I Want Individual Rewards in D&D

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on April 6, 2010

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?

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Shane April 6, 2010 at 9:53 am

This reminds me a lot of the “moment of greatness” from D&D encounters, which I thought was the most fun reward that can be given out. And if the DM doesnt hand one out at the end of the encounter, I’m not upset with him, I’m upset with us for not being so great.

So I definitely agree with your system here. I think it’s very balance and a great way to make the players give it their all. I think with a title like “moment of greatness,” most players will go for it even if it doesnt give an in-game bonus; the glory alone is worth it.

2 Scott Rehm April 6, 2010 at 9:58 am

I think there is a flaw in looking at loot and XP as “rewards.” They are part of the power structure of the game. They aren’t there to give you a warm fuzzy, but to make sure the party’s power level increases steadily and evenly. And the reason for making sure that they are doled out equally is to ensure that the part stays on an even power level. Suppose, for instance, one guy doesn’t participate as much in combat. Eventually, with individual rewards, the party outlevels him. Not only is he being left behind, he is growing less effective relative to the rest of the party. After a time, he really can’t participate as well as everyone else, thus further costing him rewards.

That being said, there are many ways to reward clever thinking and participation in the game that don’t wonk up the power curve nearly as much. They start with things like minor, single use bonuses. A player whose character goes out of his way to hallow a defiled shrine of Iuon might end up with a minor blessing to reroll a single knowledge skill check in the next 24 hours if they don’t like the result. Its minor and doesn’t have a big impact, but it gives the “warm fuzzy”, rewards thinking in terms in roles and the world, and so forth. If you are so inclined, you can even make up little cards to give players. Certain wondrous items and other magical items also make good individual rewards because their impact is minor and they aren’t tied to the system math.

I’m wary of using Action Points. Although it seems like Action Points are saved because they can only be used once per encounter, the truth is they are designed to only be used once per two encounters (because that is the rate of getting them back). As the game progresses, especially into Paragon and Epic tiers, lots of characters gain opportunities to use Action Points in more and more powerful ways. And if you have any power-gamers, they will quickly catch on to your system and build toward maximizing action points. Humans can get a lot of mileage out of action points from first level, and any party with a warlord can gain bonuses, saving throws, or healing for using them.

3 Toldain April 6, 2010 at 10:02 am

I think your players are responding correctly to the structure of skill challenges. I have started using The Obsidian Skill Challenge System to fix this. The key part is that there is no fail part. A failed skill roll simply means no progress is made. So everyone can participate, and describe what they are doing during the skill challenge. It can be fun and funny, and lead to character development.

4 Mike Smith April 6, 2010 at 12:20 pm

We have FYGMIA points. this was stolen from somewhere but it stands for F**k You Game Master I’m Awesome. We developed a ranking of what would happen if you traded in one and up to three. all something less than an action point but still great in game effects. This created a movie like experience and also rewards moments of greatness, quick thinking and good role playing.

5 Ameron April 6, 2010 at 12:26 pm

@Shane
I agree that the “Moment of Greatness” award from D&D Encounters is exactly the kind of thing I’m going for. I’d even go so far as to let the PCs award it by voting. Let the PCs decide if someone if and when someone truly deserves the award or not.

@Scott Rehm
Keeping the party’s power balanced and level is precisely why I’m not suggesting that anyone be awarded more or less XP as a reward or punishment. But by giving them something tangible that can be used in-game, the player who earned the reward can see an immediate benefit. Some may argue that an action point it too much. In that case, try offering a +1 or +2 on an attack. Or maybe a re-roll on an at-will attack. I’m not trying to unbalance the game, just get people motivated to be extraordinary.

@Toldain
My complaint about inactivity during skill challenges isn’t new (well, it is to this site). It just strikes me as wrong that a PC can say I’m not going to participate and nobody flinches, but if a PC said he’s not going to participate in a fight because his combat scores suck the party would consider it extremely odd behaviour. I think the actual mechanics of skill challenges are great, I just think DMs need to find ways to encourage everyone to participate. PCs with really low skill numbers should feel some kind of down side for building their character that way. Opting out shouldn’t be an option (perhaps with rare exceptions).

@Mike Smith
The FYGMIA points seem like an excellent balance between a full action point and a measly +1. Great example. Thanks for the comment.

6 Patrick April 6, 2010 at 5:44 pm

In my group, we use a variation of Greg Bilsland’s “Fun List”. I call them “Adventure Points” instead, and I’ve expands the ways that players can obtain these points. The actual Fun List table is pretty much exactly the same as in Greg’s post– one of my player’s even rolled 100, i.e. “You win D&D!”

http://community.wizards.com/wotc_gregb/blog/2010/01/04/fun_list

7 Sandman April 9, 2010 at 10:04 am

Thanks for the link Patrick, I’ve been looking for something like that for a while.

Could you share with us what you changed/added to the ways players can obtain adventure points?

8 T April 21, 2010 at 6:32 pm

Alternative rewards like the ideas in D&D Encounters’ Renoun Points (i.e. Moment of Greatness sounds like a simple, great idea!) or Greg Bisland’s Fun Points are exactly what I’m looking for for my regular weekly game of veteran players. So far, still exploring the options online and brainstorming the ideas I find or come up with with my group.

Part of it is I want to move away to an XP free game like Greg does and I’ve done in the past, and grant a basically story-based number of levels per session, averaging around one level per session. It’s just not the worth the extra always unfun bookkeeping, and I don’t want to have a full campaign that takes up 2 real-life years. Faster leveling and the variety of MORE campaigns please!

And the other part of it is because I very, very, very much want to encourage and reward a) oustanding RP, storytelling, tactics, humor, etc., and b) outstanding gaming etiquette. I try hard to lead by example here, as these very basic things really help keep a game fun and moving, but it’s just not always enough.

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