Wednesday, June 24, 2020

XP for GP and Retro-Gaming: What are the Alternatives?


In three recent "theory" posts, I've been describing retro-game (OSR) play style. At several points, I've emphasized how the 1 XP per 1 GP rule sustains the pleasures of retro-gaming play. But the truth is that the rule limits and directs play in various ways we might want to avoid, and suffers from problems when it's lifted from the original context for which it was fashioned. So I think it's worth our time to understand as clearly as possible what it does for retro-gaming play, so that we can see what alternatives there are that might do the same work. In other words, I want to understand the role of 1 XP per 1 GP in order to think about what alternatives to that rule that might enable and sustain retro-gaming play.

Here are some positive things 1 XP per 1 GP does in retro-games. First of all, it sets an objective success condition, thus enabling the pleasure of overcoming challenges. You succeed if you get a big treasure haul out of the dungeon; you fail if you come up empty handed. While players will pursue many other goals in open world gaming, setting their own additional success conditions, this dimension of objective success and failure is crucial for maintaining the pleasures of overcoming challenges. It gives you success as something that is not settled by DM fiat ("milestones" or "good play" rewards), or negotiated between players and DMs, allows the DM to occupy the role of a neutral referee or judge. The world is set up, the challenges are placed, and the players do what they want, with the DM refereeing the consequences of their actions.

Another reason 1 XP per GP works is that it incentivizes exploration and discovery, thus enabling the pleasures of exploration. Treasure is placed in the forgotten corners of the world, or in the ruins of the great Empire that Was, in the cracked ancient domes of the serpent people, etc. By placing the lure of wealth (and so success) in the places that must be explored and understood in order to overcome the relevant challenges, you regularly entice the players to break new ground, and uncover the mysteries of the setting as a condition for success.

It also de-emphasizes combat as the sole or main way to gain experience. Instead of telling you to always rely on your sword arm, it encourages out-of-the-box thinking, and opens up the possibilities of faction-based play. You do not need mindless monsters to slay for "grinding experience", but can rather have most "monsters" attached in one way or another to factions with their own goals and complexities. It leads to a more creative and tactical, less reductive style of play (in this respect), lending itself better to the pleasure of emergent stories and open-world play.

Here's a point I owe to conversations with Nick Kunzt. Something that I haven't emphasized previously, but that is implicit in the system of downtime activities I've been developing. In his account of money, Marx emphasizes that money is the universal commodity. It is like the philosopher's stone in allowing one to transmute any object (that one sells) into any other object (that one buys). His droll example involves the religious farmer who grows wheat, and sells it, in order to buy a bible...from a bible salesman who uses the farmer's money to buy whiskey and print atheist tracts.

Of course, there are some things money can't buy, like love and solidarity, but it buys an awful lot: a wild night on the town, orphanages, arms for a peasant's revolution, books, a wizard's tower, improvements to an inn, a really special sword, etc. The point is that by tying advancement to the possession of a universal commodity that player characters can spend to pursue their own idiosyncratic goals, it encourages interaction of player characters with the setting from the start. They are encouraged to build something so to speak, and to leave their mark on the world one way or another. Again, this kind of dynamic investment in the setting is one of the great pleasures of open-world, sandbox gaming.

Some Problems and Limitation with XP for $$$


What follows are my thoughts about some problems and limitations with this rule. I want to emphasize that I myself am currently using the rule, and have done so for the last 4 years of play. I'm not trying to talk anyone out of using it. But here are some ways that I have found it to be problematic or limiting.


The Rule Valorizes Bad Values


Something that people worry about with this rule is that it involves bad values and politics. For example, that it valorizes capitalistic greed and colonial plundering. This sentiment is frequently expressed on gaming twitter. I think there's something to this worry, although not as much as people think. There's so much to say about this that I'll only be able to scratch the surface.

First, a clarification. This worry does not depend on the thought that playing D&D causes us to have the relevant values as people sometimes claim that children who play violent video games are more likely to grow up to be violent adults. (These are claims that could be investigated with social science to test for the causal links.) Instead the worry is that this rule in retro-gaming invites us to express a certain value, to casually treating something bad as if it were good to do, so that we can have fun doing it. Such an expressive attitude is insulting to the people who actually suffered these things (exploitation and colonization) and would appear to endorse, even if only in imaginative play, the thought that what they underwent was not really an injustice, or one not worth taking seriously.

