“Only criminals and bloodsuckers reward bad behavior.”
There many ways to encourage players, from experience awards and treasure to narrative controls. Players who are clever, or play their characters well and embrace the story should be rewarded.
The methods we like provide the players with an immediately useful benefit that they control. Like bennies in Savage Worlds or Action Points in d20, a quick boost to a die-roll gives immediate positive reinforcement to a player and provides encouragement to the whole table. But what does this do to the power balance of game?
Reward Requirements: What to give them for
The first question you need to answer is that exactly are you rewarding. Some systems just give out these ‘rewards’ for each rise in power level, or achieving story goals. That seems pretty arbitrary and really not the reward we’re looking for. Others suggest giving them out for coming up with clever solutions, finding important clues, deep character interaction, or comical table-talk.
I’m as enthusiastic (and as guilty) about funny non sequiturs as the next gamer, but It seems like not the most productive thing to reward. I suppose if a character makes a particularly clever observation… but otherwise it becomes just another distraction for the table.
Moving the game forward and embracing a PC’s personality on the other had, those are things most games can use more of. Hopefully it will be more than rewarding a good die roll, but a choice the player makes that makes the game better.
How many to give
Many games suggest giving out in-game rewards at the beginning of each session. If you’re going to be using this mechanic a lot i can see that, because you don’t want players to just to hoard them. And, rewards are better when they are earned. But if it is mechanic you want to use, you should not make them too rare. Everyone at the table should have a chance to earn them each session, and not feel like using them is too risky.
I ran a Savage Worlds campaign where I left a bennie out on the table, ands allowed the players to reward one their own each night. It could’ve been easily abused, but the players took it seriously, and were more judicious about it than I usually was.
What they be used for
Typical uses for in-game rewards are for boosting actions, avoiding damage, powering abilities, and re-rolling tests. Some games even allow using these rewards for narrative control over the world at large. This can be open to wide interpretation, but can add interesting wrinkles to your games. A clever player might add an interesting physical element to a game (a rain barrel at the base of a building they wish to jump off), or a social one (they served with the bartender is king’s guard) that add depth and involvement with the players. It can also be easily abused, so you will have to trust your players.
In general, in-game rewards should provide an immediate boost to a player’s actions, or mitigate a risk. It might just be me, but I don’t like mechanics that roll back time or replace outcomes. Re-rolls or stopping damage are great for player success, but I’m always slightly bothered by failure the never happened or the wounds that miraculously disappear.
I prefer rewards that are used to add to a die roll, or even penalize an opponent. Usually on something that is resolved immediately. Being able to recover some level of wounds is also helpful. Or even gaining an additional actions, or being able to act before their opponent are good rewards. The more rewards you plan on giving, the more volatile your game will become, as these benefits throw off most games balancing systems.
Swing dice and HEX
To put this idea into practice, we decided to come up with an optional in-game reward system for our own Heroic Expeditions. We call them Swing Dice. Briefly, swing dice can be awarded to players at any time and can be used to add a die to a test, or lower an opponent test by a die.
A Swing die can be rewarded to a player for any reason a GM chooses, but the most common reasons are:
- Solving a conflict in a clever or surprising way
- Uses character knowledge or skills to advance the story
- Performs a heroic or exceptional task, or makes a sacrifice to benefit the group
- Plays the character’s personality (or Drawbacks, if using the optional system) to their own detriment.
A swing die (all dice in HEX are d6) can be used at any time, but must be declared before the result of an opponent’s test is known. Alternately, a swing die can be used to recover 1d Stamina or 2ST, change their Initiative position, or take an additional action in a round.
If the GM desires, a swing die can be used to make a narrative statement by the player ’true’ in the game world. This should be something small (the baron pays 1 copper each for rat’s killed in the sewers), and not contradict something already in the world. One could also be used to allow a character to have a low-cat mundane piece of equipment, or know a piece of common knowledge.
A swing die is only usable in the session in which it was given, and can not be carried over into later sessions.
This system is compact, easy to manage, and rewards good play without disrupting long-term game balance. And hopefully, makes sessions more engaging and fun for both players and GMs.
Do you think in-game rewards add value, or just complicate your games? Did we overlook some aspect that drastically changes how rewards are given? Or do you have a system we could all learn from? Let us know in the comments below: