Thursday, May 7, 2015


Patience, there's a lot to mull over.

Is it fair that I claimed yesterday that XP rewards for non-combat begin with a reluctance to enter combat and kill things?

I don't think so.  It is usually presented that way.  Killing is boring, killing is munchkinism, killing doesn't require any special expertise, "We saved the kingdom and we didn't have to kill anything," etcetera.  I simply don't hear players say, "I wanted to use diplomacy and not my sword because I wanted greater skill at being a diplomat" or "because I felt the best way to get experience was to parley."

Getting experience from not fighting is always expressed in terms of what the party did not have to do - that is, roll dice, risk hit points, indulge in repetitive combat round syndrome (RCRS).  Once a discussion on the subject begins, then arguments about skills and character are invoked . . . but somehow, the subject is never led with these arguments.

But let's shelve that and talk about skills, since that is a legitimate argument.

Matt rightly pointed out that 3rd Edition did create skills that were not combat based but were tied to the combat mechanic of experience.  I won't argue the rationale of this, since I have also created non-combat mechanics and I have also connected these to experience.  So why?

A two-part answer.  First, in my world, gaining experience is something that happens slowly.  In the last four years, the highest levels of the party have only gained two levels.  For the most part, they have moved from 8th level to 10th; in some cases, from 7th level to 9th; and in the case of the ranger, Falun, from 7th level to only 8th.  Rangers in AD&D need a lot to reach 9th level.  They've been running for round about 8 years and they have reached an average of 250-300 thousand experience.  That's all.

For most campaigns, this is a brutally slow progression.  It happens in my world partly because I am cheap on treasure, particularly on magic, and partly because once players begin to mass three or more characters (main character and henchmen), the experience shared tends to get thinner and thinner.  The party knows this.  They would get more XP if they fought battles without their henchmen, but they love their henchmen; and anyway, while the main characters go up levels slowly, the henchmen move upwards in level regularly.

This slow progression helps encourage the ideal that, since it takes a long time to move upwards, it is reasonable to assume masses of knowledge are being acquired before the next level.  Thus the pacing of my game - not the actual rules, but the pacing - helps the functional rationale of my sage system.

The second answer is more applicable to the general audience.  We attach things to experience for a number of sound reasons.  First of all, like hit points and coin, X.P. is measurable against activity.  While yes, there are numerous methods for calculating X.P., once a DM settles on a calculation, it is predictable and rational, for the most part, where it comes to combat.  The orc has a settled X.P. value - it doesn't matter who kills the orc, what level they are, what weapon or spell they use or ultimately how difficult it was to achieve the killing given the circumstances . . . that's what the orc is worth.

Of course, Gygax tried to fuck with this, rating player role-playing ability according to how he felt a fighter should act or how 'tough' the orc was in comparison to the character, but virtually everyone ignored p.85-86 of the Dungeon Master's Guide because it's so obviously written by a frikkin' idiot.

How can I say that?

Imagine a rule in Monopoly that said that a property's value increased or decreased according to how much money the player had.  Or how about a rule in RISK that adjusted the value of Africa depending on whether you also controlled Europe?

Of course, now that I think about it, there is a rule in Bridge where if you win, you're 'vulnerable' . . . but I always thought that rule was silly, too.  Not every Bridge convention uses it.

But I digress.

The benefit of a universal measuring system based on firm, non-opinion based actions in a game are vital to that game's structure and ultimately the behaviour of those participating in the game.  Once the rules are known, perfectly, then the challenge in the game is in playing through the functionality of the game according to it's limitations.  Movement is limitation.  Attempted actions are limited by the available dice the player can roll in the given situation.  Success is uncertain and therefore failure is very definitely a probability that the player can mitigate but not eliminate!

Wealth limits how much the player can buy.  Hit points limit how long the player can survive an uncertain number of rolled dice.  Experience points limit how many options the player has according to the number of levels obtained.

Before I can produce another measurement for the game, I must know what that measurement is going to limit.

Let us say, for example, that we're going to make a limitation based on the player's 'diplomacy' skill.  What is that limitation going to be?  How are we going to define what limits 4 points in the skill against what limits 8 points?  How are these points going to be gained.  What is the value of convincing an orc to do . . . something.

Because that is now the world we're in.  We need to convince the orc to do something.  Could be anything.  Depends on the situation.  I'm at a loss to describe what, precisely, defines a 'win.'

Typically, this would be defined as the player getting what the player wants.  We know how this plays out in combat - the player makes a judgement call on his hit point reserve and his capabilities defined by level against what the player can guess about the orc, makes the decision to start the fight and hopes that he'll be tough enough to win.

Apply that to diplomacy.  What is the orc's diplomacy reserve?  What capabilities does the orc have?  Upon what basis can the player judge those capabilities before the diplomacy starts?  What are the negative effects if the player loses?

