It’s the end of the night. I look out across my game table, “That’s it for tonight everyone, I’m going to call it here.” The players look back at me, some smiling, some disappointed that it’s already come to an end. Yet, all look forward to what is next; reward time. They’ve already divvied up their gold and items in character. It’s just a preference at the table when such things arise. I let everyone know how much experience they get. Each player gets an equal amount, even if they were absent (I’ll get into that at another time). Then, I let them each pull an index card from the table…
In the past I’ve often given one person more experience points or gold for doing notable things. Sometimes several people. This was my attempt to spice things up and entice new players to step up their game; or get other people to pay attention more. I found out that this puts those players well ahead of everyone else, without being able to level the playing field. More often than not, the players I was trying to entice ended up enjoying things less. Obviously, they felt punished, and like the other player’s deeds were being dangled over their heads just because they couldn’t stand out enough. This is a mistake a lot of GMs make, seasoned, new, and in between. It’s an easy mistake to make, heck, you feel like you’re just handing out rewards for awesome stuff. What’s wrong with that?
Learn from my mistakes.
Ever go to one of those Honor Roll student ceremonies in grade school? Here you are, sitting in the crowd of who knows how many other students. Everyone is there just because a handful of students have better grades than all the other students. What makes them better? They just got better numbers than you. That’s it. Yet here they are, held high above everyone else. (I have some issues, I’m aware of this.) Here are some things those pesky teachers didn’t take into account; maybe you have problems paying attention in class, maybe things just weren’t that interesting to you, maybe things weren’t actually challenging to you, perhaps things in life are a bit rough for you, maybe you’re just as smart as the others but you have issues showing it…
That’s exactly what you’re doing when you give some players rewards, but not others. Not as traumatizing, but you get the deal. It took me months to realize that’s what I was doing to my players. I realized this when the end of the night wasn’t filled with discussion of the game, but why this player should get the reward vs the other player. When it hit me, I felt like a terrible GM. My players didn’t bring it up with me, nor did I pay enough attention to it to deal with it right off the bat.
What does your system offer?
There are tons of systems, and tons of rewards to offer in each of them; if you don’t like what your system offers, it’s still very simple to make something that works. Pathfinder has heroic points and mythic surges. 3.5 has action points, and so does 4th edition. So you can easily take these for extra rewards at the end of the night, without throwing XP to certain characters and putting them permanently ahead of others.
If your system doesn’t offer these, they are simple to make. Call them what you will, I call them Commander Surges (because we have a habit of wagering them and earning them in our Magic: The Gathering matches). Mine are mythic surges from pathfinder, but players can give them to others during the game night to help get them out of trouble (we’ll get to that in a bit). Yours should have options just like mine. They need to be able to be spent on the following; getting an extra action, re-rolling dice, getting bonuses on a roll. I do this on a one for one basis. Use one surge for an extra standard action. Use a surge to roll a dice with advantage (D&D Next anyone?) this means to roll two dice and choose the better result. You can also use one surge to roll 1d6 and add it to your current dice roll. You can have them do whatever you see fit for your own campaign.
The biggest part of this, they should be able to be given to other players at any point in the game. I let my players give these commander surges to each other when they want. Rather than tell you why I do this, I’ll just give you an example of how it worked out one night.
One of my players just failed their reflex save, they were out of surges due to some bad rolls earlier in the night, this save was a life or death save. They had nothing left. One of the other players says, I’m going to give them a mythic surge. The other player looked over and was awestruck, a chance, a glimmer of light in the dark. They used it to add to the roll that they failed, and ended up passing it. Their hands found a grip, and they were able to climb to safety. There was a huge sigh of relief from around the table, a fist bump, and a thanks.
In that one moment I knew the system was perfect for me. An intense scene was made out of what normally wouldn’t be very intense, players can team up even if it wasn’t their turn or their character might not be in the position to save the other. They were able to turn a bad stroke of luck into a life saving moment. A player who got a reward, saved a player who was out of luck. Moments like that make these games awesome.
How do I reward my players?
For me, it’s all about sharing experiences, and making sure everyone has their time to shine. At the end of the night, everyone reaches out for something to write on. They write something awesome that someone else did. Then pass the paper to me, face down. I go over them and read them aloud. The person mentioned the most gets five surges, the runner ups get 3, in a tie winners get 5 surges and runners get 3. You can change the numbers as you wish, I just like giving my players a lot to work with. This gets everyone involved, rather than me picking and choosing who gets what, it’s ultimately the entire group’s participation that determines who gets the big rewards. Remember, this reward can be shared later on, so it’s win win for the party.
After I do this, I go around the table and ask each person something awesome that they did. Then award them three surges as well. There is no bickering over who did what. You get to mention your awesome stuff and get three surges. I don’t do this out of pity, but because sometimes awesome things just go unnoticed. Often times players won’t remember something awesome they did, but another player will, they’ll have that “Oh yeah!” moment, and get rewarded too. Everyone gets to shine.
Finally, for one more surge, I go around and ask each player something they liked or did not like that night. I like to keep open communication with the players. When I found out how long it took me to learn from my earlier mistake, I didn’t want it happening again. I didn’t want players simply not telling me about problems. If they find something they don’t like, I want to know it as soon as I can. Now they get rewarded for letting me know! Heck, if they have nothing but good to say, then I know I’m on the right track and they still get a reward.
What’s the difference?
Giving someone experience points as a bonus reward is a permanent advantage. They will always be that much ahead, and your players will see it that way. I award experience in equal amounts. It doesn’t matter that the rogue didn’t take part in every combat encounter, that rogue got the information to move the party to this location; and the fight just wasn’t what they had in their plans. It doesn’t matter than a player couldn’t make it that night, life happens. To put it simple, when you give some people experience; and don’t give others the same amount, it’s punishment. No matter how grand the award ceremony is, it still feels like punishment.
Surges, points, what have you; can be given to players at any time for anything. They can be traded among the players at any time, and aren’t a permanent advantage. Once they are spent, they are gone until earned again. When another player is in need, those who have surges can help that player. They can be used at any point for anything. When players are awarded this, it’s a bonus to the table; and players don’t feel punished for not getting as many. The way it works at my table, the players give the big reward to someone of their choice, not mine. The rewards I give are static numbers and can’t be argued over.
GAME BALANCE! Y R U BREAKING IT?
Game balance? We’re not game developers here (for the most part). We’re people gathering around a table with friends, or soon to be friends. We’re about to indulge ourselves in a make-believe world, slaying dragons, liches, aberrations, and more. We’re about to embark on a quest that will take us on airships controlled by magic and fight cubes of ooze. I want my players to have more power. The more tools they have, the more I’m allowed to get away with. Adjust numbers as you see fit. Have fun! Because of this, I was able to throw a young blue dragon at my players that acted on two initiatives. Its lightning breath stayed on the ground for minutes at a time. It attacked upwards of five times in one turn.
What happened? The fighter punched it in the face, that’s what happened! One of our most memorable moments in recent gaming history, and it was one hell of a night. If ‘balancing the game’ means not being able to do that, I want no such part of it. This isn’t GM vs players, or players vs the system.
Until next time, and remember… Your drill is the drill that will pierce the Heavens!