Tag Archives: RPG

The Time For Experience Points Has Come And Gone

The WotC designers have just presented some polls about how XP progression should work in D&D Next and there’s a lively discussion on ENWorld about it.  I have mentioned in passing that none of our group’s Pathfinder campaigns use XP any more, but I thought this was a good time to unpack that a little and discuss why XP are an outmoded solution to a problem that doesn’t really exist.

Accounting Work

Some of the drawbacks of XP are obvious. It adds a significant amount of non-fun accounting to the game. Most of that burden is on the GM, who has to look up charts and add numbers like it’s tax time for the last 15 minutes of the session, and then all the players get to do some too. This is Dungeons & Dragons, not Accountants & Ledgers. The justification is usually that it’s a “necessary evil” as the only sound way to conduct character advancement; we’ll examine the falseness of this claim below.

It Makes Adventures Suck More

I was just listening to a Know Direction podcast where Amber Scott was talking about the process of working on an Adventure Path chapter lately, and discussed that some of the challenge was the changing/padding required to generate the ‘right XP budget’ and that the actual theme/story of the adventure had to be compromised somewhat to make that work. That sucks, and it illustrates how any published adventure has to make a lot of Hobson’s choices just to get the ‘correct amount’ of XP generated. I had a discussion with James Jacobs about a number of questionable, from the story and GM standpoint, decisions in the Dragon’s Demand module – it was giving out “story awards” to the tune of 200 XP for climbing a DC10 mount of rubble to enter the dungeon. He justified it by saying “Yes but we need people to get from first to sixth level over the course of this one module to fight our end dragon so we padded the shit out of it” (I’m paraphrasing :-).

RPGA/Organized Play adventures, from my experience there, suffer horribly from this problem.  I was a Living Greyhawk Triad and most attempts to innovate in adventures were squashed by the ever-dominant need to have “N encounters that generate X XP for levels Y-Z in H hours.” Of course the other layers of homogeneity required of OP on top of that make the problem even worse, but that’s a big part of it. And in the end, if there is a “correct amount” of XP to give, then why are you spending the effort to micromanage it?

So basically the adventures we play are not as good as they could be from other perspectives because of this unnecessary constraint.

It Makes Players Suck More

Here’s the deal – I like open-ended, in character roleplay, and the ability for PCs to innovate to reach their goals (often referred to as Combat As War in online discussions). XP for monsters (I’m not sure adding “for gp” really helps that) drives a playstyle where you confront everything head-on, grinding like it’s WoW.  If the goal is “save the princess from a castle full of bad guys,” you can’t just do that, because the ugly head of metagaming rises up and says “If you just scry and teleport in and grab her you won’t get as many XP as if you do a room-to-room fight with every orc…” Therefore you start making decisions based on metagame concerns instead of in-game factors. Of course as the GM you can try to give compensating story awards for solving it with different approaches – but then why are you tracking XP again, if there’s a “right number” to give?

I was in a team that took Silver in the D&D Open at Gen Con back in… Uh, the 1990s sometime. We didn’t get Gold, we were told, because we bypassed the penultimate encounter (a nuisance encounter of some humanoids) by flying over it to beard the BBEG directly. So even though our judge said we rocked the adventure and did it better/faster/cheaper (no character loss)  than everyone else, you know, we didn’t harvest enough souls. Lesson learned, we’ll shout our battle cry of “No Witnesses!” in the future.

The Theory

Obviously, the theory behind XP is that they are a needed reward system. Pavlov, Gygax, and Ayn Rand have worked together to come up with the ultimate system of motivating PCs to go out there and adventure, and it is both that and a semi-realistic way to reflect people getting better at what they do.

The problem is, these motivations are a thin lie to begin with, and don’t accomplish their desired ends in practice either.

First alleged reason to have XP, motivation.  Without XP  you don’t incentivize desired behavior in the game. I’m pretty sure we all play D&D to have fun, and adventuring is fun. If there weren’t XP, would our characters not go out and defeat the invading orc hordes? What degree of player and GM sucking must be required for such a low rung on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to kick in?

