Wednesday 29 February 2012

The Orc-Studded Economics of Experience

I'm trying to assess the experience and advancement system for my game.  I'm making the following assumptions:

1. Given that the modern rate of play is weekly or every other week, it really should not take more than 10 sessions to reach 2nd level, and I'm ok with it even being twice as fast as that.

2. I like giving xp both for killing monsters and gaining treasure. Not so much for gaining magic items.

3. I know the arguments for balancing in favor of treasure but find in practice that leads to unwieldy amounts of treasure, quickly overwhelming the options for equipment purchase.

4. I reject many of the classic solutions for cash glut like magical items for sale, PCs creating minor magic items, venal miracle-mongers charging four-figure resurrections, exorbitant training fees.

5. I think about 5th level is when players should think about starting to build a name-level legacy and throw money around for influence and ultimately stronghold privileges.

6. I'm OK with levels taking more sessions to obtain the more the players play.

With these criteria in mind let's build a dungeon rich in exploration and non-combat problems, where the combat is with squads of 5 orcs at a time. And send a party of 5 in. The assumption here is that our heroes are going to run into and beat about the equivalent of two such squads before the session ends (and this has nothing to do with the 15 minute adventuring day - it's usual for parties in my exploration-heavy dungeons to split one expedition over two game sessions). The question then becomes, assuming we want them to level up in about 6 sessions, how much treasure should we have them take away on average each time?

Labyrinth Lord

Orcs are 10 XP and although classes vary, the fighter is a good benchmark and will level at 2,035 xp (I wonder what intensive playtesting led to such a precise figure ...) Thus, 10 x 10 / 5 = 20 xp from monsters will be gained by each member on each expedition. After 6 expeditions our fighter has 120 xp from monsters; fair enough; it's an explicitly treasure-weighted system. But the fighter will have to end up with 1915 gold pieces if and when he makes second level - enough to buy a suit of plate mail for himself and two henchmen!

Other Old School Clones

OSRIC and Swards & Wizardry are a little more generous, clocking in at 15 XP (on average, in the case of OSRIC) per orc, but this doesn't make an appreciable dent in the huge sums to be had. Lamentations' orcs and fighters are much the same as LL's.

My House Rules

In the current incarnation of my house rules I give xp at the rate of:
  • 100 per adjusted hit die (adjusted for special attacks and the like) of monsters that are equal to or higher than the average party level, 
  • half that if one lower, 
  • and 1/10 that if two or more. 
The level-appropriate orcs here would yield 10x as much experience as in Labyrinth Lord, requiring a haul of only 800 coins to make 2000 xp; it's touch and go whether you can get plate mail by 2nd level with all other expenses and payments you may be required to make. The treasure can be even sparser if you make allowances, as I do, for carousing rules which let money be spent on experience. In fact, the ratio of exploration to combat and treasure is such that my players are pleased with (3rd ed. style) a level 2 jump at 1000 xp.

Now, this system is tailored to my preferences, which skip a lot of the familiar tropes of D&D and aim for a lean, hungry kind of game. I've seen a lot of these preferences expressed by bloggers, but not always with an appreciation of how monsters, experience and treasure exist in a delicate balance. I'm just wondering how this balance works in other games with the wealth of house rules out there.

Next I'll consider the question of what there is to spend money on, under a game aesthetics that avoids the computer-game staple of the well-stocked magic equipment store.


  1. I also give p based on achieving certain goals. For example, the "dungeon" is an old castle nominally owned by a local lord, who wishes it cleared of orc bandits so he can garrison his men there and/or ensure the pass the castle covers is free for merchant travel.

    Simply scouting the castle and establishing the forces of the foes and mapping things out would grant 1,000xp for the party, actually clearing it out another 2,000xp. So even if they scout it out and decide to leave it to a bigger force to deal with, they still get a reward. If they actually clear it by whatever means, they get that extra xp.

