how well it will retain its value. All secrets have a built-in use-by date – sometimes, that’s measured in centuries, sometimes in days – which is always directly connected to the impact that the secret would have on the modern day and the people who live in it.
If someone willfully or negligently ruins your life, the very understandable tendency is to hold a grudge against them. If someone willfully or negligently ruins your father’s life, you are still directly affected – same story. If someone did harm to your Grandfather’s life, some would feel it deeply, while for others, distance in time lends remoteness, a separation from the events. Perspectives shift from the personal to the institutional somewhere around this point; if harm was done to a great-grandparent, the individuals responsible are held less to blame than the institutions of the time that permitted them, or licensed them, to do so.
That enables us to put the valuation of secrets into a context appropriate to any genre of game. It’s about how the secret would affect people now that determines its value to people, and how it would affect institutions that determines its value to those institutions. Elves have (typically) much longer lives than humans; that means that either they find a way to assume a loftier moral position, or that secrets would remain ‘radioactive’ in Elvish Society long after they come to be regarded as trivia in human society. Either Elves are much better than humans at holding a grudge (and we’re pretty good at it) or they have a way of doing away with grudges altogether. This thinking has always been central to my positioning of Elf-Drow relations, and Elf-Dwarf relations for that matter.
One final truth about secrets deserves mention, before I move on: People are often protective of secrets long after they cease to have a reason to be so. Protecting secrets can be habit-forming. That’s another factor that I bear in mind when valuing some revelation that’s come into the possession of the PCs in one of my campaigns.
I don’t have very much to say on this subject, because a guest contributor has already said it all – I’ll simply refer the reader to The Care and Feeding Of Vehicles In RPGs Part 1 and Part 2, and state that a vehicle is usually a substantial reward, and one that should be taken into account by the GM.
This is probably the most counter-intuitive entry on the list. How can an enemy be a reward? It makes more sense if you make a slight adjustment to your thinking, however – if a reward or event gives you the opportunity to go after an enemy that was previously out of reach, then that is very definitely a reward in and of itself.
It’s the type of reward that can be difficult to value. It’s rarely going to be an acceptable practice to ask the players, “How much would you give to have a crack at bringing down Baron Mechlivan (or whoever)?” Instead, you have to infer that from the players comments after an encounter with his minions or henchmen or the enemy indirectly making life more miserable for the PCs without even knowing or caring who they are.
There is also the question of disconnection to consider. The reward might place the PCs feet on a path to eventual confrontation with the enemy in question, but there may need to be several more steps in between now and then, more dominos to fall. The value of the reward is how much the PCs would pay NOW to have an effective crack NOW at the enemy, amortized (i.e. spread evenly amongst) all the intervening steps between now and the eventual confrontation, halving each time (so that the final step is worth a lot more than the first step).
Let’s say, for example, that confrontation with this enemy is the ultimate goal of the campaign. The characters are currently 5th level and the campaign plan calls for 4 more ‘dominos’ to have to fall between now and then, making this the first step of 5 before that confrontation can actually take place. Right now, the PCs would give their lives to destroy the enemy in question, and there are four of them. A fifth level Pathfinder character has 15,000XP (on the medium-advancement track), so 4 of them have a total of 60,000 XP. That gives first-estimate values as follows:
- Final step (fifth of five) leading to Confrontation: 30,000XP
- Penultimate step (fourth of five): 15,000XP
- Third step of five: 7,500XP
- 2nd step of five: 3,750XP
- 1st step (i,e. the one just achieved): 1875XP
The problem is that if you add these up, they don’t quite come to the 60,000 total that we’re looking for. So there is a corrective factor to be applied: multiplying each of these by 60,000/58,125 (which is the current total). That gives corrected values of:
- Final step (fifth of five) leading to Confrontation: 30,967XP
- Penultimate step (fourth of five): 15,484XP
- Third step of five: 7,742XP
- 2nd step of five: 3,871XP
- 1st step (i,e. the one just achieved): 1935XP
Of course, as characters gain levels, if their passion for the cause remains undimmed, the value of each step will rise. This is simply a matter of adjusting the pre-calculated value by the ratio of new total to old.
