Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Good Rewards, Bad Rewards

I had a bunch of (basically) garbage filler written up that I’ve now deleted. I’m just going to lay it out for folks…and sorry if this seems a bit terse, but sometimes people get my goat with their obtuseness.

When I was railing against the poor design of the D&D game with regard to the later “stages of exploration” I was NOT decrying the designers’ choice of awarding XP for treasure. Yesterday, I spent part o my morning rereading the sections on experience in both the AD&D PHB and DMG and found Gygax’s explanation and justification both concise and 100% reasonable. The problem with the current XP system isn’t the choice of mechanic, the problem is the lack of EVOLUTION in the advancement system commensurate with the evolution of game play (both as intended and as unintentionally designed) and how that lack:

A) Fails to appropriately reward “right action”
B) Fails to incentivize players to choose “right action.”

And right action in this case could be defined as “behavior that contributes to the type of fantasy exploration intended by setting and scenario.”

Once you get out of the “hazard site” (the “dungeon” scenario) and move into the larger fantasy world (i.e. “the wilderness”) or the more lofty objectives and goals that come with being a high level character (when game play becomes more proactive, less reactive), the XP system as written falls short.

So why not just junk the system altogether? I.e. why not award XP for different objectives? Well, sure, okay let’s just do that. But before we do, let me pose a slightly tangential question:

Do you want an objective measure of a character’s success, or a subjective one?

This is, of course, assuming you are interested in having an advancement system whereby characters progress in effectiveness (i.e. “level up”) dependent on reward. I read one tale of a certain, unnamed innovative indie-game designer that was running a D&D game that kept getting bogged down in the advancement system and decided to junk the whole thing: that is, NO XP and NO LEVELS. "Let’s just play and forget all about counting points for actions." To me, that’s a fairly extreme stance to take (because it defeats the whole gamist/challenging premise of D&D) but it's certainly an innovative approach to circumventing the question altogether!

However, I am interested in an advancement system, so I return to the question at hand: do you want your reward system to be an objective measure of success or not? And I want you to consider the question from two different perspectives before coming to your answer, those perspectives being as player and as Dungeon Master.

Just to make sure we’re on the same page, let me explain what I mean by an “objective measure of success.” An OBJECTIVE measure is one that is cut-and-dry and not dependent on DM judgment. Now I know, I know it’s difficult to have a reward system that is TRULY independent of DM judgment…after all, the DM is responsible for setting the quantity of “reward opportunities” in a game and thus still has the choice to be “generous” or “stingy” with those opportunities. But having a nominally objective measure of success at least gives the players a yardstick by which to measure the choices they make in game. The original measures of success (treasure found and monsters defeated) are both objective measures of success: if you find treasure you gain XP equal to its GP value; if you defeat a monster you gain XP based on its hit dice.

Treasure and monsters aren’t the only possible “objective” measures of success. Miles travelled, damage sustained, collection of taxes, locks/traps disarmed, or treasure spent/donated are all non-subjective ways to award XP to players, as is awarding a certain amount of XP for (player) attendance. Do the specified action and receive the specified XP total; simple and straight-forward. Here are the important considerations regarding objective measures of success:

1) Rewarding a particular action provides incentive to take that action, to the possible exclusion of other (non-rewarding) actions. For example, if you ONLY reward PCs for the defeat of monsters, PCs will seek out conflict with monsters.
2) Over time, your game will become about that which you choose to reward.

There are several consequences of #2 that should be pointed out. If I say, “This game is about finding treasure,” and award XP for the acquisition of finding treasure, then players will expect to find treasure and will bristle in disappointment if they don’t. If you decide to reward players solely for attendance (i.e. being seat warmers) than there is little incentive for them to take any dangerous action that might jeopardize their characters: showing up and sitting on their hands is enough “effort” to climb in level.

Okay, those are objective measures of success. What would be SUBJECTIVE measures of success, or what I like to call “DM fiat?” Welp, that would be a game in which a character’s rate of advancement is more or less arbitrary based on the whim of the DM. Some examples might include: awards for good role-playing, or bonuses for showing courage/heroism, or humor awards, or completing “mission objectives,” or setting-specific goals. All of these are entirely dependent on the DM for any award to be received, and thus stunt players’ ability to be proactive to a greater or lesser extent.

