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.
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!