Let’s say that the characters are 7th level by the time they achieve the second step, but their commitment remains unchanged in intensity (that’s not always the case). The characters are now worth 35,000XP each, not 15K. So the value of each step has to be adjusted by 35/15, more than doubling:
- Final step (fifth of five) leading to Confrontation: 72,256XP
- Penultimate step (fourth of five): 36,129XP
- Third step of five: 18,065XP
- 2nd step of five (the one just achieved): 9,032XP
- 1st step (i,e. the first one achieved): 4,515XP
Of course, you can’t retroactively increase the value placed on the first step. Either you make a further correction to spread the difference over the rest of the steps, or you simply state “this is close enough” – which is what I would do. After all, we’re talking about roughly 2600 XP, half of it in the final step, half that in the next step, and so on, and then ANOTHER adjustment because that will still leave a small amount – it will come to maybe 350 more in the current step, which is probably not enough to bother with.
In fact, I wouldn’t even go as far as I have above, rounding off to the nearest hundred, and living with the resulting margin of error.
If the value of potentially going after a thorn in your side is hard to measure, how much more difficult would it be to measure the satisfaction of some other achievement along the way? Not only would this vary from one character to another, it would vary with the difficulties overcome, and the degree of desire to achieve the goal in the first place.
It’s also incredibly difficult to separate player satisfaction from character satisfaction. The former is what we care about in terms of this article, but the latter is the only thing we have any way to measure, and that entirely indirectly.
I’ve thought about this problem for a while, finding absolutely no solution – but realizing that this doesn’t matter very much. This is an intangible reward that doesn’t have a great deal of impact in any of our four purposes; so long as the factor that we can (and should) be aware of, player satisfaction, remains high enough, character satisfaction can be considered an inherent ‘background noise’ that stops us getting too hung up on absolute precision.
Hence the ‘nearest 100’ advice in the preceding section.
Of all the disservices perpetuated on gaming in general by AD&D and 2nd ed, it’s the notion that experience points be treated independently, separately, and differently from all the other types of reward. More than anything else, this is responsible for Monty Haul syndrome.
Why? Because when XP are awarded, the resulting total XP of the character tells the GM immediately if he’s given away too many or too few by the level attained by the character relative to the problems that the GM intends to present in the next adventure within the campaign. You can see immediately if a character’s capabilities have increased, and even have some idea of how much they have increased, just by looking at the rule book. There always needs to be an allowance for synergies, but as a rough indicator, it works fine.
Or it would, if not for magic items and other add-on rewards. Give away too much of this, and the characters grow in power vastly beyond the standards outlined in the rules. Most GMs make this mistake not once, but several times, on each occasion thinking that they have learned from the experience. Every other type of reward listed in this section qualifies, or can qualify, as such an add-on reward.
One of the most vigorous debates I’ve ever had with regular contributor and collaborator Ian Gray about D&D 3.x was over his contention that the D&D system presumed that a certain level of magical accoutrement was intended and expected to take place. He hung his argument on the tables for NPC generation, which gave suggested values for such magical enhancements by level, and then suggested that since the XP award tables made no distinctions over whether or not the recipient of the xp was an NPC or a PC, it meant that they needed to be treated the same, and that included equity in the distribution of magic items – so why wasn’t I handing out more magic items in (name the campaign)?
My response was that equity was an important principle, and that so long as the items I was awarding were commensurate with the number and potency of the items I was giving the NPCs, he had no grounds for a beef; and that, furthermore, the party had overlooked or refused a number of opportunities at acquiring additional magical resources (always true), but that if they had obtained those resources, I would either have had to match them to provide an equitable challenge, risking a magical “arms race” that I had seen destabilize more than one campaign, or continued to hold NPCs at current levels of augmentation, permitting the PCs easy victories for a while, and – as required by the system – reducing the XP awards accordingly.
Since more powerful items did slowly make their way into the hands of the PCs, at more or less just the right rate to keep adventures challenging, the matter was dropped – until the next time.
While I still stand by my responses, as is often the case, the reality was a little more complicated. Rather than XP being calculated as a party and then divided equally amongst the members, I was employing a system that gave me greater flexibility in mixing-and-matching creatures of differing encounter levels, that gave individual earnings for each party member, that biased xp rewards to those who were of a lower level, permitting them to slowly catch up to the others (on the presumption that they would learn things that the more experienced PCs already knew), that elevated PCs over NPCs in terms of awards, and that deducted a fraction of the value of other forms of reward from the total while accumulating value-owed-in-magic-items until the total reached a balance sufficient to pay for the inclusion of an additional reward ‘item’ for that character (I described this system in one of the articles I linked to earlier). In other words, my management of the XP-and-rewards system was a lot more sophisticated than my response indicated.
