The Lion’s Paw: Rewarding Generosity

I’ve spent years running White Wolf games wherein the guy behind the DM’s screen is called the “Storyteller.” In D&D, that guy is more accurately termed the “referee.” As the DM, I’m not telling a story; I’m just facilitating the players’ efforts. But this still has many of the trappings of a “Storyteller.” The DM builds and populates the world, laying out challenges and rewards, and constructs the web of relationships and events within which the players act. It’s up to the players to determine how to interact with the DM’s world, but the way the DM designs and presents that world influences their choices… as do the rules.

The reward system of D&D encourages players to systematically destroy all potential enemies and take their stuff. This has led many a grade-school party to treat villages, towns and Little Keeps on the Borderlands as above-ground dungeons, slaughtering well-intentioned guardsmen and innocent civilians for their money, equipment and sweet XP. In more adult play, allies are often treated in the most Chaotic (and/or Evil) possible manner; their aid is accepted until they are of no more use or they fail to truckle sufficiently, at which point they’re stabbed in the back and their stuff taken.

Naturally this approach is anathema to the Tolkienesque high fantasy attitude of 2e and later editions, where the PCs are assumed to be shining heroes of virtue. But it’s interesting to note that it doesn’t even match up with the tropes of pulp swords and sorcery! With the exception of a few particularly amoral rogues like Jack Vance’s Cugel the Clever, all of the classic S&S heroes had some sort of moral code; they were ill-inclined to harm the innocent or betray those who’d done them a good turn. Certainly Conan, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser made a habit of robbery, but only from those whose manses were sufficiently rich to make it worthwhile. Others, like Elric and Kane, indulged in banditry and reaving, but their military efforts were likewise subordinated to achieving some higher goal.

(As to the aforementioned Cugel the Clever, his picaresque tale is a morality play in which his immoral behavior always leads to his downfall. His schemes fail not through lack of talent, but rather from an excess of venality, laziness, arrogance, cowardice or treachery, and he comes away with nothing — surely not a role model for the D&D player character!)

As a sandbox DM, I see the players as the “Storytellers.” I have no idea what they’ll do, and I want them to entertain me! As such, I have an interest in what sort of story they’re going to tell. Just as they’re not obligated to play in a setting they don’t like, I’m not obligated to run them through a story that I don’t enjoy, such as the victorious adventures of a band of amoral rogues with no redeeming characteristics whatsoever who are rewarded for their total lack of moral fiber.

This is an instance where talking things out with the players is necessary but insufficient. It’s not fair to the players to block off an avenue of play that’s explicitly rewarded by the rules! No one likes mixed messages like that. So the DM should also be ready to tweak the game’s reward system to facilitate the desired style of play.

As a house rule, if the party successfully forges an alliance with a noteworthy person or creature, the DM may treat that character as “defeated” and give out their full XP value to the party. This would dovetail with the rule that you can’t get XP for a target more than once, so betraying an ally nets no additional XP. As for innocent civilians, if they pose no threat, don’t give any XP for killing them.

This isn’t quite the same as the “story award” that arrives in later editions, as you don’t need to subjectively rate the value of any situation and the players are fully aware of the XP reward system in advance. On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with story awards if you like that sort of thing! There’s not that much difference between “you get 1000 XP for rescuing the kidnapped merchant” and “the kidnapped merchant’s family gives you a 1000 GP reward for rescuing him,” especially if you use a “carousing” rule of giving out XP for spending gold rather than earning it.

Other options are available for specific modes of play. To encourage pacifistic thievery, you might give out XP for treasure only, so that killing people yields no XP—or even an XP penalty! On the flip side, you can encourage treachery in an “evil” campaign by awarding bonus XP for betraying those who trust you. Experience points are a flexible tool. Use them however you see fit!

12 Responses to “The Lion’s Paw: Rewarding Generosity”

  1. March 17, 2010 at 4:28 pm

    Very nice post. I think much of this issue is wrapped up in D&D’s focus on level advancement as a goal – or at least some player’s PERCEPTIONS that leveling is the main goal. I’ve played D&D with some really different types of people – ranging from cynical gamesters who want to squeeze every XP out of a session, to players who couldn’t care less about XP and want to roleplay. For this latter group, these kinds of discussions might not be totally relevant. For the former group… well… what you can you do?