Incidentally, this is where my idea for Conflict Cards failed.  I created the reserve.  I defined the orc's capabilities.  I gave a structure that would allow the player to sort of judge the orc.  But there was no 'lose' scenario except 'failure to win.'  There was no consequence.  Thus the players could attempt to win repeatedly at no specific risk to themselves.  What was needed was some rule that stated, "If the player fails to convince the orc, the player must acquiesce to one demand made by the orc, hand over 50% of their cash on hand, agree to a proposition and then carry it out, etcetera."

Diplomacy and many of the other 'skills' in 3E suffer from the same nonsense.  There's no consequence.  Experience for combat has a consequence.  The player may not live to the next level, and therefore there's a chance that the player will never become a better diplomat because the player will be dead.

Incidentally, failed diplomacy in the real world has enormous consequences; jail time, for instance, merely for being in the wrong place at the wrong time; giving the wrong information (ie., too much) to the wrong people; making enemies; getting blacklisted; pissing your career away; public scandal. These are not consequences in a role-playing game, except for making enemies, which in the game only means having to fight when you'd rather talk.

Once the DM begins to give experience away for talking where no real consequence can result (no consequence that will matter to the player's character, at any rate, since the consequences of diplomacy don't measure themselves as a loss of freedom, like in the real world), then the value of the experience structure is compromised.  Now the player can very much count on living as long as the player chooses to gab rather than risk.

Thus everyone who has ever found themselves at a table with a player who tries to talk their way through every problem.  These are merely players who have found that they are able to hack the system, since they know DMs are a) impressed; and b) suckers for a schmott guy.  Who can blame them.  If the game is hackable, the hacker will surface.

Point in fact, the principles of the above argument is the basis for why my sage abilities are more about 'knowledge' than 'skill.'  I'm not trying to create a series of abilities that provide die rolls for overcoming problems.  I'm concentrating on what the character knows.

Occasionally, yes, this translates to skill.  If you 'know' how to swim, you can swim.  But 'diplomacy,' 'bluffing' and 'intimidation' are not knowledge-based contributions to your character - they are functional shortcuts to reduce the amount of gaming time necessary to deal with player-vs-npc interaction.  Of course we all know how to 'bluff.'  Doing it well is an entirely different thing than possessing the knowledge for how it works.  Moreover, who you bluff and upon what basis the bluff is carried forward is massively dependent on your personal experience.  You may find it easy to bluff your friends at poker; this may help you bluff strangers.  It does not help in 'bluffing' your way onto a military test base as a nuclear physicist (though, of course, television would have us believe these are the same thing).

Skills like bluffing, diplomacy and intimidation are not actually skills, they are composite skill sets acquired through familiarity and experience with specific circumstances, where the character will have probably spent most of their lives.  Where my sage abilities are concerned, I am struggling to stay away from such short cuts and skill sets in the hopes of promoting the character's decision-making process.

I haven't succeeded entirely at this.  Influence, for example, is a very definite short-cut.  Thankfully, it has an extremely limited application for the game structure I'm augmenting.  It would not, for example, be of any value to a character attempting to influence a bartender into offering a free drink, or any other similar tactic.  It is a short cut designed to limit what job a player can obtain - without in turn guaranteeing any success at that job.

I learned through the Conflict Card fiasco the errors in player mechanics that don't include negative consequences.  Similarly, I chose with that fiasco to embrace the principles of players receiving rewards that were NOT experienced-based where it came to talking themselves out of trouble.  If the players want to stop a war in my world, great!  Will it get them rewards?  Yes!  Status, power, perhaps a bit more land, credit, friends, opportunities, contributions and gifts.

But experience?  No.

I think part of the reason why experience IS given for diplomacy, talking, getting out of scrapes without fighting and so on comes from the DM's inability to make any other reward matter.  If I were to run a world where any of the things I just named would offer no meaningful change in terms of what the player was empowered to do in the campaign, then yes, I suppose I would have to give experience for talking, too.

Just think about it.  If the campaign is ALL adventures and modules, ALL quests and story arcs, then what good does status do, except as a series of empty titles?  What good is influence, since the only power that helps the player is in getting to the end of the next mission?  What good is land if it has to be left behind for another dungeon?  What good does credit do the player if there's no reason to borrow money?  What use do the players have for friends that aren't part of the adventure they're on?  What do they need with opportunities since the narrative provides that anyway?  What good are contributions or gifts if the treasure offered is three times as much?

None.  None at all.  Which leaves nothing for the DM to give except experience.  Everything else has an extremely limited appeal.


Matt said...

"But there was no 'lose' scenario except 'failure to win.' There was no consequence. Thus the players could attempt to win repeatedly at no specific risk to themselves.

