Sunday, February 21, 2010

I Was Getting A Beer From The Fridge When ...

Fridge logic hit me.

Many DMs insist that problem-solving and roleplaying should somehow translate into experience points. It makes no sense that a character carefully thinks his way through a problem, solving it without having to fight, only to recieve no tangible reward where it comes to the game. Fighting and treasure, it is argued, shouldn’t drive the game.

Where players hold this tenent dearly, in a sandbox game, they will often avoid fighting whenever possible. Sometimes, players who play this way are punished by more and more monsters, until they have to fight. This can be very frustrating.

Let’s say they’re not forced into fighting ... that fighting occurs, occasionally, but it can be managed and even avoided, in a fair number of cases. And let’s say we have two parties running in this world – one that opts for fighting, one that doesn’t.

According to expectations, the party that fights and fights will rise in level, while the problem-solving party will not. According to argument, the problem-solving party will have more ‘fun’, or at least run in a more interesting and varied campaign, while the fighting party runnings will be repetitious. It is for that reason that many think there’s a flaw in the game, that it rewards mindlessness and punishes creativity. Shouldn’t the creative game be the one that pushes levels?

So experiments are tried ... to cut experience for fighting, to eliminate experience altogether for treasure. And to award experience, on the least ad hoc basis possible, for intelligent planning. In the very least, to make the ‘goal’ the experience, rather than the method. Defeat the enemy, by any means, and go up a level.

Somewhat difficult in a sandbox game. What is the goal? If the game never ends, and several plotlines are running simultaneously, when does the marker come that designates that the party goes up a level? True, there do come ‘natural’ breaks ... but how does one judge – without bias – the value of such a break?

Well, I don’t try. But it is giving a headache to someone.

I’d like to examine the problem-solving method for a moment.

To me, the reward seems a bit more obvious than it might to some. In life, as I solve problem after problem, I gain skill in solving problems. Particularly if I am given to solving problems in a particular field – I will gain greater familiarity with that field, and have a wider cognitive resource upon which to draw, when I wish to solve a problem.

D&D is like that for me. I think of the game a great deal of the time, and have done so for many years ... and when faced with a problem, I tend to leap to a solution fairly quickly. My tactics are not flawless. I make mistakes. But I problem-solve my way out of the mistakes, also, again from experience. And each time I do so, I gain a little wisdom.

Now suppose the field I am experienced with is weapon mechanics – and just for the sake of the game, we’ll define the sort of weapons I know as those that might be made by a blacksmith. Yes, let’s say I’m a blacksmith.

As I work as a blacksmith for year after year, I learn a great deal about problem solving where it comes to weapons. I learn about alloys, and heat, and method – and if I’m very clever, I learn from others, and improve the balance of the weapons I make, and their durability, and their edge. If I set myself goals to achieve, and force myself to solve harder and harder problems, I may one day succeed at becoming a very successful and creative blacksmith.

But if I never pick up one of my weapons and split open someone’s head with it, or use one of my weapons to keep someone from splitting open mine, no matter how much I know about blacksmithing, I’ll never be much of a fighter. Knowing how the weapon is made is not transferable to use.

For those out there who are rewarding experience left and right for avoiding fighting, I’d like you to realize for a moment that the direct effect of going up a level is to make the character a better combat machine. First and foremost, level translates to hit points, weaponry (including spells), a better hit table and a wider range of tactical advantages. Gaining a level does NOT make a player character a better problem solver. It does NOT increase the player’s ability to role-play.

This is not to argue that a player doesn’t get better the more roleplaying he or she does ... I just said, I am a good role-player because I’ve done a lot of it. But I am a good role-player no matter what level I am. I may use my role-playing skill to increase my character’s level, but I simply cannot use my character’s level to increase my role-playing skill.

As such, there’s no logic whatsoever to increasing the player’s level according to how well they played the esoteric game ... since the level has nothing to do with an esoteric reward.

It is a DM’s gut feeling that good play ought to be rewarded, simply because it is felt that the world ought to work that way. It is simply charity ... with the best of intentions, obviously, but by the principles of human nature it is necessarily erratic, inconsistent and – worst of all – selective. If you are a DM who rewards X.P. for good play, you are playing favorites. You’re biologically designed that way.

I can’t stop you, of course. I wouldn’t want to run in your world. I like it when everyone gets to play ... even when I’m the favored bastard.

Going back to, the ‘world ought to work that way.’ We know it doesn’t. Sports teams can play very, very well, and still lose. Goals in sports do not count extra when they are ‘made’ more elegant ... every goal, clumsy goals or sweet goals, even a goal where the team scores on itself, counts the same. Teams that do not score goals do not get special points. The rules of the game makes allowances for strategies to score goals, but not for strategies for having fun.

If a party wants to avoid a fight, I have no trouble with that. Occasionally it won’t be possible, but often it will work as a strategy. I don’t care if the monster is killed or not – I have nothing invested in imaginary creatures.

