Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Where The Action Is (about Experience Points)

Whether or not he wants it that way, the "comments" section of James M.'s (fantastic, scholarly, useful) Grognardia blog has become a sort of forum for everyone who wants to talk about what they do or don't like about D&D (guilty), no matter how tangentially related to the topic it might be. So, predictably, when he posted this relatively innocent bit about experience points it ignited a comment-storm about xp.

Now, I don't know about your players, but here's the deal on mine:

Experience points don't motivate my players at all.

(This is my Rule About X.P. #1)

Don't get me wrong here: my players like xp, my players will take xp, my players will get angry if you try to take xp away from them once they have it, but they never do anything because they think it'll get them x.p..

Here's how things usually go:

The players show up. They are excited to finally get to play D&D.

They get their PCs out and then try to figure out where the action is--"action" can in this case be defined as "whatever seems interesting to do, find, or kill in a given adventure".

They find some action. They have fun and snacks.

This Action either: Reveals More Places Where There Might Be Action or Sets Off An Unfortunate Chain of Events. Or both.

The PCs try to find more Action, or extricate themselves from the Events, or both. They have more fun and snacks.

Then the players go home.

Then a few days later they get an e-mail where I detail all the x.p. they got and how, and they go "Oh yeah, xp! Sweet."

If they get enough then maybe they level up--this changes the nature of the game slightly and so keeps things interesting.

Anyway, the point of rule #1 is that the widely-held belief that xp is necessarily an important motivating engine in a game and therefore knowing what players get xp for in a game allows you to gauge the philosophy, meaning, or morality of a given game is a fallacy. At least with the people I play with.

There are many corollaries of this rule--one being that not "rewarding" something with x.p. doesn't mean it's not an important part of the game. So, while it's true that in OD&D the players don't get xp for role-playing (in the sense of "acting"), neither do they get xp for eating pizza or quoting Monty Python movies--but just try to stop them.

If you look at the AD&D DMG, despite lack of rules rewarding good role-playing, there are rules which punish bad role-playing. The DMG also has recommendations for punishing other kinds of behavior at the table which make the game less fun. The idea is: Gary assumed the players would be role-playing and not acting like dicks, so he felt no need to positively incentivize them to talk like a funny dwarf or not attack other players for no reason. It was only when RPGs got so popular that dickheads and teenagers started playing them that more complex incentive schemes started getting developed.

(Incidentally, in the DMG, Gary also seemed to assume--correctly in my limited experience--that storylines would naturally develop out of games and so storytelling didn't need to be incentivized either.)

I beg you to keep Rule #1--the only important rule--in mind while we move on to the other Rules About X.P..

(#2) The X.P. Value of A Given Treasure is Presumed To Be Proportional To The Amount of Problem-Solving Required To Get That Treasure

Bilbo didn't get x.p. for trusting Gandalf, walking around with dwarves, surviving a goblin attack, and then beating Gollum at a riddle game. But he got x.p. for the ring, which abstractly represents all the effort of doing all of that stuff and more.

The idea is to reward problem-solving without having to calculate every little thing--so instead of rewarding the individual steps in the solving of the problem, the game gives a lump award in the form of treasure.

It's not meant to be "a reward for stealing" (though it can be that) it's a reward for all the adventuring that lead up to the stealing.

D&D is, as everyone knows, very big on abstractly resolving stuff involving a lot of variables rather than calculating all those variables separately. And yes, such abstract systems are not infallible--but rule #2 is the intention behind xp-for-treasure, and if you want to fuck with a rule, it's good to know why the rule was there in the first place.

(#3) The X.P. Reward For Killing Monsters Can Be Thought of As A Bonus Reward on TOP Of The Abstract Treasure Problem-Solving Bonus

In other words, you get a treasure reward that accounts for all the blood, sweat, tears, and problem-solving involved in getting that treasure, but if some of that problem-solving took the form of monster-killing, you get a bonus.

Why exactly you get this bonus is a matter of debate, but I think one of the most important reasons is: unlike traps and other problems you solve in D&D, monsters are entirely defined in the rules. That is, you don't get a set xp for solving riddles or defeating traps because Gary had no way of quantifying how hard your DMs traps or riddles were, but he knew how hard your monsters were because he statted them himself. So the monster bonus represents a degree of granularity and detail tacked on to an otherwise abstract system.

In 3e, they tried to break it down further by giving traps challenge ratings just like monsters, but that still left every other challenge a DM could think of unquantified, and stil left puzzle-traps unaccounted for. A published game can, obviously, never prescribe an appropriate general reward for puzzles because: 1-The difficulty of puzzles can't be abstractly generalized and 2-The moment you get more specific about a puzzle in the published rules, the players know the answer to the puzzle and it's not a puzzle.

