Friday, September 24, 2010

Experience: Killing Things And Taking Their Stuff

I'm a very infrequent visitor to 4E blogs like Musings Of the Chatty DM. Sure, Chatty has some occasional insights, that can be teased out and used in my old-school games. He even ran and reported on a couple of old-school D&D sessions. That was quite adventerous of him. But by and large, it is 4E mechanics that are being discussed on his blog, something I have little interest in. However, Chatty's recent post on Re-examining the Dungeon caught my attention, and I found quite illuminating what one of his commentors had to say about experience awards in 4E.

"Part of the XP-for-killing mentality is baked into the 4E game set (and a variety of other rule sets). As your character gets better (levels) what do you get better at?

You get better at killing things.

Virtually all your new powers are about new ways to kill things. You may get a slight increase in your skills (the non-killing part of the game) but these are not new powers. Thus it makes sense that if the focus is about getting better at killing stuff, then you are learning from killing things, ie. XP for killing stuff.

Who has a saving-the-princess skill? No one. The reward for a quest, such as saving the princess, is an abstraction that is a package deal for everything you did to get to that part (of which 'killing' is usually a big part) since you can’t go up in an actual saving-the-princess skill.

Bear in mind that XP is not the reward for killing stuff or for accomplishing goals. XP is a placeholder for the actual reward, which is leveling up.


By taking a look at what a character gains as part of the leveling process, we can see what the actual reward is.

In 4E it is the ability to better kill stuff."

Now, this post could just has easily been a criticism levelled at old-school D&D. After all, i've heard (too many times) that original Dungeons & Dragons was all about killing things and taking their stuff -- as if the mere incessant aping of that trite statement somehow makes it true.

To be sure, there was combat and treasure in original D&D. But, as I hope I have been demonstrating in my posts on experience awards, the bulk of the experience in original D&D was gained from treasure, not combat. It was expected, by the game designers, that the players would find ways to obtain the treasure by cleverness and subterfuge, not by violence and main strength. Not everyone played it that way. And to the extent that they did not, the fault lies with the game designers, not the players: one, the award system was not well communicated; two, the treasure for experience mechanic didn't resonate with those unfamiliar with the swords and sorcery genre.

4E on the other hand has done an excellent job of communicating its' award system. Experience awards are doled out when you kill things. And when you kill things, you level up, thus getting better at killing things.

Was original D&D any different, ask those who killed-and-took-stuff from the beginning, and those who came late to the game, but hear others claim it was always played that way.

10 comments:

Sean Robson said...

I'm frequently guilty of 'kill-things-and-take-their-stuff-isms' when describing what D&D is all about. Of course, I say this partly with tongue in cheek because, clearly, the game is about a lot more than that and perhaps I should really say that the game is about overcoming obstacles and taking stuff.

As the reward system suggests, the object of the game is to accumulate loot. The loot is usually guarded by monsters (or traps) that need to be overcome. This may or may not be accomplished by killing things and, indeed, trying to fight said guardians head-on leads only to certain doom. In the adventures of my youth, we often found creative ways to kill creatures too tough to fight, often by turning traps against them and other such chicanery, but regardless of how they were defeated they ended up just as dead. Taken as a whole, in most dungeon adventures things will be killed and stuff will be taken.

The big difference between then and now, as I see it, is that then, the object was to get the stuff by any means, fair or foul, whereas today, the object is to get the stuff solely through strength of arms. Of course, this means that it is now incumbent upon the DM to ensure that no guardian of stuff is beyond the ability of the adventurers to beat in a fight.

I guess, then, that the game as always about killing things - or perhaps more accurately - causing things to die - and taking their stuff. The difference is in the details, important though those are.

Kiltedyaksman said...

Sean's third paragraph is spot-on.

In my experience of gaming back in the day, and old school gaming today, is that only a learned D&D player would seek non-combative methods. Everyone is just downright keen start collecting orc heads.

The young guys I've been converting from 4E to LL would never think of establishing high ground, peppering with ranged attacks, throwing food for unintelligent pursuit - it's straight kill all monsters, preferably with melee weapons.

DJ, I think you are correct to say that 4E has done a much better job of making explicit how players will be rewarded than other versions of D&D. Although, older version of the game are guilty of kill everything mentality.

jonhendry2 said...

"peppering with ranged attacks"

Isn't that just wrapped up in some 'power' or other that is used by the player with the combat role of doing things like 'peppering with ranged attacks'?

Sean Robson said...

Not really. Old versions of the game don't have 'powers' in the way that 4E understands them, nor are there characters with specialized combat roles. Instead, the players come up with a strategy to suit the circumstance and environment, rather than a 'one size fits all' tactic/strategy/power that gets shoehorned into every situation. It is a subtle distinction but a very important one. "Peppering from on high" could just as easily be "toppling boulder onto their heads" or "luring them into that pit trap." This sort of play doesn't depend on powers or abilities, nor on specialist roles, just the inventiveness of players interacting with the milieu.

I came across this quote from a "Save My Game" article on the WotC website that, I think, illustrates that the game has shifted from a style of play that emphasized problem-solving and innovative strategy to overcome obstacles to one which solves every problem by hitting it with a sword until the problem falls down:
First and foremost, D&D PCs are almost always spoiling for a fight. Fighting is fun, most characters are built with fighting in mind, and—let’s face—it the reasons for fighting in D&D are nearly as shallow as they are abundant. Imagine if the real world worked that way; you would see more wanton violence than a zombie apocalypse. Another reason is that the characters are pretty self absorbed. They will forget subtleties concerning the personality and background of your NPCs, because they are typically focused on the subtleties of their own characters (typically subtleties on how to optimize their combat efficiency).