Let's start with capitalist greed. One problem with this objection, when it's stated nakedly, is that one can play at things without valorizing them. One can enjoy playing diplomacy, while opposing imperialism, militarism, and great power politics, or monopoly with little sympathy or affection for real-estate moguls. Those games do not involve much imaginative investment, but even where we are more richly invested in imaginative play, being earnest is not the only mode of play available. I often play retro-games with groups that are largely composed of socialists, anarchists, and leftists of various stripes. We often enjoy playing sometimes self-serving individuals who enrich themselves by extracting treasure from dungeons while engaging in a Vancian comedy of manners with a wide range of factions, including friends, enemies, and best of all, frenemies. Our games are not unified in this aesthetic, because we're not emulating a genre (that's not how retro-games work), but it's definitely part of what's going on. In other words, we enjoy a certain swath of the game because it is pleasing satire of self-advancement or competitive greed. It's true that it's enjoyable in a sort of touch-in-cheek satirical mode only because we are drawing on our real world experience of things that aren't great. But that's what satire is for.

Another problem is that players characters in games with 1 XP per GP are often not very greedy when they get ahold of treasure, at least in the sense of looking to accumulate wealth. First off, in my experience player characters often end up throwing their lot in with oppressed underdogs in the setting, and end up spending their wealth to help people or pursue spiritual or political goals. It helps that the rule is not that you get experience points through returns on business investments (normally, money you get without adventuring doesn't count), and often there is an emphasis on spending down any wealth you get (often you only get XP if you spend the gold). So it's definitely not about setting up enterprises to efficiently exploit workers, or even about becoming rich. The worry that it's a game about capitalism, or even greed in the sense of ambition for material advantage, status, and luxury, doesn't fit very well with my experience of play since I started using the 1 XP per GP rule. I'm not saying you can't go there with this rule, obviously you could, I'm just saying that it's easy not to go there if you don't want to.

A bigger worry, I think, is about colonialism. "Plunder" and "exploration" and "taming" of already inhabited "wilderness" certainly is a big part of the heritage of D&D. When extracting loot is used to motivate exploration of lands already inhabited by intelligent beings this seems to be an issue. But there are ways of handling XP for GP that do not valorize colonialism, either in the mode of "exploration" or "settlement", or in the mode of "resource extraction". One way this gets handled in a lot of retro-gaming settings is to place the exploration and looting of cultural sites in a post-apocalyptic space. What one loots are the splendors of the ancients, past great empires, and the like. In a certain sense, this is counter-colonial, since the ancients were more likely to be the colonizers or the imperial forces, and one lives in a destitute present of the post-colonized. Similarly, geographical exploration is not about spreading the reach of some supposedly superior civilization as in settler colonialism, but rather about uncovering eldritch sorceries and ancient ruins of (more) advanced civilizations under a dying sun. So one is looting, yes, and plundering cultural artifacts, certainly, and exploring geography that may already be inhabited, most definitely, but it really matters who is getting plundered by whom, and who is doing all that exploring in the service of what projects. Colonialism is not just any kind of exploration or plundering.

Now this point is a little bit delicate, because there is a nugget of truth to the idea that people who were raised in colonizing or settler colonial nations can only get so far from real world horrors when drawing imaginaries shaped by this historical milieu. I can recognize that the politics of Raiders of the Lost Ark were atrocious (not fighting Nazis, that was great), and I can make sure that my D&D game is not about stealing golden idols from savage "natives" to return to safekeeping in the setting's version of the Oriental Institute or to private collectors. But that childhood experience of watching Indie switch the bag of sand for the golden idol are certainly part of the subterranean fuel that feeds my dungeon imagination. Similarly, when Luka Rejec writes in Ultraviolet Grasslands, my current favorite retro-gaming product, that one of the main influence was playing the Oregon Trail video game, it's pretty clear that he's drawing from an imaginary that is shaped by the exploration of inhabited lands by settler colonialists. But if you read UVG, although you are certainly encouraged to "go west young man" by the long map that begins with your home base in the East, the resemblance stops there. You start in a city that is controlled by cats with human pets, and travel across post-apocalyptic trackless wastes to places ruled by technologically superior AIs with multiple porcelain bodies. The psychedelic acid metal vibe really has little to do with the aesthetics or value system of The Last of the Mohicans, much less Gunga Din. In short, UVG draws on cultural sources (e.g. the Oregon Trail video game) that are part of the historical inheritance of settler colonialism, but it does so in sophisticated and highly mediated ways that do not reproduce or valorize colonialist value systems.