But I don’t believe a player improves their hit points by avoiding being damaged. I don’t believe a player that won’t fight should somehow go up a level that entitles them to fight better. If they want to fight better, they can fight more often.

It’s okay. Because all the problem solving they’re doing is teaching them to be better problem solvers. I don’t need to award experience for that. Problem solving is its own reward.


  1. I have puzzled over this one myself but I take the opposite approach and just accept XP as a gamist construct. XP is quite an abstracted concept and in the game as written there are big holes in terms of verisimiltude.

    If levels are mostly a measure of combat effectiveness (or alternatively wizardly prowess). Where does this leave XP for gold? Should fighters then only get XP for fighting and wizards get a lesser amount for fighting and a bit for casting spells?

    I have always tended to award XP quite arbitrarily based on my perception of the difficulty of the challenges faced, with XP as a rule divided equally betweent he participating players regardless of the actual division of labour during the adventure.

    I say arbitrary but really this is no more arbitary than "I pick the merchant's pocket" (DM rolls randomly) "You find a gem worth 1,000gp, have 1,000gp". Or a first level wizard with a shpere of annihilation (heaven forfend) "I consign the hill giant chieftan to oblivion", DM: Congratulations you are 1 xp off level 3.

  2. You'll note I very carefully failed to mention treasure.

    I'm still thinking on it.

  3. It is one of those eternal debates isn't it? Like alignment, what do HPs represent. The definitive answer isn't coming anytime soon (or ever) so in the mean-time we all plow on with our own approaches.

    I guess I am saying that I have given up trying to rationalise it and I just wing it trying to make it a fun game without the players feeling either cheated or that they have got something for nothing. A concession to this approach is dividing Xp equally among the groups otherwise I agree this is the path to favouritism.

  4. The only issue I have is that levels are not primarily about fighting. For a fighter they are sure.. but not for a wizard, cleric or thief.

    Now true, to some degree they DO become better fighters. But to be a better thief requires going up in levels. Stabbing a monster or gutting a man does not make you better at hiding in shadows or picking a lock.

    Wizards especially, how does throwing daggers at orcs help you learn new arcane magics? Why does how many times I've struck an ogres shins with a quarterstaff impact whether or not i've mastered enough arcane lore to cast teleport?

    Even hitpoints are not purely combat related. No matter how well trained you are in combat, that will not help your body resist poison.

    Level is a fairly good abstraction at being all around baddass.

  5. I actually agree with you a lot here. I've often awarded exp for avoiding combat, but when you mention it that way, level really is a measure of physical-encounter prowess. Sure, for a thief it may also be an indication of skill with lockpicks, sneaking, etc. (and I'll continue to reward my party for using their class-skills to creatively avoid combat), but I think that I am going to quit rewarding clever play with experience.

    While I will definitely offer experience to the magic user who melts the stones in a dungeon to create a new path to the treasure, I'm not going to be enhancing the combat effectiveness of the fighter who climbs through the fantasy-version of a Jeffries tube to get to the dragon's hoard.

    This post was very informative and thought provoking. Thanks for writing! I haven't seen your blog before, but you've earned yourself a new follower!

    PS, I also don't give experience for gold. The treasure will buy the characters increased effectiveness in the form of better gear and magic items; I don't want to double-up on that increased power. From now on, combat and creative use of powers will be rewarded more heavily, and other things less so.

  6. I use the exact same method as Leopardi - award an amount of experience to the party based on my gut-feeling of how hard the challenges that they faced/how much they accomplished. My only real rule is that all members of the party must receive the same amount - I don't want to be put in the situation of making value judgments on the merits of individual players' contributions.

    If someone was truly interested in making experience and gaining levels make sense, combat ability would have to be divorced from non-combat ability, with separate experience pools tracked for each. While I follow the logic of your post, choosing to focus on the fighter is a little disingenuous. The fighter is the only class that leveling up means solely getting better at combat. As other posters above have noted, for every other class the increase in combat ability is the least important effect of leveling up.

    OD&D and every edition up through ad&D 1e solved this problem through the XP for GP rule - this is a nice clean abstraction of all the other ways that a party can solve problems besides combat. The party that avoids combat, uses the sneaky thief and the invisible wizard, etc., to gain treasure, gets rewarded. It is important to note that the XP that is expected to be awarded for GP (based on the treasure class ratings of various monsters) far outweighs the amount of experience that is gained from killing the monsters (especially from Supplement I Greyhawk on, when the XP totals for monsters were drastically reduced).

    I think this is a major clue that the original designers of the game had the same idea that you are talking about; they didn't feel that the game should solely reward combat. They just didn't want to make an elaborate system that would require the DM to do a ton of bookkeeping in order to reward all the non-combat elements of play.

    The reason I don't use the GP for XP rule in my campaign is that I don't use the treasure tables and am not very liberal in awarding treasure.