    I like both kinds of play, personally, and D&D is a nice a compromise between the two. For extreme tactical slaughter and GP harvesting I play Descent. For nihilistic roleplaying I like World of Darkness and Call of Cthulhu. Classic D&D can handle it all, though, which is why I play it the most.

  2. March 17, 2010 at 7:54 pm

    Very nice post. I think much of this issue is wrapped up in D&D’s focus on level advancement as a goal – or at least some player’s PERCEPTIONS that leveling is the main goal. I’ve played D&D with some really different types of people – ranging from cynical gamesters who want to squeeze every XP out of a session, to players who couldn’t care less about XP and want to roleplay. For this latter group, these kinds of discussions might not be totally relevant. For the former group… well… what you can you do?

    Based on my own experiences, I believe that a game’s reward mechanisms really have an impact on how people perceive and play the game. I’ve played games with no advancement mechanism at all, and I’ve played games like D&D which are built heavily around advancement, and my own playstyle shifts dramatically as a result. For example, I find it far more difficult to put a higher-level character’s life on the line in D&D knowing that my next character will start out at first level and thus will give me less leverage to contribute to the play of the game. Similarly, turning down opportunities to acquire XP, gold or magic is painful even if it’s appropriate to the character. Call it a competitive streak in my nature; this is, after all, a game as well as a role-playing environment…

  3. March 17, 2010 at 8:27 pm

    I think there are a number of storyteller tools that even an old-school sandbox D&D DM has that you could use before going to designing game mechanics to enforce a style of play. For example, if you don’t want players to try to connive henchmen out of their share of the treasure, have them negotiate terms where they’re paid up front instead of taking shares and their families get paid weregild if they’re killed. That makes sense for those characters in the story and will change our behavior without pulling us into meta-game thinking. (Yes, XP are intrinsically a meta-game mechanic, but the great virtue of using them as written is that most of us have so completely internalized them that they don’t require thinking about).

    I think we’re not motivated by reward mechanisms per se so much as we just want to be able to do stuff. As it happens, XP are tightly aligned with the ability to do stuff; if we level up we’ll have spells that give us a more potent ability to affect the world around us, and if we have cash we can spend it to make things happen. But there are lots of things you could give us to do as a storyteller. Recently we met some goblins with no redeeming characteristics whatsoever who were in search of easy cash and wanted us to renumerate them for their total lack of moral fiber. Not surprisingly, the way we interacted with them was venal. They started talking about shares within the first few minutes of the conversation, so the things we could do with them involved trying to get the maximum value out of the share we’d be paying them.

    Here are some other things a goblin encounter could give us to do:
    – they could be carrying messages to the orcs in the Chateau, so that we could learn their plans and the factions in the region and figure out ways to interact with them, like planting false messages to sow dissention
    – they could be prosecuting a personal vendetta against the orcs, so that we could ally with them (or at least help them to their deaths in a non-mercenary way)
    – they could be seeking entry to the Chateau for a non-treasure based reason, which might give us some ideas about why we’d go there other than to get rich and powerful

    I agree that it’s painful to go against the reward mechanisms; I just think that the existing ones in D&D are broad enough to let us follow other in-character motives at the same time that we kill things and take their stuff. I think that the storyteller role can create opportunities for us to rise above the merely venal, and that it’s difficult to do so with low-level characters in a setting where so many of the people we have a chance to interact with are themselves cowardly and greedy.

  4. March 18, 2010 at 4:48 am

    > His schemes fail not through lack of talent, but rather from an excess of venality, laziness, arrogance, cowardice or treachery, and he comes away with nothing — surely not a role model for the D&D player character!

    Really? That sounds awesome and is often how I try to play wizards. But, maybe you’re right about it being not for D&D cause too many players are gamist, goal, achievers and dislike when my role play doesn’t equate to their idea of optimal game play.

