Carrot Design, Part 2: D&D 4e’s Classic Rewards

In part 1, of this  series, I tackled what I thought were the main challenges of writing articles for D&D 4e in gaming magazines.  I surmised that there were opportunities to write successful articles by targeting areas of the game that you found lacking in things you’d like to see in your own games, i.e. design for your own needs.

Over the last months, while discussing with various game writers and designers, I concluded that the best way to achieve my goal of writing great 4e material was to create mechanics associated with specific rewards that would encourage their use during play.

That’s why I decided to review D&D 4e’s current rewards, both those hard coded into the game’s mechanics as well as those less tangibly supported. I’ll attempt to describe each and explore variants and opportunities for each.

Lets start with D&D’s classics

Experience Points (XPs)

They’ve been around for 35+ years. They are the game’s milestone for character progress across editions. They’ve also, up until the last edition, been a resource that you either had to protect (level-drain) or spend (create magic items).

In 4e, experience points play only one role for players. They measure a character’s progress to reach the next level of experience.  As written (Dungeon Master Guide p120), XPs are given out for beating encounters such as defeating monsters, overcoming traps, solving encounter puzzles and succeeding at skill challenges .

You also get XPs for completing quests, which I’ll cover later.

It can be argued that 4e’s XPs are not rewards but rather a score-keeping tool to mark a party’s progress till it beats enough encounters to hit the next powering up milestone, arbitrarily defined as “every 10 or so”.  In fact, I think   XPs are now far more useful as an encounter design currency for DMs than a tangible reward for players.

XPs become direct rewards when given out for things beyond encounters.  For instance, a group could use a variant where noticeably good plays net the whole party additional XPs at the end of game sessions.

For example, at the end of a session, a DM could ask each player to nominate some of the evening’s  “Moments of Awesome”, like a critical attack that came at just the right time or a player having made a really hard choice in line with his beliefs but against his best interests. The DM would then award XPs to the whole party worth the equivalent of a Minor Quest (or more) for each such “Moments”.

So there’s some potential there.


Quests are one such form of XP rewards given for completing specific, often story-related objectives in an adventure.  They can be important, plot-defining quests (major) or side-quests that must be sought out during the adventure (minor).

As I’ve seen them used in the game so far, quests are among my least favourite rewards.  While in essence they speed up play progression by cutting down by about 10-20% the number of encounters to overcome before levelling up, they don’t provide an actual alternative to the “beat up/out skill/figure out ” encounter paradigm of the game.

But they could be so much more…

For example, in a recent article, I suggested dungeon environments where competing NPC factions had differing agendas playing against PC goals and interests. Each faction’s agenda would get a corresponding  “prevent X from happening” quest worth the sum total of  XPs used in building the encounters related to the agenda (plus maybe a 20% or so story bonus).

As PCs beat encounters, they’d collect XPs, taken out from the Quest’s pool. However, should the party succeed in thwarting an agenda in whatever way, they would receive all remaining XPs from the associated quest in one shot.

Thus, killing monsters and overcoming skill challenges, still a core element of the gaming experience could also be supplemented by lateral or large scale thinking/planning.

At the very least, I think Quests could easily be worth up to five times more XPs without breaking anything.  They have such untapped design space around them, it’s worth exploring.

Levels and Powers

I believe that this, along with treasures, is where the most significant rewards of D&D lies. In an old blog post I can’t find anymore, Monte Cook mentioned that one of the attraction of D&D over it’s contemporaries (mostly point buy systems and Dice pool games at the time) was that players looked forward to those distinct packages of powers and abilities represented by a new level.

Levelling up is a reward because the player gets a choice, and that makes it something to look forward to when making your PC more powerful.  In editions previous to D&D 3.5, that choice was limited to “Do I take another level or do I multi-class”.  D&D 3.5 introduced level swapping in its later splatbooks, allowing to exchange class features upon reaching a new level.  4e pushed it further, replacing all pre-set class abilities with pick-n-choose powers.

Since current powers, in both D&D 4e and its Essentials sub-brand, heavily favour combat. the available choice feeds into the XP loop which then feeds into catering for Power Gamers and Butt Kickers which leads to getting new powers and so on…  Therefore someone aiming at encouraging/balancing gameplay toward other motivators like Storytelling, Exploration or Acting should think about creating new powers.  à

However, given the aforementioned feedback loop, that should not be done in a vacuum.  The designer/DM should consider handing out discrete chunks of XPs to reward whatever tasks the new powers were designed to accomplish.