Second alleged reason to have XP, realism.  It models the growth of your character by getting better through experience and shepherds them through their Campbellian arc. OK, so the more goblins I murder, I get better at playing my lute? Ridiculous.  You could make this claim for a system like BRP where you “tick” skills you use and those skills advance, but the dull blade of XP as implemented in D&D and its derivatives can make no such virtuous claim to simulation.

Let’s look at XP in practice.  First, let’s assume you are running a story-oriented game, or using an Adventure Path or series of modules (that’s not a new idea, ahem, T1-4, A-14, GDQ1-7). To not have that go badly awry, you need the PCs to be at a certain level at certain times. So unless they successfully tread the primrose path on the adventure you’ve set up for them, you as the GM end up needing to accommodate that.  Throw in some random encounters, some story awards, role-playing awards, some side adventures, because you know you can’t send them to the Demonweb unless they’re at least approaching the right level.

But if you are trying to generate a ‘correct amount’ of XP then having XP is of no value, as it loses its lovely alleged Randian properties. It can’t motivate behavior if you’re trying to get them to the right number by any means necessary. You could argue that it provides the illusion of player agency, if your players are dumb, but in the end you have a predetermined outcome and are forcing yourself and your players to jump through more and more  hoops to realize it. Boo.

But XP also hurts sandbox gaming.  Why? It’s the Gygax Way, right, he wouldn’t have written it if it wasn’t the right thing to do? Don’t tell me about “OSR” like I’m a noob; I’ve been playing D&D since the original Red Box.

D&D is still a game full of murderous cretins, and the XP system is a lot of the reason for that. I find it hard to say that the behaviors XP drive are actually the desired ones. Even the D&D Next article I link discusses XP in terms of “how many goblins you need to kill to level.” As discussed above, actual innovative goal-achievement, one of the pillars of the OSR, is quite specifically countermanded by XP (unless, again, you adopt the “give them anyway” rubric, and get to do extra math to justify a predetermined outcome). A decent GM should be able to reward desired behavior in the game.  Do you get nothing for saving the princess or completing a quest besides XP, really? And if you get loot, isn’t that its own reward?

The Alternatives

Well, what we do is “level when the GM says.” Pretty simple.  Sure, this might be a problem in those first spazzy 12-year-old games we all had, where the  GM’s trying to screw the players and all – but how many pages of rules have been written trying to fix that lowest-common-denominator problem, and has it actually succeeded?  No, those who are playing “level 30 silver dragons!” or “being killed by cats!” type games continue to do so. This approach requires zero math and is very easy for the GM – pulling out a level 7 adventure you want to run?  You don’t have to throw weeks of grind at the PCs, just tell them “you level!” In my Reavers campaign, the PCs are like 7th level after four years of play, because I have plenty of piratey adventures appropriate for those levels to bring them!

Or… Now, this is super hippy-dippy, and I know that before I say it, but you could even just level by consensus, in a more sandbox game. If the GM cares about what level they’re prepping for, then the GM should level.  If the GM is just “whatever, I’m a judge OD&D style, hexcrawl yourselves into a coma” then maybe players should spend more time at the levels they enjoy.  I personally would usually vote not to level, as I enjoy the low/mid-levels best and over about 12 starts to suck.

Or, you could level by IRL time.  This is interesting because it allows you to set a goal as to how long a campaign should take, and since levels will vary it will vary the speed at which the PCs progress to naturally keep them on track.  Let’s say our gaming group says “OK, Paul is going to run Wrath of the Righteous next, and we want it to last a year and then go on to something else.” Then you set out a schedule – to finish out, PCs have to be level 16, so they need to get more than a level per month, say one every 3 weeks, to make that happen. So then level on schedule. This is kinda brilliant, because as you level up, earlier parts of the adventure get easier, and you accelerate – more encounters/day, more adventure/IRL week. If you get ahead, it’s harder, and you are slowed down accordingly.

You can somewhat mitigate the cost vs benefit equation here by using a simpler rubric, like “you level after X adventures/sessions/whatever”, where X = character level or a constant. This loses some GM control (especially if it’s “sessions”) but it’s a good compromise for, say, Organized Play setups where you need a way to track character leveling outside the bounds of a traditional campaign.

