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My group is running a series of published adventures. I am GMing one of the modules (level 21-24) after which another member will be taking the reins.

I have plans for a side-adventure that will take place either before or during the published campaign. It will be a significant undertaking and probably consume enough sessions that the adventurers could gain a full level before they even begin the published content. If I then run the rest of the content as written, the PC's will be a level too high for the next adventure, which puts unwelcome pressure on the new GM.

To alleviate this, I'd like to not reward experience during my side-adventure. But as a player, I know EXP is the most desired reward of all. I considered reducing the experience gained from both the side adventure and the published content so the end result is the same. But the players will surely notice.

So I'm left with one option. Reward the players with something just as desirable as experience points--without unbalancing the game (super-powerful magic items are out).

It should be noted that the two adventures can be run concurrently. The players will have the choice of which adventure to progress with at each session. The desirability of the rewards is therefore that much more important, lest the side-adventure be ignored and forgotten.

What can I do?

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How much authorship do you have over the world? Expressions of agency and their consequences can be just as rewarding if the world actually alters. Would suggesting something like "Giving them a kingdom and running it through REIGN or kingdom" be appropriate here? Or are you looking for less world-bendy stuff? – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Apr 4 '12 at 12:27
Good question. And you collected a lot of good advices (maybe they could be gathered in one answer). I'd add: Artifacts. These special magic items are usually designed to be around the party for a limited window of time. – Erik Burigo Apr 4 '12 at 13:22
@BrianBallsun-Stanton I'm ok with some world bending. If an answer goes beyond what I can pull off, I can always adjust it to my needs. No idea is a bad idea! – dpatchery Apr 4 '12 at 13:25
@dpatchery There are bad ideas, believe me. That's why we have downvotes :-). – C. Ross Apr 4 '12 at 13:30
@C.Ross I suppose I meant that in the sense that if an answer isn't feasible for me to use in my specific world I just won't use it. But its still a good idea to post the answer since it could give me or other readers at least something to work with or draw inspiration from. – dpatchery Apr 5 '12 at 13:37

12 Answers 12

up vote 25 down vote accepted

If an XP reward doesn't fit, I'm a big fan of something in the story as a reward:

  • An important NPC becomes a contact/fixer for the players (someone they can tap for information, rare items, warnings, work).
  • Along the same lines, instead of a close contact with an important NPC, their actions have gained them audience with someone VERY important in your world.
  • They're welcomed as heroes in a certain town (with all the perks like big party, free room & board & alcohol, discounted expensive goods, etc.)
  • Some indication that their fame/legend has kept them out of some other trouble. For example, word from the bartender about a more much powerful NPC group gunning for the PCs decided to turn attention elsewhere because the PCs appeared more powerful than they thought or the PCs actions were in line with the NPC group.
  • A one time "get out of jail free" card for that region/race.

Any of these can lead into future adventures too... their NPC contact needs an item/information from them, the town they saved is once again attacked by monsters, or the PCs level up a bit and decide to go after the NPC group that was previously coming for them.

One other option that is typically more of a hindrance than a perk but usually proves to be very entertaining:

  • The group acquires a small loyal following of NPC commoners -- Maybe from the town the PCs saved, maybe the PCs legend has spread enough that NPCs seek them out. These "groupies" can help by doing some of the menial tasks but instantly become a liability during normal adventuring (especially, of course, combat).
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Welcome to RPG.SE! This seems like a pretty good answer to the question. – wax eagle Apr 5 '12 at 13:24
I hesitated to write something with all of the other great answers but I've had direct experience as a PC with most of those rewards so I thought it would be worthwhile to share. The last one was sad but quite fun in a AD&D game I played in ... my cleric got a loyal following of kobolds b/c I hired them to build a cathedral (saving them from underdark creatures). I got my own "secret service". Encounter after encounter, each of them took a hit that was intended for me and by the last adventure, there were none left. <raises a goblet> – Curtis Apr 5 '12 at 18:20
@Curtis: +1 for an answer that emphasizes roleplaying! I'm very glad you overcame your hesitation. – user1861 Apr 7 '12 at 5:00
+1 for followers and kobolds; a party I was running for spared a group of kobolds who were raiding and ended up with a group of kleptomaniac sidekicks who followed them everywhere "helping" – Rob Apr 10 '12 at 12:23

Many modern games now have a concept of "do cool stuff points". Examples include

Image of action point tokens, courtesy of F. Randall Farmer Image courtesy of F. Randall Farmer

These are great because they give the players more power for a day, but don't completely throw off the power level of your game. In my experience, players also love the things, and either hoard them or spend them like a sailor in port. One thing to watch out for is that many of these games expire existing points when you level. If you use this mechanic, you may want to make the points from the one off sessions "non-expiring".

