DysenteryKevin: Ok, I’ll use a spell to purify the water coming from this spring so that we can drink it without worry. You know how Hank can be a stickler about those things.

Hank: Hey, you want to go out in the woods of a medieval fantasy setting and camp, you’ve got to deal with some dysentery every once and a while. Remember…

Everyone: Oregon trail!

Lucy: Yeah, we know. But can’t we just assume we do this stuff?

Hank: And what if I ambush you in the middle of the night, we need to know that Yaolin is down a spell.

Kevin: It’s worth it not to deal with this stuff.  I cast the purify spell and we drink and poop without worry.

Hank: You know what, it’s a freebie. You cast the spell every time you camp and need water anyways, and that shows good roleplaying and thinking about what your characters are doing beyond the combat. Since it likely won’t matter that much, I’m giving it to you. Whenever you do that from now on, it’s a freebie. But, If I decide your lack of spell points would be an issue later, I’ll tell you that you are one less. Sound good?

Everyone: Looks of shock at the GM’s kindness and uncommon generosity.

Kevin: Yeah, sounds awesome, actually. Thanks!


It’s likely that we’ve all run a game where we’ve wanted to play it more realistic or get the players to really focus on the ancillary aspects of the game. Too often our players focus on the combat, or the fact that the duke is obviously going to double cross them, or one of a thousand other tropes of gaming that we’ve all encountered and lived through. Sometimes, we can become embittered by games not going our way or our players wanting to play an entirely different kind of game than we envisioned. It can make us less forgiving in other games as we try to enforce a structure that gets at the game we wanted to run. If you find yourself being a little too strict with your game mastering, you might want to consider giving out freebies to your players every so often.


So what exactly is a freebie? Well, many things in more traditional role-playing games require an expenditure of resources to activate them. Spells, points to activate abilities, coinage to purchase mundane day to day items, etc. Often, the point of this is to require resource management. Whether it is casting spell slots in D&D, acquiring equipment in Shadowrun, feeding nightly in Vampire, or one of a hundred other similar situations, dropping your players freebies every so often, especially when you are trying for more control of the mood of the game, can keep a happy atmosphere going.

When and Why?

Dropping freebies to keep players happy is something that can help engender trust, but if it is the way your game works or is an accepted paradigm of your gaming style, then it isn’t going to work too well. It can still be effective, but it should be a token of faith and not a constant case thing. So when should you do it? The purpose is to give your players a treat and show them that you aren’t just doing things to screw them over, so whenever it feels appropriate to is when you should. Here are some thoughts.

  • When it is something that the players do often (camping for the night – handwave it and assume they have an S.O.P., when casting the same spell in mundane circumstances)
  • When it is something that has little effect on the game (the bard always busks for money to pay for supper – ignore the roll and assume they cover it plus a few coin, the hacker attempts to hack people’s goggles on the street just for fun – ask if they expect a benefit or are just messing around, when the survivalist lays markings to mark their route)
  • When doing it would bypass a simple challenge and helps progress the story (the detective talks his way onto the crime scene so he can get some more information, the seductress seduces the duke – enabling the scene where she has to escape from the guards, the Doctor bypasses the lock with his sonic screwdriver to find the trap set up for him in the next room)
  • When it is for cinematic effect only (the mage levitates her drink over to herself, the cyborg changes his haircolor with a power, the person with a jetpack flies up to the roof of the building to pose)
  • When the situation is right and it helps show that you’re not working against the players (anytime that giving a freebie wouldn’t affect the overall game, undo the work you’ve done to create a mood, or prevent a challenge that you want to be actually challenging)


The long and short of it is that we as Game Masters often get seen in a stricter light. It just goes along with being the primary rules arbitrator. It is especially vibrant when we’re trying to create a certain mood or create a unique and memorable structure in a game. Something so simple as giving players freebies when they cast simple spells, do repeated tasks, or they are merely trying to shine the spotlight on their character and say “See how cool I am, I can do this thing!”, shows you are paying attention and are focusing on the players’ fun.


So, how often do you let players have a freebie on using a power or overcoming a situation? Under what circumstances do you do it? Or, do you think giving out freebies every so often hurts more than it helps?

16 replies
  1. shortymonster
    shortymonster says:

    I tend to see freebies as a great way of skipping over the dull stuff. I will, for instance, always assume the characters reload their weapons; there won’t be a time when they get penalized for not telling me about it.

    And unless being poor is part of the character/plot, penny pinching over the cost of drinks at the tavern/pub should be avoided at all costs.

    • Clawfoot
      Clawfoot says:

      I agree with shortymonster. I’m pretty allergic to too much book-keeping. I don’t require the mages to keep track of how many/what spell components they have on hand, or the rangers to keep track of how many arrows they have left, or the party to keep track of how many food rations and water skins they’ve got. The only exception is if I throw them into a desert or something and then the scarce water and food resources become an important element of the game.

      Realism is okay, but there are details I don’t need to know.

    • John Arcadian
      John Arcadian says:

      Definitely. Older RPGs definitely had the focus on realism and ensuring that every little thing was marked off and tracked. Newer RPGs, especially the realm of indie RPGs, embrace exactly what you are talking about. What is the game we are playing, every other detail isn’t as important, so just roll with it.

    • zydd
      zydd says:

      I strongly agree.
      For example, I don’t have to tell the GM that my character drinks a little water, goes to the “toilet”, or takes a breath. These thing are trivial..