I can live with that. But I get it if you think the mere resonance with cultural inheritances shaped by colonial tropes is too much, even if it is handled well and doesn't involve literal colonialism in the game. In that case, I can see a reason to decouple acquiring loot and exploration, and so a reason to ditch the XP for GP rule.

But there is still a part of me that wants to reply to this objection that perhaps rather than having white people in settler-colonial societies try to excise every cultural reference to an ever-present colonial past from the imaginative influences on their games, a better solution would be to broaden the pool of people imagining retro-gaming settings to include the contributions of creators in formerly colonized nations of the global south. Can I take a moment to emphasize just how great Zedeck Siew and Mun Kao's Thousand Thousand Isles setting is?

Art by Mun Kao!!!

The Rule Produces Predictable and Limiting Genre Effects 


But this brings us to a second problem. One limitation of the rule is that it steers the game towards producing stories that fit certain genres, and steers the game away from stories that fit certain other genres. For example, it steers the game towards Vancian satirical picaresque, or pulp swords and sorcery, or towards gritty tales, and decidedly away from high fantasy like Lord of the Rings or coming of age tales like A Wizard of Earthsea or Chronicles of Prydain, or a million other genres. Now retro-gaming is not about reproducing a genre experience, so you might think this isn't a problem. But without treating genre emulation as the goal, we can still recognize that there are predictable effects of operating with a certain systems of rewards. Since we take pleasure in the stories that emerge spontaneously from play, we are not indifferent to the flavor of those stories.

It's awkward to run a game with a high fantasy vibe with this as the main rule for advancement, and it would also be a strange fit for a game with a romantic vibe that was about developing relationships. If you are happy with Vancian picaresque or Lieber-style pulp fantasy, then the rule works fine. But if you want a game that has less shady characters who are on the make, then this rule is pretty constraining. What we incentivize matters for the flavor of the stories that results, even when play doesn't consist of trying to tell a story that fits a certain genre. 1 XP per 1 GP can flavor the stories that emerge from open-world play. When this taste grows stale, we might want to prepare the ground for stories with a different flavor.


The Rule Doesn't Work Over the Arc of a Campaign


Currently, my biggest gripe with this rule is that it doesn't really work over the arc of a campaign in a sandbox setting. My eyes were really opened to this fact by playing in Nick Kuntz's megadungeon game during the quarantine. The original games of D&D, for which the experience system was developed, were megadungeons, where all play centered on exploring a vast mythic underworld location, for example, Gary Gygax's legendary Castle Greyhawk. Nick has been running a wonderful game like that set around a mysterious underground area called the Complex. Nick is using B/X with modern retro-gaming tools and sensibilities. It is immediately apparent to me that the advancement system of XP for GP will work perfectly throughout the entire arc of this campaign, focused as it is on dungeon delving for treasure in what is an epic dungeon that can sustain a whole campaign.

But in an open-world sandbox, where things are not tethered to a single dungeon location, I have found that the rule tends to fade in significance around 5th level, when the players become really invested in the setting. At first they adventure for gold, lured by their initial destitution and powerlessness to the treasures placed throughout the sandbox. But then, as they come in to their own, develop connections to NPCs and factions, and have travelled extensively and have affected the world through their actions, they no longer choose where to go or what to do based on how much treasure they are likely to get.  And that's a good thing, since it shows that they have become really invested in the setting and world, and are doing just exactly what as a DM I hope players will end up doing.

I find that, as a DM, when confronted with this, I start to place treasure where the players are likely to go, rather than luring them to go certain places by placing treasure. Since they're becoming heroes and risking more dangerous things, I have a pretext to put richer (sometimes absurdly rich) treasure there that keeps them advancing to higher levels with their exorbitant XP requirements. But it feels, on my end, like a charade, since the campaign has evolved beyond a point where gold is actually motivating their choices. To be clear, they still do things to overcome challenges--but the challenges are not mainly overcome in order to acquire treasure.

There's nothing terrible about this, but it does seem like a failure of game design, insofar as the core mechanic of advancement works the way it is designed only at low levels. One would like an advancement mechanic that either shifted gears along with the phases of the campaign, or worked uniformly throughout the arc of a campaign.

Alternatives to XP for GP


To recap, XP for GP does a lot for retro-gaming play: it sets objective success conditions, motivates exploration, encourages tactical play rather than combat, and ties advancement to the ability to effect the campaign world in player-driven ways. But it also comes with a set of limitations, possibly encouraging self-seeking PCs, flirting with colonialist imaginaries, skewing the sorts of stories that emerge from play towards the gritty, picaresque, or pulp, and functioning unevenly over the course of a campaign. In light of these problems, it's worth looking at some alternatives. What we want are incentives to adventuring that do the same or similar work for enabling retro-gaming play, while increasing our options and avoiding some of these problems.

