Sunday, February 21, 2010

Tie A Rag Over My Eyes

This was originally going to be a comment on the previous post, but it went long and got deep, so I felt it was worthy of its own entry.  You might want to read this about Fridge Logic, and the comments, before continuing here.

I am baffled as to how non-fighter abilities such as assassination, backstabbing (supported by move silently/hide in shadows), open hand damage or spells (sleep, burning hands, magic missile, web, fireball, cloudkill, heat metal, cause light wounds, cause fear, call lightning, produce flame, spiritual hammer, chromatic orb, hypnotism and so on) are somehow not classed at the primary gains where it comes to non-fighter classes. I haven't heard any mages getting excited at 5th level because they can at last use infravision. I don't deny that non-combat abilities do accrue at gaining levels, but lets be serious about this - it is the combat privileges that players slaver for.

It is disingenious to argue that a player's hit points do not increase their likelihood of surviving through a combat, or that players do not take advantage of the best punishment delivering spells when they get the opportunity. Just as it is disingenious to argue that a thief isn't most often using his thieving abilities to arrange things so that the thief and the party can kill something. Note, I say 'most often', not 'always' ... so don't waste time giving me solitary examples where this isn't so. I know it isn't always so. But a thief using thieving abilities isn't worthy of an X.P. bonus ... do you give a monk X.P. bonuses for dodging missile weapons?

Carl, take note - since the very beginning of my online campaign, I have starved the players of ready cash - not by purposefully doing so, but by accepting that they would rather avoid conflict whenever possible. I do use the g.p. rule in my campaigns, but in total, in 4 months of playing, I've awarded almost nothing this way. I'm quite able to be liberal in my treasure, but I keep finding that whenever I set up a circumstance where the players might do a. and b. and thus get a big reward, the players sidestep and miss it entirely.

I don't find it problematic ... I can play the game forever no matter what the party chooses to do, and keep the tension going. I do find it interesting that I don't need to do anything to keep money out of the players hands - given that money clearly isn't their motivation.

At the same time, I won't reward them X.P. for choosing another path. I hear arguments like "gut-feeling of how hard the challenges ..." and I quail ... it's a sandbox game. If a party wants to make it hard for themselves by behaving honestly, denying themselves fast money, or taking paths which provide little combat or treasure rewards, that is their bailiwick. I don't care what my gut tells me about what they deserve, because my gut has no business as the DM of this game. I am often astounded at the party's cleverness. But it isn't my JOB to patronize the party ... it is my job to provide a system of blind justice.

15 comments:

Leopardi said...

I actually agree with most of what you are saying but disagree that the "making it up as you go along" method of awarding experience is incompatible with sandbox play or that it is really any more arbitrary than any other method particularly when gold for XP comes into play (the arbitrary element being based on the placement of gold and the danger to gold ratio of course).

So an evil mid-level party decide to ignore the Temple of Elemental Evil and instead raise the village of Hommlett, killing all of the low-level inhabitants and taking their gold - have you seen how much those peasants have stuffed away! Easy gold and therefore XP for comparatively little risk.

On the other hand, as written, players get 100,000 xp for conquering the Tomb of Horrors which seems pretty much the epitome of awarding XP based on the "gut-feeling" of the dangers faced.

Going back to the sandbox, in the "gut-feeling" method for sure if they stay at the inn and help the innkeeper find his wife's missing wedding ring (earning the innkeepers thanks but little else) they are going to get less XP (read probably nothing) than if they raid the goblin encampment and less again than if they bypass the traps in the Dragon's lair on their way to defeating him.

The only real difference from the classic set-up is that if somehow the PCs slay the dragon but miss the secret door to his true hoard in the "gut-feeling" method it's not going to make a lot (or any) difference to the XP they earn but in the classic set-up it might make some considerable difference.

Carl said...

It isn't that wizardly spells, for instance, can't be used in combat (as they clearly can and are) but that if you are following the logic of your original post it makes no sense to say that the wizard should get better at casting these spells by stabbing something with a dagger or bashing it with a quarterstaff.

As for the thief abilities, it has been my experience that they see more use in avoiding combat than they do in combat. Moving silently and hiding in shadows are usually (in my experience) used to bypass sentries/avoid alerting a potential enemy, climb walls and open locks used to gain entry to some place through means other than simply fighting your way in.

Of course, in the latest editions of the game (although I get the feeling you aren't playing 3e or 4e!) the thief has transformed into an Assassin/Ninja class.

A big difference in my case is that I am DMing Mutant Future, which uses Gamma World style HP that don't increase with leveling up.

