Thursday, February 10, 2011

Take A Hit For The Team

I received a new comment in reference to this post about awarding experience from almost two years ago, and thought that since no one would see it, I'd post the answer here.  The comment is from Tripper:

"I'd like to hear what progress you've made on it [the experience system], Alexis, since 3 problems immediately reared up in playtesting: 1) XP rewards for successful encounters that didn't devolve into combat 2) How to reward spells like Web and Sleep, and 3) The look on my rogue and wizard's faces when I told them I would not only reward them for stepping in front of the sword, but insist on it. As far as #1, leveling does concern more than just combat ability (primarily combat, perhaps, but not exclusively). For #3, I tack off my usual course and argue for the gamey side - soaking up damage is not part of the mage class and anyone who does is, let's be honest, not playing the mage particularly well."

To begin with, I'd like to say that I am still using this system after twenty-two months and it works excellently.  I am so used to it now - as is the party - that there's zero chance of returning to the old, crummy way of doing things.  Usually I play my games with two monitors, one that faces me and one that faces the party, and as the combat continues I keep track of everything on Excel, which is visible on the party's monitor.  They can see me adding caused or taken damage to their characters as the battle goes on, and so they can catch any errors I make on the fly (or remind me of damage they did or took that I failed to note).  It's actually pretty easy if you keep track of what they're hit points are at the start of a fight.  I prefer to make notes on the fly, since if someone gets healed in the middle of the fight it is easy to get confused about the damage they've taken.  Besides, since I have the excel file set up so that the damage is automatically translated into X.P. that the player can see pile up on the screen as the combat continues, it adds a competitive flair to the game.  Everyone can see who's getting the most, who's ahead, how much damage they've caused and so on ... which inspires them to jump in if they're falling behind.  It is a strange angle to the game that's never been there before, but both I and my players like it.

Addressing Tripper's questions in reverse order, I addressed the wizard but not the thief with my previous post, linked above.  I must point out that wizards - in my world at least - get pretty powerful as they go up and there's a balancing system at work that does tend to slow their progress in the beginning.  I have had a 1st level mage that I've played reach 3rd level by this means (don't get to play him often), and a 1st level mage in my world that has now reached 5th since instituting the system.  It must be remembered that if the mage hangs back and throws spells, and does nothing else, they still get a share in the bonus X.P. at the end.

It occurs to me that the description of that bonus is not that clear.  At the end of the combat, ALL the damage that has been TAKEN (not caused) by the whole party is added together and multiplied by 20.  This is then distributed equally to all the players who have taken part, regardless of their actual contribution.

So, lets say we have four characters, Adam, Benjamin, Caleb and Daniel.  In the fight, Adam takes 7 damage, Benjamin takes 10, Caleb takes 4 and Daniel takes 0.  What's more, Adam, Benjamin and Caleb combined killed the 30 h.p. creature they were facing (we'll say they did 10 damage each), while Daniel threw a dagger and missed.

Here's a copy of how the table would be organized:

As can be seen, although Daniel does practically nothing, just being there earns him a little more than a 3rd of the experience Caleb receives.  This is because, in my opinion, Daniel is risking his life by not helping his friends ... as that increases the chance that his friends will be killed, and Daniel will be pursued afterwards by the creature and have to fight it on his own.  This and the simple fact that witnessing is its own kind of experiential growth.  If the other party members have a problem with Daniel's involvement in combat, that's their problem.  There's no reason why the X.P. system has to solve it for them.

The tendency might be to think this bonus X.P. needs to be mucked with and balanced to those who participate.  I would encourage the gentle reader not to do so.  In fact, it is already balanced - there's no need to over balance.

As Tripper points out, his wizards will do better to step in and as I said in the last post, take a hit for the team.  But Tripper also feels that getting damaged is not part of a mage's class mandate, and that a mage who gets hit is not playing the mage well.

That, in my opinion, is bunk.  The mage increases their fighting table, however slowly.  A mage has combat ability, however weak.  The mage is a humanoid like any other humanoid, and therefore bleeds, feels pain, and should feel guilty and responsible for the safety of other persons.  Mages are not soulless bastards who are automatically exempt from risk because of their class.  If they want to improve at life, they better get into the fucking game.  There's nothing to be learned sitting on the sidelines.

A quick word about thieves - they go up very fast, so the X.P. system I play does, in fact, give a good reason for their needing less X.P.  A smart thief can backstab their way up and still keep out of the main fights ... which my thieves tend to do.  The low experience helps them.  It's only that thieves are so used to coasting their way up to 8th level with little or no effort that its natural for them to bitch at having to risk something.

It sounds to me, Tripper, that your thieves and mages are whiny bastards, encouraged to be that by an X.P. system that refused to respect the risk-takers in the game.  Poor little namby-pambies.  Maybe they need to call their mothers out to dress their widdle wounds.

Second point:  how to reward spells like web and sleep.

There are considerations the DM can try with awarding half the damage done to sleep or web victims to the caster, but I don't tend to play that.  The extra bonus X.P. does help cover the effort of the mage who is taking no personal risk to cast a spell they already know perfectly and are learning nothing from casting.  It has to be understood that nothing new being learned means no experience.  I don't get smarter every time I drink a cup of coffee.  If the mage helps the fighters slaughter the orcs quickly with a web, it reduces the risk and therefore ought to reduce the experience, not increase it.

