Part of the fun of exploring in a game is finding useful things. It’s exciting to be the person who discovers buried treasure, hidden supply caches, forgotten scrolls, prophetic scribblings, or hidden lore. This kind of excitement is not part of my previous post for exactly exploration, and I will touch on it now. This is a post about immediate rewards to exploration, and is inspired by 4X strategy games.
4X games feature exploration as one of their core elements. When a player explores a new location, there are a few reasons the new location could be useful. Of these rewards, one of them is always building a base. This is a long term investment in a region, and has predictable rewards. My previous post for exactly exploration is about joining a community, which is similarly a long term investment with predicable rewards. Sure, building a base gives access to natural resources and manufacturing facilities, but a PC doesn’t need those things. A PC needs to develop, grow, and change. Joining a community is a steady supply of resources for character growth, just as a base is a steady supply of resources for an army in a 4X game. However, the players will often not want to settle down, or at least will want to see multiple places before deciding where they’ll settle down. 4X games have other options when exploring, which most notably include:
- Rapid short term gain, that provides no long term bonus. Examples: hunting mindworms for energy-credit rewards in Alpha Centauri, mining ships in Space Empires
- Gambling on immediate bonuses that last throughout the game. Examples: Alien Artifacts in Alpha Centauri and Space Empires, Supply Pods in Alpha Centauri that provide immediate improvement to existing bases.
So, lets look at these two alternative rewards to exploration, how they work in computer games, and adjust them for use in a tabletop game. Keep in mind throughout all of this that joining a community is always another option. I feel the three options together make for a well rounded and diverse set of choices. In comparison, Only using two of them is limiting character development, setting development, and player agency.
Immediate, Short Term Gain
The chief advantage of immediate, short term gain is that a player can capitalize on it to make a long term gain. This imposes on the GM a particular form to adhere to. There needs to be an objective that is too difficult for the player right now. The rapid, short term gain allows the players to succeed at tasks that would otherwise be too difficult for them, but is lost in the process. Consumable equipment, such as potions or explosives, thus makes the most sense as the short term reward. Equipment rewards tend to be pretty easy to do, so I won’t go into the short term reward any further. The narrative for acquiring them can be scavenging, finding rare materials, treasure hunting, or anything else of which you can think.
The main problem for this kind of approach is that you need to make an opponent that the players have no hope of overcoming without this equipment. This end-goal is separate from the exploration. In 4X games, this is spending the resources found littered throughout the map on rapidly building a military, and conquering some neighbouring cities. More peacefully inclined players might find some skill-puzzle it relates to.
I can think of two ways to set up the end-objective for the equipment. I will call them “classic” and “new-school.”
Classic is very simple: there are bad guys who are too powerful for the PCs. The PCs know they cannot win. With the help of the new equipment, they might be able to do it. It’s a classic “get the Holy Sword of Demon Bane before invading the abyssal fortress” set up. The common pitfall of this approach is that the PCs might think they are strong enough to invade the abyssal fortress without the Holy Sword of Demon Bane. Then a big chunk of the party dies, and the rest run away.
The “new school” alternative involves less work for the GM (which is always a plus for me), and shifts the burden of creativity onto the PCs (which some players love and some players hate). Instead of making the found equipment consumable, provide a bonus reward to a player who gives it away to an NPC. The player needs to justify why the item will be useful to the NPC, express what they expect the consequences of this item belonging to the new NPC to be, and also make sure that giving it away makes sense in character. For example, lets suppose the PCs steal a spaceship in a sci fi game. The GM says “you guys can use this spaceship all you want, but if you can find someone to give it away to, and have a good reason, you get 10 character points.” One PC says they want to give it to some refugees, so they can find a peaceful planet far away to live on. Another PC says they want to give to some freedom fighters, who will use the fusion reactor to make weapons, and attack the Evil Empire. Regardless of what the PCs decide on, the PCs have just come up with their own adventure seeds, and turned what is a short term gain (equipment) into a long term gain (character points).
Remember, however, that PCs might fail at turning a short term gain into a long term gain. This is important, because if the PCs want a guaranteed long term gain they have plan on making a long term investment (which means joining a community, in this case). Ergo, whomever the PCs give their new found item to, a complication must present itself along the way.
There’s no reason a GM couldn’t use both the “classic” and “new school” methods at once. In fact, a common trick for TV Shows is to have the main character pursuing a way to overcome some incredible obstacle, but every time they find an opportunity they give it up because they are generous to the locals. This is used in episodic shows so that the main character doesn’t actually get any close to their season-long objective until the season finale. In an RPG this can be used to make the characters explore the world and do “side quests” until they are ready to do their main mission.
Gambling for Permanent Benefits
Gambling for permanent benefits is limited by its unreliability. Unlike the temporary gains, when a player wins a gamble the reward is immediate and lasting. What makes sense to me is a reward of knowledge, which is a perfect reason to give XP or character points. The strange parts of this knowledge, from the point of game design, is that it is acquired by chance. Usually information in an RPG is carefully paced out to keep the plot moving forward. Since this is random, nothing necessary to the plot can be in it.
