Thursday, January 12, 2012

What works in D&D (continued)

The next item I'd like to cover is experience.

The experience point system is something I think had a greater effect on the play style of older editions than is immediately obvious. Not only did it emphasize a different type of adventuring than newer editions did, it also had a built in balancing effect.

In older editions, experience points were awarded primarily for the successful acquisition of treasure and, to a much lesser extent, defeating monsters. For example, a group of 6 orcs might be in possession of a gem worth 500gp. In terms of experience points, this would, altogether, net the party about 590xp; 500 for the gem and 15 or so apiece for the orcs.

That's a huge difference there, the gem is obviously worth a whole lot more to the party than killing the orcs would be. Effectively, it changes the whole goal of the encounter - simply fighting with and defeating the orcs is not the point, getting that expensive gem is the point, the gem is what allows the party to increase in power, and gives them funds to spend on carousing and training. Killing the orcs may simply not be worth the risk of getting killed.

Realizing this suddenly opens up a world of new options to the players - getting that gem by guile, stealth, or cunning may be safer and even easier than going toe-to-toe with the orcs.

This sort of experience system became another baseline of older edition games - this was a game of exploration and player skill as much as, if not more than, it was about kicking in doors and killing orcs. And yet again, future editions would erode this core concept.

Beginning with 3E, a new experience point system was introduced. It was mathematically coherent, followed a progression, a formula, and would largely turn the game into Fantasy Fight Club. Experience from this point on was awarded almost exclusively for killing monsters. Now, the encounter with the six orcs holding a 500gp gem was worth 900xp, 900 for the orcs, and butkis for the gem. Getting the gem through guile, stealth, or cunning now had absolutely no effect on advancing your character's abilities - killing orcs is what makes you level up.

There is a "story" xp award for 3e, by the way, but it was largely small and arbitrary, and did little that I could tell to emphasize exploration (or even story) over combat.

Experience also had an effect on how characters progressed. In older editions, the experience total needed to advance a level basically doubled at each level - for example a class might need 2000xp to advance to 2nd level, 4000xp for 3rd, 8000xp for 4th, and so on. An interesting effect this system had was that, if a player lost a PC, their new character was likely to "catch up" with the group fairly quickly even starting all over at 1st level. While those surviving fourth level characters need 8k over the next few adventures to level up, the new 1st level character can use his 8k share of those adventures to advance all the way up to 4th (provided he survives, which is much easier to do in an exploratory game than a combat game).

3E introduced a more algorithmic advancement - characters needed 1000xp total for 2nd level, 3000 for 3rd, 6000 for 4th, 10000 for 5th and so on. What this meant was that, as the party average level increased, a new PCs chance of ever catching up with the rest of them decreased. Not only did a 1st level replacement for a dead 5th level character stand very little chance of survival, that disadvantage would remain with the character for the rest of its career. What this did was pretty much force DMs to either allow players with dead characters to bring in new characters at the same (or close) level to the rest of the party, or risk either killing off the new characters over and over, or worse, lower the challenge level for the rest of the group.

By the time characters reached higher levels in earlier editions, say 9th or 10th level, there was no question of newer characters catching up with the group - when the rest of the party needs 100k or even 200k to level up, even the lowest level characters are going to catch up before that happens.

Which brings us to another interesting artifact of older editions, "Name Level".

Next time.


  1. Another excellent post -- spot on, I think.

  2. My beef with gold for XPs was that 9 times out of 10 the players had no way of knowing that the orcs (or whoever) had a 500 GP gem (or whatever) until they killed the orcs. The common practice was to kill the monster first--often using guile, cunning and stealth to do so-- and get its treasure after, which made rewarding them for both seem a little much. Indeed, the kill-first response was usually the only reasonable action, as you couldn't really wander around a dungeon stealing everyone's treasure but leaving the monsters alive... only to have them show up again at an extremely inopportune moment.

    And neither source of XPs was of any value in low-monster, low-treasure type scenarios. Say if your goal is to sneak into a castle and rescue the poor blacksmith from the sheriff of Nottingham's vile clutches. It might be a very challenging and fun adventure, but the rules pretty much made it clear that if you didn't also clean out the Sheriff's treasury and/or slaughter his guards to a man you were walking away from the adventure with nothing but the satisfaction of having done a good deed. And nobody wants that.

    In my current campaign, I don't bother with XPs at all. You finish a reasonably challenging adventure in some satisfactory way, you go up a level. If the dungeon was way over your head and you somehow survive, you get a bonus level or two. If it was a really small or unchallenging adventure, or if you botched it big time, you get some fraction of a level. Who needs all that accounting anyway?

  3. Crikey, having only played 3e one session I had no idea that they'd got rid of the concept of XP for gold! Rather shocking.

  4. Good analysis, although I think Timrod makes any excellent point:

    9 times out of 10 the players had no way of knowing that the orcs (or whoever) had a 500 GP gem (or whatever) until they killed the orcs.

    That was certainly my experience. So, while the system encouraged cunning to (say) steal the obviously bejeweled eyes of the orcs' idol, it didn't for the orc who's carrying the jewels in his pocket. Indeed, you could argue that the value of that gem in his pouch encouraged you to go out of your way to kill intelligent monsters (though not bestial ones).

  5. Gold for XP did have the effect of sometimes making PCs parley or accept surrenders. That said, I think that "Story Award" XP was a pretty common house rule even back in the 1st edition AD&D days, before it got codified into 2nd edition AD&D, so you could still rescue the poor blacksmith and get XP for it, even if you didn't slaughter the garrison and loot the treasury.

    That said, that's a different type of game, not centered on dungeon exploration or pulp sword & sorcery type action. I think D&D can accommodate both styles.

  6. Awesome again.. can't wait for part 3. I'm going to send a group of my pbp players over here to read this so they can get a better idea about what OD&D is all about.

  7. Another alternative is what Kilgore came up with instead of tracking XP per adventure. Roll to advance! After each expedition, adventure, romp, what have you.. roll on a table to advance. If you don't make it, the next time you roll you get a +1, and so on until you do advance a level.

    Check it out:

  8. Though I like the post concerning the doubling of experience in older editions, I think the 'kill for xp' argument is not particularly fair.

    For instance, I have always, regardless of edition, awarded the monster xp for 'defeating' the encounter. Manage to sneak past the orcs? Get their xp. The flip side of this is that, should the PCs later fight and kill those orcs they get no xp unless their's been a meaningful change such as the orcs kidnapping the prince or such.

  9. >>Now, the encounter with the six orcs holding a 500gp gem was worth 900xp, 900 for the orcs, and butkis for the gem. Getting the gem through guile, stealth, or cunning now had absolutely no effect on advancing your character's abilities - killing orcs is what makes you level up.<<

    No, per 3e RAW, "overcoming the challenge" posed by the Orcs is what gets you the XP, whether you kill them or not. I remember in a Midnight game saying: "See those Orcs? Let's not fight them" - and the GM awarded us full XP. :)

  10. They ditched XP for gold back in 2nd ed. In 3e you got xp for killing beasties, casting spells, performing thief (rogue) skills and completing quests. They also introduced role playing xp in the official rules. Before then it was merely an option.



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