  7. I think Zzarchov and Carl are talking past a point about "levels = combat skill". They seem to equate combat as hand-to-hand fighting, which is an incomplete definition. Wizard's go up in level and gain access to more powerful magics, many of which have direct combat application. So a wizard casting magic missile is performing combat just as much as the fighter and his sword, and doing so gives the wizard more insight and experience with magic. When a wizard gets fireball, they start achieving a mastery of the combat space that fighters will be hard pressed to keep up with.

    I need to read the next post before commenting further.

  8. I'm going to apollogize a little up front. This is because the following thoughts are more me describing how I simply avoid the issues you are pondering, but maybe another perspective can help stretch everyone's brain.

    I've come to the opinion that XP as presented in a game is a baseline. After that GMs assign to XP their own interpretations and priorities.

    In my game, which is a sandbox game, XP and levels don't just imply competence to characters, but reputation as well. Beating up a bunch of orcs or looting the riches from a ruined castle is not just a learning experience but one more story in a character's growing legend. IMO, XP has to express more than concrete realities or it breaks down.

    So in my games, XP is handed out for:
    Killing Monsters - Right from the book. Didn't see much need to fuss with it.

    Accomplishment - XP Depends on the overall risk to life/limb/wealth for the situation and their level of success. The XP my group (around level 5) garnered for looting the sterotypical dungeon stocked with some low level green meanies, is not as much as what they stand to gain from their current leading role in reclaiming an entire city from an army of organized and clever were-rats, if they succeed. Even failure will garner them quite a bit XP if they can survive.

    Spending Wealth - For me finding the treasure is not as important as using it as a form of expression. For example, my group managed to defeat a dragon and find its horde, all occurring at a remote and hidden location. If they just kept the cash to themselves, or spent it on rations and fresh supplies, no one would even know it happened.

    The extra XPs started coming in when characters comissioned a tapestry, had their weapons/armor/clothing/bodies decorated, paid a bard to write a song commemorating the event. These expressions can show the world just what they're capable of, and that's what takes someone to the next level, pun somewhat intended.

  9. James V,

    I appreciate the comment about you do it in your world, but the additional method isn’t really relevant to this discussion, is it? Of course there are hundreds, even thousands of DMs who play the rules differently – but in describing that you award for ‘accomplishment’, you’re still making the same argument that’s already been made ... not a ‘new perspective.’

    It’s the same perspective. But don’t take the rebuff too hard ... I’m really only making an example out of you because you’ve advanced your position. It is a very common position.

    You award experience according to how YOU assess the players, forcing them to basically ass-kiss you in order to play their characters your way, commissioning the tapestries you want commissioned, decorating their armor the way you think it should be decorated, writing the commemorations you want written.

    This is what is done with tax systems that encourage specific moral behavior, such as marriage or giving to charities. You’ve simply re-invented X.P. as your approval mechanism, which – despite your very best intentions – will still force behavior along lines that you think is ‘correct.’ Players who do not feel the need to play according to your benefits format will fall behind in power/player options, or by dividing experience for everyone you will create discord among those who are ‘doing the work’ for those who aren’t on board with your accomplishment ideology.

    I’m sure you don’t believe a word that I’m saying. The last DM I played with who played your system (about twenty years ago) didn’t believe me either. I didn’t like his brand of railroad, and I stopped playing.

  10. I’m sure you don’t believe a word that I’m saying. The last DM I played with who played your system (about twenty years ago) didn’t believe me either. I didn’t like his brand of railroad, and I stopped playing.

    No, Alexis, you're right. My XP system is meant to incentivize certain behavior. I can admit that. I've been running games steadily for over 10 years with the (mostly) same group of people now, and in that time, I've tried a variety of methods to handle PC advancement, and I had to admit pretty early on that what I was doing was done to either make the processes easier for me, or to create incentives for a certain type of play. In this case, I'm hoping a few things will happen:

    - In game, the players learn that their spending will serve to spread their character's reputation. Also, it serves as a money-sink and an incentive to adventure.
    - Out of the game, they'll have fun thinking up new ways to spend their cash and interact with the setting in new ways. Not only have they hunted down bandits, but they've held and funded parades/parties too, they've never really played this way before, and they seemed to have fun having their characters dance, sing, eat whole roasts, and get smashed on elf spirits.

    The most important thing for me though, is that the group (who are all my friends) have fun doing it. I would hope that if they had concerns, they'd bring them up and we could discuss it, and I think I've open about that too.

    Lastly, I'd would like to complement you on your blog. You style of play is very much different than mine, but I think that teaches me more about my games than just focusing on my own thing. I just hope you aren't too bothered that your last two posts, got me to think out loud, and at length, about how I'm handling XP in my current game.

  11. When I'm not playing RAW I advance PCs 1 level every other session, to get them to the level they need to be for the cool encounters I want to run.

    Sometimes earning XP is the game. Sometimes it isn't.


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