On the other hand many games also have a background, perk, or feat mechanic. Usually one or two extra perks (especially if it's tailored to how they behaved in the one off) will not upset the oxcart of your written campaign.

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Savage World called these Bennies. – David Allan Finch Apr 4 '12 at 14:28
I just so happened to upload a photo of my laser-cut AP and +/-1 (Fate/Bennie) tokens which I use in my 4e game. I allow players to keep +/-1 tokens until spent and may be used to modify any die roll after the fact.… – F. Randall Farmer Apr 4 '12 at 15:36
@F.RandallFarmer Can I use that picture in my question? – C. Ross Apr 4 '12 at 15:46
@C. Ross - if you meant "Can I use that picture in my answer?" Yes - by all means, please do. – F. Randall Farmer Apr 4 '12 at 17:14

One-shot magic items (potions, scrolls, etc.) - they can even be pretty powerful and still won't unbalance your game for more than one encounter. If the effect is of a defensive/healing nature, it may even instead serve as an insurance against bad luck or decisions that might otherwise kill a PC (or the entire party).

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+1 Great way for the players to get that "Whoa, we just found something awesome!" feeling without the GM getting that "Oh great, how much am I going to regret this when it messes up my whole game..." feeling. :) – Gordon Gustafson Apr 5 '12 at 0:59
I do this myself, but just be prepared for it to throw off that one encounter in a big way. That can be fun from time to time anyway ... – C. Ross Apr 5 '12 at 12:17
Michael, just a thought, but you might want to update it to cover non-fantasy settings. – C. Ross Apr 7 '12 at 14:50
Regarding your edit of middle-age-transportation-by-river: Thanks for the link! It had been suggested Burlak, which was linked by the Treideln-entry in the German Wikipedia, but that did not really carry the information presented at the German side. (If it was also you, who changed the link in the German Wiki: thanks for that too!) – Stephen Jun 11 '12 at 15:11
@Stephen: always glad to help. – Michael Borgwardt Jun 11 '12 at 16:04

Adding to C.Ross's list...

  • You could award misc. small bonuses to skills or stats for completing the adventure (such as AD&D 3.5/pathfinder traits) For example a small resistance to fire, undead attacks or the like, depending on what they've faced on their jaunt.
  • Valuable assistance, npc contacts and/or help in future adventures
  • Similarly; promises of service from outside sources (a rez when you need it!)
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+1 I like the idea of building NPC/divine relationships. – C. Ross Apr 4 '12 at 12:36

I've come up against this problem before. Sometimes if some of my group can't make a session i'll run a side-quest so nobody misses any major plot. Obviously the characters will end up over-levelled if I gave full xp. Here are some options:

Less XP - As long as they're getting something they won't moan too much. Cutting the xp by half may be an easy option.

Treasure - Throw in a couple of nice items. They don't need to be powerful, just fun.

Social Standing & favours - For example: The PCs slay a Mind Flayer that had been murdering students from a top mage-university. As thanks, the players are granted access to the university library which gives a +4 bonus to knowledge checks when using it.

Attribute Bonuses – Give them a free stat point or a couple of bonus HP at the end of the session for completing an ‘optional subquest’. They will love that more than xp.

That’s all I can think of for now.

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+1 I like the bonus to knowledge checks at the local library... useful in a number of RPG systems. – Curtis Apr 5 '12 at 19:31

D&D 4th Edition has Fortune cards and it's a nice reward for a character to have a "permanent new ability" that's not so powerful but it's cool and fits with the character. You can make your own "fortune power" that fits your campaign/world.

As said before, rewarding a flying mount or a powerful ally or a little fief will also be very appreciated by the players. In various campaigns I tried all of these rewards and my players were very happy.

EDIT: Here are two examples of Drama cards and Fortune cards

All or nothing Image courtesy of F. Randall Farmer Gambler's Eye

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+1 Oh yes! I use a predecessor, called Drama Cards: I give them out every level.If you want to embed an image: – F. Randall Farmer Apr 5 '12 at 20:35
Sorry, the image link gives me "403 Forbidden" error :( – Mentoliptus Apr 6 '12 at 6:38 Try that. They must be preventing deep links or something. – F. Randall Farmer Apr 6 '12 at 7:24
@F.RandallFarmer Cool, thank you! I also added an image of a similar d&d fortune card. – Mentoliptus Apr 6 '12 at 9:20

Depending on the nature of the game system, perhaps allowing them access to a new minor advantage or clearing a minor disadvantage is possible. As a reward on a couple occasions I have allowed players to figit a couple of points in their character to fit the current setting (a la Milestones in FATE3 but on a lesser scale).

