Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Experience: Rolling the Rock Back Up the Hill

We straight up Sisyphus in this blog, yo.

 As I mentioned very briefly in my last post, Stars Without Number doesn't really give you a set method for awarding experience points. It lists some of the methods and it provides a handy chart for determining level-up rates and roughly how much experience you should dole out to level in X amount of sessions, but what exactly you give experience for is sort of left up to you, with an implied default of xp for treasure earned (and "earned" can take a lot of forms, as can the precise definition of "treasure.)

Experience points are kind of a funny thing. They've been done differently in just about every iteration of D&D that's ever been iterated. In the Olden Days, experience was granted for combat, but that paled in comparison to the xp given for loot carted back from the dungeon. Last summer, in my brief and sadly aborted online B/X game, I discovered that the paltry 125 xp you get for killing a goddamn can-kill-you-twice-in-one-round medusa is a tiny drop in the bucket for adventurers who are at the appropriate level to challenge her with hope of success; her treasure type, by contrast, is worth an average of around 10,000 xp. I use this little tidbit of data whenever I try to explain the futility of combat in older versions of D&D.

Talking to my group about it last week, it was suggested that I hand out experience entirely by my own fiat. I'm not sure I'm comfortable with this, if only because experience points have been Holy Writ in D&D for so long that I feel the game is somehow incomplete without them. (If I'm handing them out by fiat, I am essentially deciding how many sessions we play before the players get to level, right?) If I'm going to get rid of experience points, I might as well give the magic-user plate mail and a d12 hit die. It's anarchy!

...ahem. I did end up giving them 600 points each, which was mostly an arbitrary number derived from the suggested 750 that SWN suggests for 1st level characters.

So as I sit here an spin my tires, I find myself going back and looking at the various ways experience points are awarded in the versions of D&D that I am familiar with:

*B/X D&D: Experience is awarded for combat, with monsters being worth an amount based on a loose formula that calculates Hit Die and special abilities. Generally, monsters are worth relatively little experience points considering the threat they can pose. Experience is awarded for treasure on a 1 xp per 1 gp basis. The emphasis is clearly on the acquisition of treasure. (Let's not forget that a great deal of horded treasure is also necessary to build that 9th level stronghold, but that's another post entirely)

*Cyclopedic D&D- Same as above, though the formula for monsters might be slightly different. Treasure is still the way to go. The cyclopedia also has rules for giving experience for quests/objectives completed and for roleplaying. Objectives (which are left very open) are worth an amount equal to the experience gained from foes overcome to attain said objective. In theory, this is good, but in practice, I've found that it essentially just means double xp for monsters, but you have to wait until a good stopping point to collect. The roleplaying is calculated at 1/20th of what the character needs for the entire level. (So for a 1st level fighter it would be 20 points, 5% or 1/20th of what he needs to go from 1st to 2nd level, which is 2,000 total points.)The percentage keeps the award from being disproportionate for the classes, although some players might balk at the notion that an elf's role-playing is worth double the number of points of a fighter's.

*AD&D 1st Edition- Points are awarded for monsters, which seemed to be higher rewards-wise, but xp for treasure is still in effect and still totally the way to go. No awards mentioned for roleplay. I think this is where xp awards for magical item construction and other obscure bits comes in to play. I'm mainly focusing on stuff that most characters can cash in on.

*AD&D 2nd Edition: Points for combat.I recall that there was an optional system for class based experience awards, but I recall it being poorly implemented. A 1st level thief can climb a dozen walls and level, while a fighter still has to single-handedly kill something like 100 orcs solo.

*D&D 3rd Edition: Combat only. The experience you get is now determined by a monster's Challenge Rating, an arbitrary and sometimes wonky estimation of monster danger vs. party level. Experience awards are also scaled so that monsters that are "beneath you" in terms of CR are worth progressively less experience. (By the same token, fighting a monster who is a few CRs higher is worth more) This is the first version of D&D where all classes level at the same rate.

