Thursday, January 22, 2009

Changes in Experience

I’d like to talk about experience.

Take the recent combat that occurred for my party. The party numbered eleven at the beginning of the battle, in main characters and henchmen, and were as follows: a mage and druid (8th level), ranger (7th level), a monk, thief and cleric (6th level), a paladin and illusionist (5th level), two fighters (4th level), one fighter (2nd level) and a paladin’s warhorse. The battle was meant in no way to be destructive, but the party has been harassed for days and every battle in the wilderness is proving to be a bitch since they can’t re-supply.

So against the party I threw a mastodon with 5th level gnoll rider, 4 gnoll archers with great bows and a 21 foot soldiers. The foot soldier gnolls were led by an 8th level cleric.

So here’s the problem.

The first action was the charge of the mastodon. It bore down on the party (random roll to see where in the line it hit), smashed one of the 4th level fighters and did good damage to the cleric. However, prior to it actually hitting, the party was able to hit with two arrows and a crossbow, for a total of 11 damage. Afterward the charge, the mastodon was struck with a sword (9 damage), a magic missile (4 damage). It pounded past the party group (who then entered melee with the gnolls), and took two rounds to turn around to take another charge. By which time the ranger and mage double-teamed it with a fireball and heavy damage and the mastodon with rider went down in three rounds.

Total experience for the mastodon: 1500+14/hp = 2438 X.P. For the 5th level fighter: 300 X.P. Total damage caused by the mastodon before it died: 37.

In all, it took the party nearly twenty rounds to mop up the rest of the gnolls. Those with the great bows did good work damaging the party (causing about 6 hits for 22 damage), and a few criticals managed to kill the injured 4th level fighter along with reducing the monk to negative hit points (I play that you’re alive down to –9, but you’re seriously injured and generally can’t take action). Total damage caused by the gnolls: 80 (estimated). The cleric was almost useless, having failed his save and going down to a stinking cloud cast by the illusionist (chromatic orb) in the first round.

But 25 typical gnolls are worth only 20 X.P. each +2/hp. That’s an average of 38 times 25, or 950 X.P. The gnoll cleric, who did nothing, is technically worth 1,200 X.P. all on his own.

In other words, it took no time at all to dispatch the massive mastodon with its rider for a gain of 2,700 X.P., mostly because it was a big target and easily attacked by multiple players, while the backbreaking work of killing ordinary gnolls provided 1/3 of the reward. This has been a consistent pattern in D&D since the beginning, and frankly I’m sick of it.

Everyone knows it’s easier to kill one or two dinosaurs and get thousands of experience than it is to kill a fifty bugbears and get much, much less. That is partly because the bugbears have armor, weapons and act fairly intelligently, but it is mainly because 50 bugbears attack fifty times a round. One triceratops may do 4-40 damage per horn, but it only attacks twice a round. The dice—by far—favor the bugbears.

When we were first playing as teenagers it was standard practice whenever things had been dry for a couple of sessions to throw a couple of big, dumb brutes at the party, enjoy the slaughter and pump everyone full of X.P. Even a giant or two makes for good X.P. fodder, since again they only attack once and can be attacked in turn by 8 characters at a time. Generally, I find players like those odds, and will joyfully rush in at the risk of getting stomped in order to do 40 damage a round collectively in exchange for the giant getting one swing in for 15 to 23.

And giants are good for X.P.

I have been thinking about this for several months, and have decided on two courses of action.

The first is inspired by the monster Grendal in Beowulf, who obviously could withstand a great deal more than 9 hit dice damage (I’m ranking Grendal as a stone giant). I’ve made this point before, and I don’t intend to labor it: but if you consider a hill giant at 12’ in height, that makes it 8 times more massive than an ordinary human (about 1,400 lbs). If an ordinary mountain dwarf at 150 lbs. has 2 hit dice, then an ordinary hill giant (same basic physical toughness) ought to have 19 HD, not eight. And a mastodon at eight tons ought to have something like 107 HD, or somewhere in the neighborhood of 450 h.p.

This may seem excessive to you: but my party, at their level, has very little difficulty hitting AC 6 (mastodon), and between strength bonuses and magic swords and such, can deliver six hits a round for a total of 30-40 points very easily.

If I want to have the sort of combat where the mastodon smashes all around itself for round after round while the party desperately tries to pull it down—which I think makes a sensational combat session, full of angst and terror—then the mastodon is going to have to have considerably more staying power.

Why should a hundred hit points be the upper limit?

The second consideration should be this: the total X.P. earned from a monster should be based on how hard that monster fought. And since I believe that we as a species gain our experience from what we suffer, I’m prepared to try a system whereby the experience is rewarded according to how much damage that monster caused. My suggestion is 25 X.P. per point.

For the aforegoing combat, that means the mastodon was worth 925 X.P., and the 25 gnolls were worth 2,000 X.P. And the 8th level cleric was worth nothing.

Yes, yes, I know, people are going to bitch because it means that a successful, brilliant attack which results in no damage isn’t rewarded at all. But I want you to consider the following.

First of all, if you’re destroying your enemy through the use of a spell, that’s not particularly brilliant at all. That’s like rewarding you with experience for being able to find this website on the net. You already know how to get here. Just as you already know how to use the spell. So big deal—what exactly have you learned?

