Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Where Experience Points Went Wrong - Part 1: "They're Not Worth XP Alive!"

I've been reading a lot of games these last few months, particularly older games. Reading RQ2, some old AD&D adventures, d6 Star Wars stuff, alongside Pathfinder stuff, D&D 5E, and Rifts for Savage Worlds gives some interesting perspectives on things. For today I want to talk about advancement and how games award experience points.

There is a ton of effort put into balancing encounters in a lot of modern games. D&D 3-4-5 & Pathfinder in particular. Why? Well, for one thing the mechanics of the game are built around the assumption of an escalating series of target numbers to resolve challenges in play. The other reason is that the leveling system is built around an assumed number of encounters per level. Say the assumption is that the party will have ten encounters each level before leveling up and moving to the next level. The game should give guidance on what those ten encounters should be. It's good to take a systematic approach to this kind of thing and put some math behind it right?

I'm no longer as sure as I once was.

With "encounters" most commonly defined as "combat episodes" the core of the game, the default assumption, becomes focused on fighting opponents, intentionally or not. GM's will skew towards it because that's what all of the numbers are about. Players will skew to it because that's how you level up and they want to level up!

Now there is some concession to "Story Awards" as  a means of rewarding players for accomplishing certain goals beyond killing more monsters. Pathfinder, 4E, and 5E all talk about this. One problem is that it is presented as an exception to the norm. So it's monstersmonstersmosnters with an occasional bonus from something else. The bigger problem is that it assumes there is a pre-existing story to follow, which is a pretty big assumption to make.

An offshoot of that, one I dislike intensely, is to just have the characters level up at certain points "within the story". It's a cop-out! We're going to build this class/level/XP system that takes up chunks of the rulebook to describe those rules and the inevitable "building balanced encounters" section but we aren't going to use it? Plus, again, it assumes even more than the story award that there is a plot that must be followed. It just screams railroad to me and I will never run a game that uses that approach.

Other games take a different approach. One example  from Savage Worlds to d6 Star Wars to GURPS to Hero - is to give experience points per session. Not per fight. Not a story award. You basically get some kind of progression points for showing up and participating in the game. I can totally work with that - simply being a part of the campaign world gives you experience. I could see layering on a bonus for defeating certain enemies or discovering some new area or thing to encourage action in certain directions.

This leads into my main point: Experience points are an incentive for players. They encourage players to take certain actions. If there is a system of character advancement players will want to advance their characters, so they will do whatever expedites that advancement.

For some games the incentive is mainly "show up" and that works just fine. It's sort of a meta-approach, one that exists outside the game world, but it can certainly work. It's just very broad and doesn't really drive any particular character behavior.

A more in-game approach, such as the D&D/Pathfinder approach, encourages players to act through their characters in certain ways by encouraging specific behavior. If there are chapters of the rules specifying monster defeats as the only enumerated source of experience, then you're going to get a hack and slash game pretty much automatically. Because the rules of the game drive your players in that direction. If all you have is a hammer, etc.

Here's a bit of a secret though: It wasn't always this way!

In the old days, sure, there were some combat heavy games, but it wasn't the focus of every game. Why? Because XP came from gold! The much-laughed at system of OD&D/AD&D/BECMI. Mostly laughed at by people who never played it! There's a reason a standard part of the OSR house rule discussion is 10x monster xp or whatever - because 90% of the experience in older games came from gold pieces recovered and only 10% came from beating monsters and a lot of players just can't see the sense in it. So they change it without even trying the original.

So why should they try it? Because it shifts the incentive from "kill monsters" to "acquire more gold". Sure, a lot of the gold available for the taking is held by monsters, but if the XP is in the gold and not the monster then it is possible to gain XP without doing a single point of damage to a monster. It's way too subtle a shift for some people but once a player or three pick up on it you start to see some major changes. Every character doesn't have to be built and geared for maximum combat effectiveness! Stealth and deception become far more valued. "Talky" skills are suddenly useful for actually gaining XP some of the time. In fact, that whole skills list starts to get a second look as people start thinking in terms other than DPS. A Pathfinder type Ranger with the ability to sneak, find things, and talk to animals has a pretty strong set of options right there. Consider the potential of the shapeshifting Druid in bypassing guards - or leading them away! Magic takes a different turn as well as everything from charm person to invisibility are even more useful than before. Heck illusionists start to appear once again as a powerful character type.

