Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Experience: What to Award it For?

This has been going around the forums and blogs... again.

My thoughts:

  • Experience should be awarded on concrete, objective standards.
  • Experience should be easily tracked and awarded.
  • Experience should be awarded based on things the characters don't have to do in-game.
  • Experience should be awarded based on things anyone in the game can do.

So then.

I'm not going to deal with fiddly crap like fighters getting experience for fighting, magic-users getting experience for casting spells, blah blah. They players will come up with reasons to do this stuff when totally inappropriate just because they get experience for it.

Experience for role-playing? No way, because that usually means somebody is grading someone else's game performance on a completely subjective basis. Nobody should feel pressured to engage in amateur dramatics if all they want to do is say, "My guy asks that guy there if he knows where that thing is." Someone who's had a bad day at work, just got dumped two days before, maybe they're glad to get out amongst friendly types and play the game but don't want to engage. Maybe they don't really even feel like being there so much just this one week but don't want to screw the game up for the rest of the group and so show up anyway and just do the minimum on their end to keep everything going. I don't want to be a dick to those people by penalizing them in comparison to other players.

Experience for exploration? On the surface this seems like a good idea and in tune with the themes of the game, but... I just watched all the Vacation movies in the past couple weeks, and it gives me visions of the PCs turning into Clark Griswold and arranging their triptiks for no reason other than to do and see it all. "Come on guys, let's go see The Cave That Looks Like an Ear!" If a character dies, do the players decide to tour the party around all the old haunts to give the replacement character that exploration experience?

There is experience for monsters, but you know what? Even though it fits all my criteria above, I don't like giving experience for monsters. Not a single point. What frickin moron (I'm talking in-game... I know plenty of frickin moron players that enjoy that sort of thing... ;) ) wants to fight weird and deadly beasts? Shouldn't that be an obstacle to a further goal than an end unto itself?

But those ends... goal and plot point oriented awards strike me as too arbitrary and almost self-congratulatory for the referee. "Hey, you guys willingly went along on this adventure! Have some XP! The award is exactly as much as I think it should be for you!" There might as well not even be an experience system. Just level the guys up whenever you want them to fight harder stuff. Why not?

Experience for gold is sublime in its effectiveness in taking everything involved with the playing of the game and abstracting it to an easily trackable game mechanic. You can't think of it literally - "Oh gee, I found a gold coin in the street, so I'm a little bit better at what I do!" - but the placing of gold in places that require role-playing, or mission-solving, or dealing with monsters, or exploration, or characters using their class abilities, effectively summarizes and rewards those activities. And all you have to do is keep track of how much money is gained during adventuring.

Now I would make that an important clause: Money gained during adventuring. If someone opens an inn and profits, they should just get the money, not experience, else every successful merchant will be a high-level NPC. The same for rulers and taxes (the "every ruler is a very high level character" thing was a major problem in the Mentzer rules that broke any chance of my believing in a setting using those rules as-is).

This does require that treasure sometimes be spread in areas where it might not make the most sense for treasure to be, and does result in de facto story awards at times anyway ("Rescue my daughter and I'll pay you 1000 gold!" has to be considered gold given for adventuring), but there are variable ways to go about it.

Players can say, "Up yours, railroader!" if they don't like a particular storyline and go tool around for random encounters in the wilderness hoping to stumble across a lair with treasure, and get experience for it. It doesn't require them to talk in character when they don't feel like it, it doesn't require referees to bend over backwards trying to come up with hooks that intersect with every character's backstory (WHO GIVES A SHIT?) and gives PCs automatic motivation to get up the hell out of the house (no "why should I?" crap from "players" who act like they need to be convinced to play after they've already shown up to the game).

With variable paths and variable activities resulting in variable amounts of treasure, what the PCs do at every turn potentially affects their experience total. With plain story awards, it doesn't matter how things happen. "You saved the princess! Here's some XP, on me!" With treasure for experience, the process becomes important. "You saved the princess, and did X and Y to do it, netting you Z experience." But if the PCs didn't discover the identity of the secret conspirator, or just didn't follow up on it, they can still save the princess and accomplish their goal but missed out on the side-issue that they could also have benefited from in objective terms, not just nebulous "story awards."

Complications can be thrown in as well. What if the way to XP is something that delays or derails the PCs from their in-character goals? That becomes an interesting choice to make... further the "story," or sacrifice it in the name of accumulating power? Done frequently, that's a dick referee move, but done every so often, and you create some real tension and debate at the table.

