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.