But if that doesn't seem fair, consider this.  It is SOOOOO easy for a mage to rack up additional X.P. from magic missiles and fireballs that the 9th level mage in my world regularly tops the list (or comes in the top three) after combats, even though the 8th level ranger has caused 80 odd damage and suffered 50.  One solid blasting spell will reset the balance in short order ... so whatever my philosophy about experience, you don't want to hand more and more experience to a player who pretty much coasts once they reach a level where they don't run out of spells in the first three encounters.

When that mage does get into combat - with his 33 odd hit points and bad attack table - what usually happens is the mage takes a hit or two at a critical moment when the fighters are down, then staggers back when the fighters reassert themselves  with healing (in the case of the paladin) or a potion.  Remember that I play a combat system which stuns a player if they suffer a quarter of their present hit points ... so players are dropping back out of combat all the time as things get rough.  Things might work differently for me on that account.

Once again, your mage may whine for awhile, but when it becomes obvious they're actually carrying the lead in the experience, that whining will go away.  If you need support, turn to the fighters and ask them if they care about the mage's woes.

And finally, about X.P. rewards for successful encounters that don't resolve by combat.  Well, I have this system I'm designing ... enough said.

I hope this was helpful.  All I can say is that the players have gotten very used to it, and that worries about "experience being limited by the party's available hit points" hasn't been a problem.  Combats end, and are followed by healing ... which allows for more X.P. at the next encounter.

My last session, the party tackled a 12-headed pyrohydra.  It reduced most of the party into the single-digit or negative hit point range ... and actually killed the 6th level assassin who was brought back with a Death's Door spell.  Total X.P. gained was in the 17,000 range  - before treasure.  More than the books would have given.  Was fun.


N. Wright said...

Your system reminds me of Mazes and Minotaurs, in that's it's clean, quick, elegant, and makes you wonder why you ever did it another way.

It's a wonder I missed it the first time around.

skoormit said...

The munchkin voice in my head is thinking about ways to squeeze the most XP out of an encounter by letting the last bad guy live for a while to do a lot of futile damage. Does this let players spend healing resources for XP in a non-risky way?

On another note, my favorite mage type to play is not a damager, but a battlefield control type. Grease, Web, Wall of Force, etc. With this XP system in place, I'd be constrained to a slow level advancement if I wanted to play that type of mage.

Alexis said...

N. Wright,

Thank you, it works just as you say.


My players are smart enough to know that even one last creature can get lucky enough to kill - and there's no guarantee the creature won't just stop fighting, right? Overall, there's no percentage in letting your hit points drop any degree. I DM in a way that the encounter you're fighting is never the last encounter that day. Who knows if, after you've let your hit points drop to a comfortable 5 total, someone doesn't jump out from a rock and assassinate you right then? It's the kind of thing assassins wait for.

On your other note, "battlefield control type" sounds like a general ... maybe you should get out and get bloody before you promote yourself. No hard feelings, but the way you describe it, sounds like hanging back and making others to do the work for you, while you coast to another level. Doesn't sound right to me.

Oddbit said...

Keep in mind with zone control and reducing the damage taken for the whole party, you make it less of a gamble. The whole party takes less damage, and therefore the whole party gets less xp, but also the whole party has a reduced chance of dying. During the extra rounds you have, you can chuck stuff at them as well, since by sticking them there instead of harming or killing them, you basically are extending the fight.

As for letting the enemy get a few more hits in, I guess you don't worry about criticals much do you? If you're killed pulling that, the GM is probably going to have zero pity on you and you better hope you have access to some form of revivification.

Other areas of abuse (literally and rulewise on your character) such as self mutilation for xp, probably wont work unless you learn something from it somehow.

Alexis said...

Something I DID forget to mention ... if the mage pulls the party's nuts out of the fire - which tends to happen a lot - the lack of experience from the system is mitigated by the willingness of the party to let the mage have first or second pick of the goodies thereafter. That might help you go on being battlefield manager, Skoormit, and going up levels, if your party likes it.

skoormit said...

I hear your point on dinging the mage that does not close to combat, as he is not taking risks. And I don't like that aspect of the battlefield control mage's role. When I choose that role for a new character, though, the relative lack of risk is barely even in the back of my mind. I'm choosing it because I find the role enjoyable and I believe it will maximize the party's chances of success.

I don't play a wizard that cuts and runs when shit meets fan and the bad guys have dropped the fighter and the cleric. I will take risks and expose myself to attacks by moving up to make a heal check to stabilize a fallen PC, for example. But I could and would take those risks as a damage-mage as well. With your XP system in place, though, when I am making my character design choice I must consider if the damage-mage's superior levelling rate makes him the better choice for long-term party success. Is that a decision you want to be part of the process for players?

skoormit said...