These days, I don’t use that system; instead,I have shifted to Objective-Oriented awards, also described in articles to which I have already linked. But I am now in a position to go even further, and describe a methodology that not only confers greater flexibility on the GM but that accounts almost completely for every type of reward that can result from an adventure.
Describing that system (and a variation) is what the rest of this section is about.
The basic principle remains the same: divide the campaign up into a series of checkpoints based on the capabilities that the PCs will need in order to overcome the challenges that you intend to present to them; determine the differences between these levels, categorize the adventures within each interval by significance with regards to progress toward the checkpoint, and divide the total to be awarded by the indicated share of the progress to get whole-of-adventure awards.
Whole-Of-Adventure (WOA) Awards
So a Whole-Of-Adventure award is the total amount of xp that each adventure should be worth, based on the story of the campaign as you project it to be.
The next step is to break down the adventure into sections, and rate each section in terms of its contribution towards moving from the beginning of the adventure to the end, Those sections can be by act, by critical PC decision point, or by encounter.
Applying the same technique of dividing the total to be awarded amongst the different sections of the adventure according to the rating it has been given, you determine what xp each decision or encounter should be worth. These are Intermediate Awards.
Intermediate (IM) Awards
The “by encounter” method is especially valuable because you can use the current level of the PCs and the standard xp charts to then determine what the EL of the opposition should be, using the methods described at the start of A Different Experience: A variation on the D&D 3.x Experience Points System and working backwards.
In other words, this technique maps out the danger levels that each encounter should pose to the characters at each step along the way from now to the end of the campaign.
The big advantage of this is that no final decisions need be made until you are actually prepping the day’s play. If the characters earn extra experience somehow (perhaps as a result of an extra encounter or an encounter that they make harder going of than expected, the system automatically weakens future opposition to ensure that the actual target is achieved.
Value to Character
But it can go even further than that. If you factor into your checkpoints, and hence your Whole-Of-Adventure awards, the amount of Non-XP rewards that you expect the characters to have acquired by that point, you can apply any breakup of the resulting adventure and encounter rewards that you see fit – and if you give away a magic item that is too powerful prematurely, or because of plot needs, the system will automatically compensate.
Monty Haul has left the building.
In effect, this is tailoring the rewards that you dispense to the requirements of the next part of the plot, and using the results to determine the strength of the opposition that has to be overcome.
Finally, because virtually every type of possible reward has been identified and a rational in-game valuation in GP placed upon it, using the basic equivalence of 1 gp = 1 XP, every reward that you hand out can be accounted for. Again, you can manipulate these to alter the mix to whatever best serves the plot needs.
But that’s not the only way that these concepts can be applied.
Variation 1: WOA in XP, Core Goodies, Valuables & Reputation, IM in Incidental Goodies & Other Intangibles
Yeah, it looks unwieldy, doesn’t it. Let’s spell it out like this:
In the course of an adventure, characters gain possession of certain goodies (magic items) dictated by the plot in order to prepare them for the next adventure. They also accumulate some valuables, and – because these are the major events in their stories – some reputation. At the end of the adventure, they receive whatever the end-of-adventure XP award is supposed to be, less the XP-equivalent value of these specific other forms of reward.
Also in the course of the adventure, they will face a number of encounters. These earn the “indicated” XP according to how difficult the story says the encounters should be, but that XP value is completely converted into the other forms of reward described – magic items that aren’t necessary, favors, etc.
You might also choose to move Valuables from the WOA reward to become the major element of the IM rewards. In other words, encounters earn cash and intangible rewards and the occasional non-critical magic item; but the campaign-significant stuff is earned by completing parts of the campaign.
This variation also achieves all the positive benefits described earlier, but it adds another: independence of challenge determination. This enables consistency, and a match between challenge difficulty and plot value.
But wait, there’s still more:
Variation 2: WOA less accumulated IM
You can effectively divorce Encounters and Campaign Requirements completely, taking you back to the situation prior to the implementation of this planning tool – while still keeping all of the benefits that it offers.
All you have to do is ensure that the cumulative value of the rewards generated by the encounters and challenges within each adventure total less than the Whole-Of-Adventure award – and then make up the difference at the end of each adventure in additional rewards. XP should be given out for completing the adventure, the other forms of reward should be “salted” into the next adventure so that they are received in-play.