A very simulation-minded GM could derive their own way of character advancement – in-game time, whatever – easily on top of this framework.

XP As An Option?

Sure, but so, in D&D Next or whatever, can’t we just have XP as an option and “GM levels whenever” as an option?

As described above, XP forces compromise from both the adventure author and GM in terms of adventure design and the players in terms of in-character play. Having “the option” not to XP doesn’t help that all that much – we already have that option, but our adventures and players are still tainted by the XP-oriented mindset. So even those deciding not to use XP will get compromise adventures that had to be designed with that stricture in mind. Kill it with fire.

XP Should Be Buried Now

I know that it’s so “traditional” that it’s hard to accept, but after 30 years of gaming and some careful analysis I really can’t say that the many man-hours spent calculating XP (or worse, gerrymandering it as a GM) have had anywhere near a positive return on investment in terms of game quality or fun.

Happy 40th, D&D!

Turns out this week is D&D’s 40th birthday!  I’m slightly older than it is, and have been playing for somewhere around 30 of those years.

My first D&D game was in a car on the way to a Boy Scout camp.  It was diceless and mostly rule-less.  I joined in progress; one guy had Blackrazor, one had Whelm, and one had a crossbow. Encounters usually ended with us all trying to kill each other as well.  Good times. (I find it interesting that nowadays people contend you can’t play D&D diceless, or can’t play it PvP…  Kids nowadays.)

I was always more of a SF guy so I played Star Frontiers, but got frustrated with buying Dragon Magazines for the Ares section and not being able to use or understand the rest (What’s a “hit die?”) so got the original Red Box, and then it was off to the races!

So thanks to D&D for many years of fun.  I still play it (even though it’s called Pathfinder now)!

Link

Noob the Loser D&D Comic

If you haven’t seen this yet, you deserve to treat yourself to a NSFW, hilarious D&D comic from “Noob the Loser”!

RPG Kickstarters – Crossplatform Is For Chumps

I was just looking at the Kickstarter for Fall of Man, which looks interesting, till I saw them making the same error I’ve seen a lot of RPG Kickstarters make.

“It’s for Pathfinder!  And for stretch goals, we’ll convert to FATE and C&C and 13th Age!”

Here’s why this is a great way to make your Kickstarter fail, either up front or long term.

First, who is your Kickstarter for?  If it’s for a Pathfinder player, they couldn’t give much of a crap whether your product supports other systems, and they’d really prefer your stretch goals to be something that would benefit them.  You’re basically saying “No stretch goals for you!”

And if you’re a e.g. 13th Age player – are you really going to pledge “in case” it gets to the stretch goal? Maybe – and if it doesn’t get close to that level, you’ll pull out, collapsing your funding. Fun!

But that’s not the worst part.  The worst part is that unless you are just porting it to highly similar systems (e.g. Pathfinder and 3.5e, or some OSR clones) – you’re going to do a shit job.

These games are very different.  Pathfinder and FATE come at storytelling from different perspectives.  Your port is either going to be a) shitty and cursory, or b) you’re going to have to pay someone to basically develop native to that system for scratch – and you’re not getting enough money for that to be net positive for you.

Frog God has managed to do a couple Swords & Wizardry ports of things like Razor Coast… But unless you’re that big and professional, you’re not going to make it work, certainly not with multiple systems.

Instead, it’s going to become an albatross around your neck.  Something not really wanted, that doesn’t add a lot to the value of your product, and that once you’ve delivered your main product just hangs there sapping energy and money and credibility.  Stop it.

Carrion Crown Chapter 4, Wake of the Watcher, Session 2

Second Session (13 page pdf) – We fight mutant giants, fish-men, Hounds of Tindalos, and The Colour Out Of Space in a run-down old mansion an in unholy mashup of half of Lovecraft’s short stories.  Next week – the other half!

The fights took a lot of time this session.  The marsh giant was hefty though not much of a danger to us due to positioning.  The Hounds of Tindalos, with their damage-gaze, did a lot of damage to us. And the skum happily charged down a tunnel at us and Xurak and I lightning bolted them out of this universe easily.

