Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Follow-Up to Stages of Exploration

I want folks to know that I have had a chance to read (and appreciate) all the comments on my recent series of posts (actually, it’s just one BIG post that I broke up into four parts). Fact is, it turns out the place I was staying out on Orcas Island had better, faster wireless web access than what I’m used…however, for the good of my marriage I refrained from posting much to the internet while I was on our “mini-vacation.”

Anyway, here’s the follow-up post:

I don’t have a solution to the issue at this point. But having identified what the issue is, I have some ideas, and I’m currently working on them and looking at adapting ‘em to D&D Mine (my personal version of D&D). And no, none of the ideas involve playing a different system or “boosting” the starting levels for B/X D&D characters.

Here’s the deal, folks: I am familiar with other games. Ars Magica, for example, and Pendragon, too. I have read The Song of Ice and Fire RPG and I’ve played Amber Diceless, as well. These don’t work for my purposed for a number of reasons. I suppose I could enumerate them all, but it would seem like a lot of bashing of these particular games and, fun as that might be, that’s counter-productive. And anyway, they’re good games: Stormbringer was a lot of fun (I played the 1st edition extensively) and can certainly be played on a variety of “levels,” but it works best for a very specific setting and method of play…and I’m looking for something a bit more generic, or rather "setting neutral."

And let me put to rest any thought that I’m one of those dudes who only plays D&D or only considers a single system for my “fantasy sword-swinging” RPGs. I know there are folks like that out there, but I’m not one of them. There are a lot, A LOT, of good things going on in the D&D rules…especially with earlier editions. My D&D Mine has a lot of deconstructed D&D concepts in it, but a lot of folks who read it would say, “That doesn’t resemble the D&D I know!”

As for simply starting characters at 3rd level (or higher!) or adding a bunch of bonus HPs to ensure survivability…that’s just a patch, folks. So why are there rules for 1st level characters then? I mean, you might as well just say 1st level has the same ability as a 3rd level character, right? Ugh…just never mind. 1st level is 1st level, and this is not (just) about adjusting/addressing effectiveness.

Look, I have some mechanics in D&D Mine that will allow me to address the issues of effectiveness in context of objective. I would share it here (I might still sometime), except that it only works in light of me converting the whole game to being D6 based (and, no, not in the West End Games’ sense of “D6”). I think (I’m not 100% sure…maybe 70% at this point) that I can make that part work.

What’s more important, and what is the tougher deal, is fixing…or rather “breaking down and recreating from scratch”…the advancement system of D&D. Because reward mechanics influence behavior…and the current method of reward, while excellent for Stage 1 exploration, blows chunks for Stage 2 and Stage 3.

Let me give you some examples of what I mean. We’ll start with adventure module I4: Oasis of the White Palm. This adventure was widely published so many will be familiar with it, but for those who aren’t the scenario goes like this: the player characters are forced into the Desert of Desolation on a search for some brigands (or something). Along the way they end up accidentally releasing a demonic force. By the end of the three module series (I3 through I5) the demon is defeated, the curse on the desert broken (transforming it back into a paradise) and all the PCs hailed as heroes.

I4 is the middle module of the series. Whereas I3 and I5 mainly feature large dungeons, I4 provides a mystery, a damsel in distress, a thriving desert civilization/town (the titular Oasis), intrigue, and several small dungeons. There’s A LOT of different avenues of pursuit by PCs in I4 and it is not out o the realm o possibility for players to ignore the story/plot at hand. I mean, here’s a town where you can settle down and live if you so choose…start up a business, hire yourselves out to locals, change your name and identity if you wanted, etc. You could throw in with the Bad Guys or start your own competing faction in the town (hypothetically)…and even if you succeed at the “main scenario” of I4 there’s nothing that really compels your characters to continue on to module I5 except the base assumption that your characters don’t like the desert and want to get the hell out of there by completing the over-arching quest.

Basically, it’s a great adventure and wide-open to a number of different possible actions; if it was a fantasy novel, one could see how characters might approach it with little or no worry about collecting treasure. However, as a game, Oasis of the White Palm is a flat, 1st edition AD&D adventure…which means characters receive experience points for collecting loot and killing (“defeating”) opponents. Not for exploring the landscape. Not for surviving the desert. Not for making alliances with the various nomad tribes. Not for doing anything interesting in the Oasis (unless that “interesting” thing involves killing and looting). Regardless of anything else going on in the adventure, the MOTIVE for player characters is “to get paid” period. The only creativity encouraged is creative methods of getting gold.

This issue comes back regardless of whether this is a sandbox world or adventure module and (for the latter) regardless of the difficulty level associated with the adventure. Examples of low-level Stage 2 Exploration (B2, N1), or mid-level (X1, I4) or high level (D3 or Q1) all bog down because of the driving goal established in Stage 1 exploration: Find treasure. Kill monsters.

Here’s the formula I’m working with as my basic paradigm:

Reward for Exploration = XP Gained = Level Advanced = Increased Effectiveness in Exploration.

What is wilderness exploration all about? Finding gold and killing monsters? Sure…in the current paradigm of D&D. But what else COULD it be about, if we removed the standard reward.

- Finding a new place, or opening new territory
- Meeting and greeting or scouting or killing a new culture, tribe
- Uncovering mysteries or secret history of an area or region
- Surviving hostile environmental conditions (swamp, desert, arctic, etc.)
- Opening trade routes (by land or sea) and/or escorting traders
- Climbing a mountain, exploring a jungle, sailing a sea
- Surviving “the road”
- Learning the politics of a region, and making friends/allies

At high levels the same types of wilderness objectives apply to more dangerous and stranger “wilderness” environments: for example, the Vault of the Drow (D3) or the Demonweb Pits (Q1). If the goal of the game was NOT “to acquire gold and kill monsters” how much time do you think individual adventurers would spend in such a hostile wilderness without allies or safe havens? How much time might they instead spend, trying to survive and explore or reach their quest/scenario objective instead? And shouldn't they be rewarded for doing so?