Unfortunately the situation I often encounter is XP greedy players - asking how much XP they get before I even fully finish my epilogue for the session, but it's because they are eager to advance their characters (as I favor point buy games over level-based). However, since they are new to the game as well and even after a few sessions are still getting their sea legs so to speak, I also offer them some added strategy on how to play their characters better. These little tutorials seem to fill the gap on occasion too. (Or you can give them a little bit more lore for your specific world that they would otherwise not be privy to?)

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Give them a get out of jail free card. This solves your current problem and is the answer to questions like this one about Total Party Kills or this one about captured PCs. What form it takes is clearly campaign specific, but it will get the GM out of more situations if it's vague ("If you are ever in desperate trouble, eat this/repeat this word 3 times/cut off your little finger which I now bless", etc.).

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If your side adventure will take up a full level, you may want to think about cutting some of the main adventure in order to allow some room for experience to be given in the side quest.

I would also think about awarding feats or points like @c. ross suggested.

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I would tune the magical item rewards to provide something other than a direct boost to effectiveness. Items that would either increase their versatility or give them more of a boost in role playing than combat. The goal is to give them items that require creativity rather than inflating dice roles. For example:

  1. An item that gives them continual ability to disguise themselves
  2. A foot wide ring that is linked to another which when activated serves as a mini-portal
  3. Some type of magical missive paper that lets them communicate over distance

To steal an idea from WOW, you could also give them a "reputation boost" with a faction. If you help out X, you'll be able to stay in their castles for free, utilize their resources occasionally, etc. Nothing that will help in combat, but something that may help them in the greater adventure.

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It is my personal experience that the most valuable thing you can give a player other than XP is attention. Why is "attention" such a valuable commodity? Simple. If nobody pays attention to you or your character, you basically stop existing. XP is the Game's way of recognizing how awesomely you've done what you've done, and you, as the Master of the world the Characters play in, can provide recognition in more overt or covert ways.

  • It is the character's birthday! Even if it's not, Everyone still thinks so! Everyone from the King to the Farmer in the feild recognizes the character's awesomeness at getting a year older :D (Awww~). Only as a matter of opinion, GMs should feel encouraged to have the character receive "meaningful" gifts from the gift giver, like hats from a cowboy and rare vegetables and fruits from the food merchant, items that provide non-mechanical effects like "Cool, but different" and "Totally disgusting tasting, so you have to ask your friend to try it too".

  • Talent show for cash- who doesn't love money? For systems that provide professions, knowledges, and skills outside of magic and combat this allows not only your basic roll-off to satisfy the power-gamers, but also roleplaying behind the scenes for the thematically minded - even a chance to gather a few allies, like "Jack Niff the Knife Juggler" and "Edward Fill the Flame-eater" and the like.

  • Pets! What roleplayer in their right mind wouldn't like a cool and unique pet? This especially applies for one that seems to take care of themselves for costs them nearly nothing to care for. A warrior with a pet monkey is no longer just a brawler - He's a practicitioner of the Wild Monkey Fist! - in that his pet monkey mimics his moves exactly when he gets into fights.

  • Fame: "Someone is selling figurines of you character's likeness in action poses labeled "(Your name): A REAL HERO!". There is a convention in your hero's honor, celebrating their greatness. You can attend, but it seems that everyone is dressed up just like you and your teammates. How strange..."

  • Freedom. There is no greater gift that a person can give than freedom from pain, antagonization, and otherwise annoyance. A moment of clarity and foresight in a time of trial (A free hint from the GM - courtesy of a psychic dream, perhaps?)

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I'd like to add another potential outcome: besides gaining a fief / mgical item / ally / free wish, etc. (as previoulsy mentioned) they could also get an Immortal Patron for their path to Immortality.

Rather than awarding half XPs, I'd go for a full XP adventure (as normal), including an encounter or a magical object / trick that drains levels (vampires or, better, this may happen as an encounter with a low level demon that hurts them, but they are relieved by the new powerful patron, pleased by their recklessness in front of evil etc...), so they'll be at the right level for next DM (but with their immortal patron(s) on their side... and willing to "test" them further!).

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