The Color out of Space part is creepy, it had husked out a bunch of women and kids and we couldn’t really fight it, it drained stats like there’s no tomorrow.  By messing around we let it go, hopefully to another world or plane of existence. We get a crazy lady to add to the baby in terms of helpless noncombatants we have to worry about.

We finish up by deciding to go kill the heck out of a church full of Dagon cultists!

Carrion Crown Chapter 4, Wake of the Watcher, Session 1

First Session (17 page pdf) – Slugs and babynapping cultists abound in the otherwise-shitty town of Illmarsh. But we obtain the ultimate weapon – a controlled spectre!

We continue to peel back the layers of decrepitude in the town, where it’s pretty clear they’re pimping out babies to Deep Ones. I like Jayleen the local barkeep though, she’s fun. A giant octopus goes after a local, we kill it, as we are wont to do.

voltiaroThen it’s out to Undiomede House, an old ruined mansion, since everything about its appearance in local lore cries out “conveniently close to town dungeon location.” Turns out the trip there is more unhealthy than a Perfect Bacon Bowl, as leeches overtake us – and not just normal leeches, burrow-to-your-brain in three rounds leeches. They are a “hazard” not monsters so of course we butt up against the game rules as we try to get them off us.  I manage it but Nigel, Oswald, and Zurax all get brain parasites for their trouble!

We save a baby from some ridiculously-dressed cultists, which puts an abrupt end to the dungeoning! We head back and try to get someone that won’t eat/trade the kid so we can go back. And we kill another even more ridiculously dressed cultist!  Fade to black.

Reavers on the Seas of Fate – Season Three, Seventh Session

Seventh Session (12 page pdf) – “The Sun Temple Colony” – The crew finds the lost Andoran colony built atop an Azlanti ruin.  They fall in with religious extremists as an Azlanti artifact nearly burns their ship to the waterline! Then they start poking around the island.

lost_citiesI liked doing the Sun Temple Colony after I did From Shore To Sea, because they were used to the WoW-like architecture of the Azlanti, and even knew to talk to the will-o-wisp streetlights in Aklo… But first they get lit up by the main attribute of the Sun Temple Colony, its big ol’ sun-focusing floating lens.

The Sun Temple Colony is from the Lost Cities of Golarion supplement. The intent here is that there’s parts of it about 10 CRs above the party’s level, so they have to keep it a bit on the down-low and play the locals against each other. They meet the “free” colonists and learn about the cult, the God-touched and breeder varieties. And they get a mascot, the impressionable 15-year-old Lefty.

Sindawe gets to exercise his captaining skills, which is generally “issue orders and then beat the nearest crewman unconscious since he’s clearly not moving fast enough.” They do get loot shares; this is probably the best place to give the pirate crewmen treasure because they are a thousand miles from anywhere they can spend it.

Then, it’s off to hexcrawl and explore the island!

 

 

Carrion Crown Chapter 3, Broken Moon, Session 5

auren_vroodFifth Session (18 page pdf) – Done with the local vermin, we move on to assault a keep full of necromancers!  And someone dies.  Many someones. Then it’s off to get some Lovecraft, but instead we get some McLovin!

We planned our assault of the necromancer keep in Feldgrau. We get to the top and the “skeletons” there are uber buff skeletons to our chagrin. We pop a fog cloud to stop the arrows, except for the PCs that like going and standing out of the fog cloud so they’ll get shot.

We expected a bit more of a dungeon, but halfway through the skeleton guards fight Orrin (Auren?) Vrood shows up and lays into us with the Circle of Death. This starts an entire sequence of “but wait…” as we figure out all the complex effects.  He pops a Circle of Death which kills four party members – but I use the group Harrow card to give us SR20, which saves two people, then I use my personal Harrow card to give Oswald a save bonus, which saves him. (Using them is a meta-thing that doesn’t really use an action.)  Zurax Darkfire, we hardly knew ye.

