Supply and demand have always applied as aptly to the tabletop world as they do to our actual economies: the more you have, the less you need, the less drive you have to go and get it (especially if that involves being shot at and/or fighting a dragon). When it comes to gaming and in-character rewards, you absolutely can have too much of a good thing.
The notion of the Monty Haul GM is so well-known at this point that it’s a classic, and yet still quite a few GMs find themselves either stumbling into it, or being so scared of doing so that their campaign becomes a veritable desert of character rewards, and neither extreme is healthy in the long-term. So how do you manage player rewards without over or underdoing it?
How do you run a fun, middle-class campaign?
The Arms Race of Rewards
The classic Monty GM lavishes her players with goods of the highest quality, but the accidental Monty is typically just a GM trying to keep true to a consistent game world.
In order to create an enjoyable challenge for their players, many GMs will outfit their villains with the sort of gear or tech that gives them a fighting chance against a consortium of clever PCs. Then, when the PCs win out, that same gear becomes loot for them to either use or sell. Unfortunately, now you have PCs who were impressive enough to warrant giving your bad guys good gear wearing the very gear you used to level the playing field in the first place, which raises the bar more quickly than you might be prepared for.
Before long, it’s like a T-rex driving a tank with his tiny little arms. Awesome as that is (and it is), it’s noticeably less awesome for the GM trying to provide that tank-driving dinosaur of a player with a challenge they can’t just roll right over, and gets unfun for the T-rex when he grows bored of playing Katamari with your game world.
Wanting to play fair is admirable, but try to avoid stacking the deck with just wearable, sellable gear. Whenever possible, use more ephemeral boosts like magical buffs or combat drugs which bolster the bad guys for the fight, and are gone soon after. Leaving a scroll or sample behind can then feel like a reward, but forces your players to choose one fight or one moment to cash it in, rather than a constant, rising bar of butt-kicking that they just put on in the morning to wear around town.
The Mobility of Money
It can be tricky to guess exactly what items will spark your players’ interest, so a lot of GMs either reward the players with petty cash, or else give them items which have a healthy resale value so that they can trade in what they find in the wild for exactly the specifications that fit their character design.
While that’s lovely in theory, remember that monetary equivalent to the gear they found is infinitely more potent in terms of what it can actually net them. The flexibility of being able to buy something tailored to your character (literally or figuratively) has a worth that goes beyond the sheer coin value. It allows the number-crunchers in your game to very neatly optimize, while others may hoard the wealth like an angry dragon, only to spend it all in one go later in the game and sail into battle at the helm of their new bedazzled, steam-powered airship.
It’s often better (and at times more interesting) to give your characters incentive to keep and use the gear they find so they aren’t instantly liquidating everything. Reducing the resale value on items to a small percentage (20% is generally a good start) will help ensure that either the players use the item you planned for and put there, or cash it out for a small enough value that you can be prepared for it.
That way, while they’ll eventually be able to afford that perfect-fit item, they’ll have to cash in a lot of close-enough gear to get there. Just make sure to check in with your players occasionally on at least the type of gear they’re looking for so that your rewards are in the ballpark, otherwise it feels like one long, boring yard sale.
Influence Over Affluence
Lastly, never be afraid to get creative with your rewards. Just like with encounters, future rewards shouldn’t just be a bigger, badder version of earlier rewards (that’s called a “grind,” and it’s as awkward as the kind you did at the middle school dance).
Remember that the point of ‘stuff’ in games it two-fold – to make the PCs more powerful, and to give them more options in play. The second can be easily accomplished without unbalancing things by digging into the trove of items which do something fun that isn’t directly applicable to combat (the Ring of X-Ray Vision comes to mind).
There are also ways to make the PCs more powerful without simply upping their stats or boosting their powers with gear. Rewards can come instead in the form of favors from notable or influential NPCs the players have worked for, rescued or helped. It’s essentially ‘the player to be named later,’ a promissory note the PCs can keep in their back pocket until things are looking grim, and then cash in when the need arises.
Favors can also allow players to bypass what they might consider a tedious task (gathering information, tracking someone down, getting a necessary plot item), which no amount of powerful gear can supplant. Remind them of that when they seem stuck, and they may not miss the +5 Breastplate of Constant Glistening nearly so much.
Just be sure you keep track of all the favors your PCs are owed. When it comes time for the final fight, they’re liable to cash them all in at once, and that can leave you with a veritable army on your hands (besides the one you’re planning to throw at them). If you’re not ready for it, that overpowered wardrobe of epic might can start to look like a beach vacation by comparison.
Image Credit: Tommy Praison