On the question of stringing a combat along to gain some more XP, the scenario is not necessarily going to present as a clear-cut case of metagaming. Rather, the system will inform the players' decisions. There's one goblin left, he's in bad shape, and the cleric must decide between taking a swing at the goblin or moving to look down the hallway. He is likely to drop the goblin if he swings at him. If he moves instead, the goblin will get a swing at the rogue, and then it will be the fighter's turn and the goblin will be smoked. The cleric is balancing the reward of getting hallway intel right now vs the risk of the goblin getting a swing at the rogue. With this XP system, the cleric also considers that the rogue taking damage provides XP for the whole party. Maybe the rogue won't like it, but heck, maybe the rogue will. Everyone likes XP. You only get XP by taking risks. And here's a relatively low-risk opportunity. Taking one for the team, indeed.

Alexis said...


I think you may be underestimating the value a party could place on the service you provide, if that service is very credible.

In virtually every treasure trove, there is one or two items that are much more valuable than the rest. My party will also allocate additional shares of coin to people they like. These are decisions the parties make - I have no control over them.

For myself as a player mage, I play myself in the manner you express (having a clearer idea now what you meant before). I enjoy watching the fighters get their magic weapons and armor ... because I know that if I am consistently there to support the players, when the inevitable magic ring shows up, it's going to end up on my finger. That will redress all imbalances.

Finally, let me reassure you that I also tend to target mages with monsters the moment they throw any spell - every bow on the field, every missile weapon, every intelligent flying creature and so on will zero in on that mage, self-perservationally. You would probably lose more hit points than you'd think.

No system is perfect; it depends on the DM playing as smart as the players.

As far as "roleplaying" goes...the world is the world. How you get along in it is, as you say, part of the process.

skoormit said...

Mages are targets, as they should be. This is true regardless of the mage's arch-type.

What I'm hearing, I think, is that the XP differential between a damage-mage and a control-mage in this system is slight, in your experience with the system. Given that damage taken counts more than double that of damage done, I believe it.

From a party-wide perspective, there's only so much damage that can be done in an encounter. If the mage doesn't do it because he's casting Hold Monster and Fog Cloud instead of Fireball and Lightning Bolt, well, someone else is going to do it. Twenty combats later, you are level 3 instead of level 4, maybe, but the fighter is level 6 instead of level 5. The XP available for doing damage is largely zero-sum for the party, notwithstanding the small percentage of encounters that the party aborts before killing all the foes.

So, what about neutralizing an encounter without doing damage, but while incurring risk? The paladin bravely advances on the threatening Hill Giant, but rather than meeting him with sword, he meets him with words. Using his accumulated Tao Cards, he convinces the brute to allow the party passage through the glen. Had his attempt failed, the Giant would have struck, and struck most viciously. Is there no XP reward for such actions?

If I seem like I'm being nitpicky, I am. But I only pick nits if the hair is rather lovely.

Venting said...

"Twenty combats later, you are level 3 instead of level 4, maybe, but the fighter is level 6 instead of level 5."

Skoormit, having not played the system - obviously - you don't know what you're talking about here. I have played the system, and this argument is just plain wrong. You're inventing a strawman where you don't know what the hell you're talking about.

At some point, you have to either take my word for it, or do my research. That's two years of research, mind you.

I don't want to be rude ... but this line of argument is getting awfully stubborn. I've answered your questions. Don't start inventing crap so you can drag the argument out further.

Alexis said...

Sorry, that's my Wife's nick. We use the same computer.

Aberrant Hive Mind said...

Glad you updated on the old post, it came at a real good time.

skoormit said...

You misunderstand me. I am starting to understand that my original reservation (that the system could limit the viability of non-damage-based mages) turns out to be quite minor. I have no intention of arguing further on that point. My claim about mage level this and fighter level that was not a strawman with whom I was trying to argue. Maybe I left off a sentence there to make that explicit. Perhaps: "The party reaps the same benefit either way; it doesn't matter much if the mage has done a bit more damage and the fighter a bit less, or vice versa."

I freely admit that I haven't played the system. Nevertheless, I am very intrigued by this XP system. I had hoped my posited example about specific levels would be taken less literally, and more as an attempt to restate principles to demonstrate understanding. Any chance you could reread my comment with that rhetorical stance in mind and let me know if I'm getting your points correctly?

I'm also rather interested in whether and how you reward players for resolving encounters without bloodshed.

Wilson Theodoro said...

Is this system already on the Wiki?

Alexis said...

I am developing the system presently, Wilson. It will be available for purchase later this year

Making it shiny and practical for use.

Wilson Theodoro said...

Oh, sorry, I did not mean the card system. I meant the XP system presently discussed.

Alexis said...

No problem Wilson. No, it isn't on the Wiki. I should put it there, shouldn't I?

Wilson Theodoro said...

Yes, I definitely think you should. At first, I was skeptical about the system, but after giving it some thought, I actually think that it may indeed be a very simple solution to the XP distribution criteria. I´ll give it a hard try when I get play DnD again.

Now, I do have a question about the card system: you mentioned that their logic works even without cards. Do you plan to eventually release it as a PDF as well?

Alexis said...

When I have the opportunity and the system has been game tested, I hope to have a pdf, a Power Point presentation for Youtube and probably some examples of live play, also for Youtube.

When the time comes.