Action Points as Roleplaying XP Rewards

I have an issue with awarding Experience Points as reward for good roleplaying. I admit it. I’m not bashful about it. I do have my reasons, though.

I’ve done it before. I ran a long (5 years and then some when it finally ended) campaign that started on September 11, 2001 and was easily one of the best games I’ve ever had the pleasure to be in charge of. If you continue to read this blog, you’ll hear about it a lot. It was called Fortune’s Children (hereafter FC). Multiple character story arcs, epic plotlines… the works. FC started with 3.0, moved into 3.5 when the revision came out and by the end of my time as GM had added a bevy of House Rules and rules contortions that transformed it into our own version of 3.X. It was epic, in every sense of the word.

When running FC, I had the utter pleasure of populating my table with a bunch of actors and renfaire geeks (of which I was, and still am, one). Because of this, the level of deep, immersive roleplaying at the table was, I daresay, rather higher than your average table. We planned some sessions specifically around Live Action; meaning that I as GM engineered a situation in a tavern or castle or other relatively safe location that the PCs would interact, live and in real-time, with the NPCs of the setting for hours on end. That was the intent of the session–pure roleplay. And it was incredible when everything clicked and rolled on without a hitch.

Because of the amount of truly exceptional RP at the gaming table with FC, I was forced by the end of my tenure in the GM seat to revise my policy for handing out rewards for exceptional RP. The simple fact was that awesome, mind-blowing RP was happening at nearly every session! When I sat down and really thought about my decisions in this area, I remember writing down a list of what all was going on. As I recall, it looked something like this:

  • I have mixed table– the majority of players are super roleplayers, but a couple aren’t.
  • The party isn’t likely to change anytime soon. This is the group I’m going to be dealing with.
  • Handing out exceptional RP XP is creating a gap between character levels.

The list went on, but those were the key points. In 3.X,especially once you start adding Prestige Classes into the mix, the power levels between characters of differing levels can be hefty. If, after a year’s worth of gaming, three of your six players have gotten roleplaying XP that has put them more than half a level ahead of the other characters, that becomes a problem.

In a numbers-dependent system like 4E, the difference can become even more extreme, especially depending on which level the characters are at. PCs who have access to a power that other characters in the party do have can significantly outshine others at the table. Some groups might be okay with this, but I’m betting that the majority of game tables prefer to the PCs to be on even footing when it comes to character build.

When Unearthed Arcana came out for 3.X, it introduced the concept of Action Points. I had garnered a copy of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer RPG at about the same time, and in it existed the rules for Drama Points. I snagged these rules and ran with them whole-hog, and through the remainder of my 3.X career I played with and tweaked the Drama/Action Point rules repeatedly, letting the players create a variety of Crowning Moments of Awesome as the game went on. At various points, a Drama Point could:

  • Grant an extra Standard Action (this was before the Eberron campaign setting came out)
  • Half the damage from a single attack
  • Turn a normal hit into a critical threat (or a critical threat into a normal hit)
  • Recharge a power normally usable once per day or grant a spellcaster back a spell slot
  • Add a variable amount to any d20 roll. At some points, it was a sliding scale of d8s or d6s, others a static amount based on level.

I gave out Drama Points on a non-rollover per session basis, and I found that this encouraged the players to spend them instead of hoard them for what they deemed a “Boss Fight”. I noticed that if the PCs thought they were in a big fight and spent their points but it turned out it wasn’t, they felt rather cheated in their resource management. I also polled the players about what they liked about Drama Points, and continually took their input into consideration when playing with the effects and number of points the PCs got. Typically it was quite a few, in the rage of 4+ per session, and it made for a fantastic action-movie style of D&D. The players universally loved it. Because of the varied effects, the tactical gamers could use it for combats and the roleplayers used it for skill checks… everyone was happy.

When I sat down with my PC’s character sheets and realized the XP I was giving away for roleplaying had created such a level gap, I thought long and hard about what I wanted to do about it. I debated just bumping the lower level characters up, slowing the XP progression of the advanced PCs as well as a whole bevy of alternatives. I realized that I didn’t want the gap to widen any more than it already had, but I also didn’t want to cease rewarding the players for their exceptional RP. When I made the decision to stop giving out XP for good roleplaying, Drama Points as rewards was an obvious fit. And oh, boy did it ever work!

The heavy roleplayers I had didn’t really care about all the XP they had been getting. It was an interesting irony that the least munchkin-y players I had were highest level. They enjoyed the story we were telling together as well as the fun they had with their friends at the table. The fact that their PCs were more advanced than the rest of the party wasn’t all that big a deal. It was the more tactically minded players who had taken notice and brought the issue up to me. So when I began awarding Drama Points to the players for good RP, everybody sat up and took notice.

It was specifically because all the players at the table loved the Drama Point mechanic that it became such a significant change in the party. Suddenly, the reward for good roleplaying mattered a whole lot more than it had previously. Now, suddenly, all the players at the table benefited, because each player in the group had very real uses for their Drama Points. Also, I instituted a rule that any bonus Drama Points awarded were not subject to the “no rollover” rule–that is, if you got a bonus Drama Point, you kept it until it was spent regardless of how many sessions that took. So if your character got 4 Drama Points per session, if you earned a bonus Point, you had 5 at the beginning of the next session and every session thereafter until that 5th point was spent.

The result was simply amazing. A group that was about half deep roleplayers and half tactical suddenly shifted into overdrive on their roleplaying. The Tactical players upped their game because there really was something powerful at stake, and this only enhanced the enjoyment of the deep roleplayers as suddenly everybody at the table was on the same page. It was a greater carrot for them than I could have ever expected it to be.

When we kicked over into 4th Edition, I kept the same policy, but dropped back to the default uses for Action Points per the RAW. Now that I feel really comfortable GMing 4th Edition, I’m looking at opening things back up a little at a time by increasing the possible effects of Action Point usage. I hope that the effect on my current 4E game is half as much as it was for Fortune’s Children. That would be so awesome I don’t have words for it.

So what do you think? What House rules have you attached to Action Points or their equivalent in your setting?

Next Time on The Action Point: Psionic Nazi Slaver Dwarves

(Yes, Really.)

This entry was posted in Applying Theory, Brittanis, Characters, GM Advice, Group Dynamics, Rules, Worldbuilding and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Action Points as Roleplaying XP Rewards

  1. Paul says:

    Hey, you might be interested in a system I wrote for role-play awards in 4e.

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