  2. My solution is to award experience on a silver standard. If you'd normally give, say, 150 gold give 150 silver and award 1 xp per silver piece. Now that Labyrinth Lord fighter is gonna be 3rd level before he can afford plate, 2nd before he can even afford banded.

  3. Both those solutions look like they'd work. The 10:1 valuation (would be copper in my campaign) is maybe a little more in line with my style, but Kyle's mission points are very much in line with a more heroic or political view of the adventurers.

  4. The game Raedwald, a hack of early D&D, has the PCs as warriors to a thane. They get xp only when the thane gives them a gift acknowledging their service. This presents experience as something in line with fame, renown, or other social recognition. Which would parallel AD&D1e, where at 9th level you could build a stronghold, clear the surrounding hexes of monsters, and be considered a lord.

    As well, Fallout, Mount & Blade and other computer rpgs would give you xp based on completing quests you'd accepted. Well, you learn from your adventures... if you succeed! And as Roger says, this would also perhaps represent social recognition. Which is one of the explanations of the "GP = XP" mechanic. You spend, you get famous.

  5. My approach has often been to award 3 or 5 or even 10 XP per gold piece. This allows keeping everything as written with one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth the amount of treasure being needed to advance. Just cut the treasure amounts in pre-written adventures.

    It seems counter-intuitive, especially to the "why should I get an XP for just picking up a coin?" crowd but upping the rate rather than cutting it rewards success without making PCs super-rich.

  6. 2,035 xp

    Legal reasons, almost certainly.

    Same thing goes for why there are so many kinds of armor rather than the traditional B/X three (being that the rules were derived from the d20 SRD).

    classic solutions for cash glut

    I've never seen this as a problem. PCs that are planning to build a stronghold should probably be banking money for that. Various exploration costs and special items like antidotes can also eat up some money (though I have never set prices with that explicit goal).

    One XP per GP has never seemed to cause problems of verisimilitude for me, but then I rarely place literal gold coins as treasure (unless it is something like a tax collector's haul that was stolen by a bandit or a dragon's hoard). Most "high GP" treasures are art objects, rare spices, valuable monster parts, and other stuff like that. Adventurers haul a statue out of the dungeon, sell it to an art collector, and get a letter of credit in return with the local money changer.

    Hauling around literal coin is thief-bait anyways.

  7. I too put serious thought into this.

    It's the classic question of What Will You Reward in Your D&D Game(tm)?.

    Players concerned with advancement will be playing to seek out the means of it. If experience comes primarily from fighting, will all PCs then be disadvantaged if they are not predisposed to seeking out monsters to kill? If you reward for treasure or items, what of those characters not motivated by money or political power? If you reward for plot advancement, what if the goals of the campaign conflict with the players' goals, or the plot doesn't proceed in a way that makes sense for its characters to gain power as a result of exposing it?

    Ultimately, each one will make sense in a different game theme. Characters should be drafted with the goals of the game in mind. If the theme is treasure-hunting, it doesn't make sense to make a character unconcerned with material wealth. Similarly, in an XP-for-monsters game, it doesn't make sense to play a pacifist. In a plot-driven game, it doesn't make sense for a character to be totally self-interested. Et cetera.

    On the other hand, if your players aren't concerned with advancement, or it isn't a central theme of the game, it doesn't really matter what you do... just pick one and let it happen when it does.

    I use the XP-for-treasure model, and tell my players up front that their characters' motivations should have this in mind. After all, in a world where adventurers can become very rich, there will be many people who look to these characters to offer their premium services. Successful parties risk their life, and there will be many who tempt them to spend their reward on great luxuries: magic items, powerful armor and draft animals, large keeps, even powerful life-giving magic or undying loyalty.

  8. @Matt: It's noteworthy that 2nd edition D&D tried to have it all by having different experience awards for different classes; warriors got points for monsters, rogues for treasure, spellcasters for casting spells in a dangerous situation.