Dave Cesarano said...

It's stuff like this that makes me feel as if 4E is simply a video game translated to a tabletop. It stifles creativity and problem-solving. Some adherents have argued that "good DMs" and "good players" don't have to play 4E like it was WoW, but the truth is, the entire engine is predicated upon treating it like WoW.

And to the extent that they did not, the fault lies with the game designers, not the players: one, the award system was not well communicated; two, the treasure for experience mechanic didn't resonate with those unfamiliar with the swords and sorcery genre.

I think this is a great statement that, in a lot of ways, sums up my issues with the XP system of OD&D and the OSR in general. I preferred how "silver age" D&D gave awards for roleplaying and class/character-based achievements. However, even James at Grognardia refuses to apply any awards other than treasure/killing. This, in my opinion, places the emphasis on getting loot, no matter what. Exploring the world, creating items, converting souls to your faith, composing a ballad, etc., these things are totally superfluous to OD&D--they gain you no real experience and are mechanically a waste of time.

I take issue with that. No wonder the emphasis shifted from treasure to killing. The only things in OD&D that improved was survivability when you leveled up. Your character didn't get better at composing rhymes or preaching the faith.

Scallop Skulled Skald said...

It's stuff like this that makes me feel as if 4E is simply a video game translated to a tabletop. It stifles creativity and problem-solving.

One of the greatest joys of tabletop gaming is "counting coup" on the DM by foiling the machinations of opponents or coming up with an off-the-wall means of circumventing an obstacle. You just can't pull that on a CPU.

"My to-hit roll with the spetum was sufficient to hit AC 7, so (redacted-spoiler) has been divested of her Greater Tentacle Rod."

jonhendry2 said...

Sean wrote: "Not really. Old versions of the game don't have 'powers' in the way that 4E understands them, nor are there characters with specialized combat roles"

Yeah, I get that. The last time I played a tabletop RPG was 1st edition in 1986. (I don't play WoW.)

4e is very 'meta', abstracted or schematized. I honestly wonder why they bother with the traditional classes. Why not just go with the tactical roles and be done with it?

I was just noting that, as I understand 4E terms, a 4E proponent would argue that their 'battlefield controller' or whatever's role is to do the peppering. I agree that that tactic is abstracted into a 'peppering power' or similar, and if it isn't on the player's character sheet probably won't be used.

jonhendry2 said...

"Exploring the world, creating items, converting souls to your faith, composing a ballad, etc., these things are totally superfluous to OD&D--they gain you no real experience and are mechanically a waste of time."

I can see that complaint.

On the other hand task or quest XP risk turning the game into a search for 'plot coupons'.

infrequentdm said...

Commenting on all sorts of stuff...

"After all, i've heard (too many times) that original Dungeons & Dragons was all about killing things and taking their stuff -- as if the mere incessant aping of that trite statement somehow makes it true."

Calling it trite doesn't make it untrue, either.

"The big difference between then and now, as I see it, is that then, the object was to get the stuff by any means, fair or foul, whereas today, the object is to get the stuff solely through strength of arms. Of course, this means that it is now incumbent upon the DM to ensure that no guardian of stuff is beyond the ability of the adventurers to beat in a fight."

This is Just Not True. The monsters have to be overcome, and yes, fighting is the most straightforward way. But the 4e DMG specifically says to reward XP for overcoming the challenge posed by the monsters or traps, whether that means outwitting them or overpowering them. Kill them? XP. Convince them you're not a threat so they let you pass? XP. Use a ritual to bypass them and yoink the magic item they're guarding? XP.

And in my home games, I have sometimes deliberately made a monster too tough to fight. I did that to my kid, actually -- placed a magic item in the hands of a monster several levels higher, to teach him that sometimes you have to use diplomacy.

"I honestly wonder why they bother with the traditional classes. Why not just go with the tactical roles and be done with it?"

Because the different classes fill the tactical roles in different ways, both flavor-wise and mechanically. The fighter can stop a shift from happening, the paladin can mark from range (and heal), the warden can mark multiple targets (and tangle them with roots) and the battlemind can warp to the front lines at the beginning of the battle. The barbarian's rage, the sorcerer's damage bonus, the rogue's backstab, the assassin's shrouds, the avenger's enmity, the warlock's curse and the ranger's arrows are all thematically and mechanically different ways of being a striker.

"Exploring the world, creating items, converting souls to your faith, composing a ballad, etc., these things are totally superfluous to OD&D--they gain you no real experience and are mechanically a waste of time."

All these things are cool, characterwise, but D&D is generally supposed to be about a party, and the characters would often do things on their own. An all-clerics game about missionaries or some other game geared to be about class-based quests could be awesome, though.

Bluebear Jeff said...

Perhaps because I come from a Theatre background (I've acted in well over 200 plays), my focus has always been on the "roleplay" and not on the "dice roll".

It probably also helped that my very first D&D character was a thief (Dlift the Delft) who had only one hit point (and zero meant dead, dead, dead). Try playing such a character and you won't be seeking out combat.

As a GM, I have always emphasized roleplaying . . . and that is what I hand out experience points for.

I've always felt that treasure was its own reward and that killing things got very minor xp . . . but overcoming problems, figuring things out and really roleplaying your character was where the big xp bonuses came from.

Oh . . . and I don't always have stupid monsters either. Too many GMs have their bad guys act like total idiots who have never heard of sentries or alarms or attacking from unexpected directions or even just running away when the fight doesn't look good.


-- Jeff on Vancouver Island