Having read a fair bit of contemporary retro-gaming materials, as well as early hobby games, I can think of four alternate approaches. These approaches are not exclusive and can be combined with one another, or even with the XP for GP rule.

Luka Rejec from Ultraviolet Grasslands

Directly Award Experience Points for Retro-Game Activities


Perhaps the simplest alternative is to simply award experience points directly for engaging in retro-game activities. For this to preserve the challenge oriented nature of the game and the neutral role of the DM as referee, it's important that this not take the form of the DM (or other players) "rewarding" good retro-game play by doling out experience awards, but rather takes the form of getting experience points for achieving objective success conditions that are known in advance. 

A classic approach in a hexcrawl is to award a set amount of experience for exploring a new hex, with another set amount for uncovering a new adventure site. I use this in my dreamlands games for the exploration of the White Jungle, awarding 50 XP to each player for each new hex uncovered. (This is a large amount of XP for mere exploration, but the White Jungle is deadly.) You can also award known amounts of XP for visiting certain amazing locations or being the first to find them, as Jeff Reints discussed brilliantly in this post

This will work best if the players know about rewards for finding and visiting these legendary places of adventure. If you're interested in awrding XP directly for exploration, probably the sleekest and most developed version can be found in Luka Rejec's Ultraviolet Grasslands, which is about long distance travel on a pointcrawl rather than a hexcrawl. UVG gives XP for how far the PCs travel on the westward pointcrawl, as well as for discovering locations, identifying and studying new flora and fauna, investigating (and perhaps triggering) anomalies, and surveying and mapping interesting sites. One can also directly reward other retro-game activites, such as faction-based play. Humza Kazmi has discussed on twitter and elsewhere the idea of rewarding XP for improving the reaction roll modifier that different factions have towards the PCs or the PCs settlement. While I haven't seen a system like this worked out in any detail, it's not hard to imagine how it could work well in fostering socially oriented faction-based play in an open world sandbox. I look forward to seeing it developed.


Use Sandbox Advancement


Another approach is to tie character advancement directly to visiting certain locations in the sandbox without the medium of experience points. For example, in Geoffrey McKinney's Carcosa there are two classes, warrior and sorcerer. Sorcerers are warriors who can also learn to cast rituals. The way sorcerers do this is by finding and visiting secret locations on the map, for example, where they can read the markings on the ancient red obelisk or listen to the whispers of the blind oracle and learn such and such an eldritch ritual. Similarly, certain rituals can be cast only in certain locations, or depend on components that are found only in one place on the map. This brilliantly tied magic directly to sandbox exploration by (literally) putting spells on the map.

Traveller has an element like this as well. In the original 3 little black books, there's a whole part of the game that has to do with acquiring psychic powers. No one can start with psychic powers. The only way to find out if a player character has psychic potential and the only way to unlock that potential is by locating and visiting the Institute. But to protect itself from persecution, the Institute is hidden on some backwater in the vast reaches of space. The book introduce a whole minigame for tracking it down over the course of a campaign via whispers and rumors. 

This is even there in D&D in vestigial form from the beginning, in that one of the class powers of fighters in OD&D is that they are the only class able to use magical swords. So finding one of the magic swords placed in the sandbox is necessary to unlock one of the main powers of fighters. Similarly in Electric Bastionland, advancement is largely by finding oddities, old tech, scattered about the sandbox.

This is a nifty way of motiving exploration, since it ties character advancement directly to exploration and interacting with the game world, without the use of an abstract currency like experience or treasure, and so without the general need to acquire piles of loot. Furthermore, it does so by setting up objective success conditions: find the Institute, learn the delirious incantation to summon the dreaded blue maw from beyond space and time, unearth a Glamdring or Sting from a mouldering barrow.  



Start the PCs in Debt


Another alternative is to keep money as the incentive for adventuring, but use an alternate frame introduced originally by Traveller (1977). In classic traveller, the default assumption is that you start off with an old spaceship that you bought with a massive loan from the bank. Fuel and repairs are expensive, and interest payments are due every month. If you can't pay, the bank takes your ship. You're motivated to take shady jobs to keep the jalopy running and pay off the rapacious bankers nipping at your heel . Chris McDowell's recent Electric Bastionland, another triumph of retro-game design, uses this collective debt frame as well. McDowell also adds a mechanic that increases your debt when players die, adding another incentive to avoid character death.

