I have said many times on this blog that I believe players’ satisfaction at the table should be the primary goal of any Game Master/Dungeon Master. After all, we are simply the facilitator for a group of our friends, and ultimately are the minority, sometimes greatly so in large groups. I’ve spoken before on different ways to focus on your players, and today I’m going to add another one to the list in my never-ending quest to help anyone who may be looking for inspiration or guidance in running their roleplaying game campaigns.
People who Game Master or Dungeon Master do so for many reasons, but one common theme is that we like to create. Whether it’s worldbuilding, designing monsters, making custom classes, creating magical items, or thinking up interesting NPCs and villains, we like the process of coming up with something and sharing it with our friends and players for them to enjoy. Our creations will often serve the advancement of the plot and the fleshing out of the story, but there is an easy way to direct those creative energies towards making your players feel special: coming up with unique rewards for them in your campaign.
Many of the most roleplaying games are chock full of rules covering all manner of different things, and have been extensively playtested to ensure everything is generally balanced against each other and that everything is fun to play. After all, nobody will want to play a wizard if sorcerers are obviously and continuously proven to be more powerful spellcasters in every way. Roleplaying games should absolutely be designed that way for those reasons, but it sometimes leaves little room for players to feel like their character is truly unique. They know that, somewhere out there, someone else is basically playing the exact same half-orc battlemaster fighter with a sword and shield wearing plate armor. Sure, backstory and roleplaying may be different, but mechanics-wise, everything they can do is found in a book where any other person can do the exact same thing, and probably has.
So, I advocate that you make a determined effort to think of things to give your players that will make their characters feel special, like they are the only character anywhere in the world that can do something or has something. The easiest way to do this, and the one you can do most often (sometimes repeatedly) is with items. Plenty of GMs/DMs, myself included, will roll on random loot tables occasionally to provide some spice and excitement to the end of encounters, and there is nothing wrong with that. Likewise, many will dream up magic items to pepper throughout their world for the players to find, and that is good and fun as well; it makes the world feel lived in, like it has an organic history. A lot of created items, however, are built from a worldbuilding perspective. For example, “This ancient elven king had a super-powerful blade which was fine-tuned for killing dragons,” and so you make a powerful dragon-slaying sword of elven design. I suggest that instead of focusing on worldbuilding first, focus on player first.
Players will carve out a niche for themselves, mechanically-speaking, within the party fairly early on, sometimes in the first session. They may choose to be a ranged combat specialist, or focus on healing, or focus on supporting their allies with buffs. Identify those things that players deem are most important to them mechanically and start creating magic items with those in mind. If a player builds an archery ranger who enjoys striking from the shadows, design a magical bow that has an increased chance to score a critical hit if the player is hidden when they use it. If a player creates a combat medic, you could come up with a set of advanced medical diagnostic devices which grant them bonuses when they perform medicine checks on other players. Once you’ve designed the items, ensure that the players gain access to them relatively easily. Don’t lock them behind high prices or secret puzzles that the players may choose or fail to pursue. You want the players to get these items, so make sure they can. The most important thing about all of this is to make the item; don’t look through the rulebook and find one that you think is appropriate. You want the players to also know that this item is new, not in the book, something that essentially was made for their character. Other people in the game world might have it, but knowing that no one else’s home game in the real world has this item has a certain special quality to it. With items, I suggest you give out several over the course of a campaign, so that players can end up with gear that they actually want and that they feel is special.
A second way which I would say is far more impactful, but of a more limited number of uses, is to grant a player’s character a unique ability that you have designed specifically for them. In most roleplaying games, characters are set apart from each other by their abilities granted by their class, if there are classes in the game, or the abilities the players choose. While players often enjoy customizing their character when they are given the chance to do so with free-form character construction in games like Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars RPG, or with Feats in Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder, they are still necessarily restricted by the rules to a locked set of choices. Creating a custom ability for a player can provide not only the feeling of being special for having something no one else has, but also excitement about being able to do something that is not available anywhere in the rules as written. I cannot recommend this type of unique reward strongly enough.
It is important to put lots of thought into the unique abilities you create for your players; it can be a complicated process. Of course, each player in the game must get one at some point if you give one to one player. They need not be given at the same time, but do not give one to one player at level three and then wait until level fifteen to give one to another player, or the last player. Just as important as making a player feel special is ensuring that no player feels left out. When you go about making the abilities, ensure that none will completely overshadow any of the others. They don’t need to be as finely balanced as the base rules, but again, do not give one player an amazing ability and leave the others with merely middling ones. When the time comes to begin creating the abilities, take into consideration the same concepts as when creating unique magical items for them. Think about what the player has made their focus or role within the party and try to enhance or complement that role.
We can look at the two examples above, the archer-focused ranger and the combat medic, and think about what abilities we may give them. The ranger has decided that they like to attack from cover, and received the magical bow that crits on a 19 or 20 when they attack while hidden. So, how can we play to that playstyle? We should help the ranger get into a hidden position, and then provide an increase to the chance to roll that 19 or 20 when attacking from hidden. The ability could read something like this: “You have made a concerted effort to take advantage of any distraction on the battlefield to slip into hiding and line up the perfect shot. You gain advantage on Stealth rolls while in combat. While making a ranged attack while hidden, you gain advantage on the attack roll.” We take something that the player has been doing throughout the entire campaign, trying to get into stealth and then attacking, even if just for flavor, and reward them for it with a unique ability. Likewise with the player who has been playing a combat medic. If using Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars or Genesys rules, we can give them an ability which reads as such: “You have become a master of calming your hands while you work in dangerous situations where another’s life literally rests in your hands. You may decrease the difficulty of any Medicine check you make in structured time. When making a Medicine check in structured time, you may spend three Advantages to also cure a Critical Injury or cure an additional Critical Injury, rather than a Triumph as normal.” Again, we make the player feel special, like they are becoming an unparalleled master at what they have chosen to focus on, and reward them for their playstyle.
I will leave you with some thoughts on balance. Roleplaying games, like most other forms of tabletop gaming, are playtested early and often in order to ensure they are balanced. When creating custom rewards for your players, you do not have the time or resources to playtest the items, abilities, or other things you plan on giving your players. You will try to make something fair and balanced while you’re making it. Despite your best efforts and intentions, you may find that something you give them is either underwhelming or far too powerful when compared to the game you’re running or the other players in the party. This is not a failure of you as a GM/DM, but it also should not remain the way it is. There are three ways you can go about solving this problem. The first is to speak with the player out-of-game and discuss a way to either boost or nerf the ability or item in question; they may feel the same way, or they may have a different opinion which can inform your future action on the matter. If they agree, you two can work on a new version of the ability together, and then have it ready in time for the next session. The second option is to address the other players’ abilities and items, improving them or nerfing them as appropriate given the issue with the one player’s ability. In all circumstances, I advocate boosting everyone’s to meet one player’s powerful item or ability rather than nerfing everyone’s. Last, you could adjust the game you’re running on the GM/DM side. For example, if you give everyone powerful abilities and your players are running through every combat encounter you put up against them, increase the difficulty of the combat encounters, with more or tougher enemies. It will require constantly tweaking and adjustments, but I find I am always doing that anyways in my roleplaying campaigns, so about par for the course. At the end of the day, the most important thing is that your players are having fun, and better for them to feel a bit overpowered than for them to feel like they are constantly struggling.
I hope this article provided some good thoughts for how you can improve your game and give your players some exciting new items or abilities. If you want more content, you can follow me on Instagram and check out my stuff on the DM’s Guild.
As always, good luck and happy gaming!