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The Persistence of Rewards

My object all sublime
I shall achieve in time
To let the punishment fit the crime
– Gilbert & Sullivan, “The Mikado”

Consider the following:

While there are no hard-and-fast rules for handling such things as rewards and penalties (a topic I’ve touched on at least once before [1]), one consideration should be how permanent it will be.

In the first example, the extra XP is there forever. Yes, it was a cool scene, but the reward for one scene will permanently boost the character above her peers. The catch here is that bonus XP is an uncommon event in this campaign. Perhaps an Action Point or a rule-breaker card [2] would be more appropriate.

In the second example, the player probably deserves something more drastic than having to ask the medic for a quick spell or dose of Gro-Bak. In a ‘normal’ game, he’d be dead. Perhaps his deity refuses to fully heal the results of poor judgment, or perhaps his “Darwin Award” was caught on video and went viral.

Why Should I Care?

Rewards and penalties are a fundamental part of a game, whether it’s the GM’s hand on the tiller, or the campaign world reacting to the PC’s actions. As GMs, we should be aware of how certain rewards and penalties affect the game. One often-overlooked aspect of rewards and penalties is their permanence.

When deciding on major rewards and penalties, or recurring ones that will build into a significant part of the game, some of them will stick around long after the group stops remembering what they were for. And some won’t stick around long enough for the group to even remember that they happened.


I’m not ranting against bonus XP or its equivalent. If you commonly hand out XP as a reward, and all of your players can (and do) earn it, then carry on. Just remember that XP is forever.

In the same vein, don’t focus only on penalties that the party can’t easily handle. If they spent a bunch of money on a Happy Stick, then let them heal their wounds. If they went through a heap of credits and trouble to get a Bacta Tank [3] on their ship, let them use it. But major penalties should do more than soak up a bit of resources; they should be major.

Agree? Disagree? Got something to add? Sound off in the comments and let us know!

12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "The Persistence of Rewards"

#1 Comment By GigaNerd17 On May 20, 2011 @ 9:11 am

Should a player permanently lose a limb for a single bad decision?

I believe punishments should scale with repetition — i.e. Players who repeatedly make bad decisions ON PURPOSE are the ones who get permanently punished, to remind them not to interfere with the group’s fun. It wouldn’t be fair to permanently remove a character’s limb (in a nonmagic setting) just because the player was having a stressful day and couldn’t think straight.

My first comment on the Stew; glad to meet y’all! 😀

#2 Comment By Patrick Benson On May 20, 2011 @ 9:54 am

[4] – I disagree. Intent may be taken into consideration, but a bad decision has consequences regardless of its intent. The thing is that a consequence is not always a punishment. A good GM should not punish players for their decisions, but instead should try and recreate the consequences that would occur for such a situation.

Sometimes the hero gets it in the first act even when doing the right thing, and must suffer to overcome the consequences of his or her decision. This can be seen in stories ranging from Greek classics of mythology to films like Robocop, and comic books like Batman. It can be part of a great story, and a good GM will always try to deliver a fun game with a good story.

#3 Comment By Sarlax On May 20, 2011 @ 10:05 am

The use of rewards for in-game behavior seems both natural and strange. Natural, because I like to encourage and recognize good behavior and cool ideas. Strange, because a *good idea* produces its own rewards.

In the “audacious plan” scenario, additional XP might not be needed at all, since the player is naturally rewarded by the success of his plan. When the PCs in my 3.5 game evaded the terms of an infernal bargain by relocating an entire city (not what I expected at all), the reward was that they became heroes to the region, and everyone at the table felt pretty awesome about it.

I haven’t used an explicit mechanical reward for a long time, except for the awarding of action points in D&D games. Generally rewards come in the form of praise at the table or in-world benefits. The latter might be mechanical – such as a persistent +X bonus when dealing with people the PC has helped – although it occurs to me that I don’t usually announce such a benefit. Perhaps I ought to.

Either way (praise or power) tends to be both permanent and temporary. A direct mechanical benefit like XP is technically permanent, but the excitement of getting a little extra is brief. The PC’s power might forever be a little bit higher, but the player herself might not fully apprehend that benefit in the coming months of the game. I also suspect that such a mechanical reward might rub other players the wrong way, particularly when they don’t get something extra for what they felt was awesome in the game, but the GM didn’t.

In-game recognition, however, can be fun forever, even if there’s no mechanical advantage; the PCs in the aforementioned game were continuously known as “The Saviors of Diamond Lake” (or “the Saviors” for short), even after they caused that city to no longer exist.

Punishments are similar. Like a good idea, a bad idea punishes itself through its consequences. Of course, the scope of a bad idea might be limited by the game’s social contract (such as the suggested reluctance to permit PC death). In such a case, it may still be that the bad move can be “punished” through recognition. Maybe the PC who charged into the dragon’s death alone and suffered a critical hit doesn’t die, but instead heals for a while in town, mocked by villagers, and unable to regrow his eyebrows. He might not need a -4 penalty to all rolls for a game session if everyone he meets calls him “Crispy.”

#4 Comment By DNAphil On May 20, 2011 @ 10:08 am

I run into this issue a lot with my current campaign, in Corporation. My players are essentially criminals and so they will kill and then loot anything they can find, to sell for more cash. They are also very smart and very resourceful, so they often come up with ways to wind up with piles of gear or items to sell.

I wind up tempering this, with being especially stingy with what gear gets left behind, etc. Its not the approach I want to take, but I really dont have a temporary mechanic or metagame mechanic to reward them.