One example: In Pathfinder as written a party of all rogues is not particularly viable because their combat effectiveness overlaps too much and is not that great to begin with, so killing monsters is a tough assignment for them. If two of them sneak in and loot the chieftain's hoard while the third is trying to sell him Amway at the front door  ... well yeah they might be able to pull that off and they get a decent amount of XP for it too! Add in an illusionist keeping things lively out front too and you can have all kinds of fun - and no one is terribly concerned with damage modifiers while you're doing it!

Sure, you could just have the party kick in the door and slaughter everything to level up but not every game has to be an action movie. Why can't some of them be a heist film? The members of the Fellowship of the Ring were not all combat monsters. Nor was the A-team. If you want to encourage something beyond all-combat-all-the-time then it helps to incentivize those other things.

Putting the XP into something monsters have, rather than something monsters are, lets your players decide on how to recover it. Pulling the xp into the monsters themselves removes that choice and assumes combat is the primary, if not only, solution.

Now this isn't going to work for every game, but it does work for the default style of play for a lot of D&D type games. It worked years ago and there's no reason it can't work now. I don't expect a sudden rush back to this exact approach but it does highlight that awarding XP differently does encourage different behavior. Even as subtle a change as shifting from monster kills to gold recovery makes a notable difference. I'm hoping we will see as much thought put into "what" earns XP as we see put into the numbers associated with XP, encounters, and levels.


Adam Dickstein said...

I don't see how 'acquire more gold' is an improvement in any way.

I think one of the first things my friends and I changed back in 1982-83 (maybe earlier? maybe later?) was to NOT give XP for gold. It made no sense.

"I looked down, found money, and now I'm more skilled!"

The only Experience earned from finding gold in a monster's lair is that you know to look for gold in future lairs.

Why not give XP for how the player handled the situation? Did you use innovative tactics? XP. Did you find a non-combat solution when it was obvious the monster would cut a deal? XP. Did your PC leap in front of a volley of arrows to protect his PC, or NPC brother, or sister? XP.

I just feel like if your going to focus on gold instead of killing things, ask yourself how they're going to get that gold. My guess? Killing things and stealing it. Same as it ever was.

Blacksteel said...

You're thinking at a surface level there BA.

XP for monsters = must kill monsters. There's one solution.

XP for gold = must take gold from others. There are a lot of ways to do that beyond killing something and it signifies that you had to do something to get it - thus the XP. It's an abstraction, kind of like hit points, that covers a lot of things.

XP on a total ad-hoc basis means it's impossible for a player to know in advance what's going to gain them XP. How the heck do I know what you're going to consider "innovative"?

This is the conundrum - XP for showing up is easy. XP for killing monsters is easy. XP for gold is easy and at least a little more varied than total combat.The real trick would be coming up with something that has a more obvious and direct relationship with the kinds of things you want to see happen in the game but is still possible to write out in advance?

Adam Dickstein said...

Sorry, I needed to repost my response as my new phone's autocorrect is learning challenged.

I have always been of the mindset that, as a player, I should be rewarded for progressing the story, thinking on my feet, exploring the GM's setting, and generally contributing to making a session entertaining.

Why should I know precisely what will get me XP? That sounds more like a video game, or a MMO where you farm for XP and treasure by endlessly killing the right monsters in the right area as they repeatedly respawn.

I am very curious to read more. For me this is like learning about a foreign culture or language. I hope to better understand my fellow gamers.

Blacksteel said...

I know these aren't really your games so I doubt it's come up much for you but I spend quite a bit of time with them and it's just a constant issue with how they are built. Hopefully we can all still get along and find a better way.