*D&D 4th Edition- Experience is awarded for combat, with monsters being worth a flat award determined mainly by the monster's level. (Yes, they have levels now) Experience points are also awarded for major and minor quests, quests being goals set by the DM. (Infiltrate the Black Tower, safely escort the diplomat to the Elf Queen's palace, etc.) Experience points are also awarded for Skill Challenges. (Essentially a sort of combat against a situation using skill checks) While I actually sort of liked the alternative options for experience in the wake of 3.0/3.5,  the emphasis is still heavily on combat. All classes still level at equal rates in this version. Disclaimer: my knowledge of 4e is congruent with the state of the game in December 2008. It is my understanding that there have been revisions to the way Skill Challenges work, and possibly to other mechanics, but I have not kept up to date. (...and there's no need to update me on it, either)

Sooooo, what have we got?
I can award experience for monsters and make it worth relatively little, a la B/X, or make it worth their while a la 3rd ed.

I can award experience for "treasure" (my definition being money and valuables taken from an expedition/adventure), or on an xp-per-credit basis. \

I can award xp for "quests" or objectives, either scaling it or being totally arbitrary.

I can award a level after a set number of "encounters" or some other defined mark of progress.

I have seen other good ideas on the blogosphere as well; things such as xp for distance traveled or xp for places visited.

I can hand out experience points for "good roleplaying." 

I suppose the best way to determine what I should give experience for should be based on what activities or styles of play I want to encourage in my game. Bingo.

Allow me to table this for the moment. I have to get up in a little less than six hours. To be continued... 


  1. 1st edition AD&D is the most generous with XP, giving points for magic items found and kept (or HUGE amounts for magic items sold...equal to their GP value!) as well as XP for each hit point a monster has (making monster worth significantly more than B/X, BECMI, and OD&D).

    2nd edition AD&D has the WORST XP system, awarding different XP for different character types. Only thieves get XP for collecting treasure, fighter for fighting monsters, clerics for "converting people" (?!), and wizards for magic item construction, spell research, and magic discovery. UGH.

  2. "a goddamn can-kill-you-twice-in-one-round medusa" :: That was great fun. :D

    Yeah, XP are a real issue at times, aren't they?
    --Makes me long for the Chaosium method of 'choose a few skills, roll over your current % in that particular skill, and then add 1d3% to each of them.'
    ---No muss, no fuss, no fiddly bits.

    I wish you well on your XP-quest. :)
    --And, thanks again for running that adventure. :D

  3. 3rd edition wasn't the first place that being higher level than your opponents gave you diminishing returns on experience points. Gary Gygax also discussed diminishing returns on experience points in the 1st edition AD&D DM's Guide, starting on page 84. There is even a formula for determining whether or not full XP should be awarded and a short list of exceptions.

  4. XP Awards
    I found all D&D xp award systems a little dissatisfying meself. I toyed with this system for a game last year:

    Players choose 2 of the 7 XP Sources below based on the character concept:

    BLOOD! Get 1 xp per hp of damage done to a foe in combat. May be modified by the danger of the foe.
    GOLD! Good ole get 1 xp per gp acquired adventuring.
    MERCY! Get 1 xp per hp of healing done to another character.
    MAGIC! Get xp for magic items, also spell level X character level in xp per spell successfully cast (we were using a spell check, but those who don’t can judge the effective use of a spell)
    PHILANTHROPY! 1 xp per gp given to charity.
    THIEVERY! 1 xp per gp stolen.
    SKILL! Character level x d10 xp gained for every class or race based ability used well (i.e. saves a character, advances the adventure, etc)

    I also awarded cumulative 1% to total xp awarded bonuses based on little things like good ideas, good roleplaying, advancing the adventure, MVP, etc etc.

