Thursday, August 7, 2014

Experience Points - Yeah, I am going there

  The release of 5e has also released the discussion of experience points, leveling, classes, etc. You know, the only things we talk about more than alignment.
  BTW, the nine alignment system is great.
  But the discussion is seemingly focused on experience points. More specifically that in 5e you go through low levels fast. My published comment on this on my first read-through was,
  "You either FLY through low levels or crawl through higher levels"
  And it seems I wasn't alone.
  I think one of the interesting arguments about the level progression is that the designers of 5e wanted to give players time to make it to high level. Yeah, I'll bet that people getting to high levels is much more common with these rules! I suspect that designers and such as well as a lot of bloggers think most people don't get past about 10th level because of time constraints.
  Of course, I disagree. I think the fact is most people prefer to play low- to mid- level PCs and those that don't can just hand out experience and play Forgotten Realms-style.

  But also lurking about out there is the age-old 'hey, I kinda' get experience points for killing foes, but why do we get experience points for money and magic items, anyway? What about X.P. for skills, and being clever, and those sorts of things?'
  The answer is - plenty of game do! Rolemaster springs to mind as a system where all sorts of things associated with skills can earn you experience points. Since you can take the various elements of Rolemaster (Arms Law, Spell Law, etc.) and 'plug them into' AD&D why don't you just do that?
  [Note: then you'll be playing Rolemaster, not AD&D]

  Let's spend a minute talking about alternate experience points systems or, more precisely, one alternate system in particular and how it affected campaign and play.
 
  For a number of years I have used an alternate experience point system for my AD&D 2e S&P campaign that is based upon one used by Lew Pulsipher. The mechanics of it are, well, Byzantine;
  First, determine the average level of the party. Multi-class and dual-class characters add 1/2 the value of their secondary classes (.5 rounds down) together.
      Example: The party consists of: Jerczy (7th level fighter), Annirara (6th/5th fighter/magic-user), Urisone (8th level thief), Brother Reynaud (7th level cleric), Lorlimar (7th level magic-user), and Omac the Ready (5th/5th/6th fighter/magic-user/thief). The average level of the party is [(7+8+8+7+7+10)/6=7.8, round to 8] 8th level (Annirara counts as 7th level and Omac counts as 10th).
  Then you determine which individual class present in the party requires the most experience points to advance from the party's average level to the next level.
      Example: In this case the classes in the party are cleric, fighter, magic-user, and thief. The party's average level is 8th meaning the amount of experience needed is;
  Cleric: 30,000 XP
  Fighter:125,000 XP
  Magic-user: 45,000 XP
  Thief: 50,000 XP
  The fighter requires the most experience to advance from 8th to 9th level so the 'XP Target' is 125,000.
  Now we get to the really fun part! I determined that advancing from one level to the next should take the square of the average level of the party with a minimum of 4 adventures and a maximum of 50. Why? we will get to that later! So in this case;
      Example: The party has an average level of 8, the square of which is 64. This means that it should take the average party of 8th level an average of 64 adventures to progress to 9th level. I call this number the 'Base Progress Number'.
  Now that we have that we simply divide the XP Target by the Base Progress Number
    (125,000/64)
  This gives us what I call the 'Base XP Award' - in this particular example, that number is 1,953.
  Then I determine my (admittedly subjective) evaluation of both the difficulty of the adventure and the performance of the team as a whole. The adventures are rated from Very Difficult ( I expect the party to need to retreat and recuperate at least twice to overcome this threat) to Very Easy (they might barely notice that it was a serious threat) and the group performance is rated from Excellent (innovative use of resources, great planning, top-notch roleplaying) to terrible (missed obvious clues, blundered into ambush after ambush, played out of character, etc.).
They both have a number rating:
  Adventure Difficulty    Group Performance
  Very Difficult: = 1.5       Excellent = 1.5
  Difficult = 1.2                Good = 1.2
  Average = 1                  Average = 1
  Easy = .8                       Bad = .8
  Very Easy = .5              Terrible = .5
  At the end of the adventure I multiply the Adventure Difficulty by the Group Performance to get the Award Modifier.

  [brief aside - yes, I really do all this after each adventure]

  Let's say the party faced a Difficult adventure (a large number of foes, for example) but they were clever and had a cool plan so they pulled it off without needing to regroup, doing Good. That is
  (1.2 x 1.2 = 1.44)
  So the Award Modifier is 1.44.
  Almost done!
  Now we take the Base XP Award and multiply it by the Award Modifier to get the XP Award;
  (1,953 x 1.44 = 2,812)
  So each character receives 2,812 XP for the adventure!

  Does that seem complicated to you? Let's just say I have very clear memories of spending 4 hours on a Sunday adding up each and every monster in the Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl that had been killed by the party , every copper of treasure they had hauled off, and all of the magic items pulled out or used and calculating the xp all by hand because my parents' calculator was broken. "Just doing some math" sounded like a great idea!

