Thursday, September 2, 2010

Doling Out Experience Points

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?


JB said...

This is a damn depressing post. Haven't you received my B/X Companion yet? Did it totally suck or something that you had to go buy 4E Essentials? Wow.

A Paladin In Citadel said...

I just posted on your blog, berating you for not warning me away from 4E a week ago!

The B/X companion arrived today, it looks absolutely sweet, I love the mass combat rules. Will be posting my thoughts tomorrow or saturday.

You did a fantastic job with the B/X Companion, kudos, man.

JB said...

@ Pal: Thanks. Sorry about the lack of warning...sometimes I forget people actually listen to what I have to say!
; )

drnuncheon said...

"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?"

When 4e first came out there were a lot of arguments about how it was "just like World of Warcraft" (and a lot of equally vehement denials). But man, if that sentence doesn't encapsulate that exact attitude I don't know what does.

Then again, WOW has more than ten million players, so they must be doing something right.

A Paladin In Citadel said...

Exactly. 4E does exactly what those players want it to do. They want to take their accumulated frustrations out on monsters, and receive rewards for following the script.

Different strokes for different folks. It's not the game I want to play, but it works for them.

Will Douglas said...

I'm not sure it's a matter of today's gamer turning his back on the old ways of doing things. I think it's more that it's all they know. They've never played the older editions, which would probably look very strange to them.

That being said, however, I have played the older editions and I prefer them. 4e got no traction with me.

A Paladin In Citadel said...

I havn't been on the WOTC boards for many months. I followed the build-up to 4E with some interest, only discovering the old-school community because of the Chevski-bashing that was happening on he WOTC boards.

4E seems to be doing reasonably well (though Pathfinder is the game of choice in Calgary). There are some parts of 4E that I like. But the focus on tactical combat and quests a deal-breaker for me (those, and the ridiculous skill-challenges system).

steelcaress said...

Ever since I played WarHammer FRP I use story-based experience and have never looked back. This, to me, is a modification of the XP system that some CRPGs (notably European ones) have gotten right. Using your wits is one of the things that should be encouraged and rewarded.

I've always considered treasure its own reward, not anything I get experience for. I wish I could get XP for every paycheck. I'd have reached Epic level a long time ago...

That being said, I don't care for 4E, having played in it. The way it plays from the beginning of the session to the end when XP is given out is not something I favor. I understand it, but it doesn't mean I agree with it.

A Paladin In Citadel said...

What is story-based experience? I'm curious how that works.

cyclopeatron said...

This whole discussion presupposes that xp and leveling are the main goals of D&D. I've found this is not true for everyone. A lot of people like exploration and roleplaying for its own sake, with numerical advancement being a byproduct, not a focus, of the adventure.

Obiri said...

Is Pathfinder really the game of choice in Calgary? I know they have roughly the same amount of shelf space but the last time I was through the SB on a Gaming Saturday there seemed to be more people playing 4E then anything else.

A Paladin In Citadel said...

Interesting. Perjhaps things have changed. The last time I heard, they were having problems filling seats for the 4E tables.

A Paladin In Citadel said...

This whole discussion presupposes that xp and leveling are the main goals of D&D. I've found this is not true for everyone. A lot of people like exploration and roleplaying for its own sake, with numerical advancement being a byproduct, not a focus, of the adventure.

The game is its own reward? I agree, there are some who want a rich, immersive role-playing experience. Others want to power-game, with magical and experience awards. Gaming is its own reward makes sense for those who play in tournaments, conventions and one-shot adventures. For ongoing campaigns, I presume experience (or at least some sort of advancement) is desired.

Kiltedyaksman said...

This was a fine post, and I have wondered about the same things.

I think there's something to the idea that younger players just haven't been exposed to older editions. They don't know any different.

I really like the idea of only giving XP for gold spent, not gold carried out of the dungeon. I've used it in my games recently.

Akrasia said...

In Rolemaster (2e) you received "2x Your own kill point value" if were killed and resurrected. You also received 1 experience point for every gold piece worth of jewels destroyed.

Strange incentives there!

(Of course, you also received experience points for travel, maneuvers, ideas, scoring critical hits, etc., so usually PCs did not advance levels simply by getting themselves killed and destroying jewelry.)

shimrod said...

Skill challenges earn a similar amount of XP as combat encounters. I could give you the formula, but I don't want to go on to long.