For example, if I (as DM) say, “you get XP for making a journey of a 1000 miles or more” (an objective measure of success) players may choose to travel to any random far-off place they’ve heard of in order to gain XP. If the DM says, “you get XP for making a pilgrimage to shrine XYZ,” then players are limited solely to travelling to XYZ…at least if they want to gain the reward. Of course, if PCs don’t know they get XP for travelling to a shrine XYZ (because it’s a “secret” or “hidden” objective) then it’s even more of an arbitrary reward…the DM is simply handing out “bonus XP” when he or she feels like it based on the “accomplishments” of the PCs…which require “good guesses” by the players in question.

“Secret goals” or events are ALWAYS considered “subjective” awards. If players don’t know about them, then they cannot make informed choices whether or not to pursue those objectives. So what if a DM has a list of objectives written down beforehand? The list is still subject to the DM’s whim and can be changed at any time due to the “demands” of the campaign or campaign setting. Hopefully, players will manage to do the right thing during the right session when the DM is still feeling like a visit to shrine XYZ is deserving of an XP award.

With a subjective measure of success, “right behavior” becomes about pleasing the DM and players are forced to take pains to determine what it is the DM enjoys or expects. If the DM wants you to rescue captives (and dangles a fat XP carrot as incentive) then By God we better get in there and save those hostages! If the DM awards bonus XP for “good role-playing,” whatever that means, then players better figure out what the DM expects (Funny voices? Accents? A cape?) so as to receive that reward.

Now if it sounds like I’m throwing stones at “subjective” measures of experience, well, yeah, I am. Of course, Arneson’s Blackmoor game started out with a “fiat based” advancement system from the accounts I’ve read. Back in those days, you were either a “flunky,” hero, or superhero (the latter two based on the Chainmail system) and Dave promoted your character based on meritorious action (as decided by Mr. Arneson). And when you think of it, that’s not an absolutely terrible method of advancement (presuming some basic guidelines for heroism), assuming a fair-minded DM (debatable) and a level/advancement system that isn’t too granular (i.e. NOT 14, 20, or 36 possible levels of experience).

But, yeah, in general my thought is it’s better to have objective measures of success for a game like D&D: giving players objective measures of success provides them with a) an objective knowledge of what behavior/action is expected of them, and b) the incentive to proactively seek out those things that will earn them advancement. That doesn’t mean ANY objective measure is better…again, review those considerations. Do the objectives model what you want your game to be about? Because rest assured, they will (in part) determine what your game is about. Do they incentivize player behavior that your want to see? Because that’s what it’s going to do, especially depending on the amount of reward being offered.

For example, I’ve written before that I dislike XP awards for attendance, i.e. awards for participation. “Show up and your character receives X amount of XP regardless of accomplishment during a game session.” Now, I realize that this is often an award given in addition to the normal XP awards, so there is still an incentive for players to “push” their characters…but if I want to reward are players stepping up and face challenges then why would I award ANYthing for failing to participate? Players that fail to take part might as well have not showed up in the first place. In effect, they don't show up. If you’re adding an “attendance award” because advancement is otherwise too slow, then up the other XP awards or reduce the XP needed to advance. Duh.

Another “objective” measure of success I hate is found in Mentzer’s version of the Basic set. I didn’t realize this until recently a major change in the way XP is awarded for treasure, different from Moldvay’s Basic set: in B/X, the total value of treasure found is divided amongst all surviving members of the party. In BECMI, the total value of monsters defeated is divided, but treasure XP is awarded based on a character's SHARE of treasure found. What this does is place a priority on the “division of spoils” (and there is, indeed, a large section in the Mentzer rules detailing the importance of treasure shares), in effect rewarding the shrewdest bargaining player character. The highest level guy is thus the best merchant/shop-keeper in the group!