And secondly, you still get experience for the treasure. Which you’ve managed to obtain at no risk to yourself.

On the other hand, if you get your ass handed to you by a bunch of gnolls because you didn’t plan or make preparations or because you broke ranks and ran in like a bunch of morons, then you really ARE going to learn something. “Let’s not do that again,” comes to mind.

I’m also considering dividing that 25 X.P. as follows: 10 X.P. for you personally for each damage YOU suffered; and 15 X.P. for the group as a whole, divided evenly among everyone who took part.

People are always complaining that there’s nothing to favor fighters over mages. Mages are the big guns, they wade in and kill everything and don’t even come close to being killed most of the time. Whereas over and over the fighter has to go out there and get beat up and for what? Any real approval?

This would put the mage in the position of having to occasionally take a risk, or fall steadily back in X.P. Since a mage after 6th level needs less and less X.P. to go up a level, this fits neatly together.

Listen: I’m always pointing out that the mage in the party, who has 25 H.P., could occasionally help the party quite a bit by wandering into the fray after expending all their immediately useful spells and take a couple of hits. After all, ten damage isn’t going to kill the mage and it might spell the difference between a fighter smashing the hell out of that troll or getting bashed into unconsciousness.

But the mage never does do that. Instead he (the player is a “she”, but the mage is a “he”) gets progressively less effective as the combat drags on, until he’s pretty much just waiting a few hundred yards off for the whole thing to be over—made all the more easy by the mage’s ability to fly, blink and turn invisible. An action the party tolerates because, well, that fireball early in every combat IS pretty helpful.

But this change in X.P. would mean the mage should get involved hand-to-hand, or else lose out. I like that and I think that the party will like that.


JimLotFP said...

I too have noticed that Big Fierce Foes get hit faster and harder than a load of little foes.

For my latest campaign I've just decided that there will be zero experience given for killing, defeating, or dealing with monsters, enemies, or NPCs in any way. No more worrying about it at all!

All XP will come from treasure, to represent the effort (or cleverness, or luck) required to get it.

(and since I'm the referee making all the adventures, I don't have to worry about treasure just lying around to be grabbed unearned. ;))

Will Douglas said...

Another thing to consider is the way experience for monsters was handled all the way back in Men & Magic.

100 xp per hit die.

So yeah, the lower level monsters were worth a lot more than the higher level ones instead of vice versa, as you've seen. But the bulk of the experience still came from treasure.

Chgowiz said...

You might be interested in this link as I was searching through Google for ways other people have handled this situation.

I'm going to be curious to read what other people have to say. I must admit I probably would not want to count damage during a party - a bit too much bookkeeping for my tastes.

I think that in this scenario, I would consider awarding XP for the whole group using my own calculation versus an encounter that is roughly equal to the party's level. I almost want to use the term CR *cough*. Facing a full warparty of gnolls is a lot different than facing a guard post of 4 gnolls.

Something to think about. Thank you!

Alexis said...


I have this amazing way of counting damage. I'm going to ask for their totals at the start of the combat, and then again at the end.

I'll be using the deeply complex method of entering these two numbers into excel, and letting excel subtract and multiply by 10.

I don't want to strain myself.

Chgowiz said...

ROFL. Well, there you go.

KenHR said...

RoleMaster's XP system used damage taken as part of the calculation for a session, as well as criticals dealt, land traveled, etc. I thought it worked very well...took a bit of calculation, but really, nothing you didn't learn in gradeschool.

So yeah, good idea.

Carl said...

I like your idea, Alexis. I altered XP distribution a bit in my game, too.

First I ruled that no more than 30% of a given level's experience could come from combat. Once you reached that point, you stopped accumulating combat experience. Second, I ruled that 50% of the experience required to level would have to come from aquisition of treasure -- same rule as combat. The remaining 20% would be from session awards, which is stuff like having and executing a good idea, a well-played NPC interaction, acts of selfless heroism, successful and meaningful skill usage, and other discretionary XP awards.

The effect this had was powerful. Since the combat experience is earned rather quickly if you go looking for a fight, they stopped doing it. Instead they focused on acquiring treasure and then finding clever things to do with it, learning that if they focused on those two things there were plenty of fights to be had.

It's the oldest rule of people management: reward the behaviors you want and ignore the ones you don't. I didn't punish the players for seeking out combat, I just stopped rewarding it. Levelling, in my mind, is more than just being a combat badass. It's about having a reputation, acquiring and spending wealth, effective use of your skills AND being a combat badass.

The Recursion King said...

What about making the experience reward linked to the ratio of hitpoints lost to the total that the character had and how much experience he needs to go up a level?


2000 experience to advance, 10 hitpoints, 9 damage inflicted.

Experience reward = (2000/10) * 9 = 1800

Perhaps apply an additional factor here, e.g. ((2000/10/)level) * 9

So that would mean you had to lose all your hitpoints, ten times (and yet have survived it!), to advance to level 11.

Random thoughts anyway.

The Recursion King said...

...from level 10 I mean, to level 11.

Or maybe even just keep it as 2000 divided by the number (in the example above, I used 2000 as the experience target, but now wondering if its useful to just keep that as a set figure that never changes).