Game Mastery

Background rewards

by on Nov.24, 2010, under Uncategorized

You may have noticed that I’m a big fan of backstory. I think it adds to the game and makes the GM’s life easier. What I’ve never quite figured out is how to properly reward backstory, until now.

For my first game I assumed everyone was writing a backstory.  This was a terrible assumption.  I think I ended up punishing those who didn’t write.  Bad GM!  But it was a newbie mistake, so whatever.

I learned not to expect my players to do homework.  Instead, I’d reward them if they did write.  Coming up with an appropriate reward proved difficult due to the varying levels of effort and skill of my players.

Many write a paragraph.  Or tell me a paragraph’s worth of content.  Others write novels.  I’d rather give out XP to the ones who write more.  More work equals more reward, right?  The hypothetical problem (and I say hypothetical because it hasn’t actually happened to me) is that a system that rewards content is easily gamed.

Furthermore, backstory rewards always show up at the beginning of a game.  A 500 XP bonus matters a lot at low levels.  By the time you’re level 10, the reward is forgotten.

Anyway, that’s enough about the problem.  What I’ve been doing in my current game is rewarding players as the game progresses.  Everyone who wrote a backstory got a flat bonus right away.  Since then, I’ve been giving out additional bonuses whenever I’ve used content from a player’s background.  I give a double bonus if I use the background to harm the party.

This rewards content rather than quantity.  There’s no difference between an outline and a story aside from page count.  If the player named an NPC, I can use that in the game and I throw the player a bonus for taking some of my workload.

This also rewards quality.  I’m drawn to background that entertains me.  I’m not going to be entertained by a backstory about growing up on a farm until orc raiders burned the place, leaving the player character an orphan.  This doens’t inspire me to write plot and doesn’t deserve additional reward.  A new and intriguing character with actual depth will give me material to put in the game.

Finally it gives deep characters a steady bonus instead of an early spike that tapers off.  This isn’t a huge feature, but I like it.

(For what it’s worth, I’ve been giving out bonuses equal to 10% of the current level’s XP.  So if the players are level 7 (10,000 XP), a bonus would be 300xp since level 8 requires 13,000.  As previously mentioned, I give out twice this if I use background to hurt the players.)
This doesn’t solve the problem of players who game my XP reward system.  But you know what?  I don’t care.  If a player wants to copy a fantasy book’s synopsis and change the character names, that’s a problem of player attitude, not of XP rewards.  A backstory is the player’s opportunity to communicate to the GM what he wants to do in the game.  It’s his chance to say “this is my character and this is what I want him to do.”  Copying another character’s story rips off your chance to tell your GM about the game you want*. Instead, the GM either runs a game for the character you ripped off or sees through your attempt to get some free XP.  Neither option is a desirable result.

* Unless of course if you’re trying to play a character from a book.  As much as I enjoy originality, there’s also plenty of merit in trying to live up to an existing character.  I’d love to be a good enough actor to be able to pick a character from a book, play him in a game, and have the other players recognize the character I was impersonating.

1 comment for this entry:
  1. Bryan

    I’m not a big fan of giving out XP rewards – it makes encounters more difficult to balance if some PCs are more powerful than others.

    Rather, I like to simply USE player backgrounds during the game. If PCs don’t give me a very good background, or none at all, then they don’t really get any plot. When they see the party run into the second cousin of the fighter who happens to run a secret railroad smuggling out enslaved goblins, well, they start wanting a piece of that action…

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