I think they should. A character who has "sailed the seven seas" or plumbed the depths of the ocean floor or climbed Mount Insanity or met exotic tribesfolk in the darkest jungles or visited the surface of the moon should show a marked increase in confidence and swagger...regardless of whether or not the character killed anything or found any treasure while there. A character that has explored the wilderness...who has participated and survived adventures...will be mored hardened (fighters), wiser (clerics), more knowledgeable (magic-users), and probably gained in resourcefulness (thieves) compared to the person who hasn't traveled farther than their home village...even should said village be on the edge of a "mega-dungeon."

Please note I am still talking about experience points here: XP as a measurement of success and accomplishment is a great mechanic for a fantasy adventure game. Much more so (in my opinion) than, say, Chaosium's "increase in skill percentage" (which is just a different method of doing the same thing as old D&D, by the way, save that it is more granular, piecemeal, and clunky. It still only addresses Stage 1 development). It is also much more appropriate than, say, White Wolf's "XP gained for showing up/learning something/role-playing award;" the point is to still reward player characters for their appropriate actions (i.e. for facing challenges), not just for showing up and pretending to be a character. Experience points are EARNED in old school games...on risk of painful (character) death.

Anyway, still working out exactly what to reward and how much (in terms of XP), but it's coming along. Now that I'm back in town for the foreseeable future, I plan on doing more play-testing of D&D Mine and will certainly check the revised advancement system. Of course, I'm going to have to re-do the adventure (which, as I said, is set in a damn setting-based mega-dungeon).

[oh, by the way...please note that the above applies in the main part to Stage 2 types of exploration. I have some very different ideas regarding Stage 3 but they're for a different, future post...this one's gone on a bit long...]

: )


  1. i think you are on the right track.

  2. You might want to have a look at the Birthright material for guidelines on how to handle XPs in an atypical AD&D campaign. It integrates the XP guidelines in the 2e DMG very well; I have been using both for more than 15 years, and they address most (if not all) of the points you have raised.

  3. I love this, and XP per hex explored and location discovered is nice, elegant, and impartial.

    See also:


    For stage 3, you can add pacify and/or conquer a hex as a reward too.

  4. The Wii game Xenoblade gives the player experience points for exploring and discovering new areas, alongside the usual rewards for quests and killing monsters; in fact, the game's quite stingy with kill points and as such you're encourage to interact with NPCs and go wandering off to explore the land if you want your party to improve.

  5. You might want to look at Rolemaster 1st edition. It gave out XP for things like exploration and travel, with a multiplier (ranging from x5 to x1/10 IIRC) for frequency. So you'd get a lot of experience for going somewhere the first time, and it would go down precipitously when you repeated the trip. There is more to it, but Campaign Law is worth the read just for the experience section ideas if you're going down this path.

  6. One way to encourage wilderness exploration is to create hidden or hazardous areas and award some XP just for having visited them. It's perfectly within your rights as a DM.

    Finding some hidden caves under a waterfall might be worth a few XP. Successfully navigating some rapids might be worth more. Walking up the path on the side of the river, probably not worth so many.

    In order to faithfully reward exploration, you need to duplicate the HAZARDS of exploration. Some of those might be sea monsters, and hostile tribes of pygmies. They also might be storms, rapids, crossing treacherous canyons, quicksand, falling rocks, and avalanches. Attaching some XP value for encountering these things and successfully negotiating these obstacles is perfectly within reason.

    You could also do it for other things. Negotiating with a trader who speeks another language, or building a canoe.

    The only lacking D&D has is effective guildines for how much these kinds of tasks are worth. What HD monster is negotiating some rapids equivalent to? I'm not sure there's a simple answer to that.

  7. @ Fey:

    Even though it might be within my 'rights' (and I'm not so sure about that...depends on your philosophy of GMing), the last thing I want to do is create "secret (xp) rewards." For me, that smacks just a bit too much of arbitrariness and GM fiat.

    Now, as my B/X players will tell you, I am the very soul of honor and fairness as a DM and I, of course, can be trusted to not do anything underhanded, mean, or off-the-cuff cruel. BUT...why give myself the temptation?
    ; )

    Actually, the real reason is this: I believe that reward mechanics influence player (and thus character behavior)...so I want to be up front with what provides reward to act as INCENTIVE for the PCs. And KNOWING what the risk/reward is allows them to choose (to their own level of risk assessment) how they want to proceed.

    As far as how XP to assign for various tasks: I think the answer CAN be simple...as simple as doing X nets you 100xp, doing Y nets you 1000xp etc...you just have to make some judgments about what you want those things to be. And I'm working on that right now. Though, no, I don't think I'm going to go by mileage.

    @ Brendan: Just another example that I'm a hack designer without an original bone in his body! O the Shame!

  8. "the last thing I want to do is create secret (xp) rewards."

    Why not? Of course, it would fix your problems in one easy swoop. I play the D&D Cyclopedia and there are rewards built right into the game, with these rules, for rewards for good roleplaying, performing tasks very well, achieving goals and doing things like saving party member's lives can earn you experience. Built right into the rules of D&D.

    So here's what to do: stop using so many monsters because you are fed up them, switch to the Cyclopedia and start awarding XP for something other than gold and monsters. You could easily tie your ideas into the goal rewards that are built into the very game system that you think is 'broken' and 'badly designed'. It's what I would do ;-)