It makes people who want to be honorable heroes have to decide to be so, perhaps at a real cost that more roguish characters would not have to pay. You know, making players play their characters as heroic instead of just writing it down and then playing it any old way you want. (especially if you only divide experience among the survivors! Hee hee, stab you in the back, my XP take just went up 25%!)

And of course in the traditional dungeon crawl, finding the most treasure is a direct indication of player skill (and luck!). Players that aren't so skilled are going to miss a lot of the hidden treasure, make bad choices in pursuing the more obvious treasure.

So many things you can do.

The entire experience system, and indeed the entire class and level system, is an abstraction. Breaking it down to the level of "This is the sort of thing that makes people better at their skills in real life" and trying to apply that to an abstract system just makes my head hurt.

Gold for experience just seems like the simple way to do things. I don't know the exact thought behind the experience system as originally presented in early D&D, but it (especially after Supplement I slashed the experience awards for monster slaying), like many early D&D systems which seem to be "illogical" or examples "sloppy design," actually turn out to be far more flexible and applicable than perhaps they were ever intended to be.


  1. Experience for exploration? On the surface this seems like a good idea and in tune with the themes of the game, but... I just watched all the Vacation movies in the past couple weeks, and it gives me visions of the PCs turning into Clark Griswold and arranging their triptiks for no reason other than to do and see it all. "Come on guys, let's go see The Cave That Looks Like an Ear!" If a character dies, do the players decide to tour the party around all the old haunts to give the replacement character that exploration experience?

    While I'll readily admit my latest scheme has flaws, I'd be pretty stoked if my players went scurrying all over the wilderness map of their own volition.

  2. You say that now, but wait until they want to take their Vegas vacation and then you'll have something so awful on your hands that even those producers of only the finest cinema, National Lampoon, won't put their name on it.

    Or something like that.

  3. I've never found that to be the case with exploration XP. Yes they want to see the world...but I see that as kind of the nature of adventure. Climbing a mountain simply because its there, adventuring to the south pole because no one else has made it.

    The gold as XP issue in many ways seems waay to subjective. Whats an adventure? Is undergoing a risky business venture considered adventure? With all kinds of opportunity for doublecross and backroom deals? What about running that in if its constantly full of barfights, sordid deals and you know, low level adventurers plotting things.

    Isn't rescuing the princess for a thousand gold no different then being assigned a "Story reward" of 1000xp for rescuing the princess?

    Now there are game types where the Gold = XP is brilliant, games with abstracted wealth and often amoral characters.

    I've seen some heist based games where the mechanic of turning in gold for XP worked brilliant, made it a real choice. Keep the gold to buy special items, or just rely on abstracted wealth and turn it in for XP.

    In the end though, to me at least, it seems not to solve any of the problems, simply rename them. Which is to say its not really any worse, just not any better either.

  4. Interesting, thought-out, thought-provoking post--even more so than usual. So much so that it provokes thoughts even in me that others might find interesting (maybe, if I'm lucky):

    1. "There might as well not even be an experience system. Just level the guys up whenever you want them to fight harder stuff. Why not?"
    I actually did this once, but it was special circumstances. The campaign was one where we played literally all day, every day, a hundred hours per week. People were gaining enough XP to level up several times _per day_. Rather than try to work out a multiplier that made sense (1/10 XP? 1/100?), I just said "to hell with it" and declared that each character would gain a level every nine days of real time that that character was played. Worked for that campaign, but obviously hasn't worked any time I've tried it since.

    2. What I'm currently thinking of trying (when my group finally gets back together) is exactly what you describe in your post, but with the added wrinkle of only giving XP for treasure, only for treasure found while adventuring, and _only_ once the treasure is actually spent. Not necessarily on carousing, a la Mr. Rients' random table, but on anything. Anyone have any thoughts on whether this is a good or bad idea, or why?

    3. "Done frequently, that's a dick referee move, but done every so often, and you create some real tension and debate at the table." Why is it that everything that a DM can do that does create tension and debate (and everything else good) turn into a dick move if done too often or too clumsily? And why is that line so hard to walk?