  5. March 18, 2010 at 2:36 pm

    @Tavis: Good idea with the changes to hireling payment. The change may be a bit jarring to my sense of continuity, but I figure that I (and, by extension, the rest of the group) will get over it easily.

    As to the surfeit of cowardly and greedy NPCs, there are a number of factors at work that bear examination:

    1) I’ve been making extensive use of the random NPC personality table, and it’s coughed up some combination of “Cautious,” “Dishonest,” “Rude” and “Suspicious” for a number of recently encountered NPCs. I’ve determined that while the table is useful for giving me spur-of-the-moment NPCs, I shouldn’t lean too heavily on it, especially for important NPCs.
    2) There have been a number of NPCs with honorable motives, but the PCs generally antagonize and/or avoid them.
    3) The game lies in an uncomfortable no-man’s-land between “fully realized setting” and “beer-n-pretzels dungeon crawl.” I’m trying to avoid worldbuilding for its own sake, so I only develop as much as I need to respond to what I perceive to be the needs and interests of the players. I haven’t gotten much of a sense that the players want or need “opportunities to rise above the merely venal.” I hope I’m wrong!

  6. March 18, 2010 at 2:51 pm

    @NormanHarman: There’s nothing wrong with gamist, goal-oriented play, especially in a game that’s designed to pursue a gamist, goal-oriented agenda. This is a game that grew out of miniatures wargaming, after all. And when a game has a goal, aiming to achieve that goal is the default; ignoring that goal, especially for a team-based game, is a violation of the social contract unless everyone mutually agrees on a new goal before play begins.

    (This is true even of games that aren’t team-based, of course. When one player in an otherwise-competitive game of Risk or Cosmic Encounter or whatever decides to muddle around in some way that doesn’t aim to win, this typically helps some opponents more than others, thus throwing the balance of the game off for everybody.)

    To pull an analogy out of the air, you can use a beautiful mountain trail for a leisurely jog or for a footrace; you may well get much more enjoyment out of the leisurely jog, but if you joined a team running a relay race, then your leisurely jog does indeed fail to meet your teammates’ needs—and they are right, unless everyone involved agreed beforehand not to take the race seriously.

  7. March 18, 2010 at 3:19 pm

    @Eric I know there’s nothing wrong with gamist, goal play. There’s also nothing wrong with roleplaying play. My point was too many people play to “win”, the gamist style, and not enough (that I know) play to have “fun”, the “roleplay” and my preffered RPG style.

  8. March 18, 2010 at 3:37 pm

    @Norman: I don’t think anyone is suggesting that there’s anything wrong with narrative-oriented play. I enjoy such games myself! The two agendas are not necessarily incompatible, although hybrid play does involve compromise (between players with different agendas and/or internally with regard to the individual player’s multiple agendas).

    If you’re having trouble finding people who share your preferred style of play, you have a number of options:

    1) See if there’s a subset of the players you know who are willing to try something new;
    2) Introduce some non-gamers you know to the sorts of games you like;
    3) Search for gamers interested in your style of play, using resources such as game store bulletin boards, online forums and local gaming conventions.

    “No gaming is better than bad gaming” is a valid maxim. (Though in this case, it’s more like “no gaming is better than gaming that doesn’t meet your needs.” Goal-oriented play is not objectively bad.)

  9. March 19, 2010 at 5:17 am

    As an aside, where is the rule that you only get XP once from a defeated foe? I ask because a few sessions ago some cowardly blackguards ventured into the dungeon without me and somehow managed to drive a Giant Spider away from its lair without killing it. Now the dungeon is terrifying, because we never know when we’re going to run into the Spider, lose buckets of PCs to poison and fangs, and get nothing for it.

  10. March 19, 2010 at 2:38 pm

    I don’t see it in the Basic rules, so either it’s something I remembered from another edition (AD&D, Holmes Basic, etc) or it’s a mistake on my part. Each edition has its own rules! For example, I see that unlike Moldvay, Mentzer states that “Monsters that run away are not counted [for XP] unless they are caught and defeated later.” (p. D12) By those rules, your blackguard buddies shouldn’t have gotten XP to begin with.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

March 2010

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