Then we kept forgetting stuff.  He used eyebite on me and I ran, forgetting the SR, and then he used it on Oswald, who almost ran before I blurted out “Wait, SR!” The SR didn’t save him, but since I wasn’t really feared my Fortune hex was still up so that saved him.  I got tired of that and used my new anti-necromancer ray, Lightning Bolt.

We go all the way to Carrion Hill to get Zurax raised, then go all the way back to Feldgrau, where everyone but a local ghost has skedaddled. Boring.  And then we head to the big neon signs saying Thrushmoore.

On the way we had a great encounter – Nigel sneaks off and comes across two nymphs bathing in the lake. He spies on them, making both Fort saves against blindness.  He reveals himself with a “Hey laydees!” and then makes both Fort saves against stun! They say “Ooo you have to catch us!” and he promptly rolls a natural 20 and the fleeing nymph rolls a natural 1. “Whoops, I have fallen over this log and my dress has come off!” He comes out of it with a goofy grin and a nymph-hair token that makes him super hell on wheels as a bard (+4 on Will saves, Craft, Perform, and 7 bonus rounds of bardic performance a day!!!).

Then we come across a marsh giant who demands tribute; Zurax animates a zombie from a Kellid werewolf corpse he’s keeping, Nigel tramps it up, and we send it to its fate.

Finally we end up in Thrushmoore, aka Innsmouth, and get the obligatory Lovecraftian town setup.  It’s just a little too much on the nose, how each adventure is “this thing themed!!!” But, what the heck, we’re level 8 now.

Carrion Crown Chapter 3, Broken Moon, Session 4

Fourth Session (13 page pdf) – We go to the butthole of Ustalav and farm us some werewolves, plus any local necromancer that gets lippy.

After an unfortunate encounter with a hangman tree (made more dangerous by the fact that three PCs weren’t there/didn’t show up on time, and only bested by one of them showing up mid-fight) we go to the Furrows, also known as the worst place in a bad country.

We dodged a remarkably large local necromancer patrol and rooted around in a ruined building where we found our missing werewolf hunter, Duristan.  “Oh, I’m not werewolfed, and I somehow got a band of mercenaries here!  We’re hunting some other werewolves!” “Yeah, that sounds grrrreat… Take us to your mercenaries.” We hoped we’d convince them we’d “help attack” the Prince’s Wolves and then we could betray them mid-fight.  Duristan, however, showed his usual lack of forethought by just yelling out as soon as we went into where the Jhazeldans were.

And here’s where seventh level pays off!  I crowd-controlled the shit out of that building.  Black Tentacles BAM!  Web BAM!  We knew that was just a delaying tactic and we needed help, so everyone else fought while I flew over to get the Princes’ Wolves to help; they were remarkably whiny about it for having been dispatched here for this express purpose.  I convinced them (In D&D you always have to convince NPCs to do anything, including what they were going to do anyway) and then it took them like three rounds of running in their heavy armor to get there and when they did they were like crappy CR2 werewolves only suitable for mob control. Sigh.  But the rest of the party had staged a calm fighting withdrawal to outside the building and was keeping the werewolves bottled up, so I figured I’d liven up their day with a Stinking Cloud.  You would think werewolves would have OK Fort saves but they were all puking up squirrels. By the time they broke loose and got out of the building the Princes’ Wolves arrived; I hit the BBEG with a 4-level Enervation and everyone else chopped him to bitty-bits. I slumber hexed Duristan so hopefully we can cure him of his lycanthropy.

Then we’re talking with the Princes’ Wolves inside the building when some necromancer goon with two big undead thingys busts in and is all like “Now I’ve got you!” I Lightning Bolted his dumb ass and everyone chopped through the undead.  I blinded him and he ran off crying to momma; a slumber hex later and I dragged him into the building with us.  Send more necromancers!

It wasn’t all me or anything, everyone was on top of their game.  Icobus got a great beheading shot in among others. Nigel started using his whammies on undead, being a dirge bard. Oswald shot a lot of things. We were worried when two players didn’t show but even just three of us could hold the fort for a good number of rounds! Yay, level 7.  (Though, it does explain why it’s the breakpoint for E6; it’s definitely the level you leave normal life behind for the life of a superhero.)