Action Points

Action Points reward players who push past D&D 4e’s “5 minute work day” reflex. They are however granted only once every two encounters (as defined by a challenge that nets XPs) and no PC can spend more than once per fight. This is likely to avoid players hoarding them and unleashing them all on the last boss.  They are great rewards for players that get their kicks out of well executed, efficient plans.

However, I believe that Action Points also have a largely untapped potential as rewards for players who favour things other than efficiently dealing with encounters.  Provided you don’t change the “use only once a fight” mechanic, you could award more Action Points to reward other cool Player/PC actions in the game: Great in-character retorts, playing to a PC’s weakness, achieving non-quest character-established plot goals are just a few ideas.

Of course, If you start using Action Points like that, you need to provide new opportunities to spend those points. Think about interesting, bonuses, temporary boons, ways to change the outcome of a roll or even add new elements to the the setting. Seek things that would encourage character to do the exact things that scored them Action Points in the first place, that’s how positive feedback loops are maintained.

This barely scratches the surface of great design opportunities just there.


The quintessential D&D reward represents half of the “Kill & Loot” ethos that some associate with the game.  Treasure has always been roughly categorized as monetary,in various levels of portability or magic, from quasi-mundane potions to world shattering artifacts.

The role of monetary treasure has shifted over the years, starting as what determined the amount of XPs a character would win, progressing to paying for living expenses and training fees to level up. In 4e, it ended up being split between magical gear and money you could use to manufacture and purchase Magical Items you wanted but didn’t find during adventuring.

Creating new magic treasures is a relatively easy undertaking, there’s so many published examples to use as guides and models but I’m not a huge fan of them.

The Dungeon Master Guide 2 offers interesting alternative treasures called boons,  things like divine favours, grandmaster training and legendary secrets.  They all grant new powers except presented in the context of potentially strong story elements like cults, Grand religions, hermit NPCs and long lost secrets.

Given the very limited number of examples shown in the book and lack of new ones elsewhere, boons are also a very rich area one should explore to expand gameplay.  By strongly tying those boons to elements of the setting and the story, you will directly address what storytelling and exploration-seeking  players are looking for.

To that extent, artifacts are very similar types of treasure, transcending their roles as mere magic items to become as much a part of the stories they shape, an extension of the wills of the PC holding them and interactive plot elements with its own agendas.  They too make excellent rewards for a would be designer/homebrewing DM (and would warrent their own post).

Select your brush and start painting

I’m halfway through my planned list, having only covered what I defined as D&D’s classic, tangible gameplay rewards. I’ve already identified many areas where design space is wide open for DIY Dungeon Masters and Writers.  Time to crack knuckles and get to it!

In the next post.  I plan to cover the tangible rewards, those not  directly supported by 4e’s rules.

Thanks for reading.

P.S. I turn 38 tomorrow (Jan 12th), yay!


  1. I actually find that artifacts don’t really work so well as a particular reward, but leveling them up certainly does. I will occasionally give a low level player an artifact that has most of its potential still locked, but as that player levels up, the artifact’s potential opens. Items that level with the players adds yet another great reward and incentive for players, especially when they don’t know what kind of bonus that item will get when it gains a level.

  2. I’m currently running a side campaign, same group but we play this one less, that’s got a gritty, tough to survive, almost Dark Sun feel. The PCs all work for an organization that does good through illegal and potentionally evil means.

    There’s no xp. None. Players level in two ways:

    1. If the party successfully completes its current primary mission, or a certain number of secondary missions if available.
    2. If less than half the party survives the mission.

    The idea here is that this is a world with a high death rate, and being a professional “patriot” doesn’t really help your chances.

    Completing your mission, or surviving when others are both worth the same in the eyes of the hiring organization. Players are really just trying to increase their reputation and credibility with this group, and thats how they level and gain access to better equipment.

    This had developed in some interesting ways. First, the players are often looking for creative ways not to fight, or at least not to fight when they’re not sure they have the upper hand. Second, the players are not afraid to explore their characters own motives and work against the group within the confines of the goal, after all, if some characters die, it might actually be better. The key being that they only die when its convenient. Third and finally, players are looking at leveling and treasure less as the desired rewards, and focusing more on quests and pc goals.

