There’s definitely something to be said for the classic moment of the heroes receiving their reward in heroic fiction. When Bilbo and the Thirteen Dwarves find the troll treasure hoard in The Hobbit, it’s an iconic scene. There’s no detailed description of the treasure, but we find out there are all kinds of treasures, “from brass buttons to pots full of gold coins” and that there were “several swords of various makes, shapes, and sizes.”
The Dwarves, who’re after their ancestral treasure horde, and Bilbo, who isn’t the sort to really get excited for gold, bury the treasure and plan to look for it later, if they happened to come back in the same direction. The swords, though…they’re all over those.
This is a very common way things go in stories; we focus on the unusual and don’t sweat the small things like how many gold pieces there were. Yes, coins are good, but the true rewards tend to be the unusual objects, the favors, the powers, and the fame that comes with claiming a horde. Coins are nice, because they allow our heroes to eat, but they aren’t the be-all end-all of adventuring. The same is true of RPGs.
I thought I would look at the concept of rewards in RPGs and what sorts of alternatives there are out there so that DMs know what resources they have to reward their victorious heroes.
Zoinks! It’s the Kooky Coin Collector!
There’s nothing wrong with offering straightforward monetary recompense for the heroes’ adventures. It’s an ironic truth that the amounts often offered by low-level NPCs are dwarfed by the cost of the equipment the average PC walks around with. “You’re offering me 20 gp to clear the giant rats out of your barn? It cost me 50 to buy this platemail. What else you got?” My pilot character in Star Wars flies around in a ship worth hundreds of times the amount of any reasonable reward he might be offered. But then, he’s never been very motivated by greed.
Having said that, however, it’s awfully tempting to imagine yourself running your hands through a huge chest of gold. I sometimes pause at Walt Disney World to let gold coins and jewels slide through my fingers in the Pirates of the Caribbean gift shop. Then I think of how many little kids have been doing the same and whip out the hand sanitizer. But there’s a little part of me that drools over the treasure cave in that scene, imagining myself as a D&D adventurer, wondering if anything in this haul is magic.
It’s a Kind of Magic
This brings us immediately to one of the most common rewards in RPGs beyond money- superior equipment. In a game like Star Wars, this could be a piece of suped-up technology. I’ve given out the equivalent of a +1 Lightsaber in my game, as well as black market technology that the PCs couldn’t have acquired by legitimate means. In D&D terms, this of course means magic-items.
What’s nice about magic-items and their non-fantasy game equivalents is that you can attach them to story. The sword Sting was forged in Gondolin for the Goblin-Wars, as were Orcrist and Glamdring. This is great in Rivendell, where the elves honor those carrying these blades of fallen heroes. IT doesn’t go quite so well in the goblin tunnels under the Misty Mountains, where the goblins immediately name the bearers Elf-Friends and prepare to annihilate them at once. And sure, maybe that powered armor is awesome, but its colors are clearly that of the bounty hunter Brek O’Brattick, and Brek’s friends and enemies are going to want to know who’s under that helmet.
A variant on this theme is equipment and possessions that aren’t magical but that are beyond your PCs’ means. Baron Greenfields in my D&D campaign has rewarded my players with a choice of horses from his stables (giving my players a chance to describe the kind of steed they want), as well as a small manor house. This last “treasure” I particularly liked because it gave me a chance to develop a small cast of recurring PCs, a location my players would feel personally vested in, and a plot hook. You know, eventually, some villain is going to either attack it or take it over, and then the PCs will find themselves attacking their own manor house, or defending it.
How to Win Friends and Influence People
One intangible which works well as a reward is the favor of an important patron. Beyond treasure and magic items, having friends in high places carries some important weight. Sure, it’s nice that Prince Belerion ap Kadishai gave your party a magic sword when you saved him from imprisonment in an Orcish Torture Camp, but later, when he comes to your aid with Gryphon Riders during the Siege of Brokenwall Keep, you really appreciate that you made friends with him.
Favor cuts both ways. If the Baron considers you his “Go to” band of adventurers due to past aid, he’s likely to look to you for aid when he next needs it. This is good, because it means that, when he needs someone to undertake an important mission for him, like escorting his only daughter to the King’s Festival, he’s going to look to you, which means more chances to earn rewards. Of course, he also is likely to turn to you when he needs particularly dangerous missions undertaken, such as slaying the vile green dragon Valryke. But hey, if you wanted a dull life, you would’ve become a baker instead of a paladin, right?
You Had to Be There
As the saying goes, there’s no substitute for experience. And in most RPGs, there’s no substitute for Experience Points. Gamers love ‘em. They love to know how many they have, how many they need, and what they can get for them. Your game system may not specifically use mechanics of XPs and leveling, but odds are that there’s some way characters improve, and some kind of points they spend to make those improvements.
Because of the way D&D 4E breaks down encounters and XPs, I’ve taken to tying adventures into levels. Rather than give my PCs XPs from each individual encounter, I let them know when they achieve a new level, which lines up with having gone through enough encounters to reach the next level. This lends itself to a very satisfying flow of gameplay. The levels tend to come after major milestones in the story, so there’s the satisfaction of a job well done, and…oh, hey, *and* we leveled? Bonus!
And Knowing Is Half the Battle
Perhaps the most intangible, yet, in some ways the most important reward PCs can get is information. Whether that information is the keyword to the computer system they’re trying to break into, the location of a secret door, or a map to another adventure, information spurs things along.
Take, for example, the LARP I’m involved with, The Isles: Purgatory Station. We have a Research system which allows the players to ask questions between events. For some time now, the PCs have been trying to deal with supernatural entities called Mistwraiths. Three different groups of players researched three different aspects of the Mistwraiths, so I purposefully used similar language in my responses to all three. I figured that, if one group of players said out loud what I’d written, and the other groups heard it, they’d click. Sure enough, one group revealed their info, a second group literally looked at each other and said, “Well, that falls in line with what we found, but we also found out ” and then the third group added what they’d learned, and, suddenly, the players had a direction to take their efforts. It was glorious watching them put the pieces together.
Treasure doesn’t have to mean gold. Pcs love to receive all kinds of rewards, from a +1 Longsword to an upgrade to their spaceship to a congratulations from a Duke. Sometimes, it’s the least tangible things like information and recognition from the common folk that are the most rewarding things you can offer.
Do you have other alternative rewards to offer? Whats’ the most awesome reward you’ve ever received in an RPG? Let us all know.