Thursday, September 1, 2016

Where Experience Points Went Wrong - Part 3: Rise of the Machines

People like to characterize D&D in general as a Hack and Slash game. It certainly can be that kind of game but it doesn't have to be. Depending on the group and the time period outsmarting the enemy (and the game in a way) can be just a big a part of play. Sure, I've seen plenty of frontal assaults but I've also seen disguises adopted to sneak into temples. I've seen deals cut with leader type enemies in order to secure aid against a different enemy. I've seen flat-out Stealth aplenty. I've seen rivers re-routed to flood out a problem location. The first time I saw a truly well-played illusionist in AD&D was a revelation - he was like Green Lantern in a pointy hat! Creative players thrive in a game where magic is a part of the toolbox.

I've talked about killing monsters for XP, and fixed numbers of encounters and the problems they can cause. But if in the early days XP was awarded mainly for gold, how did we get XP for monster kills all the time and the hack and slash rep of the game?

For one, there were plenty of people focused on killing monsters even in the early days. I mean, having a way that "you" can fight a minotaur or a hydra is a pretty cool thing. This was even more true before video games were a real thing.

By the late 70's though you have another factor than how people played the game: computers. Apples and TRS-80's were coming out alongside the college mainframes that generated a lot of the early games. Games like Wizardry where the focus was on what? Going into a dungeon and killing monsters. There was no real interaction, no thinking outside the box - there was rolling up a party of characters, buying gear, and smashing your way through each level, drawing a map along the way, triggering traps, and hoping you came out with most of the party alive.

Sure, it looks primitive now but I can't tell you how awesome it was when it was new.

For the 80's this is pretty much how computer RPG's worked: create character/party, gear up, go into dungeon and fight, rest, level up, continue. All of the wizardry games and their clones, the early Ultimas, the Bard's Tale games, the early Might & Magic's, the Gold Box games all pretty much worked this way. The later Ultima's are worth noting as they started exploring morality by including some choices that had an impact on the game. For most there still wasn't much of a story other than "fight your way through a series of levels to fight the big boss enemy".

That's pretty much the problem in a nutshell

The 90's were mostly more of the same with better graphics but we started to get games like Betrayal at Krondor, Ultima 7, and later Baldur's Gate and Planescape Torment where there was a real story beyond just "kill things and loot".  There was still character progression and a lot of combat  to make that progression, but there was more going on too.


Then the online RPG's swept in and we saw the return of "advancement by combat" in a big way. Everquest was huge and that's pretty much how it worked.

Sure, it looks primitive now but I can't tell you how awesome it was when it was new.

So to me, at least part of the "must kill monsters to advance" mentality was driven by computer games through the 80's and 90's and was then canonized into the game with D&D 3rd edition where that was the standard, stated method of awarding experience in the DMG:

Now there is a roughly half-page section at the end that talks about story awards, bonuses for good roleplaying, and noncombat encounters. That is after 3 pages talking about monster XP and a big chart showing the numbers for monsters by level.A few pages later there's another 3+ pages on building encounters. It's not hard to see where the emphasis was and it's not a surprise that became the standard. In contrast the 2E DMG only spends 6 pages on the whole topic of experience and the first 3 topics discussed are fun, character survival, and improvement, and story awards are discussed through the entire section. It's a difference of emphasis in many ways. I think the increasing popularity of computer games through the 90's, along with the back-to-the-dungeon mentality of 3E, made this an easily assumed new standard for the game. Pathfinder and 4E both branched off from this and carried it forward to today. People say 4E was the MMO/computer game edition and while I can disagree for multiple reasons here's one you don;t see a whole lot: The computer game influence was already there years before 4th Edition was conceived.

Why is this a negative? Why is a heavy influence from computer game a bad thing? I'll go with one example: consider the Dig spell. In AD&D this was not a spell the new player cared about at all because it wasn't flashy. Experienced players though knew it was an awesome tool to have in your bag of tricks. Setting an ambush? Instant pit! Getting ambushed? Cut off part of the attackers with a moat! Need to direct enemies into a particular area? Dig out part of the road or path you expect them to follow! Fortifying a camp? Dig! Need to re-route a creek? Dig a new channel! Want to capture a big animal? Dig! Need to hide in a desert? Dig + an illusion of more desert! Fantasy blender? Dig + Blade Barrier = pain you can't escape from easily. There are a ton of uses for the creative player!

Yet it rarely shows up in a computer game because they can't account for all of the interesting uses for it. If it does show up it's usually only in the "does damage to earth creatures" aspect - the least interesting part of the spell.

And that's a fairly mundane bit of magic. Think of what an illusionist can do with an arsenal of deceptive spells. In a computer game though they tend to be limited to invisibility and "make an illusion of one of the monsters in the game". Those things can be fun but are only scratching the surface of what a good illusionist can do.

