I have recently heard someone complain that “sandbox” was an elitist term….which, frankly, left me nonplussed. In my not-so-humble opinion, games are either driven by the decisions of the players (sandbox games) or the needs of an overarching plot (plot-driven games). As a big advocate of a GM’s right (and responsibility) to say No, I fully endorse that any GM should run the type of game he or she prefers. So long as you can find interested players, no one can tell you you’re wrong!
What I’d like to talk about today is Bennies – those little, unexpected, bonuses that come about through playing role-playing games. In early editions of D&D, these bennies might have included finding a special magic item, or special gear, that makes your character more powerful. In the early, sandbox-ier, days of rpgs, this sort of benny made perfect sense. Playing more, and playing better, meant more and better rewards. In addition, earlier systems used a shallower power curve and the sort of broad-based balance that easily supported these extras.
(In my own home game, I recently decided that the participating characters all became Trained in Profession: Sailor as a result of in-game action. Although this “benny” is equivalent to only 1 skill point in game terms, it negates a -4 penalty to related skill checks, and was well received at the table.)
Some more recent games – most notably the WotC versions of D&D – have taken a narrower view of balance, with specific guidelines as to what characters at any particular level should have. This would seem to work counter to the idea of bennies, because any benny sufficient to have an in-game effect is also perforce sufficient to “throw off the math”.
I would like to suggest that this need not be so. Indeed, that it need not be important, even if it is so.
Especially if you are running an “adventure path” type scenario, rather than a sandbox, there is very little cost to granting bennies. After all, if you run through a campaign over a period of six months, when the seventh starts, you start with a fresh slate. Meanwhile, so what if a few fights are easier (and take less time!) than expected? So what if the players can bypass your skill challenge? There is no point to giving bennies that don’t have some effect on how the game plays. And, when earlier clever play means you get an additional boost now, the players get a sort of shiny, glowing feeling.
The converse, of course, is that, if they don’t do well, they don’t get the benny. Maybe they don’t even get the wealth-by-level guideline treasure. And that is cool, too. Consider it a “negative benny”, if you will. Decisions mean more when they have ramifications down the line. Even if that does mean that things are that much harder later. Even if it does mean that the PCs lose.
Balance only takes you so far, in my experience and in my opinion. At the end of the day, as a player, I want my decisions to have consequences, good and bad, both for me and for the campaign world. Bennies are more important than balance. But you need to strike a “balance” between the two!
(Sorry....this is a bit of a wandering post. I suppose I should have called it "B is for Blathering"!)