It’s a stereotype for a reason, and I won’t deny it feels pretty good as a player to find that magical weapon at the end of a long quest, it feels even better as a GM to know you’ve picked out just the right one to reward the player who finds it.
We run into a problem though when players have acquired a few, they tend to lose their magic (pun intended) and can even decrease in utility for those players. It’s important for us as GMs and DMs to mix it up sometimes when it comes to rewards.
How I see it these rewards can fit into four different categories and can be either promised or discovered:
Category 1 - Material
Material rewards are the most straightforward and often the most expected. These can come in the form of currency or items. When planning item rewards they should fit the environment and be something that might be of at least some value to the player characters (even if this value is not readily apparent). This can take the form of valuable components like gems, beautiful treasures, magic items, or mundane items that might be of use.
This last category I find the most fun to reward. Mundane items can be specialized tools which are often expensive and sought after, or an otherwise normal item with an addition that sparks intrigue. For instance, the players might find a velvet cloak with strange embroidery that later they might use to gain access to inner circle of a secret society in a nearby city. Your party don’t have to know that the item they’ve found has other uses in the world when they find it, only that it stands out a little from other items of its kind that they’ve seen in the world.
I find both mundane items and components are the best rewards for thieves or urban infiltration missions as well, since they are things that might more realistically be found in those situations.
Category 2 - Territorial
No, I’m not talking about land deeds (although that could be a fun option if you’re willing to spend the extra time on it) but instead territorial rewards can come in two forms:
Taken/regained territory that is won back through battle or other means, or the access to new areas on the map. This access can be granted by enemies in the path being removed, a new ally-ship created with those who control the borders, or through a newly earned method of transportation.
Territorial rewards work because they always grant the feel of campaign progression and the players' actions as having real effects on the world.
Category 3 - Informative
Probably the most common reward we as GMs grant without even always realizing that it is a reward. If you’ve done your job running the game correctly your players will be intrigued with your setting, they’ll have questions about the world and goals to explore it. As it is already a great motivator for your players giving them more information about some aspect of the world that interests them can be an awesome reward.
Already, through their exploration of a location of conflict, they should be learning information about both it and its place in the world. Maybe they also come across letters addressed to someone from a notable NPC, or they discover a magic unique to the area they’re exploring and can experiment with its reactions. Conversations can be overheard, answers can be promised, tapestries can depict lost histories, the methods of presenting informative rewards are endless.
With presentations like tapestries or carvings these rewards might also present as mini puzzles within your dungeons adding another layer of gameplay.
Category 4 - Social
This final category of rewards is probably the most difficult for some GMs to execute. This is only because it requires an extra attention to character relationships and roleplaying.
Social rewards can come in the form of trust or fame that grants more social mobility. Alternatively, they can be new bonds, or favor granted with a character whose opinion matters to the player characters. Like informational rewards, social rewards tend to increase player’s investment in the setting and story, setting you up to grant more of them further down the line.
There’s no reason to stop granting magic items and traditional treasure as rewards (unless they don’t fit your setting) but it is a good idea to diversify the rewards your players receive. Many of you might even already be implementing this at a smaller scale without realizing it.
If you haven’t before, try out some of these other reward categories and let us know how they work for your table!