Coming Home Empty Handed After A Raid
RPT GM K. asked me a question about rewards in sandbox games:
I’ve been running an (in my opinion) fairly successful West Marches/Open Table game for several months now.
I’ve accumulated a dedicated set of players and run at least one game per week, and so far it’s good fun for all involved, even despite the frankly ludicrous death rate we’ve had.
One issue has been plaguing me recently, however.
Due to the sandboxy nature of the game and how some players approach the exploration of it, I’ve had a couple of sessions end where the characters come back to home base empty handed, having made poor treasure/XP profits after a day of either tragedy or particularly safe play.
This might not be a problem if I was willing to fudge some results or if the format of the game was different, but I’m a strong believer in No Free Meals, and an even stronger believer in the primary XP gain being tied to treasure recovered.
I believe that my players really do appreciate the no-punches-pulled nature of the game, but I also think it’s somewhat demoralizing to end an evening’s game so anticlimactically.
So I’d love to hear any advice you can give me on how to make a game with no profits and no meaningful achievements feel less dour to end, while still keeping it “honest” as far as running the game goes.
Hi K. Thanks for the question!
Here’s my take on it.
Every definition of game includes uncertain outcomes. We roll dice and play RPGs because we want to find out what happens.
If we knew results ahead of time, we’d only choose the good ones. But that gets boring fast. So we appeal to chance and GM to make things challenging and uncertain.
The Age Old Coin Toss
Sometimes you win. Sometimes you don’t.
It’s actually the bad results that make rewards taste sweet.
Therefore, all other variables being equal, there’s nothing wrong with a session ending up in failure.
However, I’d ask us to consider two types of failure.
It’s ok to have a failure of the first type. But it’s not ok to have a failure of the second type, where you had an opportunity to prevent it.
It’s ok if the characters fail.
They fail many times every session with each missed swing, bungled skill attempt, and die roll (pun pretty much intended).
Failing is a fun part of the character game.
Here’s the failure we try hard to prevent.
Each player comes to the session with preconceived notions of fun. Robin Laws calls these Player Kicks in his great book on GMing.
He breaks Player Kicks into these categories:
- Power Gaming
- Butt Kicking
- Tactics and Strategy
- Character Type
- Casual / Social
These are surface-level motivations, however. You can get these rewards from many other games, though ours is unique in being accessible to so many types of gameplay preferences.
Deeper, every player at your table is rewarded by choices that leads to results that become a great story.
It’s what the computer can’t do.
It’s what connects every player.
And it’s what in your control.
Failing is not a fun part of the player game.
Pull Your Story Moments
I believe many GMs, to some degree, handle story wrong.
Most of us push the story.
We prep worlds and campaigns and adventures to set up moments we picture with vividness. We have a future idea we want to come true.
So we push certain outcomes, or rather, we make outcomes certain by pushing them.
Instead, we want to pull story.
(Patrons, see “The Four Levers That Inevitably Pull Players Through Your Adventures”, September 2018 in your 2018 Compilation PDF for more about Pull versus Push.)
We want to take what’s happening at any given moment in the game and call out the fantastic story taking place.
We want to celebrate the present!
The present is the only time when a player can make choices.
The present moment is where we want to focus and pull wonderful stories from.
Then, we want to tie the story moment to the overall campaign or adventure story. That connection provides greater meaning and a deeper sense of campaign progression.
For example, four goblins in a room. Basic stuff.
But the characters whiff and must flee.
Another room. More goblins. Another failure.
No treasure and much disappointment.
Third room at end of session…the PCs defeat some goblins but still no treasure. Bummer.
However, through the lens of Pull, we add a detail at the end of the first encounter. The goblins make fun of the cleric’s robes, calling them pyjamas and yelling after him to come back next time properly dressed for a fight.
We do it again in the second encounter.
Now consider the effect of it happening in third encounter and the cleric wins?
I can see my players now pointing at me and yelling, “In your face pyjama jerks!” and high-fiving in celebration.
You don’t get this effect without a story.
And you can’t script this stuff, because you’re reacting to the situation.
But you’ll always be pulling a story out of the moment by adding in details and flourishes.
Small Stories Win The Game
Consider the example above.
The characters have still not earned much, if any, treasure and XP.
Yet the session ends on a high note because of the cleric’s revenge.
Some GMs put pressure on themselves to weave epic tales.
Somehow, the macro events of a campaign, which happen infrequently, are supposed to keep everyone excited for all the minutes of each session, every session.
Don’t do this to yourself.
The epic plot arc you’ve got going is awesome, but it delivers content, meaning, and reward at a much slower pace.
You might hit the epic button once in a session. More likely, you’ll punch it every three or so sessions.
