Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Risk vs. Reward

My players should read this.

I don't think I've properly written a post that compares experience obtained from combat vs. experience gained from treasure.  If, say, a group of 2nd level characters were to kill four bugbears, how much treasure would they get?

Let's begin by calculating how much experience might be gotten from the actual combat.  It doesn't really matter, but let's say the bugbears had 20 hit points each and that during the combat, they eradicated an average of 10 hit points from each member of the party.  We'll say there are five players in the party.  Each bugbear can't die until reduced to -4 hit points, so that is 96 damage caused and 50 damage received by the party.

In my experience system, we calculate these numbers to arrive at a total of 2,960 experience.  This is an average of 592 x.p. per player character.

Now how much treasure should the players get?

The interesting word here is "should."  When I began initially playing D&D, that "should" seemed like a logical application to the problem - and I spent literally years developing a wide range of tables and calculation systems which would ask for a die roll and spit out a number.  I roll a 3 and, ptoop, it says here the bugbears are carrying gold, gems, jewellery and magic items worth 3,552 g.p., which is then worth that much in experience.

Gawd, I was so naive.

For some time now, I haven't used any system for this sort of calculation ~ not because I wouldn't give my I-teeth for one, but because the computer needed to spit out a meaningful number would need to be as complicated as my brain and as experienced in the game at least as much as I was 17 years ago (ah, erm, 20 years).  That is because the circumstance in which the bugbears are killed matters more than every other consideration.

I began by realizing that, obviously, if the bugbears were wending their way along a forest path as a hunting party, they wouldn't take their kit and kaboodle with them.  What would such a bugbear be doing with 1,500 g.p. on his person?  Why would he even take his +1 mace?  Are maces any good for killing deer?  No.  So first we have to begin by deciding that treasure depends on the practical amount of goods that a creature (whatever it is, bugbear or otherwise), would logically have on them depending on what they're doing.

Consider that meeting a group of bugbears tromping through the wood and killing them is a fairly casual encounter.  The players are not invested.  Or, if the reader prefers, the players haven't committed themselves.  This, I feel, is the 2nd most important element of treasure giving.  To what degree have the players steadfastly applied themselves in this situation.

In the case I've just described, probably not at all.  They were walking along, the bugbears happened by, a fight ensued and the players ended it.  Job done, collect a few trifles and move on. Basically, we can look at this as the players "scratching the surface" of the bugbear situation. Without having given any consideration to this prior to about a paragraph and a half ago, we can call this a "Status-1" encounter.

A Status-2 encounter would run thusly.  The players examine the bugbears and find themselves presented with a clue that tells them where other bugbears (or perhaps another related creature) might be located.  The players must then make a decision: do we pursue this situation or do we shrug, count the gains as gains and move on.

It is the decision that matters.  Let me repeat that.  The players must commit themselves by deciding to exacerbate the situation.  The situation is NOT exacerbated if more bugbears come out of the woods to hunt down the players!  By the principles I've established for practical treasure carried, a bugbear posse would distinctly carry NO gold of any kind and certainly not a lot of gems and jewelry, among other valuables.  They would carry a +1 mace, though, so we can make allowances for armor and weapons.  But we've got to stay in the confines of practical gear for the bugbears to be carrying.

On the other hand, if the players take the fight to the bugbears, entering the fringes of their lair/homeland, the players are stepping up their involvement and, importantly, their risk. Because the game can only be won if the risk creates the right amount of entitlement.

So, where does Status-2 end and where does Status-3 begin?

[do remember, I'm making this up as I go along; I've never thought of this in stages before, I'm just creating stages to make it easier to teach the concept).

Status-2 comes up to the point where the party has engaged elements of the enemy in its lair/homeland in such a manner that an easy exit remains present.  If the players can stop without fuss, back out, quit and go to town, we're still in Status-2.  This means the players have been able to chop a few bugbears, maybe a worg or two, perhaps killed a few other random dungeon beasties, but at no time were the players legitimately overwhelmed.  They're making skirmishes, nothing more.  They haven't been forced into the kind of stand-up fight that makes retreat near-impossible.

Now, we can definitely award them more treasure for Status-2.  They're actually killing bugbears in their homes, so we can figure out how much wealth a bugbear ought to have and award treasure in line with that.  For killing four bugbears in a personal lair, I'd probably award the players about half the x.p. in treasure that they'd get from combat x.p.

So, Status-3.  The players find themselves having killed a small outpost and see, from the map in the solitary lair of the four bugbears, an outline of the nearby village, where there are 50 bugbears with about 100 goblin servants.  The 2nd level players look at that and think, "Let's leave."  They take their treasure, having probably acquired 3rd level, and rightly save their lives.