    Note that it is a lot to track, but very fair. Also, DMs should warn that ‘XP milking’ (steal gold, give to orphanage, steal from orphanage, rinse, repeat, OR stab foe, heal foe, rinse repeat) will not be tolerated. Also, 1% cumulative xp penalties for bad roleplaying or gamesmanship (is that a word? Should be) are also given.

  5. A couple other suggestions:

    - You could just set a rate of improvement of increasing a single level at the end of each adventure. I believe Blue Rose did it this way.

    - Maybe give some thought to using the Palladium experience system, or some version of it?

  6. In my humble opinion, you're way overthinking it...there is a reason they call it GAMING. It's not like a 3rd level SWN PC is going to be able to walk into a juicer bar and rip them all apart! Give XP based on how the PCs did, based on how hard you think the adventure was. Unfortunatly, I have to disagree on giving XP to encourage the PCs to play the way you want them to play. As I have found out, problems or goals have many ways to be resolved. As a GM, I try to make sure there is usually an escape from my 'traps'. I find that I tend to give more XP if the PCs find an ingenious way to succeed, regardless if I like their methods! Sometimes normal desk jockeys like playing psycho-killing ogres...

  7. Mindy- I think you misunderstood what I meant. Different versions of D&D, and different roleplaying games, have different "focus" in terms of what the characters should be doing. D&D 3rd edition is fairly combat oriented and awards substantial xp for combat. Meanwhile, older versions of D&D that seem to be more about dungeoneering award little, and some other roleplaying games (White Wolf, for instance) award nothing for combat. In this way, the design of the game subtly encourages different play styles... in Vampire, you really don't get anything special for dealing with every problem by the use of physical force, where in 3rd or 4th edition D&D, your character can do quite well living by the sword.

    Look back at the medusa situation... in B/X D&D, fighting her is ridiculously risky and worth relatively little for said risk, while sneaking into her lair and stealing her treasure is worth potential boatloads of xp. Take the same encounter and translate it into 3rd ed, and fighting her is worth decent experience, whereas just stealing from her is really worth nothing. (Though you still get the loot)

    I don't have pre-conceived solutions in mind and I love being surprised. What I'm saying is that I need to decide how much I should encourage or discourage different "default" modes of play. If I use B/X for the experience formula, combat becomes an undesirable approach to things because it's incredibly deadly and nets relatively little reward. If I make credits worth xp, then the game becomes all about loot and treasure hunting, etc, etc.

    ...haha, I think you might be right with regards to me overthinking this, but as you may have noticed, overthinking is kind of a specialty of mine...

  8. A few other comments-
    *Ted- Brilliant. I might actually adopt something like this, if not for SWN, then perhaps for my next fantasy game.

    *TS- Sorry the game never got much further than that. Perhaps someday we'll play again, and I'll try to pick players who don't live in opposite time zones.

    *Jag- Yup, forgot all about that. I also forgot that you get xp for traps in 3rd and 4th ed. This is what I get for blogging at night after doing a bunch of work. :)

    *Lark- I'm trying to be a bit sandboxy with this, so I'd have to define what exactly an "adventure" means. It's also tricky to implement because Experts are supposed to level faster than the other classes, and it's part of the draw to the class so I don't want to negate that advantage.

    *JB- Magic items were rare enough in my AD&D1 game that the players would never think about selling them. :D

  9. I look forward to that day. :)


  10. There's also the red-headed step-cousin of the family, Dragonlance: The Fifth Age, which under all the fancy card mechanics was a modified AD&D2.

    In that game, each character had a Quests rating, which dictated how many cards they'd be able to use for task resolution. When your character completed an adventure, their Quests rating would increase by one, thus making them better at future tasks.

    It was an elegant system, and one which I've always been tempted to import back into D&D proper.

  11. That does sound interesting, Kelvin. I never had the chance to check out Fifth Age.'s funny; I actually discovered D&D through the Dragonlance novels as a kid, but I've never actually played Dragonlance even once.

  12. Me too. I used the system for other settings, having long since lost interest in Dragonlance by the time the game came out!