Hey everyone, Jarred from Monsters & Multiclass here. Recently I have been thinking on what drives players to complete quests. Usually, when a DM wants players to do something they will dangle money or magic items over their heads. Three months later the party has 10,000 gold and enough magic items to take down Tiamat, and they've lost all sense of challenge. And that's only at level 7! So how do we get around this? I'm only going to cover one of these in this article, but in an effort to eliminate clickbait articles here's the short list of what I'll be going over.
2. Favors (You Are Here)
5. Catharsis and Good Feelies
If your players have succeeded at making interesting characters, they will have goals and aspirations. It's easy to tell if someone made a character the night before session one, or if they have been stewing on it for months.
It's then up to the DM to take those goals and aspirations and turn them into some quests. The quests can still tie into the main overarching plot, but the reward can be anything you want. Unless the character is driven by money and money alone, you may want to consider giving out something like a favor. Favors are more interesting than money as they ground the players in the world's resources, offer moral quandaries over the quest reward, and leave room for abstract payment
Your world, be it homebrew or an official setting, will constantly be under scrutiny from your players. Even if it’s just a ping in the back of their mind that something feels off. Money is a big factor in that. If everyone is dirt poor except quest-givers who hand over thousands of gold at the drop of a hat, your world doesn’t feel real. It feels like there’s a massive economic issue where a few key NPCs are so absurdly rich that the focus of the campaign quickly switches to wealth redistribution and taking down the bourgeoisie.
It’s okay to make NPCs unable to financially compensate your players, they may be able to help the PCs in other ways. This lets your players even dictate their terms of reward as well. They can go so far as to keep these favors in their pockets for a point further down the road. And based on what the NPCs can do, it builds your world up as a dynamic place with different locations having access to different things.
Another reason to go for favors is to project some moral questions onto the quest. Moral questions are the building blocks of TTRPGs so I try to throw them in at every opportunity. In this case, your party may be willing to do a job but the way that they are getting paid might be questionable. For example, the party needs help getting into the royal palace. The local thieves guild can help them out easily. When you describe that the guild plans to off a guard then give his uniform and badge to the party so they can infiltrate the palace they may have some questions on whether or not this is worth it.
But, if they just get money for their work, that’s it. Even if you tell them this money was stolen or made selling illicit materials, they aren’t going to put the pieces together as well as they will when they realize that these actions are being done for the party in payment. This might prompt the party to find alternative methods, or it might be the start of them killing children for money. You can really never tell.
Lastly, favors can allow for payment that is currently undetermined, this means that the favor can take the form of whatever it needs to be when the PCs most need it. If an NPC says that the PCs will have their service in the future, it can open up quite a few doors. One way I have handled this is by making it quite clear that your PCs helping now will ascend this person to a higher status. If you help a low ranking guild member climb through the ranks, they are going to be very inclined to help you in the future. With such an abstract reward, you can drive your players to make creative solutions later. I often have quests that at their most basic level are fetch quests. Go somewhere and get this thing. The most proud I have been of my players is when they completely sidestepped a quest by calling on a favor and delegating the task to someone they previously helped. Funny how sometimes the most fun a player can have is by not playing the game! They felt like they had earned their reward and concocted a clever solution to the problem and that was more important than putting themselves at risk for the original quest. It also creates a hilarious juxtaposition where the players for once get to give quests instead of take them. That alone is worth giving it a shot.
There’s a Druid who has a personal quest to restore their homeland that is being ravaged by some disease. They set out into the world to find a way to stop this disease, and along the way get mixed up with the rest of the party. You have them on an overarching quest to stop a world-eating dragon from being summoned. Everyone in the party is on board with this because they like the world and don't particularly want the world to be eaten by a dragon. They are directed to a Grand Sage who may just hold the secrets behind stopping this calamity. When the party meets with them, the sage is more than happy to help stop this dragon because he too is not fond of the world getting eaten. He’s a good guy like that. But he needs help with something first because otherwise, we wouldn’t be playing D&D.
We find that he needs the party to recover an ancient artifact that's kept guarded in a temple. If they recover it, he can use it to help the party stop the world-eating dragon. Recovering this alone is earning a favor, but maybe we want the druid to be extra involved in this questline.
Let’s make the sage take an interest in the party, and they learn about the druid's desire to save their homeland. You can then add an extra hurdle into the main quest in order for them to receive the aid they require. The sage sweetens the deal by offering to assist in whatever way they can once this is all over. They just have to do a little more for them. In this temple where the artifact lies, there's a flower with immense healing properties and the sage requires it. If the druid retrieves that as well, they will have the sage's favor for the future. So now we've tied together the main plot quest, a character-specific side quest, and not a single bit of money has been discussed or changed hands. The druid is much more involved in this than they normally would because the stakes have been raised. They now have a stepping stone to saving their village!
If you want to remove the main plot elements, we can look at factions. Players often enjoy the feeling of heroism and companionship that can be found by rising through the ranks of a faction. The standard Forgotten Realms lore has plenty of factions to choose from, The Harpers, Zhentarim, etc... Quests specifically for those factions are a stupendous way to offer favors.
Players who dedicate themselves to completing tasks for their faction will not only raise through the ranks but also will gain favor. Creative players will find ways to use these favors. For example, if the DM gives two time-sensitive quests and the players have to choose between them, a character who has built up a faction reputation can call upon their group to assist in the other quest. Depending on your DMing style you can throw some foils in there if you'd like, but it can really be a way to make characters feel valued by their faction.
So what are you waiting for? Get out there and give some non-monetary rewards! Your players will thank you at every opportunity for keeping their pockets light. Well okay maybe not, but they’ll at least have a better attachment to the world and spend less time trying to throw money at magic items.