XP and the like is the currency of character development. Like real currency, we see its buying power more than its aspect of legal tender provided and backed by the state. Currency, when perceived from the aspect of the state or the GM, is merely a tool whose value is completely made up.
Getting out of that basic premise of currency helps in allowing the GM and the Players work out a method of payoffs based more on the events and circumstances of their individual game.
This is my little experiment in XPs vs Payoffs.
When we achieve our goals, like in projects at work or in our own lives, we grow. Achievment is not just in the form of money or material gains. Sometimes it is something our regular disposition might take for granted, like having new friends, contacts, acquaintances, a reputation, and rapport. It can also take the form that we just proved certain techniques and approaches work better, sometimes these things get reinforced and sometimes the bad habits attached to these are eliminated.
Lets take a A squire or sergeant man-at-arms who is out there to take a big bite out of the world. He is not out there for XP, he is out there to win a place in his lords table. Probably he would want to have his own holdings and to have more power over his own destiny.
In order to do this, he has to do what his lord tells him to do. He would work with other men of ability who have their own reasons, but in this adventure they are willing to work together to reach their own goals.
The Optimistic Premise.
Let start with pay offs which are about as ambitious as each other. Players should declare their character ambitions (or lie about them when it is a secret). This way all players signal to each other their commitment to achieve their character's individual goals.
Ex. Knight's ambitions is to be a Manor-holder with his own retinue, A rogue with a very wealthy enterprise, a cleric with a large diocese, the agent with blood debt paid and a secret forever silenced, and a woodsman having returned to his little piece of heaven.
The GM sets a number of points needed to achieve each objective in the end of X sessions. He can use a guesstimate ball park range.
I use GURPS and for me, such a fun story plot with the climax progression of your typical movie would take about 3 sessions. Optimistically, that would take around 15cp of well role-played tom-foolery to give it up to them (assuming a group of players that like to engage problems against all odds).
If PCs voluntarily enter into play or find a way to inject their character background, personality, and limitations realistically into the Game then the GM multiplies their Pay-off points.
More Realistic Premise.
Realistically, it will depend on how I know each player approaches challenges, regular people I know aren't comfortable despite the Game aspect. You can observe the signals of how realistic or ostentatious each Players goals and use it to benchmark how the story is going to flow.
Knight = Do my duty
Freeman = Make some money
Cleric = Do what the Church asks of me
Agent = Do the task asked of me
Woodsman = protect my interests
Notice how reactive are the goals. If the GM expects to be the primary instigator (or the players have been conditioned to rely on the GM to be the instigator) then the GM has to pull in more work to generate more opportunities for the PCs. Given the economies of GM's use of time,
Hyperbolic Discounting affects a game when players cannot appreciate better long term goals for their own characters. Usually this is because, players don't know how to expect, appreciate risk, or have been conditioned to expect pay-offs of killing NPCs or what the GM told them to expect as a reward.
As for Pay-offs, the GM will be "grading" their reactions instead of seeing how the Players figure out a way to work together and achieve their goals.
In such a situation I would then benchmark the cps at 3 each session (1 attendance, 2 role-playing and keeping character), and the pay-offs at 90 pts for 3 sessions.
How helping the GM in his job can be rewarded.
GMs struggle to make the games challenging and interesting. Making his/her job easier, should be rewarded.
In Voluntary Disadvantages the GM can assign multipliers of 50% more (x1.5, x2, x3, x5, x7, x10, x15...) for every interesting factor the Player introduces into the situation. So a player who finds a way to insert his conflicting obligations, his personal beliefs, economic disadvantage and real physical risk in a roll that pushes the game forward x7 the pay off reward.
If it proved to be one of the 3 key events of a session that would have resulted to a 4 CP reward. That's is 1.33 x 7 = 9 pay offs for that event alone. He didn't even need to succeed, just weathering the consequences is part of the fun. You can also just ask the Players the Highlights of the session and base multiplier from there.
The main idea is to have accumulate a ton of points and use them to shape the story after each sessions and at the end of the story arc. Like currency, don't be concerned by its "buying" power. The forces of conflict and the direction of the game is taking (like in legal tender) affect its value.
If you want a real "benchmark" for those competitive players call it "Creative Contribution". The character who can work up the most points basically contributed the most in making the story interesting. You can even say, if it were the movie he got the top billing star.
Escalation should be a greater source of challenges.
Escalation could be bad, but that only happens when their is a limited appreciation of the problems they create.
A knight that becomes a land holder, will contend with neighbors, expected to serve and provide assets for his overlord, can have a family or a more luxurious private life to maintain and have more to lose.
The merchant will have to content with others who seek to break his monopoly, greedy nobles or clerics who envy their wealth, and more complex problems resulting from control over a larger necessarily complex organism.
Even if the woodsman who has finally owned the rights of his land, he might have to look far to see those that might threaten it now he is its only charge.
In the fantasy novel: The song of Ice and fire, by GRRM, The main characters like Tyrion, John Snow, and Dani who kept advancing but kept getting into more and more trouble. There are also those whose plans failed or succeeded with unexpected results, and died.
The escalation is inherently a challenge by itself. It is asking the PC "Can you handle it?". Can you handle the power, the responsibility and the consequences.
At this level of escalation, the PCs are actually more surrounded by challenges as they are given more power and visibility.
Player > GM. There are more players than GMs, they have a higher capacity of getting things done. Coordination (while in Character) is where a lot of the interesting self-inflicted conflict can come from. Ideally the GM, can focus as the Facilitator and Arbiter while the Players are busy impov the situation to make it more interesting.