I guess my real problem with using XP for killing monsters is that it only supports a certain type of game. Sure, the default D&D game does involve going around killing things. Is that the only type of game you could run with the engine? Certainly not. But would a player ever level up in a campaign based on court intrigues and social interactions? Not with the rules as written (and definitely not without the GP for XP rule). This gets to the heart of what I mean when I say I award experience based on how much I feel the characters accomplished - if they spend four sessions carefully maneuvering some warring factions against each other and manage to frame the parties enemies for something and prevent a nuclear war (events from my current campaign) it just seems silly to not give them any XP just because they didn't kill anything!

To each their own, I suppose.

Carl said...

As an addendum to my previous comment - I suppose another question is whether or not leveling up is even important in the first place in a campaign that doesn't feature combat?

Andrej said...

Carl, your addendum took the steam out of my reply. I'd only add that I've always personally felt that too much focus is often put on treasure, magic items and XP in the game. Don't get me wrong, as both a player and DM I appreciate a +1 sword and a dragon's horde as much as the next guy; but to me the real reward of playing the game has always been... well, playing it.

Carl said...

Andrej, while the DMs reward for playing the game is playing it I think character progression is what keeps players coming back. The act of playing is great, but it's a vehicle to character advancement.

Try running a session or two where there's no opportunity for experience or treasure but lots of role-play and puzzle solving and see how your players react.

Zzarchov said...

I would again disagree with spells being primarily about burning hands and fireballs and a means to simply kill, at least to kill in a combat related sense.

The end goal is usually the wish spell if we go with the "ultimate goal", and that is far more than combat.

The most dangerous mages in a combat sense are often those who don't take combat spells, spells they could be just as well trained in (or logically could) without ever engaging in combat. Things like stoneshape, fly, teleport.

Hell the first level spell sleep really isn't a combat spell at all, it bypassses combat. It can allow for slaughter, but there is no combat involved, nothing to learn from in a battle sense.

A battle mage who acts as a living howitzer is certainly one way to play, and even a common way for some players (its the easiest way to play), but that doesn't mean the wizard needs to focus on combat to be effective. If you only reward XP for combat, you will see more use of combat spells that will skew your results. If you did the opposite and reward XP to wizards only for avoiding combat, you would see players select a completely different set of spells and be just as effective without ever engaging in battle or battle spells.

Likewise if you only give XP for treasure and not battle, and but banks and the like to rob around..you will see thieves care less about backstab and slaughter and more about robbing banks. Way back I had a ninja in the group and posed XP penalties on the ninja for killing anyone but the intended target to encourage theme, theif skills came into alot more of the spotlight. Levels are primarily about combat if combat is the only way to gain more levels. If you make the only way to gain levels not about combat..and they cease to be about increasing combat effectiveness.

R said...

For what it's worth, I've gotten rid of experience points based anything other than completing a game session - and it's a flat rate too. Everyone gets 800 or 4,000 or whatever amount was ascribed to the adventure beforehand.

Nobody cares about XP in my campaign. They're just there to have a great time. This hasn't led to any avoidance of combat or PCs just ducking and hiding hoping they can just stay alive for a few more minutes and get to the end of the adventure.

What it has led to is an enormous relief in bookkeeping. Also, when my players attack something, I know they're doing it for something other than the metagame-reasoning of "I want more points." Which, to me, is more realistic.

Zzarchov said...

To expand upon the point of "arbitrary experience", I have to agree whole heartedly and disagree at the same time.

Combat itself is an arbitrary lump of XP, its just decided before the game begins. There is no internal logic to why an Orc is worth X experience and a Hobgoblin Y experience and a Dragon Z experience other than vague and subjective levels of "difficulty".

And hey, don't get me wrong..if everyone knows before hand it works out well.

It may be arbitrary but its still objective as long as there is a valid and concrete reason. "Orcs are worth X experience not Y because the book you could all look at says so" is objective, if still arbitrary.

Re-reading my comment here, I am using arbitrary incorrectly but I cannot for the life of me remember the correct term for "lacking a deductive reason". My apologies as I know that only makes it harder to follow any logic I may be attempting to convey.

So with puzzles and clever machinations, I can see and strongly agree with the logic of noth giving experience points for the MEANS of solving the "puzzle", but I still think solving it requires XP.

What is combat but a puzzle in a purely abstract sense. If a devious trap is bypassed I give out XP, what I don't do is modify it based on how they disarm it, nor set it up completely arbitrarily.

If its pressure plate tied to a log trap, that was set at 140xp before the game began. If they get passed it they get 140xp, regardless of if they invent some cool mechanism to bypass it, or just run past it and hope to dodge. They beat the trap, they get the XP.

Andrej said...