(#4) X.P. is, Therefore, An Abstract Measure of The Amount of Problem-Solving A Given Player Has Done With A Given Character

It's not How Much Fighting Your Fighter Has Done or How Much Stealing Your Thief Has Done, or How Long Your Wizard Has Spent In Front Of Spellbooks, it's a reward for the player. And the reward essentially is: solve enough problems with this kind of character and eventually you earn the right to try to solve different kinds of problems with a slightly different (i.e. levelled-up) character.

Which leads to:

(#5) The Purpose of X.P. In The D&D Is To Create An Automatic Method By Which The Nature of the Problems Faced In The Game Will Change Over Time So The Game Won't Get Stale


Felipe Budinich said...

Paraphrasing your words:

I show up, the players are already there. They are excited to finally get to play D&D.

They find or generate some action. They have fun, snacks, and drinks.

The PCs try to find more Action, or extricate themselves from the Events, or both. They have more fun, snacks, and drinks.

Experience points don't motivate my players either, in fact they don't even know that they get additional exp for gold.

I extrapolate my exp rewards from the system laid there on the rules, because of what you say on point 5. It provides a nicely paced change over time.

"Grognardia blog has become a sort of forum for everyone who wants to talk about what they do or don't like about D&D (guilty), no matter how tangentially related to the topic it might be"

Also guilty, but in my defense i can say that shit storms there are particularly educated and informative.

Unknown said...

Your first rule about XP has not been true in my recent experience, but I agree with your conclusions about the point of XP. I no longer use any printed guidelines to determine how much XP to award the PCs, rather relying entirely on my subjective judgement on how much the players accomplished - how much problem-solving they have done, as you put it. I don't reveal my methods of computing this figure to the players because I truly don't have anything to reveal. Mostly, I didn't want to use a system that only grants XP for killing monsters or gaining treasure when many of my sessions involve neither. The only real rule I have is that everyone receives the same amount of XP.

Your observation that XP doesn't motivate players may be true for some groups, but many of the players in my group have more experience playing MMORPGs like Final Fantasy XI and WOW than they do with pen and paper RPGs. Before I handed out the first goodly chunk of XP for a non-combat session, they would kill things for no other reason than to gain the XP from them. They were thinking about it in the same terms that they thought about leveling up in Final Fantasy XI, where they just fought mob after mob after mob until they got enough XP.

I have mixed feelings about the XP for gp rule; if I were playing a fantasy game, I am sure it would be a satisfactory abstraction of the problem solving that the group has done. I am running Mutant Future, however, and IMC precious metals are incredibly scarce because alien invaders more or less raped the earth of all her resources in the distant past. Barter is the universal currency, and my group has shown little interest in picking up stuff to barter with because the sorts of things they are interested in acquiring are really only to be found in ancient ruins, not in the hands of some mutant trader. As far as awarding XP for finding ancient technological artifacts, that feels a little bit off for me as well, because in many ways those artifacts are reward enough. They certainly increase the players abilities to tackle more difficult situations much more dramatically than leveling up!

Sorry to ramble on in the comment section, I must have gotten this blog confused with Grognardia...

Anonymous said...

so, what your saying is your group is just like mine, only they don't consider beer a "snack".

I would totally run a campaign--especially a post-apocalyptic sci-fi campaign--using the xp rules you describe. The idea of items being more "game changing" than levelling up in that environment is totally true to the genre.

I also totally agree with:

"The only real rule I have is that everyone receives the same amount of XP."

prevents bickering--even the smartest grownups can start looking at you askance if, for some reason, you judge one person's contribution as more "worthy" than everybody elses.

and no problem with the rambling comments. when I have 48 people all going on about how much they hate D&d and how immature it is and how D&D raped their mother, then i'll start complaining about comments, but for now, my soft, pink squishy newborn blog will take all the attention it can get.

Felipe Budinich said...

"what your saying is your group is just like mine, only they don't consider beer a 'snack'."

What I'm saying is that my group is just like yours, but instead of beer we usually drink:

caffeine and alcohol on the same glass = party/gaming heaven

"even the smartest grownups can start looking at you askance if, for some reason, you judge one person's contribution as more 'worthy' than everybody elses."

When I GMed a Mage: The Ascension campaign i turned that idea upside down, because i asked players: "who roleplayed the best?", "who played the most important part in the conflict?", etc... and awarded bonuses based on those recommendations.

Everyone seemed happy with that approach (because I made the process transparent, and placed the burden on their hands).

" As far as awarding XP for finding ancient technological artifacts, that feels a little bit off for me as well, because in many ways those artifacts are reward enough."

In that setting, i think i would take a similar route, but to echo a comment i made on grognardia;

What if your players manage to get their hands on a Ship without spilling blood, just negotiating?

