Sunday, July 1, 2018

Four W’s (and an H) on Gaming Rewards

I was thinking yesterday about the many ways to reward players in an old-school dungeon delving game, and a few things came to mind. These boiled down to the basic five questions of any investigation: What, Why, When, Who, and How. We won’t tackle them in that order, but they provide a surprisingly good framework for this discussion.


The main motivating factor in most such games is making your PCs more powerful, so basically anything that enables this can be a suitable reward. The obvious ones are cash, gear, and XP – or character points in the case of GURPS. But those aren’t the only options, especially in GURPS.

Consider this: If more merchants and vendors move to Town, PCs will have greater access to equipment they can buy. If a new master moves to Town, they can train up different skills – possibly at a lower or different price than before. If a new temple opens, additional healing or casting options may become available. What does all of this have to do with rewards? In this case, development of Town improves the PCs’ capabilities by offering more options for solving problems. This is just one example of a non-treasure reward.

Another option would be to hand out “Destiny Points” as rewards. In GURPS, these would function as character points that can only be used to fuel options in GURPS Power-Ups 5 – Impulse Buys. These let PCs direct luck in different ways by spending their DPs. What’s nice about this option is that it gives players the ability to be Awesome in ways and times of their own choosing – basically, you reward them with discreet Moments of Awesomeness, and who doesn’t love those?

Still another option are the dreaded social rewards. Considering how much I downplay anything social in old-school dungeon-crawling games I run, this might seem kind of strange. But consider this: The players take a risk to save an NPC. The NPC might have particular loyalty to the party afterward (mechanically, this could be anything from a better appearance roll when looking for hirelings to handing out traits like Ally, Contact, or Patron). The NPC could also spread a positive reputation about you around Town, making between-delve tasks like finding, buying, or researching stuff easier.

And none of this speaks to probably the biggest reward – and sometimes the main motivating factor in dungeon delving – knowledge about the dungeon itself. Along the way, you explore the dungeon, map it, learn about its history, etc. This doesn’t sound very powerful, right? Wrong! If you know the lay of the land, that gives you an advantage in Tactics and Strategy. If you learn the dungeon’s history, you can make predictions about who or what is where, so you can better prepare. If you map out the dungeon, you can identify likely locations for secret rooms. All of these facilitate (a) not-dying and (b) finding even more rewards. So this should be an ever-present reward for adventuring – really, in any game.

I mean . . .


So we know what players want and a variety of ways to give it to them. Why should we? The obvious answer is because it is fun! Who didn’t love seeing Neo learn Kung Fu between mini-adventures? Who doesn’t love seeing players do outlandishly awesome things at the gaming table? So there is always that, but it isn’t the only reason.

Ultimately, we give rewards to motivate behavior. Kill an ancient white dragon, and I get 24,000 XP? I guess you want me to kill an ancient white dragon. Give that dragon a ton of treasure, too? You really want me to kill that dragon. Offer fame and fortune and everything that goes with it? I thank you all; I’m going kill that dragon or die trying!

This refines the question from “Why give rewards?” to “What behaviors do I want to motivate at my table?” Nothing says you have to give rewards for killing enemies. In fact, I’d suggest that cloak-and-dagger type spy games often disincentivize the kind of murder-hobo behavior common in dungeon delving games. So what do I want at my table?

The homogenous solution is “for all of us to have fun”. I’m pretty sure that, unless you or your gamers are sadistic assholes, everybody is there to have a good time together. This is a no-brainer, so I won’t belabor it, except to say that this ultimately underlies what you will choose to reward.

The particular solution for myself is as follows: I like a light-hearted romp through a dungeon filled with violence, looting, tricks, traps, exploration, and Moments of Awesomeness. Conversely, I dislike extensive in-depth dramatic roleplaying (I hate soap operas for this reason, too), glory-hogs, spotlight divas, intraparty conflict, and minimized action. What does this look like in play? PCs get down to killing and looting as quickly as the rules allow, kill and loot in over-the-top ways that have people around the table cheering, generally follow Wheaton’s Law, don’t take the game too seriously, and don’t soliloquize or otherwise make the game all about their PC.


Why did I just make you read those 343 words? Because that provides the framework for how to distribute rewards. That list of “Things I like in my game” are the things I will give rewards for doing, and the list of “Things I don’t want in my game” will, at best, never be rewarded; I’m not getting into disincentives in this post. Maybe some other time.

So for my dungeon-crawling games – and this is specifically for them: not my space opera horror games; not my modern espionage thriller games; and not for any of your games – I will be rewarding killing things, looting treasure, avoiding traps, solving puzzles, exploring the dungeon, and generally being awesome. I will not be rewarding dramatic roleplaying, individual effort over group effort (Die Glory Hounds!), wasting time not-adventuring, and backstabbing behavior. Let’s do the carrot list first.

Killing things already carries the reward of getting whatever treasure the things had on them, plus anything they were guarding. Oh, and those things didn’t murder your paper man. Between the joy of not making a new PC and getting all of the paper monster’s stuff, it feels like this is enough reward. I’m not against giving out some “XP”, but since GURPS discretizes to character points, and those provide a bit more oomph than XP in other games, I’m kind of leaning against this option. I could see possibly giving out Destiny Points for enough – or sufficiently awesome – kills, though.