This is the effect that the killing-monsters-is-the-way-to-gain-XP mentality can have. Things are only important if they do damage or stop damage. Creative thinking is "how can I do more damage" and not much else. If it doesn't have a number on it then it's useless. Combat utility is the only measuring stick and DPS rules all.  I'm looking to do it better now in my games. I'll let you know what I come up with.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Where Experience Points Went Wrong - Part 2: Encounters

Yesterday was all about how and why XP is awarded. Today is a separate but related problem: TOO MANY ENCOUNTERS!

In D&D 3-4-5 and in Pathfinder there is an assumption that to level up we need a certain amount of XP. No problem there. Then we make another assumption that the XP should come from a set number of encounters - let's call it ten for argument's sake. So each "encounter" for a given level awards a set number of XP. I'm probably OK with that as a general concept. Then we have to decide what makes an encounter. That might be 4 monsters of that same level. Bringing in some higher or lower level monsters would award more or less XP proportionally. This is also usually tied to some assumptions and math regarding character offensive and defensive capabilities at each level.

In the rulebook, what you get is usually a fair number of pages devoted to balancing encounters.

Online what you get are a ton of forum posts about problems and experiences with the system.

In published adventures what you get are a bunch of fights included not because they make a ton of sense or because they fit a plot but because the party needs a certain number of encounters to progress! To me this is the worst possible reason to include anything yet designers keep on doing it. It's the kind of thing that makes me wonder if they really run longer campaigns.

In plot-heavy adventures it drags things out as unneeded combat encounters are added in to fill out character advancement before the adventure can move on the the next chapter.

In sandbox type adventures it's not as direct a problem unless you're trying to "zone" the area like an MMORPG. In that case it means you need a minimum of X encounter areas to ensure your players get enough XP to safely move to the next zone. Players rarely follow the GM's plan so they probably won't be as worried about this kind of thing as you are. It keeps the game interesting at least.

The focus with written adventures tends to turn into getting through fights or looking for the next fight rather than just doing interesting things. Combat can be a blast but it's hardly the only thing you can do in the game. At least 4E D&D brought in the skill challenge which codified a set of skill rolls into an alternate form of encounter that did not require combat and awarded level-appropriate XP. People look down on that edition as a miniatures combat game -and it was good at that - but it is the only D&D type game that has a built-in detailed system for non-combat XP awards.

It's human nature to want to put a system around these things, I get it. But the outcome has been mixed. These games tend to equate "encounter" to "fight" and so combat becomes the primary goal. These games also tend to have fairly detailed combat systems so the fights take a fair amount of time to work through. Getting to the next level can rather easily become a slog through a bunch of fights that don't mean anything other than getting the XP you need to level up.

Story awards make up for some of this but they are really not a system - they're more of a suggestion. Still it's a useful concept when in a plot adventure I am looking at adding in 3 more encounters to "make budget". Instead I can just say that uncovering the identity of the traitor is worth 3000 xp or whatever number will let the party level up at that point.

You might think from reading the above that I am against wandering encounters - I am not. Wandering encounters are a way to add life to a setting. Everything shouldn't be sitting in a lair waiting to be attacked. In the early editions of D&D you didn't get much XP from killing monsters - most of the XP came from treasure, and treasure was mostly in lairs. So they were a risk without much reward. This meant we sometimes avoided things because it wasn't worth a fight. That pretty much never happens now.

When I converted Pool of Radiance to 4E I stuck pretty closely to the system XP and Encounter guidelines but I didn't always want to sketch out 10 or 12 combat encounters per level. I made sure to include at least 2 or 3 places where skill challenges applied. Part of it was because there should be other options and part of it because we could resolve it in about a third of the time as a fight.

I don't mind having a system for advancement, particularly in a level-based game. I dislike it when it becomes a straitjacket that defines the pace of an adventure as a set number of combats that must be resolved before advancing. In a standalone adventure this doesn't come up as much. With the pre-plotted Adventure Path campaign approach becoming more popular - it's the Pathfinder standard and now 5E is doing it too -   I expect this will continue to be a problem.

How to make it better? I'd really like to see a skill challenge type system come back as a standard part of these types of games. It's not a perfect solution but it does point out that XP can be awarded for something besides combat and if it's formalized into the mechanics then there's a better chance that it actually gets used.  Plus, there's no reason a tense negotiation with the elf king or a strenuous desert crossing shouldn't award XP just like a fight with some frost giants would.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Where Experience Points Went Wrong - Part 1: "They're Not Worth XP Alive!"

I've been reading a lot of games these last few months, particularly older games. Reading RQ2, some old AD&D adventures, d6 Star Wars stuff, alongside Pathfinder stuff, D&D 5E, and Rifts for Savage Worlds gives some interesting perspectives on things. For today I want to talk about advancement and how games award experience points.

There is a ton of effort put into balancing encounters in a lot of modern games. D&D 3-4-5 & Pathfinder in particular. Why? Well, for one thing the mechanics of the game are built around the assumption of an escalating series of target numbers to resolve challenges in play. The other reason is that the leveling system is built around an assumed number of encounters per level. Say the assumption is that the party will have ten encounters each level before leveling up and moving to the next level. The game should give guidance on what those ten encounters should be. It's good to take a systematic approach to this kind of thing and put some math behind it right?