    4. The comments so far seem mostly to be on the XP for eXPloration bit, especially the question as to whether it encourages interesting play or just dicking around visiting everything you can, boringly. Maybe I'm stating the obvious, but I think it depends almost entirely on what kind of players you have. Some will take the system as a cue to do interesting things, and some will "go Griswold." But I also think that the first type are fairly likely to make these interesting explorations on their own, without the DM giving them an excuse. I think that it's when you have players who are in the first group, but just barely so and need that nudge, that the idea can be useful.

  5. It's my personal preference to reward experience based on whether the game moved forward that session, if the players learned something about the world, and if they completed a story arc. That way, I am rewarding the player-characters with advancement solely in the elements that matter to me: getting things done, immersing themselves in the setting and pursuing story arcs. The rest of it (killing monsters, finding treasure, etc.) are secondary benefits to choosing to act like heroes rather than shop like citizens.

  6. I've just posted more extensive thoughts on the matter on my blog, In Like Flynn:


  7. My problem with experience for treasure is that I typically like to run low-treasure games. I don't want the prices on the equipment lists to ever become functionally meaningless (which is what happens when the PCs are running around with thousands of g.p. each: "Sure, I can afford to buy dozens of suits of plate mail!"

    My solution has been adopted from Korgoth. Here it is:

    At the conclusion of each session, each player rolls 1d20 for his character. On an adjusted roll of 20, the character gains a level. The roll is modified by +1 for each previous failed leveling roll at this level only.

    Thus a newly 3rd level fighter completes a session. He will gain a level again on a roll of 20. If he fails, the next time he completes a session he gains a level on a 19+, then 18+, etc.

    Thus it's totally outside the control of both the players and the Ref. So everyone can feel free to do what they like during play! (My one requirement is that the PC engages in actual adventure. Sitting around the entire session in the tavern doesn't count as adventure.)

  8. I am not a big fan of g.p.=x.p. because monetary treasure is either (a) determined randomly or (b) determined arbitrarily by the DM. So it is not any more objective than any other method. I've been awarding x.p. per encounter and it has worked okay. Every method has its logical flaws. For me, the underlying question is: Do experiences points represent the rewards for a successful adventure or lessons learned by characters? I think the word "experience" tilts it towards learning rather than reward (of course it is still a reward). The bottom line is the best system is the one that works for the DM and players. So long as the DM and players understand and agree on the system, it doesn't really matter how the rest of the RPG world does it.

  9. Personally I prefer both the "gold standard" and monster defeat, and in B/X play the former is often much more gainful than the latter (monster XP, without XP "per hit point" amounts to little more than an XP bonus for all but the largest monsters).

    I agree that XP should only be awarded for gold gained through adventuring...I'm not sure what I think about gold given as a reward for "an adventure completed." Certainly the older D&D adventure modules didn't offer much in the way of "rewards" (clean out the giants? yeah, any treasure you find along the way is yours but our own coffers are bare)...adventure was its own reward, so to speak.
    : )

  10. I'm happy with XP for gold. I'm also happy with (reduced) XP for monsters. Not for *killing* monsters, just for defeating them. Whatever that may mean; let the players be creative. I'm not happy with XP for travel, plot points, roleplaying, or many of the others.

    My way of handling XP for stuff that's not monsters or treasure is: if a player solves a problem using one of the six attributes, they get 10 x that attribute in XP. Players have to claim it. If they can convince me that more than one attribute applies, they get more XP. The one modification to this I'm considering is increasing the award if it's a really gonzo, should-not-work-because-you're-so-outclassed-in-that-attribute solution. Maybe 100 x attribute, in that case... to encourage that ST 3 MU to risk a feat of strength every once in a while.

  11. Good post, but you didn't mention a critical point: how do you generate your treasure?

    How those treasure tables are/were constructed, how often PCs tend to level using them, etc... THAT'S the discussion I'd like to see on the blogs.

    I'm running Moldvay/Cook B/X D&D, and the pace is GLACIAL. All my dungeons are by the book in terms of stocking and treasure, and yet from what I can tell, other people don't have the same issues. I've got PCs with 4-6 sessions under their belts, who have less than 300xp. Other folks are telling me their players level every 4-6 sessions...

  12. Hmmm. Interesting. However, if one uses a system where XP is gained solely through the acquisition of gold--then if the party spends much of a session, for example, role-playing their characters interacting with the elven court, or the town locals, developing contacts and cultivating friendships, romances, etc, as well as further developing their own characters...they would not warrant any XP?