    Yes, there is PC combat and party deception. As a way t keep things in good fun, I’ve made no move to discourage it. When a players character dies he creates his new character at the same level as everyone else. So if someone gets a new level from killing another character, the player who died also gets the level.

    Its been interesting.

  3. I’ve just started a campaign, with old USMC pals who visited for Thanksgiving.  It was our first time being together (and playing D&D in person) since we were off shore in a US Navy ship coming home from Afghanistan in 2002.  We’ve returned to playing online, using Fantasy Grounds and Teamspeak.  

    I love our stories, but those old tales from ten years ago get a little hazy as the horizons fade behind us.  To encourage recording our adventures, I’ve offered a 25% bonus of the XP needed to make their next level, for writing a recap of what happened, from their character’s point of view, over the course of the previous level.  I had a long standing rule of 10%, but it was rarely used.  So the stories were essentially lost to the ravages of that demon named Time torturing our collective memories.  

    My justification to raise the bonus, is if ten encounters make a level, but only three of them may be recalled from my frantic shorthand DM notes, then seven are lost to history unwritten.  If you multiply that by the number of players who’ve drifted away, with characters who also participated in those encounters and had impact and perspective, then the loss is immense.  I’ll forgo three encounters per level, to retain the other seven.  

    Since the increase, each player has used the rule at each level.  I only wish I had increased the reward sooner, to encourage my players -of years gone by- in the seemingly most difficult task for players to undertake: to write their characters story.

    I look forward to reading level recaps of this campaign.  Maybe when I’m finally commencing to write the novels, or when I teach the next generation of collaborative storytellers, ten years from now.


  4. PS happy birthday!

  5. @ Shinobicow:

    I wholeheartedly agree with you. I think that aproach can fix a part of the game quite nicely (if, indeed, it happens to be broken – different strokes and all). I think it can be cool if, for one’s character concept, you want a Vorpal Blade for instance. Starting out with a +1 Vorpal Blade, and then unlocking it’s power as you grow in power, is totally fine by me.

    My group(s) have experimented with this, and i think it works.

  6. First off… Happy birthday, Phil!

    Fantastic article — very well thought out. I really like the boons idea. I don’t have the DMG 2, so didn’t know that was around. That’d be an awesome thing to pull forward at a good story moment, or something to drive play towards: “To defeat the dragon, Heskaldrin the Black, you’ll need grandmaster training to close with it, and the legendary secret of its weakness!”

    Pulling XP from the quest pool is also a great idea. I wasn’t a fan of finishing something up and just receiving a lump-sum. It was like being an existential mercenary: the players did the good or right thing (save X or defeat the evil Y), but they still got paid for doing it, and might even have been primarily motivated by knowing about the end reward.

    In terms of Action Points, would I be wrong to think you’re leaning a bit towards SW’s Bennies? (And that’s a good thing. I like the way you’re headed there by keeping it D&D but allowing a bit more leeway with spending and earning outside of brute force situations.)

    Again, great article!

  7. Good food for thought, Phil. I’m in the process of home brewing a system to replace 4e powers, and a modular magic system to complement that. Your article reminded me I’ll need to articulate clearly the reward for leveling when I don’t have 4e’s shiny powers to lure my players.

  8. Etherrider says:

    Don’t forget that in the “classic” days other uses were laid upon those “rewards” many times making them even more precious.

    XP: Some effects required a sacrifice of XP as a cost.

    Quests: Some were required to pay for actions outside of alignment (Paladins got the most mileage out of this one I think).

    Levels: Wow talk about how dangerous it was to face level-draining creatures…now those folks were brave!!!!!!

    Treasure: In the classic days we often had to “verify” that an object was worth using right after picking it up….talk about chances of cursed items? Also we had some dud items and all this made you really cherish that REALLY cool item instead.

  9. Jonathan Zero says:

    Happy Birthday! I always enjoy reading your take on roleplaying games.

  10. Nifty. I think D&D is one of those games that needs to be busted wide open, in terms of rewards.

  11. In the one or two 4E campaigns I’ve run, I’ve found it much better to adjust XP on the fly to affect the pacing of the character’s leveling. The 10 encounters always seemed to be too long for the group I played in. Granted, the group was unable to meet frequently, and a 3-hour session was about all we could crank out given our schedules.