An example calculation
Let’s say that the characters are currently 5th level, and that in three adventure’s time, you want them to be 7th level – but to have acquired 30,000GP worth of magic items specifically useful to their characters in the course of those three adventures, plus 5000 GP each, and 20% again of the xp earnings in the form of other rewards. Let’s further assume the Pathfinder slow track.
- 5th level: 23K xp.
- 7th level: 53K xp.
- Difference: 30K xp.
- Add 20% in other rewards: 36K total. Add Magic Items: 66K. Add cash: 71K.
So, the next three adventures – call them A, B, and C – are to earn a total of 71K in rewards.
Next, the GM rates each according to the expected contribution to the plotline, using any scale that he likes, so long as he’s consistent. I’ll use a rating out of 10.
- Adventure A: deals with character stuff and consequences of past adventures. Rating: 3.
- Adventure B: deals with the acquisition of information and critical magic items. Rating: 7.
- Adventure C: deals with the identity of the major enemy to be confronted in the next part of the campaign and resolves the major enemy that the PCs have been dealing with so far. Rating: 9.
Add up those ratings: 3+7+9 = 19. So 3/19ths of the total rewards attach themselves to adventure A, 7/19ths to adventure B, and 9/19ths to Adventure C. Adventure A will be valuables and cash-heavy and intangibles heavy, Adventure B will contain the 30K in magic items and some in information as well as enough xp to get the characters to 6th level (35K xp less 23K = 12K). Adventure C will deal mostly in XP and Reputation and Information and Enemy, with just enough of the other types of reward to be plausible.
In real life, this probably goes a little too far. Instead of using the raw ratings, I would have this be just half of the reward allocation, with the other half distributed equally across the three adventures. This would increase the reward value of Adventures A and B. That, in turn, would alter the distribution slightly – some of the magic items from B might appear in A, for example.
- 71K xp / 3 = aprox 23.6K xp. Half that is 11.8K xp.
- Adventure A: 3/19ths of 71K = 11.21K. Half of that is about 5.6K. So the total value assigned to Adventure A is 11.8K+5.6K = 17.4K xp. This would be broken up into:
- aprox 3.5K in GP (leaving 13.9K to allocate).
- aprox 2K in magic items (leaving 11.9K to allocate).
- aprox 8K in experience (leaving 3.9K to allocate).
- aprox 1K in information (leaving 2.9K to allocate).
- 2.9K in other rewards.
- Adventure B: 7/19ths of 71K = 26.1K. Half of that is 13.05K – call it 13K for convenience. The total value to be assigned to Adventure B is 11.8+13 = 24.8K. This is to be broken up as:
- aprox 1K in GP (leaving 23.8K to allocate);
- aprox 1K in information (leaving 22.8K to allocate);
- aprox 4K in XP (because 12K is needed to transition from 5th level to 6th level, which is one of the goals for this adventure; leaving 18.8K to allocate);
- aprox 0.8K in other intangible rewards (leaving 18K to allocate);
- 18K in magic items (which, with the 2K from Adventure A, accounts for 20K of the 30K total to be awarded over the three adventures).
- Adventure C: 71K – 17.4 (adventure A) = 53.6K, less 24.8K (adventure B) = 28.8K. This would be broken up, based on the notes given above, something like:
- 10K in magic items (leaving 18.8K to allocate);
- 0.5K in valuables (leaving 18.3K to allocate);
- 18K in experience (enough to transition PCs from 6th level to 7th level, as required, and leaving 300 xp to allocate);
- 300xp in information, enemy, and reputation. This doesn’t seem enough, so the decision is made arbitrarily to increase these rewards by an extra 2000xp, indicating that our initial estimates were also off by that amount.
Notice how errors are self-highlighting for easy correction. You could just as easily argue that the increase should be 5,000xp worth, not 2,000 – but because this is all in “virtual xp”, that’s irellevant; all you have to do is specify in the adventure how the PCs will be treated afterwards by the public, and the mathematics then cease to matter; they are nothing more than a guideline.