This is brilliant! You just pointed out a major problem with every rule set that attempts to manage social interaction, including one I've been trying to work on for my campaign. It's more or less all concept and boastful talking right now, and to explain it would be a)hideously boring and scatterbrained, and b) in violation of the rules here.

However, this shines a wonderful light. I had not figured out a persisting penalty for failure. Thinking on this subject now though, what is the most basic penalty for failure to communicate in the real world?

You look like a complete ass. We all know people who we just tune out the moment they open their mouths. There are people whose social ineptitude is such that they will never have a chance to convince anyone of anything.

So, perhaps a persistent "reputation" or "awkwardness" score that players collect as they fail at talking that not only penalizes further attempts at talking, but also effects pricing, henchman loyalty, the reaction adjustment for all encounters, etc.

I think your explanation for your sage abilities makes sense for the campaign you run. Readers who are running newer editions of D&D, or even the same edition by the book, may find experience building up a little faster than that though. Readers hoping to pilfer your sage tables may find themselves dealing with the same issues of verisimilitude that newer editions face.

I've tried working with systems where non-combat skills are increased through the expenditure of time and money (and because time=money, the expenditure of more time can suffice in many cases. It's possible to be self taught and all that.) My problem was a) Making the players want to actually take the 3-6 months to take a class, and b) making the passage of that 3-6 months matter.

So it all comes back to running a consistent, meaningful campaign with a well defined world.

JB said...

@ Alexis:

Reading this post, I'm reminded of the one thing that bugs me about your conceptualization of XP; I went back and reread all your past XP posts, but I don't see where you specifically addressed the issue (unless it was in a comment section that I missed). So I'm going to ask:

Can you give your justification for how combat XP translates into high level spell knowledge for magic-users?

Everything else you've written on the subject makes perfect sense (including the magic-users' need to "get in the game" and mix it up in melee). I agree that nearly all XP-derived benefits in the game are combat related benefits: from saves to attack tables to thief abilities (the thief is gaining confidence and a better ability to work under pressure from surviving the stress of life and death experiences).

But how the hell does that translate into a seventh level spell like Mordenkainen's Magnificent Mansion? "Oh, I've fought hundreds of trolls and orcs, and now I suddenly have the knowledge to make a phantom house!"

I suppose if ALL magic in D&D was combat-related (like Warhammer's "Battle Magic"), then I'd have less issue with it. But so much of it ISN'T, especially at high levels. Do you have a specific cosmology of magic in place that justifies this? Or is it that the 40% of XP related to combat goes to the increase in the magician's combat effectiveness while the 60% related to treasure is responsible for the "higher learning?"


Alexis Smolensk said...


I'll start by repeating that EVERY mage receives an education that makes ALL spells potentially understood by that mage. Therefore, the building blocks for understanding are there, regardless of the mage's present level. My spell acquisition is based on the premise that after a certain point in the mage's education, what is needed to hurdle that final obstacle is INSIGHT.

Let us consider the mage in combat - not from the perspective of game rules, but from within the mage's mind.

Here's our mage, watching the battle, thinking, thinking, thinking, "How do I make magic that changes this situation?" This is incredible, if you consider that chemical soup I described in How to Run: a situation of incredible stress, where the mage has to deal with that situation by finding the inner power to concentrate in order to make spells, retain them long enough to discharge them (in my world, once the spell is cast, there is a specified moment when the spell must be discharged - and the mage is able to withhold that moment so long as the mage is unmolested physically), and firing those spells at the right people or in the right direction.

It follows that the more time the mage spends in this INTENSE, massively stressed condition, the stronger and more adept the mage's brain capacity will become, the greater the mage's power, the more profound the mage's ability to contemplate, the more outwardly thinking the mage will become, the greater potential for mentally taking risks the mage will acquire, steadily, slowly, OVER YEARS OF COMBAT, until such time that the comparatively simple non-combat spell of Mordenkainen's mansion will just 'POP' into the mage's mind.

"Oh. That's how you do that. I never did understand what Barfron the Mystic was chattering on about there. It's actually pretty simple!"

See, unlike most other abilities, magic happens entirely in the mind; therefore, any activity that sttrreeettcchhes that mind will increase the power of that mind. And nothing stretches our capacity more than having to deal with matters while under stress.

There is no greater stress than combat.

Maxwell Joslyn said...

Could you talk more about why Conflict Cards fizzled?

"What was needed was some rule that stated, "If the player fails to convince the orc, the player must acquiesce to one demand made by the orc, hand over 50% of their cash on hand, agree to a proposition and then carry it out, etcetera."

Why didn't a solution like the one you wrote here end up working?

Alexis Smolensk said...

LOL, Maxwell,

It didn't work because I settled on this being the reason, um, yesterday?

I seriously don't think players would accept this as a system - and at any rate, I've changed my DMing style in a way that no longer demands this sort of mech.

Maxwell Joslyn said...

Oh, okay, I see what you meant.