Wednesday, June 1, 2011

25 Ways to Reward Player Characters

In pretty much any campaign, it is easy to reward characters. Give them money, toys, or metagame currency (e.g., XP). The problem with these rewards is that they do nothing to draw the character further into the campaign. A rich fighter with a +4 Sword of Badassery has pretty much exactly the same story hooks as a poor fighter using a stick with a nail in it. Well, except for the "I don't want to be poor anymore" hook, but that can only take you so far. There are a huge number of rewards that you can give characters that have little or no actual mechanical advantage, but which change the shape of their interactions with the other NPCs. Those interactions hold the seeds to more and more interesting stories.

Here for your consideration is a handful (for hands of a certain size) of such rewards:
  1. Title. In a medieval-style setting, this has obvious implications. But, it can even work in a more modern-style setting, by either using honorary titles (the way Elvis was made an honorary Deputy Sheriff, or the way Britain keeps knighting actors) or by actually employing the character (converting the vigilante to an officer). Most players will think this extremely cool, and trot it out probably far too often. Hooks: The character is surprised when the honorary title comes with very real obligations. The organization that gave the title is under threat, and the character will look really bad for famously using a title and then letting the people get hurt.
  2. Real Estate. It's the only thing they aren't making any more of. Give the character some land, and they will go crazy sinking cash into a stronghold. Real estate has all kinds of hooks attached to it. Crazy neighbors. Thieves. Legal entanglements. House guests staying too long. Storm damage. And, the ultimate evil, HOAs. Just don't ever destroy the stronghold. It's cheap, it undermines trust in you, and it kills off future hooks.
  3. Fan Club. Hey, when you're a hero, everyone wants to bask in a little reflected glory. While "fan club" is a decidedly modern idea, it is easily extended to less modern settings. You just have a group of people following you around, wanting to be near you and please you. What could go wrong with that? Hooks: One of them goes a little crazy and becomes an obsessed fan. Your enemy plants a spy in the midst of your fans. Your fans won't leave you alone long enough to live a normal life. Your fickle fans leave you for a hot new hero. Note: Make sure to keep the fan club a reward. Too many complications destroys the value of the hooks.
  4. Legend. The party gets to go to the crappy town where they're heroes. Bards have written songs. Statues have been erected. Children have been named after them. This is largely distinct from "Fan Club" in that it is more widespread but more diluted. The character(s) in question have become stories, and have a sense of reality or immediacy. Hooks: A minor infraction gets blown out of proportion, as it tarnishes the legend. Your enemies learn a great deal about you by listening to tales of your exploits (not all of it true, of course).
  5. Endorsement. You think endorsement deals are modern? Feh. Merchants used to give their products away to nobles, so that they could claim that said nobles shopped there. If your characters are heroes, people will want to make money off of that. And, quid pro quo, your heroes can get some sort of compensation, whether it's free product or direct kickbacks. Hooks: Two different merchants both claim that you prefer their product, and you end up in the middle of the dispute. A villain taints a product you promote to undermine your reputation.
  6. Love. Have someone fall in love with the character. Obviously, this has to be very personalized. And, you need player buy-in. But, I'm hoping that the hooks for this one are pretty obvious.
  7. Kids. Usually a follow-up to the "Love" reward, but not necessarily. Again, get buy-in. And, again, this has some obvious hooks.
  8. Ship/Vehicle. A ship is usually a large enough purchase that it needs to be made as a group. Simply gifting the party with one is usually a bit better. For one thing, you can easily put boundaries around what the ship can be. Also, the ship can easily belong to the party as a whole, reducing the impact to any one character. The obvious hook for a ship is simply that you can now get to distant places much more easily. This is great for a GM who is interested in taking the campaign to a new level, where the threats are no longer merely local. But, don't overlook the other hooks. Depending on the ship, you may be introducing crew as well. A ship requires a lot of upkeep, and can be nearly as big a money sink as real estate. Having a ship introduces the possibility of ship-to-ship combat. And, if things get boring, you can always introduce a stowaway.