Perhaps more significant is that there is not a lot of room for enemy, if the bulk of that 2,000 or 5,000 is reputation, as seems likely. That suggests that, rather than a direct and verifiable line to their defeated enemy’s mastermind boss, they recieve nothing more than a tantalizing hint, a single clue as to his existence and identity. That’s fine; all it does is alter the dynamic at the start of adventure D, which will be part of the next stage of the campaign.
From this point, how the GM proceeds depends on which of the three options he chooses to employ. But you at least have some very reliable guidelines and parameters for each adventure.
NB: I plucked the “30,000 xp” figure from out of thin air. It’s a fairly substantial amount, since that’s per PC and not shared amongst the party. Not, perhaps, so much that it’s entirely unreasonable, but enough that I would look very closely at it if this were a real life proposal. To look at why and how, let’s now turn our attention to:
Just because I have declared the Monty Haul problem solved doesn’t mean that it will work out that way in real life. Because it’s such a delicate issue, and yet so commonly experienced, I thought that I would attach some general advice and guidelines that would help out even if you don’t adopt the system discussed above.
Scrooge Had No Friends
Rule one is that as convenient as it might be for GMs to try and emulate the rate of character advancement that you observe in most fantasy novels, it simply ain’t gonna happen. Players are not used to such glacial rates of improvement and simply won’t wear it. You can buy yourself a little more tolerance if rewards form a steady stream, even if the flow is small, but it’s far better to assume that your PCs will be improving at a pace that will make you uncomfortable – and prepare for it, accordingly, building it into your campaign plans.
Of course, you could choose to be sanctimonious and protective of your decisions regarding the pace of rewards; but as I said in the heading above, Scrooge had no friends. Is it really worth potentially alienating your friends over the issue?
That said, there’s no need to bend over backwards to pander to players in this respect, either. If your decisions are justifiably fair, then do what you can to increase the rate at which rewards are dispensed even if the total volume doesn’t increase.
On of the simplest ways of ensuring the perception of fairness is this:
- Assume that the NPCs are doing things even if the PCs aren’t there to see what they are up to.
- Assume that sometimes those actions will be more successful than the PCs in gathering rewards and sometimes less; overall, the two rates should balance out, and that is how you are defining ‘fair’.
- Therefore, for every point of reward that you give the PCs, give the same to the NPCs.
- Differences in levels sufficient for the NPCs to pose a serious threat also mean that the pace of significant improvement is slower per point/gp of reward.
- Give NPC allies rewards at less than the pace of PCs to ‘reflect’ the reduction in pace of the important NPCs resulting from this effect.
- As the PCs start to pull ahead of the NPCs around them, they naturally rise to prominence. This makes players feel that they are achieving the desired pace of advance relative to their enemies.
For example, let’s look at Adventure A from earlier in the article. It’s worth 3,855 XP to 5th level characters. Let’s say that the ultimate enemy that the PCs will eventually have to face in the campaign is currently 10th level – enough that he would currently mop the floor with the PCs in a direct confrontation. 3,855 XP is about 32% of the difference between 5th and 6th level; even though some of that will take non-XP forms of reward, it’s the right basis of comparison. So the enemy NPC also does things that earn them 3,855 XP in rewards – but that’s only about 5% of the gap from 10th to 11th level. 5 is about one-sixth of 32, so a 5th level NPC ally should get somewhere midway between 5% and 32% of the XP that the PCs get – call it about 20%.
The result is that the even though the NPC allies started at the same level of capability as the PCs, and the enemy started much stronger, the PCs will see themselves slowly pulling ahead of their allies, becoming the stars of the story, and will mentally equate their progress in this respect to their gains relative to their enemy. The numbers don’t actually matter, per se; this is psychological, a result of PCs succeeding in skill rolls that the NPCs struggle with, becoming more effective in combat, becoming leaders who make the decisions instead of having decisions made for them, and so on.
Why not make the NPC ally advancement rate the same 5% of the enemy? Because of the psychology – this will create the impression in the player’s minds of a certain rate of progress relative to their enemy that doesn’t properly take into account how great a head-start he had in the beginning. They will overestimate their rate of progress and underestimate how dangerous he will be, and put the entire campaign at risk by courting a TPK. You want the PCs to advance relative to those around them, but at a pace that creates the right mental impression.
I’ve never met any GM who hasn’t given out an excessive reward at some point. It’s almost a right of passage. And, as I indicated at the start of the article, the proximate cause of GMs becoming parsimonious to the point of stinginess.
