My object all sublime
I shall achieve in time
To let the punishment fit the crime
– Gilbert & Sullivan, “The Mikado”
Consider the following:
- A player has just conceived and executed a plan so audacious, clever, and funny that she gets a big fat XP bonus for it, a rarity in this campaign.
- Courtesy of a player’s poor judgment, grievous injury is visited on his character. He should be dead, but the group has an unwritten rule against PC death. Instead, he loses a limb, even though the party has access to a spell or device that allows easy regeneration.
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 ), 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  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  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!