Lateral Rewards

At My Table

Games like D&D often recommend awarding what I call primary rewards for excellence, things like experience points, or extra treasure. Roleplaying xp is a good example of this, and it serves the function of motivating players as I discussed last month. But rewarding people in these ways can lead to some pretty disheartening gaps, so at my table, we use lateral rewards. 

This isn’t to say that I don’t give out xp, I just don’t do it for roleplaying. It’s the same for any kind of ad hoc reward system, whether you’re rewarding innovation, good strategy, or just being funny. Players will fall into three categories: the ones who get the bonus all the time, the ones who get it some of the time, and the ones who get it none of the time. If you have a group where everyone gets it some of the time, then it works. But if you have a mixed bag, then the first group will start to pull ahead of the second, and the second ahead of the third. Since you’re giving out primary rewards, this means that because of their ad hoc rewards, their characters are actually becoming stronger than the ones who aren’t getting the rewards. You can see this as an incentive for the other players to work harder, but it’s the wrong kind of incentive. It threatens them with falling behind if they don’t do something which the other players are better at that. And even if they improve right away, they do so knowing they’ll never really catch up.

These aren’t the feelings you want to have associated with things that are essentially rewards for doing things the GM likes. Provoking a moment of interesting tension, solving a mystery with a lightning leap of logic, or just making everyone laugh until they cry. We want these things to happen, but they shouldn’t happen at the expense of the other players, and using primary rewards is what creates this problem. Instead, I recommend lateral rewards. Use something which doesn’t directly improve a character, but has a mechanical benefit good enough to work for. To this end, I created bennies for my D&D game. Cribbed from Spirit of the Century’s Fate Points and Savage Worlds’ Bennies, they do the following.

“A player¬†may be spend a benny to reroll a single roll of any kind, or to add a +4 to something already rolled. Only one Benny may be spent on a single roll. Alternately, a benny may be spent to exert minor control over the narrative, subject to negotiation.”

A reroll is nice in D&D, and the option of adding a +4 is statistically significant (it used to be +2, but it wasn’t enough to really tip the balance). The narrative control bit I took straight out of Spirit of the Century, because I want players to influence the story and the setting. For example, if a PC is hunting for a place to hide, they can spend a benny to make sure they have one, provided they’re not hiding from a heat-seeking missile or somesuch. They’re good enough that people work for them, but having a lot of them doesn’t break the game.

One of the benefits of this is that I can give out a lot of them. I don’t have to worry about messing up the leveling or treasure curves, even if I give out three or four a session. Another benefit is that they act to increase tension. Players have a finite number of bennies, and the question of “Should I spend a benny on this roll?” becomes really important. It doesn’t say they have to be the PC’s roll either, so they can be used offensively, but that same question lingers. I find that they’re mostly spent in genuinely life-threatening circumstances, which leads to the third benefit. One of the things they’re really good at is staving off a total party kill. When things get really dire, that’s when the bennies come out. Nobody wants a wipe, least of all the GM (though I’d never admit it during a session. The evil grin is my poker face).

The best way I’ve found to implement something like this is to try and keep them in the forefront of your players’ minds. Expect to have to remind them for a while, and try to be clear about the kinds of things you’re looking for to earn them. Anyway, that’s how we do things at my table. What kinds of rewards do you use for roleplaying and the like?

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