Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Experience and Advancement in D&D and Pathfinder

I stumbled across this post a few weeks ago and it spurred some thoughts that have been buzzing around in my head ever since. It's about gold and megadungeons and how to manage PC wealth but that's not really the part that started the wheels turning for me. It's really right there in the first paragraph, this:

There are a number of inter-related factors in old school D&D that work together to support the megadungeon as a campaign centerpiece.  Dungeon level equaling monster level and difficulty provides the players the most direct control over danger versus reward during their planning.   XP for Gold means that creative problem solving and ingenuity is more important than combat - avoiding fights and still making it out with the money is the best path to victory.

Down in the comments, John Arendt has a post that adds a little more:

XP for gold is elegant in its simplicity and abstraction - it's fairly objective, transparent to the players, and it covers the gamut of adventurer activities by rewarding the end state and not the process.

One of the complaints I see online about RPG's now is that they only reward killing monsters. The last few versions of D&D, Pathfinder, and lot of similar type games do primarily give XP for defeating opponents. This understandably tends to heavily focus the game on combat encounters. There is a whole system for rating monsters that's tied into a formula of encounters per level to determine how fast a character makes the next level. It makes the whole thing seem very precise and mechanical but leaves it laser-focused on combat as the way to success.

It wasn't always like this. As much fun as has been made of the older D&D advancement system of XP's for gold, the quotes up above show why it was not nearly as limited as some people thought back then and still think today. Experience was awarded for killing monsters back then too, but it paled next to the awards for gold, totaling maybe 10% of a typical run's XP. It doesn't matter how you get the gold (or magic - magic items had an XP value too) what matters is that you came away with it in the end. That encourages a much broader approach to a situation than killing the monster. At a minimum, deception and negotiation are clearly options and the bards, monks, and rogues in the party might find themselves valued for something besides backstabs and carousing bonuses.

Just as a point of illustration, when was the last time you heard someone say in a D&D game "yeah we need him he's really clever" compared to "we need more DPS" or "we need a tank". I don't hear it a lot around the game these days.

Now 4th edition didn't completely ignore this idea. Aside from the math and formulas around the level and experience system in that game it also added the concept of Quest XP, rewarding a party for completing certain tasks aside from killing monsters. There were major and minor quests and based on the level assigned to them they awarded a certain number of XP's. That game also added Skill Challenges to allow for a system for resolving and rewarding non-combat encounters that fit into the larger experience point system. That's pretty solid coverage, but it's still mainly determined in advance by the DM - This is a combat encounter, this is a skill challenge, doing this awards some quest XP. I like it and I've used it for several years but I'm sure it could be improved upon.

Pathfinder doesn't have as formalized a system for going outside the lines on XP but I do see it in the Adventure Path modules. There are plenty of combat encounters of CR-whatever but there are also points in the adventure where there are things like "award a 600XP story award if the players do X". Some of them encourage PC's to behave in class/race/alignment appropriate ways. Many are a lot like the Quest XP from 4E, intended to give players a bonus for running down side-plots or advancing the main thread. Others are a bonus for finishing the adventure and may also be there to ensure the party is bumped up to the next level and ready to begin the next adventure in the series. Given the structure of Adventure Paths I have no problem with this.

It's an odd quirk that Pathfinder, a system with a ton of support for pre-made story/quest type adventures, has a primary XP award system based almost entirely on defeating opponents. It does use story awards but that's extra, not the primary. I suppose it does work though. Using the first adventure of Wrath of the Righteous as an example, the opening sets up the premise of the whole campaign. After that, there is a lot of stuff, but the players can succeed, fail, or ignore quite a bit of it. The climactic encounter is the only other thing that "must" happen to set up the rest of the campaign. In between, as long as the characters are beating up bad guys (and they are bad - it's all demons and demon cultists) they should gather enough XP to be ready for that final encounter even if they skip some set pieces, get their NPC friends killed, and generally blunder along without a clue and without regard to some of the expectations on the part of the adventure. A purely story-based award system would force a lot more railroading on to the party. Basing it on combat encounters does give the team some freedom. Maybe these guys do know what they are doing.

I still wonder if gold-based XP wouldn't work at least as well, but I'm not going to rewrite the whole thing to find out.

Interestingly, D&D type games are the only places I see this kind of discussion/debate. Most other games are structured differently and the XP system built for each game fits what it's trying to do well enough that there's not a lot of call to change it or tweak it. Games without levels in particular seem to avoid this whole segment of RPG talk, maybe because of the lesser emphasis on advancement and more on completing the story. Superhero games are almost entirely story-award based. At the end of each scene there is some kind of reward (it may be hero points and not experience points, but it's there), then at the end of the mission/adventure/arc there is a larger award. No problems there as it fits the genre. Star Trek tends to do the same. Star Wars games tend to follow the same structure thought the d20 versions did have XP for defeating opponents featured pretty heavily.

Another approach I see sometimes is per-session XP. I agree players should feel like there's a reward for being in a game, but I've never liked giving points just for showing up. Ideally, advancement should come from doing stuff in the game. I could see some benefit to this in an open-table type game to reward regular players for taking time to get a group together, but that's about the only situation where I like it.

To me, experience systems in a game should reward the kinds of behavior you expect to see in the game. If the primary reward comes from defeating opponents, that's where the game will center. It's very specific though. Quest/Story XP does mitigate this somewhat but even then it's the exception and not the norm for the system. The XP-for-Gold approach is pretty broad and doesn't worry about the means so much as the end. It encourages play more akin to the Conan/Fafhrd/Gray Mouser stories. A focus on completing scenes/missions quests is going to be more like Lord of the Rings. A focus on killing the opposition as efficiently as possible encourages play more like ... Warhammer 40,000.

I know this post covers a lot of ground but it's not something I see enough of, especially outside of the D&D family. New games come out regularly, especially with Kickstarter, and there tends to be a lot of focus on mechanics from skill resolution to class features, but there's little focus on how experience is awarded. Sure, GM's are going to change it to suit their own tastes but that's true of any subsystem in a game. Having a well thought-out, clearly described system for experience and advancement is incredibly important for driving behavior in a game. As a GM it tells me what the designers were thinking. As a player it tells me what I'm supposed to do. Combining this with in-game rewards (magic, money, other nifty gear) should tell players how to get what they want for themselves and their characters.


Kelvin Green said...

One thing that's a bit weird about 13th Age is that for all its talk of storygame ideas and dumping experience points, it does tie level increases into defeating enemies. I am running the game now and while I haven't decided on how I'm going to deal with it, I think I will change the "12 tough fights per level" rule to something like "12 episodes or encounters per level"; it's a little vague and handwavey but I think it will work.

Lead Legion said...

I agree that the current focus on combat as a means of gaining XP has led to a a decline in the sort of out-of-box thinking that earlier editions encouraged.

One means I've used to try to encourage this type of thinking in later editions is to offer XP awards to players who come up with a good idea. I also award full XP for an encounter in which the bad guy is defeated by means other than combat. However, this requires good book keeping because if they come back later and kill him, they don't get the XP award twice.

Unless, of course, Mr bad-guy has levelled up since then.

Blacksteel said...

KG: 13th Age - I totally forgot about that one when I was writing this up so thanks for chiming in. That is strange that it keeps a similar XP system. I think we all tinker with these parts of the rules sooner or later. Heck I have the rulebook around here somewhere, I need to finish reading it.

LL: I've done some of those same things, mainly because I want to reward that kind of stuff in-game. I used to throw out bennies in Savage Worlds for cracking up the whole table too.