Use an experience point ‘slush fund’ to encourage role-playing

While there are several different connotations for the term, one definition for “slush fund” is an account in the general ledger of a company that uses the double-entry system of bookkeeping. Essentially, the slush fund is used to record transactions involving funds commingled from other accounts, and as the default place to record transactions and expenses that shouldn’t properly be recorded elsewhere in the ledger. Strangely, the concept of a slush fund has applications for a Dungeons & Dragons game, which can inspire superior role-playing. 

The fourth edition of the D&D game (4e) is especially suited for this function, due to the formulaic nature of encounter design and character advancement. The Gentle Reader will remember that the 4e Dungeon Master’s Guide recommends that each experience level be divided into a number of combat, skill challenge and quest encounters, the total XP award of which is enough to bring the heroes to the next level. This post suggests that while the 4e experience point (XP) system allows for the dungeon master (DM) to reward heroes for victory in combat, success at skill challenges, and broad completion of campaign quests, a formal mechanic for rewarding superior role-playing – like the individual XP awards presented in legacy editions of the D&D game – is absent.

It could be argued that 4e  role-playing XP is awarded through the skill challenge and quest XP mechanics, an argument that this writer accepts – to a very limited extent only. It has been this writer’s experience that superior D&D character development doesn’t come from accomplishing a story goal or skillfully negotiating during skill challenges; rather, it comes from the way a player acts and reacts to the other characters and the DM’s setting on an ongoing basis. It takes sustained effort by a player to do that, and that effort should be encouraged in a game intended to be role-playing intensive. But how can that sort of effort be encouraged under the 4e XP rules?

One solution involves the DM setting aside a quantity of XP in a slush fund – perhaps a sum roughly equal to an encounter of the heroes’ level – and use it to reward superior role-playing, either as individual awards or, if keeping everyone at the same XP total is important, as additions to the group’s collective XP. Awards from the fund should be doled out gradually, during the course of each experience level, becoming an “encounter” in itself that is sprinkled across the others planned for that level.

The sort of role-playing worthy of an award from the fund will vary from one game to the next, but role-playing behaviors such as those listed below might be included:

  • Speaking in character more often than out of character;
  • Making decisions that are consistent with a character’s beliefs and values, but that may not be beneficial to the character;
  • Displaying emotional reactions (within reason) to in-game events when in character;
  • Vividly describing a character’s actions in combat, using the flavor text provided with each character power as a guide;
  • Remembering, or keeping written records of, the names of various non-player characters (NPCs) and campaign locations, so that the player can interact with other heroes and NPCs as a native of the campaign would; or
  • Interacting with the personalities of the other heroes in ways that will help bring those other personalities into the game’s spotlight.

Regardless of the level or quality of role-playing in a D&D campaign, if all players make a concerted effort to improve their role-playing in the ways described above, the quality of the game can only improve. As a reward, the party may be able to avoid the danger and time investment of one full encounter en route to their next experience level. If they fail to raise their role-playing standard, they’ll have to face that added danger.

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12 comments on “Use an experience point ‘slush fund’ to encourage role-playing

  1. geek ken says:

    Interesting idea, but I’d like to point out a section in the DMG2 from group storytelling, “Award XP equivalent to a monster of their level for every 15 minutes they spend in significant, story-advancing role playing.”

    There it is in black and white, a guideline for DMs if they want to reward players for some good roleplaying. Sure you could set aside a pool of exp to draw from and keep within budget, but I think you don’t need something as structured as that.

    I can never understand the 4E haters that bemoan roleplaying in this edition is dead. Sorry, but the skill challenge mechanic is a great way to finally get all those NPCS conversations you had in the past into something structured that a DM can dole out XP with. This is even further reinforced with the DMG2. WotC is TELLING DMS if you think your players are advancing the story by roleplaying, reward them, and here are some guidelines for what would be appropriate.

    I think roleplaying is supported by 4E. And there are guidelines there to do just that. I think most folks just have to be willing to get beyond the quest/kill monster = XP formula.

    • max.elliott says:

      While I agree with you on your points, there are many other reasons 4e is having trouble gaining acceptance among the older gamer crowds. You are correct that 4e would not hamper a good GM in good storytelling. Nor would any system really, no matter what it’s drawbacks or what misconceptions existed about it.

      For example, our current GM favours xp purely for character advancement and has added in an “Action point” system common to other rule-sets in order to give stronger awards to the players.

      • Alric says:

        It’s interesting to see how many GMs are house-ruling on this. It seems that none of the editions does a complete job of tackling that issue. Thanks for the comment, Max.

    • Alric says:

      Point taken, Ken, particularly about the skill role-playing skill challenges. But that isn’t the sort of role-playing I’m trying to reward with this post.

      I take issue with the DMG2 using the phrase, “story-advancing” role playing in that statement. It seems to me that story-advancing role playing and character-advancing role playing are not always the same thing.

      An example of what I’m talking about took place in one of those rare campaigns in which I was a player instead of DM. During the first adventure of the game, My rogue saved a seriously wounded PC ranger with a timely sneak attack, a feat that the rogue loudly touted until the ranger saved the rogue a session or two later, after which the ranger began bragging about saving the rogue. During the course of the next several levels, those two saved each other’s lives so many times there was no point in keeping track, but each character took the position that he was the better fighter, to the point where they would criticize each other’s performance (and woe to any player who rolled a 1 on an attack – it took weeks to live that down). We enjoyed playing through that banter, and the other players would sometimes goad us into doing so. But that role-playing had nothing to do with advancing any story – it just helped us develop our characters. And it wouldn’t necessarily fall under the DMG 2 ruling – unless the DM decided that the banter was “significant,” that it advanced his story, and that he was willing to track or approximate when we might reach 15 minutes of doing it every few sessions. In such cases, the DMG2 guideline is clumsy at best.

      • geek ken says:

        I’ll agree the DMG2 bit is a bit clunky. I think it more as a general yardstick if a DM was so inclined to reward RPing.

        After a bit of thought, I have to admit your idea is nifty. A nice way to give a nod towards those players that go all out during your sessions. I think this would also be a great way to encourage some more quiet types to get out of their RP-shell a bit, and be more interactive with NPCs and the rest of the group.

  2. Neuroglyph says:

    I like this idea! It’s a very good “carrot” to lead the Players to add more role-playing to the campaign. Especially good for groups of newbie role-players – helps reward getting over “rpg shyness: jitters.

  3. mr0bunghole says:

    I used to reward roleplaying XP, not as a slush fund, but as a percentage of the session’s total XP. But this created a problem in that only the same players earned this XP, eventually causing their characters to outpace the others in XP gained. Then it became an issue about fairness between the players/characters.

    My suggestion to any DM that wants to implement roleplaying XP would be to reward it to each party member equally based upon the overall roleplay of the group.

  4. Gerrett says:

    I like this reason “Making decisions that are consistent with a character’s beliefs and values, but that may not be beneficial to the character;”

    It so hard to get some to act in a way that is not in their character’s best interest but would be their character’s reaction

  5. ClefJ says:

    Yes, a good article. But it’s been months and we request Moar! D8

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  7. I am Confuse says:

    So, is this site dead, or what?

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