Friday 22 March 2013

Experience for Ends, not Means

The other day noisms expressed some nostalgia for the 2nd Edition D&D experience rules, where characters got experience for doing things related to their class - fighters for killing monsters, thieves for getting treasure, magic-users for casting spells relevant to the adventure and so on. There were also some awards for playing well, in terms of role-playing, being a good party citizen, achieving story goals, and becoming a better tactician, although these were quite vaguely defined.

I remember greeting these changes with satisfaction back in the day - finally, an experience system that was more "realistic"! Plus, it rewarded playing in-class, and isn't that what 1st Edition aimed at doing but in a more clunky, ornery and punitive way, punishing magic-users who got into combat or fighters who shrank from it?

Nowadays, though, I have a different evaluation. I've realized that the 2nd Edition approach mostly rewards player skill directly, rather than allowing players to use their skill as they wish and rewarding the outcome of that.

In other words, it rewards the means rather than the end. I don't think this is a good thing. Let's look at each application of this.

* Rewarding class-consistent behavior. I have never really understood this. If your fighter is collecting magic wands and your magic-user is wading into combat, and that's not a good thing, surely a) this is the fault of the system for not emphasizing each class' strengths and weaknesses and b) this is a point of individuality of the character, rather than an affront against the divine order. If the party followed their bliss individually, surely the only time they would ever agree on a joint venture would be to kill a monster (fighter) guarding treasure (thief) whom the gods have decreed unholy (cleric) and can be hurt by spells (magic-user). The whole point of D&D is that diverse means are combined toward the same end, but if the means are rewarded, this splits the party's desires.

* Rewarding role-playing and good behavior at table. I already am on record that role-playing is and should be its own reward, end of story. And I recently wrote about good behavior at table, to which I'll add that in-game penalties and rewards for that are a wrongheaded, frame-breaking, and socially impotent approach.

* Rewarding "good play." Again, shouldn't good play lead to success, and success be its own reward? I suspect that what's lurking behind this is a disavowal of certain means that lead to in-game success. "Wait no you can't take a barrel of creosote and 1000 nails and ... Argh no you must slay in man-ennobling combat! No points for you!" Forget plot railroading - this is play railroading. Or maybe you like the barrel trick. The point is that the DM gets to approve of the means, not the end, and this takes something away from the players.

* Story goals. Rewarding the achievement of some goal derived from the story, finally, is the only end-reward in this whole scheme. It's a decent enough end to reward, as long as you keep an open mind about what counts as a satisfying end of the story. Players should feel like they can change allegiances and priorities without any penalty other than those in the setting. Anything else is puppeteering.

Treating the party as a bunch of venal mercenaries who only get involved in intrigue if there's a reward - that's another "end," one more in line with the traditional approach. Rewarding progress in the social structure of the campaign, so treasure is mostly useful to buy yourself rank and friends, which you can also get by going on quests and missions ... that's a third "end" for a system. I'm still torn about which kind of ends to reward with the final version of my experience system. But more on that, later.


  1. Absolutely. Studies I can't be bothered to look up show that if you reward someone for doing something, then take that reward away, they'll stop doing it - even what they were doing was originally fun in it's own right!

    By giving out external rewards you shift emphasis away from the internal rewards. Players role-play and avoid acting like dicks because it 's fun. If they start to roleplay and act nice because you're giving them imaginary points for it, something has gone terribly wrong.

  2. If the party followed their bliss individually, surely the only time they would ever agree on a joint venture would be to kill a monster (fighter) guarding treasure (thief) whom the gods have decreed unholy (cleric) and can be hurt by spells (magic-user).

    why I think you've hit on the progression of DnD from 1st to 4th editions!
    I have no special wisdom on this except that the other day I played in Zak's game and we nearly killed a demon god but not quite because he teleported away and therefore we got nothing. And I was fine with that but other players seemed disappointed BUT the reward system was clear and unambiguous and I'm pretty sure everyone respected Zak for sticking to it. And we all know what we need to do for xp next time.

    ...I haven't really known what to do with character advancement in my own game because I'm actually not that keen on changing the mechanics of the game I'm running to turn it into something else. It has no levels, players have access to all the toys from the start if they only go and find them (to quote Raggi). Right now I give out xp for attendance and a fudge factor bonus for achieving stuff/being active. The main in-game reward is gear, and (as far as I'm concerned, though not necessarily from the players' perspective) the goal of play is to get information about the world which provides access to more of the world.

    I wonder if that's enough or not. It's enough for me, but I'm mostly not a DnD player and I can see that it might disappoint someone who's used to a power-for-playing reward scheme.

    I'm also British, so I'm used to soap operas that go on and on for decades without the world exploding. That might be an insuperable cultural difference right there.

  3. I'm working an XP system that hands out rewards based on triggering story encounters. A given adventure has a number of encounters which can be triggered by being in the right place at the right time, asking the right questions or doing the right things.

    Generally speaking, every part of the above can be learned by seeking out and following up on rumors, and the system is designed with the flexibility that the DM can introduce NPCs to galvanize the process, and some events will find the party without any effort on their part.

    How the encounter is resolved is ultimately up to the players, and since XP is awarded for triggering the encounter (not resolving it), generally the reward for resolving an encounter is a hint about where to go to find the next encounter.

    Unfortunately my home group follows the creed of the murderhobo, and they were completely unable to make sense of the system, so it remains largely untested.


  4. The old "players from Mars, Dm from Apollo" story. Also, see my take on experience here:

    1. It took me a bit to get that reference, but I like it. "Players from Mars..." Heh. I'm going over your "one page experience points" to see what's the same, and what I might have overlooked.