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 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!