On the other hand, I really like Alexis’s rule about gaining XP for taking damage. As going up in level represents (on a certain level) a “hardening” of adventurers, it makes sense that a character’s confidence will increase by surviving punishment. What’s more, it provides incentive for players to take risks and not shy away from danger…an “anti-craven,” fortune-favors-the-bold point o view. Also, there’s definitely a gamble involved in facing danger and taking damage…but that’s the kind of choice I like to offer my players. Some might say, “but magic-users benefit less than fighters from this rule because of HP differential.” Well, duh…fighters benefit more from the experience of getting their asses kicked the magic-users (their training isn’t that which allows them to learn from their combat mistakes).

Hmm…you know, I’d intended this to be short and terse, but once again my brain has run-on a lot longer than I expected. I’m going to stop writing (for the moment)…I might pick this up again later with my specific thoughts on possible objective measures of success for the various stages of exploration.



  1. Very interesting. I will enjoy reading more of your thoughts on this. I have never really had a prblem with the way XP and levels were awarded, but I like some of your ideas and suggestions about the implications in the ways those rewards are doled out.

  2. I wonder how many of the subjective measures could be pushed over into objective measures. Particularly if some are doled out by your fellow-players, rather than the DM.

  3. I am sure I read something just recently by Mike Mornard saying that back in the day they used to take advantage of XP being given according to your share of treasure. If they had a new player, either new to the group or because a previous PC died, they would give all the money from that session to the new character so they would jump to second level after just one session.

  4. Since I always throw out obscure rules and facts . . . . :)

    Rolemaster (or maybe it was MERP) gave characters 1 xp for every mile travelled, as long as there was a chance of an encounter. And in Hackmaster 4e, characters got xp for surviving a crit; come to thin of it, Rolemaster did the same.

  5. I mentioned Adventurer, Conqueror, King early in this series of posts, but I'll mention it again. It's at least worth a look if you haven't seen it, since it's built with these 'later stages' of a campaign in mind. I'm not at all sure ACKS does everything you want, but it's probably way closer than most systems. Should at least be food for thought and I'd be curious to hear your opinion on it.

    With regard to the topic at hand, the ACKS XP system goes at least somewhat beyond the early D&D standard of killing guys in a dungeon and re-looting their loot.

  6. “Secret goals” or events are ALWAYS considered “subjective” awards.

    Does anybody actually do this? If you did have such a list, why would you not share it with the players?

    rule about gaining XP for taking damage

    This seems like rewarding poor play. All the treasure is already in dangerous places, so no more incentive is needed for risk taking. And if you give XP for killing monsters, well, monsters are inherently dangerous and a risky prospect, no?

  7. Oh, good...feedback!

    @ Badger: When you run short campaigns spanning a few site-based adventures, it doesn't become much of an issue, unless you have a player in the group that "wants something more." But sometimes, not having the option in the game suggests nothing more than the standard drive (i.e. loot and kills).

    @ Aaron: And vice versa. I admit it's a blurry line between the two. Even if the DM says "XP is based on objective measure A and B," it is still the DM that controls the presence of A and B (generally speaking). In standard D&D it is the neutral ref's job to award XP...and set up the opportunity for gain. In that sense, ALL XP awards are a matter of DM fiat.

    Putting authority of reward administration in the hands of players is an interesting idea, and not unusual (I've seen other RPGs that allowed things like "role-playing" and "humor" awards to be given by group consensus). However, I think it can carry certain pitfalls (related to social contract) depending on the group, especially in a challenge-oriented game like D&D.

    @ jbeltman: Ugh. That sounds soooooo artificial to me and so "unrealistic" on so many levels. But as Gygax wrote, 12' giants are pretty unrealistic, too.

    @ Anthony: So you said earlier. I briefly considered something like that ("mileage"...reminds me of doing my income tax), but then thought "what does that encourage?" Taking the long way to Flanders? Plus, I'm willing to divide a treasure hoard for XP, but I don't think I'm willing to track every mile on the odometer...especially considering the normal B/X rules regarding getting lost, etc.

    @ Scrivener: ACKS has been mentioned a couple times.I just haven't had the time or opportunity to purchase it. I can't remember exactly what was holding me back on picking this one up...I know I did some research into it. Maybe I'll take a 2nd, closer look.

