I picked up the new 4E Dungeons and Dragons Starter Set ("4E Red Box") on the weekend. It was my first in-depth look at 4E, and it was illuminating to see just how far Hasbro's 4th Edition D&D game has strayed from the roots of original D&D. Nowhere is that more pronounced than in the doling out of experience points.
I'm a firm believer that systems matter, that rewards matter. The systems of rewards that a game employs sends a message about what is expected of its players. If a game rewards players for staying in character, they will focus on that. If it rewards them for looting ancient treasure-hoards, they will do so. If it rewards them for the completion of quests, they will seek them out. If it rewards players for engaging in combat, they will pursue that activity.
Tom Moldvay had this to say about experience points, in the 1980 Basic D&D rulebook:
"Experience points are given for non-magical treasure and for defeating monsters. For every 1 gp value of non-magical treasure the characters recover, the DM should give 1 XP to the party. Experience points are also given for monsters killed or overcome by magic, fighting or wits. The DM may also award extra XP to characters who deserve them (fighting a dangerous monster alone, or saving the party with a great idea) and less XP to characters who did less than their fair share." (page B22)
"The choices [of treasure] should be made carefully, since most of the experience the characters will get will be from treasure, usually 3/4 or more." (page B46)
B/X D&D allows for the earning of experience through combat, but also permits players to gain the equivalent experience points by overcoming monsters through magic and clever play. However, according to Moldvay, most (3/4 or more) of the experience points are intended to come from the recovery of treasure. Therefore, the main goal of characters is to seek out and recover treasure, and, to a lesser extent, fight monsters and use the player's wits.
Compare this to the new 4E Red Box. If I understand the rules correctly, you obtain experience in 4E by performing two activities: completing encounters and concluding quests. Following the experience point guidelines, in the adventure supplied in the 4E Red Box, the players obtain 80% of their experience from encounters (combat) and 20% from quests. Therefore, the 4E D&D players are expected to do two things: battle monsters, and, to a lesser extent, investigate and resolve the plot-hooks laid out by the DM. And while there is monetary treasure to be had in 4E D&D, i'm not sure what purpose it serves, since the characters get no experience from treasure, and never seem to need money to buy things in 4E.
In B/X D&D, characters get the same experience points, whether they defeat a monster by magic, combat, or clever play. But in the example adventure supplied in the 4E Red Box, if you avoid combat with a White Dragon through clever play (ie. rolling some dice during a skill challenge), you get only 300 xp for the encounter, rather than the 750 xp obtained for defeating the dragon in combat. Therefore, the message to players is that they should engage in combat, rather than role-play an encounter.
It's no wonder, then, that many people, who have played D&D since first edition, express bafflement at the direction the game has taken. It was drilled into our brains, from early on, that combat was dangerous. It was to be avoided if possible, and if it could not be avoided, players made sure they stacked the deck in their favour, prior to the commencement of hostilities. On the other hand, 4E encourages combat, discourages role-playing (since it punishes those who use skill-challenge rather than martial solutions), and rewards players that allow themselves to be led by the nose towards the satisfaction of pre-determined quests.
My FLGS had at least 100 copies of the new 4E Red Box on display over the weekend. Clearly, people are buying, playing, and enjoying, 4E D&D. I wonder if they are aware of, and agree with the system of rewards built into 4E? Is it okay with them that the 4E system explicitly discourages role-playing, rewards combat over all else, and encourages passive acceptance of pre-determined quests?