    In my own campaigns, I'm fine with being the DM, and just awarding XP based on gold, as well as monsters killed and/or defeated, roleplaying, story achievements, exploration, special attribute uses, cool things, whatever. I have assigned awards for some things, and use my judgement in awarding something appropriate for other accomplishments. It's detailed, tailored, and works well.

    Semper Fidelis,


  13. I love xp for gold! I use pre-Supplement I combat XP awards (100 xp per monster HD) but even so treasure is the main source of experience. I do agree with Geoffrey that the sums of gold involved quickly destroy any pretense of realistic medieval economics, but I'm happy to throw that out and explore the implications of a world where 30-300 bandits may have jewelry worth hundreds of thousands of g.p.

    Two things I've found to be helpful:
    - awarding XP for gold spent, as per Rients' carousing tables and Arneson's "wine, women, and song" special interests system. (I give XP for gold twice - once when you successfully bring it back to civilization, again when it's spent - and nevertheless, like tehcr0m, my rate of advancement is exceedingly slow.) Last session a player said that this carousing was a huge part of his enjoyment of the game because it rewarded building connections between your PC and the world and defining what they cared about based on how they spent their loot. (I'm not sure this would work in a system where you could choose to spend your gold on enhancing your personal power by spending on magic items or on carousing for XP; in this campaign I'm finding it very satisfying to avoid putting monetary values on magic items, so that trading them always involves barter with specific individuals & their unique goals).

    2) When I feel like the players have achieved a story goal I've had great success with asking myself "which NPC might reward the PCs for achieving this?" It only took one such reward before the players seized this and started thinking about who they could get to pay them for great deeds they'd already done or planned to do in the future. I like that gold is the currency of experience because it's concrete & in-game rather than abstract and meta-game, so it drives events in lots of interesting ways. If I give the PCs a thousand XP, they might level up but that's it. If I give them a thousand gold, with XP for GP I get lots of other interesting consequences along with the desired advancement: how do the PCs spend their wealth, and who notices and tries to cut themselves a piece? Are they taxed, robbed, or sucked up to? What happens to the local economy? - Tavis

  14. I don't like XP for gold and monsters. Not one bit. In fact, I rather hate it with the fiery passion of a thousand suns. But not because I adhere to any particular game design philosophy. I just don't want to have to do the math. "2,567 gold pieces, 786 silver pieces, five gems worth 500 gp each, 3 gems worth 100 gp each, that rolled up tapestry worth 50 gp, one 6+3* HD monster, one 4+1 HD monster, five 2 HD monsters, five 1/2 HD monsters, and don't forget your prime requisite adjustments of +5% and +10%. How many henchmen in the party get a half-share, again?" Crap-on-a-cracker, people, that is NOT elegant or sublime or in any way even vaguely necessary!

    Okay, so maybe I do adhere to a philosophy: KISS (keep it simple, stupid!). That's why I use a dramatically dumbed-down advancement system, whereby only a handful of points are needed to go up a level, and they can be doled out one and two at a time per game-session, depending on what the PCs do. Do they diddle around town and pick bar fights? No points. Do they try accomplish their goals? One point. Do they make real progress accomplishing their goals? Two points, or maybe three if it's really noteworthy and heroic. Level up at every eight to ten points, depending on character class.

    It works like a freaking charm.

  15. "[I]f the party spends much of a session, for example, role-playing their characters interacting with the elven court, or the town locals, developing contacts and cultivating friendships, romances, etc, as well as further developing their own characters...they would not warrant any XP?"

    It depends on the style of game you want to run. As an alternate version of Jim's example, if you want NPC rulers that are high level because they spend all day earning XP for court intrigue and schmoozing then I guess that's okay for the players to get some of it, too. If you want a game where players are robbing tombs and exploring the mythic wilderness or underworld, then XP for gold is a good, workable system.

    I think it also depends on how much of a gamist you are (and I'm pretty gamist). XP for gold is very gamist, because it's a simple, workable rule of thumb. It takes the central focus of the rules-as-written into account and wraps it up nicely with a bow. However, it doesn't take other activities into account, such as those that you mentioned. I like the idea Jim brought up, of it being a dichotomy between getting experience or furthering one's own goals.

  16. J. D., that's a very attractive xp system you use. It's similar to the system in Star Frontiers. Your system would be my second choice (after Korgoth's system that I've adopted, as explained in my comment above).