Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Where Experience Points Went Wrong - Part 2: Encounters

Yesterday was all about how and why XP is awarded. Today is a separate but related problem: TOO MANY ENCOUNTERS!

In D&D 3-4-5 and in Pathfinder there is an assumption that to level up we need a certain amount of XP. No problem there. Then we make another assumption that the XP should come from a set number of encounters - let's call it ten for argument's sake. So each "encounter" for a given level awards a set number of XP. I'm probably OK with that as a general concept. Then we have to decide what makes an encounter. That might be 4 monsters of that same level. Bringing in some higher or lower level monsters would award more or less XP proportionally. This is also usually tied to some assumptions and math regarding character offensive and defensive capabilities at each level.

In the rulebook, what you get is usually a fair number of pages devoted to balancing encounters.

Online what you get are a ton of forum posts about problems and experiences with the system.

In published adventures what you get are a bunch of fights included not because they make a ton of sense or because they fit a plot but because the party needs a certain number of encounters to progress! To me this is the worst possible reason to include anything yet designers keep on doing it. It's the kind of thing that makes me wonder if they really run longer campaigns.

In plot-heavy adventures it drags things out as unneeded combat encounters are added in to fill out character advancement before the adventure can move on the the next chapter.

In sandbox type adventures it's not as direct a problem unless you're trying to "zone" the area like an MMORPG. In that case it means you need a minimum of X encounter areas to ensure your players get enough XP to safely move to the next zone. Players rarely follow the GM's plan so they probably won't be as worried about this kind of thing as you are. It keeps the game interesting at least.

The focus with written adventures tends to turn into getting through fights or looking for the next fight rather than just doing interesting things. Combat can be a blast but it's hardly the only thing you can do in the game. At least 4E D&D brought in the skill challenge which codified a set of skill rolls into an alternate form of encounter that did not require combat and awarded level-appropriate XP. People look down on that edition as a miniatures combat game -and it was good at that - but it is the only D&D type game that has a built-in detailed system for non-combat XP awards.

It's human nature to want to put a system around these things, I get it. But the outcome has been mixed. These games tend to equate "encounter" to "fight" and so combat becomes the primary goal. These games also tend to have fairly detailed combat systems so the fights take a fair amount of time to work through. Getting to the next level can rather easily become a slog through a bunch of fights that don't mean anything other than getting the XP you need to level up.

Story awards make up for some of this but they are really not a system - they're more of a suggestion. Still it's a useful concept when in a plot adventure I am looking at adding in 3 more encounters to "make budget". Instead I can just say that uncovering the identity of the traitor is worth 3000 xp or whatever number will let the party level up at that point.

You might think from reading the above that I am against wandering encounters - I am not. Wandering encounters are a way to add life to a setting. Everything shouldn't be sitting in a lair waiting to be attacked. In the early editions of D&D you didn't get much XP from killing monsters - most of the XP came from treasure, and treasure was mostly in lairs. So they were a risk without much reward. This meant we sometimes avoided things because it wasn't worth a fight. That pretty much never happens now.

When I converted Pool of Radiance to 4E I stuck pretty closely to the system XP and Encounter guidelines but I didn't always want to sketch out 10 or 12 combat encounters per level. I made sure to include at least 2 or 3 places where skill challenges applied. Part of it was because there should be other options and part of it because we could resolve it in about a third of the time as a fight.

I don't mind having a system for advancement, particularly in a level-based game. I dislike it when it becomes a straitjacket that defines the pace of an adventure as a set number of combats that must be resolved before advancing. In a standalone adventure this doesn't come up as much. With the pre-plotted Adventure Path campaign approach becoming more popular - it's the Pathfinder standard and now 5E is doing it too -   I expect this will continue to be a problem.

How to make it better? I'd really like to see a skill challenge type system come back as a standard part of these types of games. It's not a perfect solution but it does point out that XP can be awarded for something besides combat and if it's formalized into the mechanics then there's a better chance that it actually gets used.  Plus, there's no reason a tense negotiation with the elf king or a strenuous desert crossing shouldn't award XP just like a fight with some frost giants would.

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