  9. Lost Lore. Obviously, this reward is heavily dependent on both the character and the player involved. But, there a number of players for whom gaining access to a whole secret part of your setting's history would be a big reward. It is important, though, to keep this from being a simple infodump with plot hooks related to the information itself. Simply having access to such unusual knowledge should be a plot hook in itself. Other scholars will be seeking you out. Secret societies may be looking to suppress the information (or, in some cases, steal and publish it). People who believe in a different version of history may also try to silence you, or convince you that you are wrong (depending on how rational they are).
  10. Enemy. Wait a minute, how is an enemy a reward? Well, it's fairly simple. First, more enemies means more plot, and hence more enjoyment. But, more specifically, an enemy gives you someone to beat. Now, this kind of enemy is not a Big Bad who is actually central to the plot. Rather, this is a side character who wants to make your character's life difficult for some reason. Maybe it is a rival in politics or love. Maybe it is a misguided hero who thinks that you are evil. Maybe it is a man of words that is jealous of your awesomeness as a man of action. Regardless of the motivation, this enemy has two primary features: He will never stop trying to hurt, belittle, embarrass, or otherwise irritate your character. And, he will never actually succeed. This is a reward that keeps on giving, because the character always gets to win at these little conflicts, and can feel good about rubbing the enemy's nose in it.
  11. Ornaments. As with several of these rewards, this is highly dependent on the personality of the character and, more importantly, the player. Rather than paying the character with cash or weaponry, pay the character with fancy clothes, jewelry, or artwork. Or, have the king commission a coat of arms that the character can put on all her belongings. If you are going to use this reward, make sure that you give the character ample opportunity to show off their shinies. Other NPCs should also be reacting appropriately. There are some fairly obvious plot hooks here. Attempted theft leaps to mind. There are other options, though. For instance, suppose that you have a painting, and a scholar notices a coded message in it (a la The Da Vinci Code). Suppose that a friend who is poor asks to borrow your jewels for her daughter's wedding day, and now owes you a great debt in return. Suppose that people who see your character at a party in his fancy clothes begin insulting him for dressing above his station. Showy items draw a lot of attention, and attention can always come with plot hooks.
  12. Student. Your amazing exploits have inspired one of the heroes of tomorrow. A youth, brimming with energy and raw talent, wants you to teach her how to be amazing, too. As with most of the relationship-type rewards, this one works best with player buy-in. The character now has both a helper and a responsibility. The plot hooks are endless and, for the most part, obvious. The student tries something beyond her talent and gets in trouble. The student is targeted by the character's enemies as a weak point. The student has her own enemies/rivals, and her problems spill over into your life. The student, told firmly to stay at home, sneaks along after the character on an adventure, and gets in trouble. As a note, you should try to use such hooks somewhat sparingly, lest the student become another member of the party.
  13. New Discovery. This certainly works best with the more cerebral characters, but, with a bit of creativity, can be applied to most anyone. Your character has been training, practicing, researching, etc. in her downtime. She has managed to discover something new, that has never been seen before! In a magical campaign, this might be a new spell. For a gadgeteer, this might be a new invention that actually has commercial application. A healer might have discovered a new medicine. It represents a major advance in the field, and can garner the character some fame and fortune for activities that don't involve killing people and taking their stuff. Hooks might include a rival professional who claims the invention as his own (possibly even leveling charges of fraud or industrial espionage against your character), a greedy businessman looking to convert your work into his profit, or a military application that comes with government interference and sticky ethical questions.