This isn’t enough fuel to keep players on the edge of their seats each encounter.
Instead, we quest to pull the small stories. Those delicious gaming moments of special meaning and personal and relevant play.
These small stories, which might sparkle for mere moments, are what we look for amongst the chaff of dice rolls and mechanics.
We pull these stories out of gameplay as much as possible.
And therein lies the answer to our problem.
The characters might fail to complete their quest, earn bags of gold, and find magical pants.
But our players win from the great small stories they tell alongside you, and from memories those stories create.
A bag of gold and subsequent level-up thrills for moments.
Getting revenge of annoying goblins mocking your adventure attire? That feeling lasts for a long, long time.
A good story might not slake some players’ thirst for rewards.
So I’ll end this article with a few ideas on alternative rewards you can end sessions with to mitigate a paucity of gold.
Level-up is their thing, ya? More power!
You can appease these folks with one-shot magic items that buff their PC.
Give them fire breath for a combat, more speed for extra attacks, or an invisible shield that absorbs all fire.
Similar to Power Gamers, these players like chaos and mayhem.
Where Power Gamers like to find synergies and do calculations for efficiency and optimization, Butt Kickers just want a body count, to feel powerful, and especially, to feel in control.
Accomplish this by throwing minions at them to sweep the floor with.
Also mix in a healthy dose of easy-to-medium combats. Use Faster Combat principles to make this possible. A boon here is you get more story by gaming more encounters.
And let the Butt Kickers confront powerful foes, villains, and rivals. Players love overcoming enemies they hate.
Edge case: If a Butt Kicker loves tactics but their teammates don’t, give the Butt Kicker followers, hirelings, and companions to manage. Nirvana.
These gamers love strategy. The best Tacticians will combo rules, probabilities, and roleplay to make great game experiences for all.
Provide meaningful combat options for these folk. Also add in external factors to make options delightfully complicated. For example, single shot buffs, terrain and hazards, allies, and multiple foe types in skirmish units.
I struggle with Tacticians when using Theatre of the Mind combat. They want precise details, which means a lot of Q&A. So I use minis and gridded battlemaps, which cuts down a lot on the back and forth, and gives the Tactician lots of data to parse between turns to keep them happy.
I’m this player. I like thinky characters with lots of roleplay, puzzle, and combat options. I will always pick the spellslinger, skill monkey, or equipment nerd.
Character Type players are addicted to one PC. The always play an elf, wizard, noble. They always dual-wield scimitars alongside their pet panther.
We appeal to these folk by targeting specific aspects of their persona for gameplay.
One encounter we bring their elf status into play. Another encounter we offer an enemy spellslinger to counterspell against. And a third encounter we try to kidnap their cat.
At a deeper level, if you game this way, we explore what this persona or identity means to the player. Through roleplay, dilemmas, and tests, we confront the player and prod them to reveal their psychology, which oftentimes is quite rewarding for all.
I see “method actors” and “theatrefolk” get a bad rap online.
Embrace your Actors. They provide shining examples and a ton of flavour for roleplay.
If I have an actor at my table, I assign them NPCs in encounters. This works very well for background NPCs.
GM: “Sandy, I’ve got a lot going on here. Would you mind playing the bartender and a few background patrons? Here’s a rumours list to share.”
Reward these players with great NPCs to riff off of.
And the good news is you do not have to act back. You don’t have to be an Actor.
It’s like in movies where someone is trying out for a part in a play and they conscript a friend to read lines. The friend doesn’t act. They just read lines to set up the Actor to practice their part in full-on Actor mode.
We can use the same approach to great effect.
Forget the gold pieces. Give them heartbroken, troubled, and aspected NPCs.
Casual / Social
These kind people play to be with friends. They feed off session energy, so we try to keep the pace going.
A relaxed GM style helps too, where you allow banter, jokes, and out-of-character behaviour.
We also should expect a much longer learning curve. Patience you must have, young padawan.
Therefore, entertain them with lots of die rolls, and try to teach them a single small thing at a time. Over a number of sessions they’ll master their characters this way.
Additional non-treasure rewards include teamwork, in-game games like gambling, and situations that require group chatting and decision-making.
Those are some basic ideas on how to reward different player types without employing shiny coins.
My main point today, though, is to focus on micro story moments in every turn.
We have a plot arc for greater context and meaning. But round by round, encounter by encounter, we should aim to pull entertaining little stories out of those moments for the most satisfying and long-term rewards.
If a session ends without gold or xp, your players will still have a bunch of great memories, new inside baseball jokes, and more game facets to enjoy.
I hope this helps, K. RPT GM, if you have any ideas for K, please hit reply!