Is having a good time reward enough for playing D&D? Hell no! I want treasure and I want XP. I’ve earned it. Gimme, gimme, gimme. I’ll admit that as a player I fall pretty squarely into this camp. Having a good time and socializing with friends is a great part of playing D&D, but what I look forward to most at the end of the session is the reward. And thanks to the mechanics of 4e D&D I’m rarely disappointed.
The rules for rewarding players are so simple and streamlined that I know at the start of the night what I can expect by the end of the night. I’m not saying that this is a bad thing at all. By having some general foreknowledge of what I’m risking my PC’s life for, I’m more strongly motivated to rush headlong into a fight with a dragon or attempt to decipher the ancient glyphs protecting the entrance to the lost treasure trove.
As a player there are times when I feel that I deserve something above and beyond the normal reward. Perhaps I’ve done something truly extraordinary during a fight, or I’ve come up with a plan that provided the party with an approach no one else though of, or maybe I made 4 of the required 6 successful skill checks needed to overcome the skill challenge. These things don’t happen often, but when they do it would be nice to get a little something extra – something that acknowledges my outstanding heroics or unparalleled insight.
However, I know that the rules are set up in such a way that all loot and all XP is divided equally among the party, regardless of who participated to what extent. So I’ve learned that as a player there is no benefit (other than the satisfaction of knowing that I’ve given it my all) to strive for true greatness. If something great happens by accident, that’s awesome, but I’m a lot less likely to go out of my way to try and accomplish anything truly remarkable if there’s no extra incentive.
As the DM I’ve struggled with this dilemma since 4e was first released. And as I sought a way to address individual rewards in 4e D&D, I found myself looking back to previous editions of D&D for guidance. In 2e and 3e D&D, XP was the reward that mattered most. When a PC did something that warranted a bonus, it was doled out in the form of XP. The players knew (or learned quickly enough) that if they exemplified their role in the party they could earn extra XP, above and beyond the normal amount divided equally amongst everyone. There were even rules in place, clearly spelled out in the DMG, that provided some directions for the DM.
Rogues could earn extra XP for doing Rogue-specific things, like picking pockets or opening a lock, and a Fighter could earn extra XP for taking down a monster by himself. These rewards were specifically designed to reward players who did the things that their class and role was designed to do. But in 4e D&D this kind of extra reward isn’t in the core rules. In fact the DMG suggests that all PCs in the party earn exactly the same amount of XP. There is nothing in there that speaks directly to individual rewards. And most players by now have realized this. They know that no matter how much or how little they contribute to an encounter (combat or skill challenge) they’re going to get the same amount of XP as everybody else. The only exception is if a PC dies during a fight, but even then most DMs will still give that PC an equal share.
Where this becomes a real issue is during skill challenges. Skill challenges are designed to give PCs who are not combat oriented or who are especially well-rounded a chance to use their skills and earn XP. Skill challenges are also a great way to encourage actual role-playing. Too many players just show up, roll dice and kill monsters. They don’t develop their character and they don’t think about the non-combat aspects of their PC. I’ve participated in skill challenges where players actually say “I’m not going to make any skill checks because the skills I need to use are so bad.” or “If I have to roll I’m going to fail the check so I’ll let someone else handle it.” Yet these players get equal shares of the XP that comes from successfully completing the skill challenge. Meanwhile a PC who has great skills and does an exemplary job of role-playing the encounter doesn’t earn anything extra for his efforts.
The problems I’ve described above can all be solved by introducing a mechanic for individual rewards. As much as my instinct is to stop dividing the XP evenly, I see this as an administrative nightmare. Not to mention that it’s bound to create resentment and hostility outside of the game.
My solution is therefore simpler. Following the DM’s 4e mantra of “say yes” and keeping things positive, don’t penalize anyone or reduce their fair share of the XP. Instead, reward those who do a great job or who truly deserve it. But again, giving them more XP is just going to create more headaches and paperwork. Instead, use the in-game mechanics to give them something extra.
I like to award bonus action points. And the real bonus is that you can use these bonus action points without restriction. I allow the players to use a bonus action point even if they’ve already used their normal action point during that encounter. After all, they’ve earned the reward because they did something awesome. I figure they should get an awesome benefit.
One approach I’ve used is when a player decides not to participate in a skill challenge (usually because they’ve spent all their efforts making him a tank and totally neglected his skills) is to give anyone else who earned more than one success a bonus action point. By rewarding everyone else it encourages those players who are overlooked to reflect on what just happened. It doesn’t take long for a couple of skills to be retrained or a skill training feat to show up on their character sheet. And what do you know, all of a sudden they’re actively participating in skill challenges.
This is just one example of an individual award given to players who truly deserve them. The most important thing to keep in mind when awarding this kind of special acknowledgement is that it needs to be handed out sparingly. If one or more PCs get an extra reward every encounter then the award starts to loose its value and just makes the game unbalanced. Generally I only give out one individual award per session (or even per level). This helps everyone understand just how rare it is to earn one. When a player gets one they know that they’ve done something really great. I’ve found that it inspires all the players to up their game as they try to earn that little bit extra. My game has become better for it.
Do you use individual awards in 4e D&D? If so, how is it handled at your gaming table? Do you find that players are less motivated because individual awards are not present? How do you handle PCs who aren’t contributing because they know they’ll still get an equal share of the XP and loot?