Saturday, October 11, 2014

All That Glitters is Not Gold: Non-Monetary Rewards For Your RPG Party

Congratulations, you've conquered another dungeon! You've defeated the Beast of Brackenbridge, slain the wicked cult that brought it sacrifices, and laid to rest the victims of this vile monster. Your reward? A magic sword, and as much gold as you can carry. Again.

Sure, I guess. If that's all they've got.
The first few times players get this reward they're ecstatic. They're low-level adventurers who've been scraping by on a few spare copper pieces, and all of a sudden they're flush with cash and armed to the teeth. But how many times can you get the same reward before it loses its meaning? Three times? Five? How long before even epic level weapons (even ones created with this unique, alternative system for making magic weapons and armor) and enough gold to buy a country just feels like a ho-hum reward for your dragon slaying?

If you really want to keep your players interested, give them something they can't buy.

What Are You Talking About?

I'm glad you asked, bold Italic text. What I'm talking about is the concept of a non-numerical reward; something beyond XP, gold, and calculated magic items. These rewards aren't found on a table, and they don't require any number crunching on your part as the DM. Despite that though, these rewards may be what players talk about for years to come when they sit down to tell people about the coolest things their characters ever accomplished.


Great deeds come with great rewards, but one of the most common rewards that gets left out of any game is a promotion. Take the cleric for instance. After serving faithfully and defeating the enemies of the church it would make sense for the lowly priest to be raised up to the position of chaplain, herald, or even Commander of the Faith. The post would come with increased responsibility, but it would also come with better quarters, access to more of the church's resources, and even lower-ranking priests to delegate responsibilities to.

Personal bodyguards in silly outfits are not out of the question.
The same is true no matter what game you're playing. Modern fantasy characters might be knighted by the faerie court, and given rank and power as well as access to the world between (actually being knighted is pretty damn cool no matter what game you're running). High fantasy warriors might be granted titles and land, elevated from sell swords to lords and ladies complete with heraldry and fiefdoms to oversee. Even something as simple as being moved up the ladder from patrolman to detective (sergeant to captain, watchman to inquisitor, etc., etc.) is a reward that will add more to the story and character development than any number of mechanical macguffins.


Actions have consequences, and one of those consequences is a reputation. Whatever a character or a party does is going to leave its marks on them and on the world, whether for good or for ill. A pious quick draw specialist who always gets the first shot off may be known as the God's Gun. An acrobatic knife fighter known for her use of envenomed blades might earn the title of the Cobra Queen, the Poison Woman, or the Pestilent Princess. A heavy-handed gangland enforcer might earn the word "iron" before his name, and a slick-talking rogue who could make you believe anything might be dubbed The Salesman.

No one asked why they called Yuri the Horn Blower.
Fame or infamy, if you have a character who's done anything then that character is going to be known for that act by someone. The bigger the actions characters take, the bigger that reputation is going to loom. At earlier parts of the campaign characters might just be known by a small quarter of a city, or maybe by a small town. Once the party really hits its stride and the tales start getting told characters should be hard-pressed to go somewhere they are't recognized (unless they take steps like not wearing signature pieces of gear, disguising their faces, or making sure that the bards telling stories give purposefully false descriptions of the characters in question).

Giving characters a reputation among certain parts of the game world makes them feel more organic. It might also mean they can avoid some fights (since no one wants to challenge the Coffin Maker to a duel), get special treatment, or be sought out by plot hook NPCs who require men and women of their skills and abilities.


Anyone who gains fame will also develop a following. A knight of great renown might draw crowds to a tournament if word gets out that he'll be riding in the joust, for instance. An infamous wizard might find acolytes at her door, begging for the privilege of becoming her apprentice. Characters who have renown, good or ill, will inevitably have people who want to learn from them, be like them, and pledge themselves to that character's service.

The Bowman's Children are not to be trifled with.
Sure there are ways to gain followers mechanically. Pathfinder, Dungeons and Dragons, World of Darkness, Savage Worlds, all of these game systems and many more besides provide ways for your character to have a set number of followers. However, while characters can use these rules to buy followers, simply purchasing them can be more mechanics than roleplay oriented. This is the primary reason many storytellers won't let players use these rules to add more characters to the party; in the wrong hands these rules can be bent till they scream.

The point is that a following and followers are similar, but different. If a character has followers then that means a player has a specific set of NPCs he or she can call on, and it can put a small army at a PC's beck and call. A following on the other hand can be an amorphous pool of people who are there for roleplay purposes, but whose mechanical capacity is entirely up to the storyteller. Followers can be bought, but a following is earned as a product of roleplay and a character's actions in the story.

But What About Loot?

What about it?

Ooooh... what does this do?
No one said to stop giving players magic items, XP, and money (again though, you might want to consider these alternative systems for generating magic weapons and armor to keep things interesting). I'd be willing to bet that special items, whether they're super-science gadgets in Spycraft or enchanted steel in the Iron Kingdoms, will always be a solid present for your players. But if you want to keep them interested and striving as hard as they can it's a good idea to create some rewards tailored to fit what they've accomplished in game so far.

And for DMs who just want lower-cost loot that is worth less than a gold piece (but which is still useful while adding flavor to your game), you might want to check out 100 Pieces of Miscellaneous Tat To Find. I wrote this guide for Azukail Games some time back, and it's ideal for giving treasure that isn't really all that valuable. The original was written for Pathfinder, but there's a system-neutral version, too.

I'm not suggesting you give status, reputation, and position instead of loot... rather, try to diversify the rewards you give your players. Because these kinds of non-monetary achievements let them feel like they're having an effect on the game world rather than just playing through a pre-determined set of rails with occasional loot drops. That individual attention, and an award tailored specifically to a given gaming experience, is something you won't be able to find on a random rolling table.

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1 comment:

  1. I have always thought that dungeons themselves could be rewards. A good place to set up a holding, coupled with a charge by the local ruler to keep the place out of the hands of evil doers. Also saves the trouble of hauling out that half ton of copper pieces...