I think i would award them with "Xp = Value of the Ship/Characters, up to 50% of the exp needed for their next level" (I'm talking based on a D&D context), because it provides a pacing for advancement that has been tested for years, not just by my particular group, but by several people that seem to enjoy it.

Anonymous said...

You know, the internet was also pretty cool before dickheads and teenagers showed up and things became more interesting, somewhat like rpgs.

We get together to play, BS for a while, and sit down and tell a story together. I take hints from the Palladium game system for handing out experience points, which means that comabt/defeating monsters is just one facet of the gem og gaming, however, I don't hand out xp like candy, either, I keep it toned down it bit. But the gaming style is pretty gonzo and hopefully the anything can (and usually does) happen aspect of the world makes up for slower level progression.

In the end, we have a lot of fun and share a story and a world together.

Anonymous said...


I'm not sure whether you're trying to make a point or just saying how you play, but
I hope you're not assuming that my explaining the workings of one system is an attempt to say it is the best or only possible system.

Anonymous said...

No, I wasn't trying to say that one system was better than another, I was just saying that I cobble together elements from other systems to make a game work for our group. We don't always have a lot of combat, sometimes the bad guy and his cronies are overthrown through guile instead of muscle, and instead of just using the standard D&D format for experience, I branch out to include other means of gaining experience and the Palladium system, while clunky in many ways, has a well done experience table.
I'll just be quiet now.

howandwhy99 said...

This method you outline is something I've been interpreting as more accurate from certain earlier versions of D&D. So stumbling upon it I thought, "I better add my ideas too."

#1 XP does not need to motivate players, but it may. Treasure need not motivate players. Additional powers need not either. Nor slaying monsters. Tracking equipment isn't exactly thrilling for of my players, but I design the game to reward it if they do. Those who are motivated by XP can find better ways to gain more, if that's what they want.

My difference is XP is strictly about Class and class abilities. It's tracked separately by class and gained for class activities.

That doesn't mean other stuff doesn't have a numerical benefit...

#2 is how everything is evaluated in my game, everything is proportionate to the amount of puzzle needed to be experienced before it can be gained. (This is the most insightful thing I've read in your blog so as of yet) So treasure does not gain XP, it brings abilities simply by having it.

Treasure totals and XP totals (and all the less substantial "treasures" too) are not kept commensurate per character like in 3.x or 4e. (In a way the balancing of everything is more likely than not to happen by itself, if only like stilling water.)

#3 I don't reward monster killing, but evaluate besting monsters with multiple outcomes for what that means, then tie them into every class's potentiality for XP earning. This simply means the classes we include in the game have some overlap, and all share in besting other creatures encountered (aka adventurers).

#4 is a great reminder of what XP represents and really spells out something that hasn't been said so clearly and openly before in years. (only I'd say it was a character measure, sometimes my guys share or swap PCs)

#5 while I think holds true, isn't necessarily the purpose of XP. XP doesn't need to be used at all to keep the game fresh (plenty of XP rewarded games haven't been), but needing to raise the bar every so often does push the DM to bring more to the table next time too.

Anonymous said...

Zak: Do you think your delay in award of XP is a factor in your players being less motivated by XP?

Imagine an extreme where XP is awarded at each action - attacking, casting, sneaking, negotiating - and another extreme where no XP are awarded and the DM just tells you when you leveled up between sessions. A player in the first extreme has a reward immediately, while a player in the second extreme effectively can't connect his level gain with anything that he did.

Video games tend to give you the former, because the bookkeeping is automated. D&D Online gives you tiny nibbles of XP during an adventure for completing side objectives, but 95% of the award comes at the end of a 5-30 minute dungeon crawl. Because bookkeeping is a manual thing at the table, bookkeeping will divert players' attention from the action in the game. But if you want to reinforce the importance of the XP reward, you could do something like poker chips of different colors for various actions and they get counted up at the end of the fight. Perhaps expended during the fight as a resource? Regardless, a tangible immediate XP reward that requires minimal mid-encounter bookkeeping.

But that would be a tactic to get players more motivated by XP. Maybe it's more enjoyable for the group if the players are motivated by the action as in your group. Perhaps XP as a motivator partly exists for players who otherwise have trouble self-motivating (here I'm ignoring XP's other uses like steady change in the game).

Zak Sabbath said...

Yeah it seems like you've described several plausible, experimental, worse scenarios than the very pleasant one prevailing at my table.

Anonymous said...

Haha, yep! ;P
I like awarding XP at the end of the session. Because my players right now aren't so used to 1E XP awards I'll let them know about what proportion came from killing monsters vs. treasure - about 25% vs. 75%. But they don't seem incentivized by XP. They deal with monsters because they're interesting or dangerous, and they want treasure because it's shiny or powerful.

Zak Sabbath said...

I just now realized you left a half-conversation on this old blog entry:

this is against the rules.

You need to address the points made there in response to you or be banned,