Looting carries some of its own rewards, but I’m going to be careful here. Yes, looting results in the reward of now getting the loot, but that loot is more than just treasure in a dungeon delving game. It is an underlying motivation for crawling down a dark hole full of hunger grues when you could just be a safe and happy farmer like everyone else. So motivating the looting aspect will drive the entire game. Can’t dawdle in Town because we need to find mad lootz! That +1 sword of Get Off Your Ass isn’t going to be enough to encourage this, always. For that reason, I think tying XP to finding loot is a reasonable thing to do. In GURPS terms, this means that the number of character points you get is based on how much loot you find. I’m not sure if I will specifically base it on a profits or on dollar amount, though.

Do you like those games where the best way to get more powerful is to run into the same three rooms for hours on end, killing everything that respawns there until your eyes start to bleed? I don’t. I like games that encourage a variety of challenges and keep things interesting, even if you still are basically just grinding. I think the key to keeping grinding fun is encouraging exploration. This adds variety to your sessions because the players have to deal with new and different challenges. So I’m going to give out character points for exploring new areas.

I also give out rewards for solving puzzles, and in some cases, maybe even a character point, but not more than one, in all likelihood. Usually, the treasure, information, or new area accessed by solving the puzzle is reward enough in itself.


Do you want to personalize the rewards you dole out or give them to the party as a whole? Maybe a mixed approach is best? Let’s explore these questions, since they will also shape how we reward players.

First, let’s consider personalized rewards. This will drive each person to maximize their own rewards, possibly at the expense of other players. Consider what happens if we give XP to individuals based on their kills: each person is now incentivized to land the fatal blow, even if that means letting a weaker PC get overrun by foes or only attacking when a monster is severely injured. What about looting? Who would share their loot if loot-based rewards were based on how much each PC took back. This not only encourages inter-party conflict, it encourages people to be the kinds of dicks who lie about finding stuff and steal each other’s treasure. Wheaton’s Law. Follow it.

Next, let’s consider only rewarding the party as a whole and how that might go wrong. Consider a party with four completely incompetent players and one guy who is really good. How long will the good player want to carry the laggards while still receiving the same exact rewards? Is this a fair distribution? Maybe the party consists of three people who work together and consequently are the ones who do what’s needed to get the party rewards while the other three players in the group lag behind, don’t help, or try to one-man-army the game. Again, everyone gets the same rewards, but not everyone is really deserving of them.

What we see here is kind of like a parallel to capitalist economic philosophy versus a command economic philosophy. And as history has borne out, neither, in their pure forms, function over the long term. You need some Yin in your Yang, and vice versa, or it’s all going to go to crap. So let’s apply this to rewarding players.

Some rewards are individualized and some are party-wide. These can be split based on whether the actions themselves are individual feats or group achievements. For example, exploration is largely a group effort, so any rewards from that should probably go to the party as a whole. Coming up with an Awesome plan or executing an incredibly entertaining move is definitely an individual achievement. Others are a bit grayer, like finding loot. It is often a group effort, but the inherent reward goes to whomever gets to use or sell it. My experience has shown that it’s usually best to leave those edge cases to the players to sort out amongst themselves. If they are mature and follow Wheaton’s Law, it usually works out in the end. Thus, I’ll probably keep loot-XP individual.

I said I wouldn’t discuss disincentives here, but I think it’s worth mentioning a big one: Do you give rewards to players who miss games in part or in whole? I’ve never felt good about bootstrapping people along because they missed games, and thus XP. My inclination is to deny all individual rewards and prorate group rewards based on the amount of a session is attended.


This might seem like a bit of an odd question, but it has a couple of facets that tie back into our “Why”. Some games, like +Peter V. Dell'Orto’s Felltower, make it a point to start and end in town. This is a behavior that requires an incentive, especially considering how difficult that can be to enforce. A simple solution to this, however, is to only award rewards on a per-delve basis. Thus, if your delve runs to a second session, you only get rewards based on one delve and not two sessions. If you run a game where multi-session delves are ok, you might want to give out rewards on a per-session basis. But that’s not the only “When” tied up in rewards!

Some games let PCs “level up” or spend character points anywhere, and others limit this to being in Town. Some rewards, like items and cash, can only be traded or sold through merchants or vendors, usually, so this largely limits those to happening in town. But what about actual XP? Is it ok to level up in the middle of the dungeon? Is it okay to spend 20 character points on Weapon Master ten miles north and 200 feet below Town?

This is another topic that is individual to the group, so I’ll only attempt to answer it for myself. I find it least jarring if all advancement happens in Town. This provides a reason to go back to Town regularly, too. And since I prefer a game that always starts and ends in Town, such a restriction gives yet another incentive to adhere to that policy.

The Takeaway

Rewards come in many different forms, but they all serve as incentives for behavior. It’s up to the GM to decide what he wants to encourage and device a reward system that pushes players toward that behavior.


  1. I'm glad I found this article. It has given me plenty of ideas.

    I'm also glad to see that you're still active with GURPS, and I hope things are well with you.

    1. Heya Mark, glad you enjoyed the article! It's good to see you're still GURPSing, too. Hit me up sometime by email or on the GURPS Discord! Its been a while.