    @ Brendan: This was suggested in earlier posts more than once ("secret" goals). It reminds me of a video game where you accomplish some task and, hey! get bonus points you weren't expecting. Sure, it's a nice surprise, but it doesn't encourage any particular play style.

    I disagree re XP for damage (obviously, since I said I liked it). I suppose one would have to make some stipulation against self-inflicted injury (can't be awarding bonus XP to "cutters" and masochists now can we?). And, of course, one gets no XP if your character dies...so why not throw a few bpnus points for taking your wounds on the front? Admittedly, I'm biased...as a DM I dislike PCs that "skulk" and like to reward bold action...or heroic, self-sacrificing action...both of which has a tendency to inflict injury on a character.
    : )

  8. Hmmm, good food for thought, as always.
    My initial reaction was something akin to the Merp/Rolemaster thing regarding travels - maybe not by mileage, but by sites visited - 50xp for a village to 150 xp for a metropolis not visited before (and a bonus for extraordinairy locales), but, yeah, the abitrary wandering. On the other hand, it IS dangerous to travel, and maybe even if you luck out and have no encounter on the way there, you should be somewhat rewarded for braving the possibility of encounter... because, if you just dole out xp for gp and defeated monsters, pcs will be punished for using the safe route - and maybe that's good, if you prefer bold play, but what about avoiding encounters that they should be avoiding? "I creeped around an hobgoblin army and hid from a dragon and all I got is this lousy t-shirt"? ;)

  9. I had considered awarding XP for every Hex explored and "cleared" on the map.

  10. I suspect you still haven't looked at Old School Hack (and now my version, Fictive Hack.)

    One of the things I enjoy as DM in that game is that players spend 12 Awesome Points to level up. They get Awesome Points from other players, and sometimes from the DM, but they have to spend them to do things--in so doing, they develop and advance.

    It was weird the first few times, getting to the end of the session and NOT awarding experience. The neat thing is, as they are awesome (both to get points, and then to find ways to spend them), they level.

    This doesn't work in D&D, but it's worth thinking through what it teaches about fun at the game table and what lessons might be taken away.

  11. What about a system that allows players and GMs collaborate on what can provide XP? For instance, what if players could ask the GM something like “could I get XP for plotting to overthrow this city’s ruler” and the GM would consider and then assign an XP number to that task? I know this is still somewhat subjective but at least it’s not entirely GM Fiat, or about “pleasing the GM” as you stated in your post. The players have a greater stake in crafting the goals of the game, sort of like tailoring XP to suit the desires of the PCs. RPGs usually take the stance that GMs need to get to know what their players like and dislike, so the idea of setting XP goals by talking to players seems to be a logical extension to that idea.

    This ties in to a spirit of collaboration on the part of players and GMs so that everyone has a hand in creating a great gaming experience. And of course, this can work in concert with other more concrete XP systems (i.e. killing creatures, getting treasure, damage taken, hexes explored/”cleared”, etc).

    BTW, got my copy of the Complete BX Adventurer! Good stuff! I will work on a review for my blog.

  12. @Brendan: I guess it's true what they say about great minds, eh? ;-) Seriously, I definitely agree with you that getting players to set goals with the GM and then work out an XP value for that is a great idea.

  13. If you haven't taken a look at Neo-Classical Geek Revival you might find it interesting. He has a wide variety of rules for XP, some probably a bit subjective for your taste, but still interesting.

    You can read about the XP ideas in it here: http://zzarchov.blogspot.com/search/label/XP

    As for the complaint about MUs being screwed by the XP for taking hits you run into your rule #2 above. If the class that needs the most XP has fewer ways to get XP they are doubly disadvantaged with respect to other classes. At some point you run into the flip side of #2: you get less of what you don't reward.

    If your goal is fewer magic-users that's fine, but if not you need to add some system to balance the hits that is MU centric or reduce their leveling costs.

  14. @ Herb: the NCGR is a book I've been meaning to check out; thanks for the link!

    I'm currently finishing up an 8-9 page post on magic-users that I intend put up over the next couple days; XP is the least of their worries in my opinion!
    ; )