There are three significant potential snowball effects that GMs need to be wary of – one resulting from too little reward, one resulting from overcompensating for too little reward, and one resulting from too much. Of these, the last is the one that most people will be aware of, so that’s where I’ll start.
The Snowball Of Excess
Give away too much reward, PCs grow too strong, GM ups the enemies in capability to make the game interesting, which means that the PCs grow even more severely overpowered relative to where they should be. Unless nipped in the bud almost immediately, or better yet, prevented from starting at all, this can cause campaigns to self-destruct. When GMs tell me that they prefer low-level campaigns, my immediate suspicion is that what they really mean is that they prefer campaigns that terminate before this snowball completely overwhelms them – and never learn from the experience.
The Snowball Of Insufficiency
Some GMs go the other way as a result, as noted above. I was once advised by an experienced GM – back when I was relatively new – to take whatever rewards I was thinking of handing out and dividing them by two or three.
Here’s what happens: PCs become underpowered for their level. They struggle to overcome enemies they should be able to match, but the GM likes the fact that he can challenge the players in almost every encounter they face, so he persists. PCs become even more underpowered relative to their enemies. Players complain. GM doesn’t listen. Players either get cornered into facing too powerful a foe, resulting in a TPK, or they leave the game and join another. Campaign implodes.
The Dirty Snowball
But, quite often, the GM will react to threats of a walk-out by throwing in some gratuitous extra oomph on the next rewards, in an effort to keep the game functional, and will overcompensate. This wraps a snowball of insufficiency in a snowball of excess; for a while, it will appear to work, and the players will be mollified. Wary of the dangers of excess, the GM then returns to a policy of insufficient reward, but this time he tries to anticipate when the players will again grow discontent, and head the trouble off at the pass with another brief wave of generosity. The problem is that the power level of rewards, especially in combination, do not grow in a linear fashion, but in a geometric one or even an exponential one. Each wave of generosity needs to be larger than the one before, and it grows progressively harder to get the balance right; eventually, one will be so excessive that the snowball of excess can no longer be contained. Catastrophic collapse seems to come out of nowhere.
This is a dirty snowball, layers of insufficiency being wrapped in layers of excess.
A victim of cool
Dirty snowballs and snowballs of excess can also result from the GM being seduced by the notion of a reward that seems “cool” to him, especially if he has thought something interesting to do with the reward in the short term that he thinks is original. He may very well be right, but by living for the moment and indulging himself without a long-term plan, the GM triggers a wave of excess from which the campaign never recovers – usually because the really “cool” ideas tend to be relatively mid-to-high level to start with.
Quite often, the GM will even think that he has the long-term covered, but be deluding themselves, making the cardinal error of underestimating the cleverness of players when safeguarding an advantage for their characters.
I was once told of a GM who had the wonderful idea of a wand which contained no charges of its own, instead drawing its charges from the nearest active spellcaster, who wasn’t even aware that his daily spell levels were being consumed until he went to use one and found it empty. What the GM had in mind for this item, I don’t know for sure; I think he was just entranced by the “cool idea”, and had only vague notions that on discovering how the wand was powered, the PCs would destroy it. But he made the fatal mistake of underestimating his players.
The mage immediately went dual-class as a fairly mediocre Fighter, and took charge of the wand, on the basis that if it was using his Spell levels, he wanted to be the one in charge of when it did so. What’s more, he ‘charged up’ as few spells in the level that the wand consumed as he thought he could get away with, whereas most mages loaded up as heavily as possible. The party then undertook great risks to earn themselves a Wish, which they used to obtain a duplicate of the wand for each member of the group. Thereafter, whenever they encountered a mage, they all whipped out these wands, rapidly sucking the enemy dry of magic and using it to attack any protective muscle around him; none could stand against them.
Against his better judgment, the GM was then convinced that spell-like effects that replicated spells of the appropriate level could also power the wands.
Eventually, the mage/fighter was corrupted and converted by a Vampire. The other players, for whom the campaign had started to grow stale, were easily convinced by him to begin a war of conquest and hang the alignment problems. Now reasonably high level, the party found ways to create hundreds of duplicates of the wand, giving one to each unit of their revolutionary army. The vampire player then pointed out that many of the most common ‘traditional’ wands also contained spells of the appropriate level which could be used to empower their wands, sucking the source dry. This final advantage became too much to be overcome; the PCs and their Vampire Lord conquered the entire known world and began to expand into the elemental planes, at which point the GM gave up and closed the whole thing down.