I'm no longer as sure as I once was.

With "encounters" most commonly defined as "combat episodes" the core of the game, the default assumption, becomes focused on fighting opponents, intentionally or not. GM's will skew towards it because that's what all of the numbers are about. Players will skew to it because that's how you level up and they want to level up!

Now there is some concession to "Story Awards" as  a means of rewarding players for accomplishing certain goals beyond killing more monsters. Pathfinder, 4E, and 5E all talk about this. One problem is that it is presented as an exception to the norm. So it's monstersmonstersmosnters with an occasional bonus from something else. The bigger problem is that it assumes there is a pre-existing story to follow, which is a pretty big assumption to make.

An offshoot of that, one I dislike intensely, is to just have the characters level up at certain points "within the story". It's a cop-out! We're going to build this class/level/XP system that takes up chunks of the rulebook to describe those rules and the inevitable "building balanced encounters" section but we aren't going to use it? Plus, again, it assumes even more than the story award that there is a plot that must be followed. It just screams railroad to me and I will never run a game that uses that approach.

Other games take a different approach. One example  from Savage Worlds to d6 Star Wars to GURPS to Hero - is to give experience points per session. Not per fight. Not a story award. You basically get some kind of progression points for showing up and participating in the game. I can totally work with that - simply being a part of the campaign world gives you experience. I could see layering on a bonus for defeating certain enemies or discovering some new area or thing to encourage action in certain directions.

This leads into my main point: Experience points are an incentive for players. They encourage players to take certain actions. If there is a system of character advancement players will want to advance their characters, so they will do whatever expedites that advancement.

For some games the incentive is mainly "show up" and that works just fine. It's sort of a meta-approach, one that exists outside the game world, but it can certainly work. It's just very broad and doesn't really drive any particular character behavior.

A more in-game approach, such as the D&D/Pathfinder approach, encourages players to act through their characters in certain ways by encouraging specific behavior. If there are chapters of the rules specifying monster defeats as the only enumerated source of experience, then you're going to get a hack and slash game pretty much automatically. Because the rules of the game drive your players in that direction. If all you have is a hammer, etc.

Here's a bit of a secret though: It wasn't always this way!

In the old days, sure, there were some combat heavy games, but it wasn't the focus of every game. Why? Because XP came from gold! The much-laughed at system of OD&D/AD&D/BECMI. Mostly laughed at by people who never played it! There's a reason a standard part of the OSR house rule discussion is 10x monster xp or whatever - because 90% of the experience in older games came from gold pieces recovered and only 10% came from beating monsters and a lot of players just can't see the sense in it. So they change it without even trying the original.

So why should they try it? Because it shifts the incentive from "kill monsters" to "acquire more gold". Sure, a lot of the gold available for the taking is held by monsters, but if the XP is in the gold and not the monster then it is possible to gain XP without doing a single point of damage to a monster. It's way too subtle a shift for some people but once a player or three pick up on it you start to see some major changes. Every character doesn't have to be built and geared for maximum combat effectiveness! Stealth and deception become far more valued. "Talky" skills are suddenly useful for actually gaining XP some of the time. In fact, that whole skills list starts to get a second look as people start thinking in terms other than DPS. A Pathfinder type Ranger with the ability to sneak, find things, and talk to animals has a pretty strong set of options right there. Consider the potential of the shapeshifting Druid in bypassing guards - or leading them away! Magic takes a different turn as well as everything from charm person to invisibility are even more useful than before. Heck illusionists start to appear once again as a powerful character type.

One example: In Pathfinder as written a party of all rogues is not particularly viable because their combat effectiveness overlaps too much and is not that great to begin with, so killing monsters is a tough assignment for them. If two of them sneak in and loot the chieftain's hoard while the third is trying to sell him Amway at the front door  ... well yeah they might be able to pull that off and they get a decent amount of XP for it too! Add in an illusionist keeping things lively out front too and you can have all kinds of fun - and no one is terribly concerned with damage modifiers while you're doing it!

Sure, you could just have the party kick in the door and slaughter everything to level up but not every game has to be an action movie. Why can't some of them be a heist film? The members of the Fellowship of the Ring were not all combat monsters. Nor was the A-team. If you want to encourage something beyond all-combat-all-the-time then it helps to incentivize those other things.

Putting the XP into something monsters have, rather than something monsters are, lets your players decide on how to recover it. Pulling the xp into the monsters themselves removes that choice and assumes combat is the primary, if not only, solution.

Now this isn't going to work for every game, but it does work for the default style of play for a lot of D&D type games. It worked years ago and there's no reason it can't work now. I don't expect a sudden rush back to this exact approach but it does highlight that awarding XP differently does encourage different behavior. Even as subtle a change as shifting from monster kills to gold recovery makes a notable difference. I'm hoping we will see as much thought put into "what" earns XP as we see put into the numbers associated with XP, encounters, and levels.