4e: Encounter Builder Checklist #4 – Rewards

Now that we’ve discussed the various encounters as according to motive, and type, let’s move on to another topic that deserves notice when building an encounter:  The payoff.  Rewards are what motivate play in D&D, and it’s the constant knowledge that besting an encounter will result in some form of satisfaction that keeps players looking for the next big thing.

Much like everything else, the DMG actually tackles the issue of giving rewards, even going so far as to provide Treasure Parcels per encounter that the GM just has to tick off on a list as he doles them out.  But beyond that, let’s take a look at the types of rewards there are for an encounter and how they’re best utilized.

First of all, there are two major types of Rewards:

  • Metagame Rewards – These are rewards that don’t directly involve the “reality” upon which the game world operates, as these only directly affect the players and not the characters.  The fun of kicking monsters around, saving the day and being a hero, the jokes and the one-liners are all part of this.  This is the reward of a good game.  For a GM, these rewards include the satisfaction of a game well run where the players had fun and so did you.
  • In-Game Rewards – These are the rewards that affect that in-game reality.  Gold, Experience Points and Gear fall under this category.  Players will expect In-Game rewards as a matter of course in D&D, where seeing your character improving, and getting your very first +1 sword are all part and parcel of the D&D experience.

For our checklist today, we’ll be focusing on In-Game Rewards, and some helpful guidelines in their use.

  • Regulate your rewards – In the same way that too much of a good thing can end up spoiling people, it’s also possible to spoil your players.  The DMG has a good set of guidelines as to what treasure to dole out to players at a given level.  If you’d like to save yourself the trouble of doing your own balancing, use the tables.  They’re quick, handy and appropriate for the game.  Too much gold and magic items can easily derail your planning as the levels will no longer accurately portray your player character’s actual capabilities.
  • Don’t be stingy – Again, this is a no brainer, but unless your campaign is one where eking out an existence and fighting monsters for the promise of food is a norm, try to keep the heroic feel of getting a reward.  Rewards are there to give the players a feeling of progress, not as a means of being able to afford their next meal.
  • Its never JUST a +1 sword – Customize your rewards.  Try to avoid using the numbers when it comes to describing the item, and work on coming up with a catchy name… or better yet, ask the player to name the object they’ve just won.  If the warrior picked up a +1 Shield, describe it in florid detail, hint at a possible historical relevance (and possible plot hooks associated with it) and ask the player to give it a name as soon as he picks it up.  Aside from lightening the GM load on item name generation, having the player name an item means that the item is truly the character’s property.  It ceases to be just another piece of armor, and becomes a signature item that the character is known for.
  • Consider the value of non-tangibles – Non-tangible rewards such as Titles, Recognition and even the interest of a potential Partner are actually very useful for both the characters and the GM.  Titles and Recognition are both a boon and a source of plot hooks.  Players feel like a million bucks the moment their fighter gets being called “Sir” and npcs start bowing and scraping to them, but it also opens a warehouse full of plot hooks that might involve them being thrown into the political arena, or having to defend their good name from slanderers and rivals.
  • Consider the value of other tangibles – Not everything comes in gold.  Land, a keep and servants all count to being part of a characters reward, but also expand their responsibility towards others.  For GMs, it only means that the character suddenly has more to lose, and most of it is no longer on their person.  The Character is therefore made to care for other people, as a slight to his people, is now a slight to himself.  If you refer to the Relevance Article before this one, other tangibles segue very nicely into an Indirect Threat that will force the characters into action.
  • The GM giveth, but the GM don’t taketh away – At least, not without good reason, and not permanently.  Players love their rewards.  Most even define their characters with the achievements they’ve made and the signature gear that they’ve become known for carrying around.  As such, don’t resort to tricks that destory or devalue their gear.  Temporarily making the item or reward unavailable is fair game, but it’s one best done sparingly, and only if it serves as a plot hook for the characters to get it back and take punitive action for the theft.

By paying attention to the details when it comes to rewards, an encounter gains an extra level of depth.  Not only will an encounter now have a purpose, it has an extra motivator attached to it that will keep the players coming back for your encounters, no matter how tricky they can get, or how hard they have to work for it.


  1. I named my black Longsword +1, the Nail of Fu Leng.

    My Fire Beetle Carapace Shield, Pheonix Slayer.


  2. Agreed on the Don’t be Stingy part! I used to make that mistake all the time and the only reward that players ever had for finishing an encounter (and sometimes an entire adveture!) was just to keep the plot moving.

    I’ve been very bad at determinig non-tangible rewards because they isn’t a balance mechanics for it (well, in 3.x at least) which makes it hard to gauge.

    Looking forward to your metagame rewards, that should be interesting!

  3. Hey guys,

    Glad you liked the article. non-tangibles are seemingly tough to designate at first, but consider for a moment that each of these are a means for you to spin them off to a new direction of your game’s plot, or at the very least complicate the character’s lives. Making them the Hero of the Town for example will make them a target for some people who might want to ruin the town to begin with, and the threats only escalate once they start getting more visibility. Titles of nobility is all well and good, but what happens if there’s a peasant revolt led by a mysterious, charismatic rebel? Stuff like this is great gaming fodder.

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