  14. Business. Instead of simply giving the character cash, have the character gain a share in a business, or discover some other significant money-making opportunity that is slightly less high-risk than adventuring. Much like real estate or a ship, a business can quickly become a money sink. However, unlike those, a business can also create significant income. Before handing this out as a reward, though, think through how you want it run. The business should strictly be a side plot, so it needs to operate with as little active involvement of the player as possible. A couple of monthly checks to determine profit and any unusual developments is probably sufficient. There are numerous obvious plot hooks: rival businessmen, careless partners, criminal interference, government interference, demands on the character's time, and even implications for the character's social standing (in modern America, your standing would likely go up, but in feudal Japan, your standing would go down). The tricky part with a business is actually trying to rein in the plot hooks, not generate additional ones.
  15. Membership. This is, in some ways, similar to the reward of a title. However, in this case, the character has been granted entry into some select club. It may be a literal club, such as a Victorian gentleman's club. It may an academy for specific scholarly pursuits, or a union for a specific type of professional. It could even be a secret society, for those inclined to such things. For this reward to have actual weight, it is important to introduce the organization into the game several sessions beforehand. Show the characters that this organization commands respect, and that an invitation to join is an honor. Then, when the invitation comes, the character will likely be thrilled. Plot hooks are thick on the ground. Membership comes with duties as well as privileges. Clubs come with rivals, both within and without. Another member could ask a favor, given your character's reputation. The character could be asked to evaluate (or even sponsor) another candidate for the club. The club's ethos could conflict with the needs or tactics of the party.
  16. Enlightenment. This is a terribly tricky one to handle. But, it is not an infrequent victory in fiction. The character has some epiphany about how the world works, and gains in wisdom. In general, this should be a matter of simple growth during gameplay. On occasion, it may be appropriate to insert a quantum leap into the character development, such as a result of contact with the divine. The especially difficult part is that it is a rare game that represents wisdom well in a mechanical sense (the D&D stat does nothing of the sort). So, it is largely simply up to the player to roleplay the change. It is also up to the GM, though, to help the process along. The best way to that is through the plot hooks, oddly enough. Pilgrims seek out the character. Nobles command audiences to ask advice. (Note here that it is best that the character's advice actually work out for the best, regardless of the player's actual insight.) Interestingly enough, enlightenment is one of the few rewards that very rarely breeds envy or rivalry.
  17. Scar/Disfigurement. Much like the enemy reward above, few people would immediately see a scar as a reward. And, yet, everyone knows that chicks dig scars. (Actually, I have no idea if that's true, but the movies say it a lot.) A scar is a badge of honor for a veteran warrior. If your character has just survived a nasty battle, have one of the wounds leave a visible mark. Maybe the character even lost an eye, and must wear an eyepatch (again, this is a reward, so there is no mechanical effect to losing the eye). Everyone loves eyepatches, from Nick Fury to Xander Harris. It is a little harder to introduce direct plot hooks based on a scar, but you should make sure that NPCs react appropriately. The character should be more intimidating, should be taken more seriously by other veterans, and should be more immediately recognizable. And, heck, maybe even be a little more attractive.
  18. Alliance. When a character develops a proven track record of success, it is hardly surprising that others will want to hitch their wagons to his star. If the character already represents a group or organization, the alliance might be with that group. Or, it could be a relationship specifically with the character. The obvious hook is that enemies and obligations of your ally have a way of becoming your enemies and obligations. A less obvious hook is that a man who begins gathering a network of allies becomes a force to contend with. People who might ignore the actions (positive and negative) of a lone wanderer take notice when that wanderer develops powerful friends. Your ally might start asking you to show a little tact, or even class.
  19. Blackmail. This obviously works best in an intrigue-based game. Your character has stumbled across information or evidence that could be very embarrassing to someone with significant power. It is enough that you can milk it for favors for years to come, so long as you don't abuse it. That, of course, is the obvious hook. The flip side to the coin is also fairly obvious, in that blackmailers have a distressing tendency to end up as murder victims. You can create much less obvious hooks, though. For instance, suppose another party has access to the same, or similar, information? You may actually have to work to suppress a leak by that party in order to protect your own golden goose.
