“In order to rise from its own ashes, a Phoenix first must burn.”
– Octavia Butler
Various topics in the Blog-o-Sphere has me thinking about experience points and their role in gaming.
I stopped playing Dungeons & Dragons before third edition. I’ve skimmed the 3rd Ed. Players’ Handbook a few times, enough to see various familiar terms used in ways foreign to my grognardian mind, but by that time I was deep into GURPS and not looking to dive into a new D&D system.
3rd Edition, and by extension Pathfinder, is still largely a mystery to me. However having jumped back into old school gaming it’s hard not to pick up a few things about it. Most recently I’ve learned about how 3rd Edition shifts the focus of gaining experience points from recovering treasure to killing monsters.
This was a big surprise to me, as it radically changes the nature of the game. Exploration and treasure finding become secondary concerns and diplomacy can be a liability. I recently read accounts of play sessions where the Dungeon Master warned the players that they were missing out on experience points because they negotiated instead of fighting. In one case the DM went so far as to tell them the missed the chance to level up by not killing a group of NPCs.
It makes me wonder why Old School gamers are the ones with the “murder hobo” reputation.
This is anathema to me. It restricts creativity and limits the game. If I wanted that kind of experience I’d play Diablo. I’m an exploration gamer, I want to get to the bottom of the dungeon to see what’s there. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good fight, but as much as I like defeating the dragon it’s reaching the depths of his lair and finding the lost artifact that I enjoy most. If I can build alliances with other dungeon dwellers along the way, even better. This means that I find the Old School focus on gaining XP through recovering treasure to be the better way.
Experience through treasure hunting is not without its flaws. This is especially true if you like to run a game that doesn’t drop huge amounts of loot on your players. I remember playing a TSR module back in high school where we found around 5,000 gp worth of treasure in a chest of drawers. This happened in one of the first chambers we entered and after killing a small group of monsters. We laughed and said it was time to head for the tavern. After all, 5,000 gold pieces will buy a lot of ale.
I try to scatter decent treasure hauls through my dungeons, saving the biggest for the deepest locations, but by and large I avoid spreading around too much wealth. When it’s easy to find jewels worth thousands in gold the allure of treasure loses its luster.
This also pushes the Dungeon Master to find ways to burn off all that wealth. Ideally this happens by letting the players set up a domain of their own, but that’s not the goal of every player. In practice it often turns into various tricks to drain the players’ purses. The lowest form of this would be the Adventurers Tax, where the king thinks it’s a good idea to demand a share of gold from a party powerful enough to brave the megadungeon.
This strategy usually ends… poorly.
AD&D’s practice of giving experience for magic items does help with this problem, allowing the DM to reward the players without overdoing monetary rewards. However the laser focus on treasure-for-experience is still a stifling element for game play and world design.
At the risk of speaking OSR-heresy, it makes me understand why some DM’s dispense with XP completely and level characters up after a set number of game sessions.
When I started back into OSR games, it was with Lamentations of the Flame Princess. I decided to give out XP strictly by-the-book, but quickly found that the gains were too slow for our tastes. My players didn’t mind starting with fragile first level characters, but it got old staying there. They weren’t alone, I wanted them to tackle bigger challenges, but our game sessions were too short and the awards too small. Add to this my keeping the treasure modest and the focus on exploration and it quickly became apparent that changes needed to be made.
These days I use a subjective award system. I give XP for treasure and killing monsters, but I also give XP for completing “goals”. What constitutes a goal is also not rigidly defined, it’s not about plot points for a greater story so much as rewarding an accomplishment that means something to the character or the world. I am also happy to give XP for successful negotiations or other methods of avoiding combat, in proportion to the risk and creativity of the solution. Sneaking around an Owlbear would be worth less experience than fighting it. Negotiating with a hobgoblin war party could be as good as defeating it.
Wacky hi-jinks that leads a group of trolls into the lair of a hydra, when the players are too low in level to survive a fight with either group? That’ll earn a bonus.
Experience points are rewards that determine what your game is going to focus on. For my games I want to give rewards for the discovery of treasure, not based on its monetary value. I want to reward players for overcoming threats, not simply defeating them in combat. I want to encourage players to flesh out their characters through play and recognize them for completing tasks important to them, not for checking off specific plot points in a story I’ve written.