The information in the gamble could be almost anything, but I like the idea of coming up with a “myth arc.” A myth arc is a term for a story that exists more within the setting and between sessions. A normal arc exists between the characters and their actions. In the X-Files, any information they acquire about the alien invasion is part of the myth arc. In the Forgotten Realms, the players would go on all kinds of adventures, and these adventures would be framed in campaigns. However, the historical changes of the setting had their own plot, which only sometimes mattered to the campaign as a whole. These history-spanning plots formed myth arcs. Generally speaking, the setting’s ancient history, more recent history, and rumours about possible events in the future all imply a cogent story for the world. The implied stories across the whole universe of Faerun are myth arcs. Examples include the cycles of divine power, the conflict between the elves and drow, and the yuan-ti and their civilizations continued influence throughout history. These ongoing stories are used mostly to frame the campaign the players and GM are doing, and add some context.
To make a myth arc, make a story that is so long it’s scope is more about history and the progress of civilization than the act of any individual. Put some of the story in the past, some as current events, and some are predictions about the future. Every time the PCs learn something about this story, they get some bonus experience or character points.
Finding the clues is the part where gambling comes in. The GM just needs to pick the odds of a clue being present. For example, I’d probably say that each location has a 20% chance of having a clue in it. I’d roll in secret every time the players go to a new place. If they spend some time looking for clues, and the results came up with a clue, they could find one.
Choosing Between the Rewards
The set of options here have significant impact on how PCs receive their rewards: one is a sure thing, one requires skill and involves taking risks, and one is a complete gamble. Giving the players some choices is great, but there is a problem: it creates an incentive for the PCs to split up. The PCs get the best rewards if one looks for the short term gain, one looks for the clue, and the remaining players attempt to join the community.
Splitting up is not necessariy a problem. It creates difficulty mostly because certain types of scenes require a large amount of time to play. Combats can take hours, role-playing scenes can take minutes, puzzles take somewhere in between. There probably won’t be any problems if the GM makes a short-hand version of combat for when the party is split up. Some players will hate that idea, but I think they’ll be tolerant of the idea if a GM explains to them that to play a normal combat the whole party needs to be present, or else some people have nothing to do for a whole hour.
Splitting up will be especially beneficial if the game has a lot of “coopetition” between the players. I talked about coopetition in my article on Player versus Player games.
Another possibility, however, is to make sure that the short-term equipment reward or knowledge reward would also be of value within the community that a PC might try and join. That way, the players can all go exploring together, return to town together, and then choose which reward is most suitable for their character and play style.
A variant on the above method is to make it so that the players don’t know which reward they will have an opportunity to claim. When the PCs go somewhere new, they have the choice to pursue an option provided by the GM, or move on. Everytime the PCs choose to not take a reward they have earned, they get a “credit.” When the opportunity presents itself for the option they do want, they can spend multiple credits to make the reward proportionally bigger. I wouldn’t want to use this idea because it would allow a player to join a community rapidly enough that there wasn’t any opportunity for the player to role-play their character adapting to the new environment, but it works very well for balancing short-term rewards and gambles.
Finally, the GM may want to limit how much of the story is spent exploring. You may note that, in-spite of all the effort I’ve put into it, the Exactly Exploration articles still just amount to a guide for GMs to create game sessions about interacting with the setting. This provides no information about the plot. These could be used along with a normal RPG plot, and only a small chunk of the session is used on exploration and the related rewards. In such a case, it probably doesn’t matter if the PCs split up, stick together, or compete with one another. It will only end up taking a small amount of time, so there’s no point worrying about it.
The Size of the Rewards
Determining the size of the rewards is difficult, because the mechanics for rewards varies from game system to game system. Joining a community should be the benchmark reward, because it is the most stable. Calculate the value of the perks of membership, then determine how long it will take for the PCs to achieve full membership. Dive the former by the latter, and the result is a base “point value per session.” If the PCs manage to capitalize on the short term gain, and thus turn it into a long term gain, it should be worth at least twice as much as the point value/session. If they don’t capitalize on the short term gain, it will just make things easier for a short period of time and then be gone. Whatever the odds are for the gamble, make sure the reward is large enough to make it a reasonable gamble. For example, if there’s only a 20% chance of getting a reward, it should be five times larger than the point value per session.
That being said, if you’re using GURPS, the training and job rules last over a period of in-universe time. That means to determine the point value/session the GM will need to decide on a time frame. If the players keep track of how often they pick to gamble or a short term advantage, if the GM decides they want to shorten or extend the campaign length the players can have their rewards adjusted for the ratio.
Some players might want to never gamble, and parties or GMs might be concerned about a player “falling behind.” If this is the case, everyone can keep track of how often they’ve gambled and lost. When they finally win, their reward is increased so that their point total is as big as if they had won all the gambles they lost. If the players are using this, however, make sure that the value of the gamble is equal to the point value/session. The gambling is changed to be about when they get the reward, instead of whether or not they get the reward. I like this idea a lot. It means that players can get a “sure thing” that is more player controlled than joining a community, but players might still choose to join because the benefits are immediate.
Tying These Rewards Into Exploration
Tying these into a narrative that involves exploration is easy. Before the PCs explore, they need to learn a total of 3 details about the area they are in:
what friendly community is around?
where could there be hidden treasure?
where would they be able to discover new and amazing things?
These can be used as hooks to get the players to keep exploring new areas. The characters’ particular skills and the players’ play-style preferences might be a factor in what they choose to look for, also. This ensures the players choice is informed, makes sense in-character, and is fun for everybody out-of-character.
I’ve already suggested using visual supports during exploration games. This will allow you to imply the answers to these question through a quickly sketched map, and thus avoid large amounts of GM Exposition. Just keep it in mind; it’s a real time saver.