The idea from this blog came from a Podcast (the Power Source, specifically Ryven Cedrylle's ending segments) and a forum topic. Yes, I'm terribly unoriginal. But I'm one blog post away from the big 1-5-0 so I think I've earned some slacking on topic creation
Today's blog is about rewarding excellence, specifically role-playing. When someone goes above and beyond through role-playing and makes the game more enjoyable for the group, or does something very much in character even if it negatively impacts them.
Its Own Reward
First, let's start-off with the initial counterargument. If everyone is having more fun, is a reward needed? No, probably not. But, if everyone is having fun because someone is spouting a dead-on recital of a Monthy Python skit it's not technically enriching the game. But, if someone is really selling their character and draws the table into the game & story, that's an entirely different type of fun. Now, the most obvious reward is something equally intangible, such as a story reward or just a deeper involvement in the campaign's story. Or the DM might "reward" the player with more background information, perhaps telling them something they wouldn't otherwise know or that would require a high Knowledge check.
And yet, the game is a Game, so an intangible reward is less satisfying than a mechanical one. In combat, great ideas or good tactics lead to an easier fight and more saved resources. There is a noticeable reward to the action, and there is an obvious causal relationship. This is less obvious in a story sense. You cannot hold-back information or plot points on the assumption of above-average role-playing; a DM must always keep the plot moving and ensure there are multiple adequate avenues to learn required information. So a PC's reward for service above and beyond is... trivia. And learning extra information is not always as noticeable or exciting as a decisive victory in combat. Given an in-world story reward is subtler, the cause and effect is less noticeable. Unless you feel rewarded there's just not as much incentive to repeat.
The old way to reward above and beyond role-playing was through experience. This worked prior to 4e when different level characters could work easily together. In 1e and 2e each class needed different totals to level-up, so it was commonplace for PCs to be different levels. It was even recommended that new PCs start at 1st level, or several levels lower than other PCs. In 3e, classes shared an experience chart and levelled at the same totals, but there were ways you could gain more experience than other party members. Experience also fluctuated, being used in the creation of magic items and the like.
Experience was an easy role-playing reward. It increased a character's advancement but was usually insignificant by itself. Role-playing bonuses could never replace combat or other aspects of the game.
At this point I go to the token Order of the Stick strip on the subject.
As the above suggests, role-playing rewards were prone to abuse and were essentially bribery to keep players in-character.
4e has removed this. DMs are encouraged to award experience regardless of participation and the game is balanced for parties of equivalently powered characters. Because balance is so important, being the driving force of the entire system, a noticeable level difference greatly imbalances the game. It is just stands out in 4e.There's also no fluctuation in experience in 4e, it only ever goes up AND monsters award a constant amount of experience. So it's impossible to catch-up or sneak ahead unless the experience reward is sizable. It is just not a significant enough bonus to really work as a reward any more.
So what replaces it?
The DM's best friend is a +2 bonus or -2 penalty, assigned for any a wide variety of situational modifiers. Whenever something should be easier or harder this bonus can be applied.
It makes sense then for a mechanical role-playing bonus to use this already loose mechanic. Whenever a player does something above and beyond they receive a floating +2 bonus they can apply to any d20 check. For balance, this usually has to be cashed before the roll. If you really want to make the reward important and exciting, this bonus could be expended after the d20 roll.
This mechanical incentive has popped-up in a few places, but I've mostly heard it referred to as "bonus tokens" although the source rules are slightly different, favouring creative ideas in Skill Challenges instead of role-playing rewards.
Bonus Tokens work well as a physical manipulable, such as a poker chip or glass bead. I'm fond of these, often using glass beads as an Action Point mnemonic in my 3.5e games.
The benefit to floating bonuses as a reward is that they can be used in skills as well as combats, so the character is just that little bit better at something due to positive karma. Other rewards tend to be too limited to combat.
Another go-to reward for role-playing. Action points are dramatic and game changing, but not game breaking. They're simple and easy to remember, as everyone knows what an action point is and what it does.
The disadvantage of action points is that they're entirely limited to combat, eliminating the option of using the reward outside of combat. There's no point of using an Action Point in a Skill Challenge, or even generic skill use.
A DM has to be a little more stingy with Action Points than bonus points or other rewards. They can make hard combats trivial, especially if the player is a human or there's a warlord in a party. There is the built-in game balance that you can only spend one Action Point per encounter, which prevents role-playing being used as a way to build-up power for a boss fight (unlike bonus tokens, that can be horded for a rainy day).
The 180 from Action Points are Plot Points, pulled from another RPG's subsystem of the same name or cribbed from Unisystem's Drama Point subsystem. Basically, they're a mechanic to influence the story and surroundings.
PCs gain Plot Points when they have a good idea or do some excellent role-playing. In turn, Plot Points can be used to add things to the story and exert some narrative control.
For example, the PCs have to sneak into a castle or manor. A player might spend a Plot Point and say their niece works in that castle as a maid. If the PCs are engaged in a rough fight in a hall, a player might Plot Point the existence of a large wrought iron chandelier (cue terrain power).
The benefit of Plot Points is that they keep the story's narrative logical to the players, because they're involved in its shaping. Plot Points are a tool for narration without railroading or providing an alternative for dead-ends or plot holes.
A final solution for role-playing rewards is co-opting a system from the RPGA. Reward cards were mailed-out to players for participation in many RPGA games (until this fun program was axed by budget cuts). Now they're typically only found in Cons or at exorbitant prices on eBay. Most players are expected to print-out their own reward cards, and they can be downloaded here .
In a non-RPGA game, these cards make a lovely reward for play. If your players are familiar with the RPGA or play some LFR between homegames they should be familiar with the cards and their use. The cards are also fairly self-explanatory making them an easy addition to the game.
Most tend to have a combat emphasis sadly, but the secondary usage can be a little more open. If used as a role-playing reward, the DM could pick appropriate cards. Another option for DMs with more time and some Photoshop skillz is to make their own in the same style, but this should probably be done after testing the idea of reward cards on your players.
It'd be great if the cards, being printed instead of shipped, were a little less graphic intensive. Printing a few can devastate your ink cartridges.