In this case the difficulty of beating the dragon via skill challenge is lower than of beating it via combat, and thus earns less xp. The other incentive to use noncombat means rather than attacking is that you don't suffer damage or the risk of death. If you manage to defeat a monster without fighting it you don't deplete your HP/surges/other resources, and can continue on to other challenges as fresh as you started the encounter.

I like the idea of xp for treasure for the reasons Robert Fisher and others have articulated. It does some cool things. But it's not everyone's cup of tea. Plenty of people preferred xp for monsters, roleplaying, and achieving goals (or "quests") going back to the 70s. And TSR phased out treasure being the primary source of xp in 1989.

Of course one can easily tweak the xp awards for 4E, as for any other edition. Knowing the math, it's pretty easy to shift the focus on to quest/goal accomplishment, for example.

steelcaress said...

Story-based XP is based on the things achieved during the adventure, rather than just slaying monsters and treasure.

Say your players head to a city visiting a good friend only to find him murdered. As preparation, you lay out the skeleton of the adventure:
- Talk to Captain of the Guard
- Talk to his neighbors
- Talk to his housekeeper
- Ambushed by thugs who have been hired because the PCs are getting too close to the truth, etc.

Now, for each of these actions, and more brilliant actions that the players take (even ones you hadn't planned for), you can award XP. In this way, you can sort of (A) control the flow of experience, and (B) reward especially brilliant or innovative ideas, even if they were fruitless in the end.

Obviously, you season to taste. I just use it for Major Goals (the whole point of scenario, awarded at the end of the adventure) and smaller rewards for the players doing what they can to work their way through the scenario (Minor Goals, awarded at the end of each session). If this includes combat, then they get XP for that in the same way.

It's not meant to lead the players by the nose, it's more to encourage them to think, to reward cleverness rather than what's on the character sheet.

I tend to respond to what my players give away when they discuss their next move. If they discuss or act on something that I think is brilliant I try to alter the adventure to make it fit, but that's another post...

Just my two coppers worth.

A Paladin In Citadel said...

@Kiltedyaksman: I'm not surprised by younger players, its the old hands that have me truly baffled. But then again, I never had a problem with experience for gold, which some people bitterly opposed. I know others have posted on why xp for gold makes sense, but perhaps its worth another post. I, too, like the idea of giving experience for non-productive uses of treasure (gambling it away, wine and wenches, and so on).

@Akrasia: That's rich! I think Arduin gave experience for being resurrected as well.

@Shimrod: Yes, you're right. Experience for treasure became optional in 1989, with the 2nd Edition re-write. That was a mistake. My familiarity with 4E is admittedly shallow, since my only resource is the 4E Red Box. From the 4E Red Box, I can't quite figure out what purpose non-magical treasure serves. I'll have to post a review of the 4E Red Box in the next day or two, to elicit some feedback.

@Steelcaress: I have no particular objection to those sorts of awards. The "quest-based" awards of 4E seem railroady to me, which is what I fear about story-based awards ... the player gets rewards for following the plot outline. I like doling out experience for treasure and player skill because it encourages smart play.

infrequentdm said...

I DM 4e only. I had a 1981 box, I played BECMI but mainly 1e until 2e came out, played 2e for 10 years, DMd a little bit about 3e and now DM two 4e campaigns.

I don't hand out experience at all.

In my published-adventures campaign, I level up my characters when they've made it an appropriate distance into the adventure. I want them to be the right level for what they're about to face, and don't want to force them to clear a whole level to get the experience. They're on a quest, and if they progress on that quest while bypassing certain rooms, they should not be penalized. (Note that both the XP-for-treasure and the XP-for-monsters system would punish them.)

In my homebrew world campaign, I hand out levels for completing a chapter. Defeat the black dragon, level. Discover the murderer, level. (Note: I had a murder-mystery 4e game. It was sort of awesome.) Escape the satyr's labyrinth, level. Defeat the Tiamat cultist and throw off the oppressive regime, level. It's story-driven -- I want them to be 10th level at a certain point, face a certain foe at 15th level, etc.

XP, to me, is solely used for measuring the strength of an encounter.

And, while I don't have my DMG with me right now, this is encouraged by the DMG.

Anyway, the real reason I came here was to alert you that I posted to my own blog so we can continue our edition war there. En garde!