Carrion Crown Chapter 3, Broken Moon, Session 3

Third Session (12 page pdf) – We fight werewolves, werewolf ghosts, beefcake werewolves, and a paunchy librarian. Werewolves are stupid, though wealthy; perhaps we should take up werewolf farming.

The werewolf ghost (vilkacis) fight is bracing; it tries to possess several party members but a Protection from Evil from Xurak and then Misfortune hex from me keeps it from being successful.

Then we catch up with the librarian (Estovian the keeper of the Lodge) and beat the bejeezus out of him. I get to use my new lipstitch spell to sew his lips together, which was disturbing both for him and for the rest of the party. Lucky for him he charms Oswald who prevents his prone form from being Rodney Kinged into the great unknown; lucky for us Oswald is super gullible so we manage the situation anyway (“No really, he’ll be safer chained up down here with all his gear in our gunny sack…”).

We did OK in the big werewolf boss fight.  I got a little pissed that I kept putting bad guys to sleep with my slumber hex and no one would freaking coup de grace them, and then someone would wake them up and they’d be back in the game – and my hex can only affect someone once a day. I’m like “do you like fighting these guys?  How’s that lycanthropy making your tongue taste?” Anyway, finally I blind the werewolf chick and we bring an end to the combat.  We’d neatly bypassed all the rest of the werewolf guards so we just sent her packing. (Get it? Packing? I crack myself up. Actually, I decided that Sredni Vashtar’s Girl likes making bad puns in Common, which entertained Tim because there’s an Indian girl at his work that does the exact same thing.  I’ve known one too, it’s an oddly common little quirk. I like it when I can bring some authentic Indian girl to my character!)

Then we get to commune with Desna! Besides getting healed of all our ills and getting some plot points, this is cool for Girl – she’s still NG and starting to consider being more assertive against her NE god-familiar.

After that it’s just a wrap-up fight with two werewolves.  I like using my Slumber hex like the guys from Dark City – “Sleeeep! <waves hand across their face>.” We even let Estovian go with some threats to watch his step in the future. It’s Ustalav; if you kill every violent dumbass you meet the whole place would be empty.

 

Other Open Gaming Thoughts

Besides the buzz about D&D Next possibly being OGL, there’s other news in game licensing land.

First of all, the GUMSHOE system used by Pelgrane Publishing in many of their games is released under both OGL and Creative Commons! You can download the SRD in Word format there. Very cool.

Second, Numenera has a license and it’s not quite open. One product has been released so far though, Celestial Wisdom. But here’s why this concerns me.

Numenera is an innovative game in a very weird setting. A setting that could benefit a LOT from third party material. It’s going to be intimidating to some people to actually run, because of the weird nature of the setting and adventures.  The more the better, and any bars there limit it somewhat.

In conjunction with that, the Monte Cook brigade are now off on their second Kickstarter for a similary ambitious game called The Strange.  This does not give me a lot of confidence that Numenera is going to see lots of support from Monte Cook Games itself.  Given the worry that they’re just going to be happily Kickstarting one neat new idea after another and then moving to the next without focusing their effort on sustaining each one, does it make sense from any perspective to put limitations on people that do want to?

13th Age has, on the other hand, released under the OGL with their SRD located here on the Pelgrane site. That makes me a little more hopeful about ongoing support.

Carrion Crown Chapter 3, Broken Moon, Session 2

Second Session (10 page pdf) -  The Lodge becomes a killing ground as various things go wrong, and our heroes are generally a step behind everyone else.

Talking to various decadent Ustalavic nobles is about as useful as you’d think. But Girl meets another girl from her orphanage back in Jalmeray, who’s working in an adjoining brothel. Also, Nigel trades his carnal favors to the madam for info on our quest.

Then we get attacked by a truly giant spider. And then someone werewolf-curses out and kills another patron. We get sick of screwing around and break into the local Lodge keeper/librarian’s office to beat the truth out of him but he dimension-door skedaddles. With remaining intel we decide to cut to the chase and go out to the Stairs of the Moon and harvest us some werewolves.