  20. Prop/Portrait. This one comes with no plot hooks, and is definitely a reward for the player more than the character. However, I can tell you that I have received a couple of these rewards over the years, and they mean a lot to me. If you have some artistic talent, do a portrait of the character or a scene of her recent triumph. If you have no artistic talent, check around something like deviantart for how much a commissioned portrait would be. If you have no talent and no money, another easy option is an actual printed Certificate of Accomplishment. You can find dozens of templates on the web that are free to download and use. Just fill in the appropriate text, sign, put in a cheap frame, and present. I still have one given to me in remembrance of my character dying from polymorph twice. And, of course, if you are a little more crafty than artistic, other sorts of props can be equally meaningful. A personalized, tangible reward of this sort is a rare thing in RPGs, and can mean a great deal to your player.
  21. Free skill point. This reward, along with the next three, is actually mechanical in nature. If the character did something impressive that you want to reward, consider giving her a free skill point (or equivalent) in a "flavor" skill. In 3.5 D&D, for instance, this might be Craft or Profession. Players rarely want to invest points in these skills because the return on investment is not very high. But, they can be very good for fleshing out a character. A free mechanical bump like this is a nice way to help the character fit the flavor text better without sacrificing effectiveness.
  22. Bonus luck point. This is obviously going to vary significantly from system to system. In a system like Savage Worlds or FATE that already has such points, it is trivial to simply hand out another one. Though, to actually be a significant reward, it should exceed the usual rules for awarding points (e.g., in FATE, you would get one fate point in addition to your usual refresh). In a system without such a mechanic, such as D&D or Rifts, you can simply have it be a free re-roll. At some future date, the character can simply cash in the luck point to re-roll any one roll. It's just that simple. Note that, in most cases, this is pretty small reward. It can be given freely, but don't expect fawning gratitude in response.
  23. Grant odd build. Many, many players have an irrepressible and insufferable desire to twist the system in ways that were never intended. It is generally recommended that the GM squash such activity. However, perhaps it is good to allow it to certain players who have earned it. Unique opportunities and achievements, after all, should result in unique characters. In essence, this was the original concept behind prestige classes in 3.0 D&D. If you are able to join the Awesome Order of Mystic Badasses, you can reflect that mechanically with a series of special Mystic Badass powers. Even in systems where the prestige class concept wouldn't work, consider allowing other rules to be broken. Can your Garou become Embraced? Can your street samurai pick up a couple tricks from the hacker? If it makes sense within the context of the game, let the rules bend. I would make sure, though, that everyone at the table recognizes that such bending is a reward, and not a right.
  24. Allow rebuild. In certain cases, a character may go through a truly transformative experience. Or, simply upon leveling up, the player discovers that they forgot to pick up a critical prereq earlier, and the planned concept is now not going to work. Some GMs will simply allow the player to tweak the build retroactively. But, in cases where either that is not practical or the changes are much more than just a tweak, you can always create a change point in the game. The character may go away for a time, or experience a near-death moment, or convert to a new religion. At that point, reward the player by allowing a bottom-up rebuild of the character to fit the changed concept. Note that, in many cases, this should simply be allowed by the GM as part of encouraging the system and the story to coexist and cooperate. But, in certain instances, you may consider granting it as a reward for successfully navigating a conflict (especially of the man vs. self variety).
  25. Subplot Spotlight. And, finally, a reward that I think should be obvious. However, I wanted to make sure to call it out, for completeness' sake if nothing else. If you have a character that has done something awesome, one of the best rewards possible is additional spotlight time. Look at the character's background and pick some subplot to suddenly come back into his life. Make it a major part of the next adventure. If possible, look to resolve the subplot (finally defeat the nemesis, make peace with the parents, clear the family name, etc.). Being central to the story is something that every player will value.
Rewards should be rewarding, and meaningful, and special. But, it is also useful to always keep in mind that a reward can be a very convenient way to bring the plot bus right up to the character's front door.

No comments:

Post a Comment