It would be nice to translate a warehouse full of assault rifles, into some kind of card that the players could turn over later and get some piece of equipment they needed for a specific mission or job.

Got me thinking now Kurt….

@GigaNerd17– thanks for the comment, and welcome to the Stew.

#5 Comment By BishopOfBattle On May 20, 2011 @ 11:19 am

“perhaps his “Darwin Award” was caught on video and went viral.”

That had me imagining that the player “died” but were still around to suffer the negative consequences, which reminded me of Highlander style immortals who sometimes fall off a bridge and “die” so they have to leave town. It could be an interesitng mechanic to run a game with a group of players who can’t die, but their hit points represent how much damage they can take without it looking suspicious and forcing them into exile/relocating, or suffer the consequences if they haven’t properly covered it up.

On the TOPIC AT HAND however, I tend to reward my players more with bonus items / money than anything else. Part of that is due to the system (Shadowrun) which emphasises gear as much or more than experience. But gear is always something you can take away too.

That fancy new vehicle they tricked out with heavy armor, deployable machine guns and run flat tires is pretty great, but if they have to ditch it somewhere for a short time because the cops are looking for it because someone did something stupid, then it would be easy for them to come back later and find it gone.

#6 Comment By Toldain On May 20, 2011 @ 12:24 pm

I like @Patrick Benson’s idea of “not punishments, but consequences”. I’m trying to entertain the group, not punish them. If there is behavior at the table that is a problem, we can have the discussion as people, not by proxy in the game. A friend of mine who is a long-time GM recently said, of players who do something cool in the game, “They’ll get their comeuppance”. I don’t get that. I have no desire to give my players their comeuppance.

They are highly cooperative and team focused. Recently they absolutely dismantled an encounter I had built to be tough. They barely got hurt. But it was smart, and they had fun, so pfft!

Awarding XP is not a consequence, but a meta-game reward. In game consequences might be better. A “Favor of the Gods” token, working something like a Star Wars (d20) Destiny Point might be good. You know, spend it whenever for an action point, a big positive bonus after a roll, or so on. One shot.

#7 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On May 20, 2011 @ 4:52 pm

Thanks for the comments; y’all are sharp.

[4] – Welcome to the Stew; hope you find it tasty. I do want to clarify that the lost limb was an alternative to character death, not just as punishment for a stupid decision. I’d be unable to count past one if I lost a limb to every stupid decision I’ve made… 😉

#8 Comment By XonImmortal On May 20, 2011 @ 4:56 pm

This is a tough one.

I do not think that punishments should be permanent, except in extreme cases. However, I also believe in consequences of actions. Making the consequences fit the action is right to do, and realistic (but that doesn’t mean the players will appreciate it). And in most of the settings we game in, loss of limb can be overcome fairly easily.

I do take exception to the objection of punishing players. As a GM and as a player, I have a responsibility to make sure everybody has a good time. Punishments are an excellent way to prove to a player that he is not going to enjoy disrupting everyone else’s fun. I have done this as a player and as a GM.

I played with a group that included a half-elf/half-ogre (Yeah, I KNOW) whose player deliberately, several times a session, deliberately disrupted play. Either it was deliberately causing a fight, deliberately ignoring The Plan, or something else. He caused one character to get mummy-rot, another to be encased in crystal, almost caused a civil war, and tried to rape another character. For various reasons, booting the player from the group would have caused bigger problems. My shaman character worked actively to minimize the consequences of his actions, while steering him to dangers that would impact him and only him.

As a GM, I had a cleric of a war-god walk up behind an unarmored, unarmed fellow party member, and smash him in the back of the head while wearing a heavy gauntlet. I took away his access to spells until he atoned – which meant we had a cleric with no spells for several adventures, because neither character or player would admit there was anything to atone for.

Just because we are playing a game doesn’t mean that cause and effect have been suspended.

#9 Comment By Razjah On May 20, 2011 @ 6:40 pm

Rewards are good. Though in many cases XP is not that permanent. It has diminishing returns as the characters level. The 250 xp at level 1 is great, at level 10 it means almost nothing.

Punishment is bad. I would rather talk with my players about how or why something is dirupting. If it is serious they leave or I ask them to leave. I do not want someone making the game less fun for the others. This is not a game where there are winners and losers. This is a cooperative game.

Consequences are good. There are lots of interesting ways to overcome something. A character who loses his arm can later be blessed with a new arm. It could be an arm that looks like quicksilver and allows the character some neat little ability.

#10 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On May 20, 2011 @ 8:33 pm

I should add, if it wasn’t clear. I don’t recommend punishing disruptive players with in-game penalties, unless they’ve earned them. I would rather take them aside, see what’s going on, and either boot them or work with them.

Characters, now that’s a whole ‘nother story…

#11 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On May 20, 2011 @ 8:47 pm

Gah. To reclarify: If a player’s being difficult, the solution is not a mechanical penalty. If the player makes a mistake (see: Leroy Jenkins), but isn’t being intentionally difficult, then mechanics are a possibility.

I am can good English speaking!

#12 Comment By Volcarthe On May 25, 2011 @ 1:36 pm

Sometimes you’ll have a game where being clever, funny, etc is part of the reward system, and that’s great. Classic Deadlands not only rewarded players for being good at what they do, but playing up their own penalties.

While i dispassionately dole out whatever consequences happen, i’m not above ruthlessly punishing someone for overtly stupid acts. Though, i take the time to differentiate between the two, as others said above.

So rewards, consequences, and punishment are all used, though the two extremes are far more sparing than just consequences. But everyone i’ve ever played with is warned beforehand of my GM style, in order to be upfront and fair about my dealings.