Carl: Myabe in general you're correct and maybe my situation is uniqe, but it's the only situation I have. Sessions with my offline campaigns have gone by with little to no "reward" and things go just fine. That said, in truth my players aren't really the role-playing type. They like combat and tactics, so that's what they usually end up getting into. Our core group has been playing together for 20 years... any one of them could recount a great fight, a masterful plan that either blew up in their faces or came off perfectly or the time x did y and how cool it was. I bet none of them could remember an individual experience award or treasure. Most of them probably couldn't tell you what their highest level character was. It's just not important to them. If/ when they want that sort of pay off, there's a bevy of CRPGs to keep them interested (and 1/2 of the group plays them regularly).

But don't take my word for it, check out Tao's online game. I don't know how many hundreds of posts or tens of threads there are now, but I suspect you could read through whole weeks-worth of playing before you got to an XP award. Alexis has already pointed out in his blog that treasure has been little to none. I keep coming back as a player because its fun, regardless of how my charcater is progressing. Gaining levels and new abilities keeps things fresh and new, but to me as both a player and DM, it has always been secondary to the actual playing of the game.

Carl said...

To avoid any confusion - the Carl who posted immediately after Andrej (with no icon next to his name) is a second Carl.

Andrej said...

Thank you. I was confused.

James V said...

I'm feel a little silly, I should have taken a moment to read this post before I posted my thoughts on the previous one. But I still want to make a comment.

I think the post makes a good point, that especially for the type of game that seems set in a fantastic world driven by a concrete and rigorous logic, that XP shouldn't be arbitrary. For the game you're, playing XP should have a cause and effect logic to it. It makes perfect sense to me that in this particular game, there may certainly be an optimal path for grabbing XPs, but in the end, it does not have to be the primary goal of play, and that a GM will have ways to accomodate that within the framework of the game.

Alexis said...

Zzarchov,

Sometimes I think you read this blog just to keep me honest.

I can’t agree to giving experience for a puzzle because I have no basis on which to base the ‘difficulty’ ... but giving X.P. for hit points is not the same. The die determines the success or failure of an attack. Not me. The rules determine the number of hit points or the power of the player to cause damage. NOT ME. I don’t give more X.P. or less X.P. according to any principle except those which are established as part of the game. You may view this as ‘arbitrary’, but no more so than any other rule of any other game in existence. I am a judge here. I am NOT the law. That is the direct reference of the title of this post. Did you miss that?

Andrej,

I appreciate the acknowledgement vis a vis weeks-worth of playing without X.P. I wonder if any besides the players playing understand that it is because the players are deliberately avoiding opportunities for X.P.

The ‘actual playing of the game’ is exactly what I do this for. It needs to be understood that it is the PLAYERS who should have the right to play for X.P. or not – it isn’t the DM’s purpose to reward them for what they are not pursuing, to ensure that what they are pursuing is ‘worthwhile.’

This is really what I feel is being argued here: a bribe for players to keep them playing in a system that doesn’t award X.P. for combat or gold. That the DM seems to have this as an ideology. You’ve stated that you let your players pursue combat. I do as well, in my offline campaign. The online campaign is different. But I didn’t make it different – the players did.

Not making the decision myself about it, that TOO is the point of the title of this post.

Zzarchov said...

Well that, and because in all fairness the blog is pretty insightful. Even if I don't end up agreeing with the post I never sit back and think "That is poorly thought out/badly written/indefensible". It also makes me sit back and re-evaluate my own methods of problem solving and how I approach gaming. If I can't paint a good picture, my first instinct isn't to learn to paint better, its to build a better paint brush. That isn't always the right way to tackle a problem.

Andrej said...

Alexis: Regarding who reading "gets" it, I'd say some do and some don't. Those that do probably play in or run sandbox-style games where the players do more than just drive a lot of the action... they determine the "why". These games eliminate the practicality of story-based or challenge-based rewards.

Interestingly, on the specifics of XP you and I part ways somewhat (though I've been mulling over adopting your system for the "fight" XP I give). I've developed awards for spell research and am considering some for spellcasting of any kind. To understand why the former makes sense, in my game magic users must seek out and learn not only all of their spells after first level, but new spell "schools" as well. Even finding a scroll is only half the battle. There is, therefore, a lot of studying and experimentation that must take place "off camera". Further, at first level all magic users are limited to one school, such as "divination" or "evocation". I know that sounds terribly limiting, but its offset in a number ways that would take a long time to explain but as a system is actually quite tidy and simple.

As for the latter, (simple spell-casting) magic is such in my campaign that casting ANY spell has a chance to not only fail, but fail spectacularly based on a number of factors too long to get into in a blog post (but that also, as a system, is actually more tidy and compact during play than documenting spell slots, etc...). So, mages who successfully do it may have a chance at earning XP in the future (I'm still working the specifics into an objective system that gets applied like your 10 xp per hit point rule).

These two changes also help to explain why some mages stick to their towers and pour over ancient tomes rather than crawl through musty tombs. There's more, but I think I'm running up against (or surpassed) the ceiling of what qualifies as "interesting" in somebody else's blog comments.