    I like the idea of boons, but I’ve not been able to implement them myself. The DMG2 came out shortly before my campaign went stillborn. Maybe one day I’ll get around to DMing another campaign. If I do, boons will definitely make an appearance. I’ll have to think over some of the other things you mentioned as well.

    As always, I enjoyed this post and look forward to the next.

  12. I use Bennies. I love the flexibility of them and how, as you say, the positive feedback loop works for them. The group RPs, they get bennies, they use them to RP, they get bennies…

    Here are the rules I use for my campaign and it works real well for us.

    A system to reward players in-game for things they do to help make the campaign better overall.

    Benny (Benefit Point):
    You gain Bennies by doing anything I deem earns you a Benny, either RP-related or Story-related.
    You start each session with 1 Bennies.

    Bennies can be used to gain a d6 to any dice roll. It’s that extra “OOMPH” added to an attack, damage or skill check.
    Or you may use 1 Benny to achieve something “Awesome” not covered or not allowed by the rules.
    -Austilin uses a Benny to change his Oath, finding a better reason to hate a different target.
    -Mirari could use a Benny to split Inspiring Word between 2 targets.
    -Garwin might resummon Snowball after she was destroyed disarming a trap
    -Tor could use 2 mage hands at the same time.
    -Breezy wants to slip behind a Dragon who has moved into the corner of a room. Technically there is no room, but by spending a Benny, she can slip and duck behind it, standing in a space which, by the rules, is occupied by the dragon.

    *Bennies were originally conceived by Wolfhound for his Horn of the North campaign.

  13. Now that I,ve recovered from my B’day and 1st day of work, I can tackle more of your comments!

    @Rafe: Boons don’t quite work like that as they are, some would say “sadly”, templated as Magic Item Powers. But nothing’s to prevent an enterprising DM from adding a “key to a locked plot door” to the boon… so that sneaking up on the dragon is an automatic success if the group’s rogue has obtained the secret Stealth techniques of the Eternal Eladrin Triads.

    As for borrowing from other game systems… I guess it’s no secret I’m cross-pollinating from the good stuff I read all over the place.

    @Anarkeith: Exactly. Never lose sight of the reasons why you’re doing such a huge hack of 4e and make sure that whatever play experience you want your homebrew to encourage must be supported and rewarded.

    @Etherrider: Yup… all part of the game’s heritage, swapped out through editions. I’m thankful that level drains are gone… and I’m never grokked cursed items much. But they had their place in old School play… they still do if you like OS play.

    @Jonathan: Thanks mate, much appreciated.

    @Jeremy: Adjudicating XPs should be the 1st things new 4e DMs consider busting wide open. As you say, they control pacing and that’s important. Here’s to hopping you start another game in the near future.

    @PinkRose: Awesome Bennie variant just there. Love it!

  14. Magic Item Powers, eh? Whoops! Though I got it wrong, my misreading might actually still be in the spirit of this very article, so long as I understand your overall theme and goal to be to fill in some of the D&D rules/rewards gaps with system-appropriate mechanics/rules variants. Cross-pollinating is a great idea — and damn there’s a lot of drift-able material out there — so long as the around-the-table feel of D&D doesn’t disappear. Hey, just ’cause it ain’t my cup o’ tea doesn’t mean I don’t respect the integrity of the institution. 🙂

    I’m liking this series, Phil. Great insights!

  15. @PinkRose : Nice benny transposition here! Love it 🙂

  16. @PinkRose and @Maze: Last weekend, in my Dungeon Reality Show game, I actually used something very similar to the Bennies system as implemented by Pink Rose and it worked SUPERBLY.

    Great idea, looking forward to explore further.

  17. I find myself agreeing more and more with the proposition that XP is counter-productive to the design of a roleplaying game, especially when it is predominantly tied to combat mechanics.

    D&D needs an encounter-building resource, but the connection between that resource and levelling doesn’t need to exist.


  1. RT @ChattyDM: Part 2 of my Carrot Design series: Exploring the Classic D&D 4e rewards and seeking interesting variants.

  2. Carrot Design, Part 2: D&D 4e’s Classic Rewards from Critical Hits » RPG #RPG