Breaking The Cycle
Any cycle which consistently under- or over-rewards the PCs needs to be broken – immediately. Even a pattern of inconsistency is dangerously unstable. Awareness of the potential problems and keeping a sharp eye out can solve problems a lot of the time, but relying on this alone is to constantly flirt with the dangers. I have a solution to offer, but this is a solution with a price tag.
In the October 2011 Blog Carnival (Topic: Loot As Part Of The Plot), I offered Making, Earning, Finding, Analyzing, Using, Selling, and Destroying Loot. Under the heading of “Analyzing” I vented about the spell, Identify (readers should also consume the dialogue in the comments section triggered by that rant).
Well, if there is one thing that will kill this solution stone dead, it’s access to Identify, at least as it is written in the rulebooks. Just about any of the solutions to the problem that I describe in the course of that multi-paragraph venting will deal with the issue, but something has to be done to Identify for this solution to work.
So, to the solution: Ultimately, it comes down to taking precautions that you can ‘activate’ when you need to:
Sprinkle with mystery
For the first character level or two, every time you hand out a substantial reward of some sort that isn’t just XP or cash, incorporate mystery into the reward – as much mystery as you can muster. Mystery about where the reward came from, about what can be done with it, about what else it can do, about what limits there might be on what it can already seemingly do, even about the fact that there might be something else to discover about it.
When you need to give the characters a minor power boost – something less than a whole new magic item or reward – release a new power or application in an existing item, again without revealing the full story of what the limitations on the power are. If it proves to be a little too much, have it be a temporary power that only operates because of a short-term circumstance, and when the PCs use the power to end that circumstance, the power goes away, or perhaps lingers in a weakened form.
Another variation on this approach is to add in a new power – but when that power is used, it turns off the existing power that the PC has become used to relying on.
Incorporating complexities and mysteries like this solves all your problems because you can tweak and re-tweak the benefits until they are neither too much nor too little. In fact, the capabilities that the PCs have available to them become another tool that the GM has at his disposal to influence and facilitate the plot.
Which is more or less the door that we wandered into here from. So, instead, let’s turn left for a moment.
It’s no good doing this without a plot-based justification. A suit of magic armor that can do this, and can sometimes do that, and so on, is a lot more than a standard suit of magical armor. It needs a legend in back of it and – essentially – a subplot of its own regarding “who” it is and what happens to it in the end, one that runs through many adventures. Here, again, the GM has an advantage; because he knows, however vaguely, what the long-term direction of the campaign is going to be, he can tailor the “hidden facets” of the rewards to fit with them. Eventually, of course, that hidden backstory will need to be discovered by the PC who is serving as the vehicle for the reward; do it right, and it will look like it was always planned that way!
Let’s Sum Up
Okay, let’s recap the high points and wrap this article up, before it gets any bigger.
- Rewards can have four different purposes, and your first priority as a GM should always be the fourth of them, Plot.
- There are many forms of reward, but virtually all of them can be equated to a financial value, and that (in turn) can be treated as an xp-equivalent.
- Set your own pacing & policies regarding the amount of rewards that you hand out, but –
- Don’t be a miser, nor a spendthrift. Either will get you into trouble. And don’t try to bounce from one to the other in hopes of striking a balance, either – it won’t work forever.
- Sprinkle your rewards with mystery, which can be used as a handle to increase, control, or manipulate the effectiveness of the rewards you have given out.
- Everything still has to make sense in the end – so have a plausible explanation for why the manipulations you perform using the mysteries are taking place, and share it when the time is right.
- Use campaign-level considerations to define adventure level rewards, use adventure level reward totals to define the difficulty (and reward value) of the encounters within each adventure.
- Use psychological manipulation on your players as necessary to manage their expectations of rewards, most practically by manipulating the rewards of NPCs.
In other words, there should be nothing “accidental” about the rewards you grant the PCs. Rewards are as much a part of the story of the campaign as the moves-and-counter-moves of the arch-villain. Have a plan, do your prep (it doesn’t take long), and take charge of your rewards structure – instead of letting your rewards control you.
This series will now take a hiatus for a while so that I can present an article or two for readers with different interests – maybe more. Never fear, I will get back to it in due course, when the subject will be the rhythms of the game table. It’s a jungle out there…