  But there was a serious problem. When my 2e party reached about 5th level the players were disgruntled - eventually this led to them confronting me over the paucity of treasure and (especially) magic items in the campaign. Sure, they all had great NPC contacts! yes, they had wonderful roleplaying opportunities! The magic items they did have were unique, interesting, and woven into the tapestry of the campaign, absolutely! But they still very few magic items and were on the edge of penury.The player of the mage told me he had wanted a henchman for 3 levels but couldn't afford one!

  This confrontation led me to realize that I had been neglecting to put what the players wanted into the campaign. Yes, the adventuring was fun; yes, the NPCs were fun; yes, the roleplaying was fun.
  But heroes get rewards! The players did not feel that they were getting to enjoy the spoils of success.

  But what does this mean? I mean, what are experience points really for and about? Yes, I know we like to talk about experience reflecting some sort of learning and development by the player characters. Sure. Fine. That concept is baked into the name we use (experience points) for the idea.
  But that is merely a justification.
  In my opinion experience points serve a three-fold purpose:
  One, they are a key element in motivating players to actually play
  Two, they are a key element in rewarding players who actually play
  Three, they are a key element in controlling the tone and pace of play.
  Let me explain what I mean.

  Motivating players: Yes, there are plenty of players who like to play RPGs for all sorts of reasons. But have you ever played a game you can't win? How about a game where nothing interesting happens? We tend not to play them too long, do we? Even in "pure" storytelling games imagine a game where NPCs never change or develop and the changes and development in your PCs have no effect on the campaign - not very satisfying. All RPGs have in them, somewhere, a reflection of the desire of the players to change, grow, and progress via their characters. Some players want to progress mainly through a character narrative, others through the accumulation of (in game) power or wealth, others through skill development, etc.
  But within the paradigm of D&D and related games the primary method of character advancement is via experience points. This is one of the reasons the three pillars of Gary's experience points are beating monsters, looting vaults, and getting magic items - these reflect defeating evil, getting rich, and acquiring cool stuff. While that certainly is every motive behind players, it sure does cover most of them! This also means that the primary method of motivating players is also through experience points.

  Rewarding Players: I started covering this, above. Since character advancement is the ultimate goal of RPGs getting to advance is the primary reward of RPGs. Now, for one player it might be gaining an artifact, for another establishing a stronghold, for a third overthrowing the demon overlord that enslaved his realm, in the end the mechanic within the game the reflects this in anything approaching a concrete way is experience points.

  Controlling Tone and Pace: As I have mentioned many times before, I believe the 'most fun' range of levels for AD&D 1e and 2e is 3rd to 7th; with the custom experience point system I detailed in excruciating detail above it will take a party an average of 8 adventures to get to 3rd level then 9 more just to get to 4th, 16 more to get to 5th, etc. All told it should take an average party doing average in average adventures 135 adventures to go from beginning at 3rd level to making 8th level. My 2e campaign met about 48 times a year so it took us about 3 years of heavy play to go from level 1 to level 8.
  This obviously reflects my desired pace! I am able to tightly control the pace of level advancement while literally not caring what the official XP value of any monster is other than to eyeball if it is too weak or too powerful for the party.
  The great thing, too, is let's say suddenly the group could only meet every other month, 6 times a year. Do I really want it to take us more than 23 years to get from 'wet behind the ears' to 'I can almost establish a stronghold'? Well, I could easily cut the Base Progress Number in half (or more) and radically speed up level advancement. By increasing the difficulty of adventures the party cold also get better modifiers, also accelerating advancement.

  But there was a serious problem with that experience point system as I ran it, wasn't there? In the end the cost of me radically changing the method of advancing meant that the players were not happy. AD&D is based upon certain assumptions and some of those are that a fair amount of money and magic items pour through the hands of player characters. The players had trouble getting their characters to 'fit' into those assumptions when I wasn't allowing for them.
  But another, more serious, problem was more hidden. It is that in the end character advancement was based solely upon my personal opinion of how fast they should advance. I determined the 'adventure difficulty'; I determined the performance level. If the party killed 20 more kobolds this time than last but I thought they weren't very clever about it? No change in experience points between the two adventures! The party killed 20 less kobolds the time after that but I thought the plan was really clever? No change in experience points between the three adventures!
  My players are clever; they knew, at lest unconsciously, that I was more in charge of their characters' advancement than they were.
  Remember how important character advancement is to players? Well, not having that advancement taken w\away from them is pretty important.

  The same players from my 2 e campaign are in my 1e campaign. In 1e I use the original XP methods from the DMG. The party is much happier with advancement in that system. They can't articulate why, but I know it is because the rewards are for defeating foes and accumulating wealth and for gaining wondrous items and because now experience point awards are impartial and consistent.

  Yes, it is very easy to modify experience point awards and system. It always has been! Just please, keep in mind the impact it is going to have on your game.