  2. lordbyte
    lordbyte says:

    I tend to evade as much bookkeeping as possible unless it’s interesting or relevant to to the story or world. (No need keeping track of arrows, but I may dramatically rule that a fumble is out of arrows). In some worlds (Post-Apocalyptic fantasy) resource management was important (although abstracted).
    As for cool stuff, if it is considered “very easy / automatic” OR if it doesn’t give an in-game advantage my players are free to do what they want (within some reason).

  3. Roxysteve
    Roxysteve says:

    I’m on the fence about freebies, and not in favor of the specific freebie discussed in the article. Why? Not because I care particularly about the water purity issue, though it is worth pointing out that I’m having difficulty thinking of a single struggle to solve a problem, real or fictional, that didn’t involve a shortage of some crucial substance or thing, and the reason we find the triumph in such stories so entertaining is the way the people concerned overcame the privation – or not.

    It’s because of the attitude that inevitably follows, which I term “PC Entitlement Syndrome”. In extreme cases it can fracture a game. The “freebie-creep” gets to the point that the game loses any sense of challenge outside of rolling dice to get treasure.

    I guess it is all down to what you are looking for in a game. To me challenge shouldn’t come down to armor class and hit dice of the next pinata o’ treasure, and that’s what I see this idea leading to eventually.

    • John Arcadian
      John Arcadian says:

      The players could definitely feel entitled to getting freebies all the time, but, like you say, it depends on what type of game you are playing. Let’s take a D20 fantasy game. My style for running a more old school dungeon crawl tends to bring in more of the resource management and questions about how the party plans their traveling, lodging, preparing for the dungeons, etc. When I’m running a more political or city based game in d20 systems, I tend to let most of that stuff go by. They live in the city, they probably have systems set up to figure that kind of mundane stuff out, since it is their daily lives. I do pay more attention to how they play out their alliances and what political resources they have. I guess it all comes down to which resources you want to manage.

      • Roxysteve
        Roxysteve says:

        I’m possibly (make that definitely) still smarting over a player who took part in a recent game of mine where the treasure was life and game changing – going from low-class schlepper to so rich you never have to buy anything again because people will fall over themselves to extend credit for whatever it is.

        Said player wanted to finesse the problem of the “countless savages”, and I let him since he was obviously being clever about it. He wanted to finesse the guardian monster and I dug in my heels, then compromised allowing him to avoid contact totally *and* have access to large supplies of something he had no reason to bring along to kill it, even though it was obviously *the* “encounter monster”. When I mentioned the curse he went ballistic, accusing me of running a “shopping list problem” whatever *that* is.

        I was so angry I ended the session early and went home. I realized later I had simply enabled this player’s bad expectations so I did something I had never done before and won’t ever do again – I wrote to all the players laying out the challenge in black and white and spelling out the reward and then pointed out that generations of very smart NPCs had died trying to get this treasure and if they, the players, expected me to simply hand it over because they didn’t want to actually figure out a plan and equip properly to carry it out then they were in for a tragic disappointment. Then I polled everyone as to their desire to continue the campaign, and got back some encouraging replies.

        Never again.

  4. Lee Hanna
    Lee Hanna says:

    I’m confused: are you rewarding them with not having to take detailed precaution when they tell you that they are taking detailed precautions?

    • John Arcadian
      John Arcadian says:

      The general idea is that if the players are doing something that normally costs some expenditure of resources, but it is something they do often, doesn’t greatly impact the mechanical aspects of the game, or would oil the wheels so you can get onto more fun parts, let them do it without an expenditure of resources or asking them to roll to see how well they do.

      If you are running a game that is heavier in rolling to see how well anything succeeds, then giving players free passes in some small areas can help make the game less tedious and helps to build trust. It also helps to assume a level of skill on the PCs behalf. I.e., the bard is good enough that they don’t have to roll to make dinner money every night, the group has enough camping experience together that they know how to deal with most basic issues in most NORMAL circumstances, rather than requiring that they roll or spend resources to make something happen.

      • Scott Martin
        Scott Martin says:

        I’m a huge fan of “not sweating the small stuff”, particularly once the players have earned out of it. (Once PCs are saving on the scale of castles or +5 weapons, there’s no reason to keep track of inn fees.)

        Getting the group on the same page is important, though. Sometimes diligent players see “slackers” as small scale cheaters–rewarded for not keeping track of expenses and supplies by not constantly suffering the small drain. If bookkeeping below a certain threshold is gone, make sure everyone knows. Conversely, if one player isn’t keeping track of still important resources, nudge them to match the group’s standards.

  5. kirkdent
    kirkdent says:

    While I agree that freebies can speed up the game, I also like the idea of having players roll some of the mundane tasks, such as the example bard busking for bar money. The roll is simply a question of rolling a 1 for autofail, or rolling a 20 for extra-awesomeness. Everything else is simply a success.

  6. Tsenn
    Tsenn says:

    Agreed. Life’s too short and gaming time is shorter still. If the game style seems appropriate, I’m all for giving out small mercies if it gets us on the path where the actual decisions of consequence await.

    I will be explicit in my small mercies, to make it clear they are things I decide to grant as GM. I will also make it clear there may be costs (one way or another) should they seem to be excessively shirking their heroic duties.

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