How does a GM properly reward a player’s good decisions and roleplaying?
In a more character-driven RPG (such as the 3rd Edition of Dungeons & Dragons and onward), there is a potential for a player to work their way through a tricky / interesting / unique puzzle or situation by merely rolling some dice. Other than the movement of their hands, the player has no impact. In other systems, such as the original D&D and its clones, the player’s creativity and inventiveness drive the resolution of the puzzle or situation, not the character’s skills (player-driven). One of these approaches can limit player ingenuity and roleplaying; the other forces it.
Before I go any further, I want to define what I mean by character-driven vs player-driven
The non-combat skills have specific rules. No matter how bad the player is at something, if the character has the skills and rolls well, the character will succeed at the task. For example, if a player is not charismatic, but the character has lots of social skills, a roll of the dice may allow the character to succeed at convincing the duke of the realm to lend his magic sword to the party so that they have better chance of defeating the evil monster rampaging across the countryside.
The character’s non-combat skills are almost entirely dependent on the player’s knowledge. The success or failure of an action are fully on the player. If the player is not charismatic, no roll of the dice will convince the duke to give up the magic sword. Guess it is time for the peasants to move to a neighboring land!
Both of the approaches in their most extreme form have issues. The character-driven approach reduces everything to rolling the dice. Player ingenuity is discouraged. In a player-driven approach, it can be difficult for people to to come out of their shell. If Eric the player occasionally stumbles over his words in real life, he may not want Rowgdar the Just to say anything in a tense situation, in case his words make things worse.
I think that character-driven skills in non-combat situations have a place in a role-playing game. I know this might not win me many friends in the OSR community, but if I do not have the skill to wield a claymore expertly in real life and my character can…why not other skills? As a GM, I want to strike a careful balance here, because too many rules may require consulting a table or chart that slows down gameplay at the table. I also want to encourage my players to try out weird and wacky ways of resolving a given situation.
What do I do? I know that in my Dungeon Master’s Guide from 3.5, I am advised to give the player s +2 bonus to a skill check if they have a great idea or roleplay a situation well. That just seems so… “meh”. I want to give something more “meaty” to really encourage the player. This is one reason I am in love with the advantage/disadvantage mechanic from 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. There is something about getting to roll an additional die that puts a gleam in a player’s eye. Moments like that really make the game better for all involved and will encourage further roleplaying and good decision making.