But let's argue that these are 2nd level characters who are the henchmen of a bunch of 6th and 7th levels.  They go back to their lieges and show the map, and the players have to make another decision.  This is definitely a Status-3 situation.  Once that hornet's nest gets woken up, no one is getting out of there easily.  Do we go in?  If we do, then this won't be a jaunt.  We'll have to attack, grab what we can, then probably hack our way out of there, hopefully getting back to our horses and clear before the bugbears and goblins can fully rally themselves.

What sort of treasure should they get for that?  Well, certainly the kind that can be grabbed quickly, as they'll be moving while pillaging.  A smart party will set it up so that the higher levels can rush in, hack, plunder the houses, then drop the stuff for the lower level characters to grab and high-tail out of town, while the upper level characters move fast and draw the fight to them.

I've never actually encountered this kind of smart party.  Usually what happens is that the players insist that every character, follower and hireling they have will join the fight together, without any attention given to communication with the outside or transfer of supplies or treasure, convinced they can take the whole town . . . and then all the lower level characters die and half the upper level characters, while three manage to cut their way out, taking no treasure with them.

BUT . . . there ought to be considerable treasure if the party hits a tower and perhaps one or two other key buildings, grabbing all they can find, running whenever they stun a single bugbear (instead of staying to fight again and again, even though that means being found by twenty more bugbears), then getting the hell out in ten or fifteen rounds.  Treasure for a Status-3 encounter?  About double the amount of experience gained from actual combat.

Now, another type of Status-3 encounter would be getting into a dungeon and finding the way out spoiled, so that the party was trapped and couldn't retreat easily.  That's a more likely situation for readers, as that's one the modules like to set up.  But the principles are the same.  The party's focus is on getting out . . . so while they're plundering as they go, they're not heading purposefully for the heart of the beast.

And that is a Status-4 encounter.  Kill everything.  Clean the dungeon out.  If the players keep at it and keep at it, returning after their first, second and third forays, until finally they kill every bugbear, even as the bugbears have abandoned their village and are now dragging all their wealth into the hills for a last stand, then the players deserve the ultimate amount of treasure.  For my game, that would probably be about 5 to 8 times the amount of experience earned through combat.

This ideal, then, rewards players who don't quit.  That's the key.  If the players are content to move from place to place, meeting the occasional creature, getting bashed around and then retreating to town, without investigating the matter further, then the amount of treasure should logically be minimal.  Perhaps none at all, depending on the party's exact moves.  But if the party gets the bit in their teeth, keeps digging and won't give up until every last miserable creature is either disenfranchised from the lair's treasure or dead, then the party deserves a good, solid, level-promoting treasure trove.

That's how I see this process.  It is risk vs. reward.  A decision to risk it all, risk the maximum, gets the highest possible gain.  A decision to play it safe, just poke at the fringes of the thing and turn tail rather than take the next step, deserves the minimum.


  1. Haha, it was this exact reason I wanted to go to the tower first!

    Damn. Now I'm mad my vacation is going to severely limit my correspondence.

    I really fucking love this game.

  2. You're teetering on Status-3 now, I think. You've agreed to go back twice to Mimmarudla, you're stuck in the forest with an unknown number of froglings around you, there's no telling what's ahead or behind and it probable that you may not get out alive. You may also stumble across something that will yield treasure . . . though that has a lot to do with what decisions you make going forward. You could still hunker down, slink off and try to save yourselves, without further investigation; so you could yet get out of here without another incident. It is up to you.

  3. How would this approach jive with the idea of a dynamic, living, independent world? Is it possible for the player's to locate a poor village such that, no matter how much risk the take, there's a cap to the available treasure? And if that's the case, would you make it clear that the village doesn't have much loot before the player's commit themselves?

  4. This compound we're currently tackling presents quite a challenge. I believe we're too low-levelled to really make much headway. Heck, we're lacking for levels even to attempt going by stealth as it is.

    And beside it being active, we've got the army breathing down our necks, implying that the frogs are not long for this world and it's all more a matter of what can we grab before they're dispatched by the powers that be.

  5. Then lets get in there and GET OURS!


  6. Ozymandias, your question is answered by the "practicality" question. Yes, there would have to be a cap. But consider that the amount of treasure is tied directly to how much x.p. the village was worth. A hundred people without combat experience, with 1d8 h.p. and a morale that would make them run away rather than fight, wouldn't leave much treasure behind them when they abandoned their homes.

  7. Great, great post. Definitely something to add to "How to Run", because it's an important piece of it.

    Thanks !

    As an aside, I'm sorry for the ending of the Senex Campaign. However, all the comments on the end has been useful to get my head around some things, and on the whole this campaign has been a learning experience !

  8. So here's another thought:

    Use your tables for producing goods at market as a baseline for available treasure in a location. There'd have to be some logic applied when adapting them for more "traditional" adventure sites, but it's leveraging a system you already have in place (cuts down a lot on the amount of time involved).

  9. Ah when I think about the hours I spent trying to make that work ...


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