This is an interesting mechanic in that it leaves treasure as the incentive, but decouples it from mechanical character advancement. In Traveller and Electric Bastionland, there are no systems for mechanically improving your adventurer, although to a certain extent character advancement is replaced by ship advancement in Traveller, since more money means that you can make improvements on your ship. In Electric Bastionland too, character improvement is almost solely about what gear you have. But you could couple the debt frame with another system of character advancement. The point is that with the debt frame you are still incentivized to explore and adventure, and in doing so you still get a universal commodity that allows you to interact with the setting in multiform ways.

One advantage of this approach is that it builds in a sunset to wealth acquisition as a mechanic, and so overcomes the problem about the uneven functioning of this rule over the arc of a campaign. In the early stages, you're trying to get out from under a crushing debt. You reach a real transition point when you've paid of your loan and the ship is finally yours. By that point, you're invested enough in the setting to be a self-starter when it comes to adventuring and exploration.

Another advantage of this approach is that it puts you in the business of getting treasure by starting you off in the situation of someone who is oppressed by the system, in a kind of debt-bondage to a patron or the lords of finance. This puts a different political spin on scoring treasure, so it also deals with the "values" problem in a different way.

Art by the unforgettable Miles Teves.

Replace Getting Gold with Achieving a Desirable Social Status


Similar to the debt frame, but without the use of money, is a set of motives for adventuring and exploration that involve achieving some desirable social status. For example, in Skyrealms of Jorune, one begins as a tauther, a subject of the realm who is undergoing the period of challenge and service to become a citizen (drenn). One becomes a drenn by getting other important drenn (NPCs) to vouch for one, by marking one's chalisk (disk) or making the pilgrimage to the capital to testify on one's behalf. In short, one adventures in order to build relationships with NPCs and factions so that they will help one become a citizen. Again, getting NPCs to vouch for you is an objective success condition tallied by the literal number of marks on your chalisk. And like the debt frame, it has a sunset condition built in. Once one has enough marks to become a drenn, this reason for adventuring no longer applies. But by then the PCs will be neck deep in the setting with plenty of goals of their own.

Similarly, in the original Empire of the Petal Throne, one begins as a foreigner, fresh off the boat in the foreigner's quarter. One works over time to be accepted socially in Tsolyani society, perhaps becoming a citizen and being accepted into a clan. While less clear cut and mechanically codified than in Skyrealms of Jorune, this kind of  play that involves advancing by developing social relationships is at the heart of gaming in Tekumel. It's probably the single main thing that sets Empire of the Petal Throne apart from D&D in its various incarnations.

As you can probably tell, these approaches are not unlike the idea that Humza floated of using experience point rewards for improving social relations, but they do it by attaching the award to a desirable in game social status rather than through the medium of an abstract currency. This is more immersive and less gamified approach, but requires a setting of a very particular kind to work.

So What are Your Ideas?


I'd love to learn about more approaches, so please don't hesitate to drop your ideas in the comments.  Remember that we want are incentives to adventuring that help to sustain the distinctive pleasures of retro-gaming in exploration and discovery, in emergent stories and open worlds, and in overcoming challenges. So mechanics that award PCs for just showing up, or for meeting preset story goals, or for instructive failure, or for having used a skill in game, or for acting the part of their character according to genre expectations, are not the kind of thing we're looking for. Not that those things are bad, they just don't work to sustain retro-game play style. What are your ideas?

Addendum (8/20/2020)


DIY and Dragons just did an amazing post discussing a bunch more ways of rewarding exploration, travel, discovery of secrets and the like. See especially her discussion of Neo-Classical Greek Revival's method for rewarding a higher experience point value for each room (or hex) into which you push before returning to the surface, Dwimmermount's awards for uncovering secrets of the megadungeon, and Ryuutama's travel-based system of XP. A lot to digest here that supplements nicely some of the systems I noted  above. 

45 comments:

  1. John's Into the Depths has my favorite XP system - rewards a wide variety of things (almost everything that has been mentioned thus far - fighting, gold, social status, hexploration, other good stuff), very little bookkeeping (just check the box), customizable (change the list depending on the campaign, which is what I did for my Curse of Strahd run.)

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    1. I look forward to checking that out! That sounds promising.

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    2. Ok, I read the rules--I didn't realize it was only a four page document. One thing about it that's interesting is that it only credits big scores. You don't get any experience for getting treasure, but you gain 1/2 a level for recovering a priceless artifact. This would certainly make for a different style of play, and I would love to hear about how it's worked out.

      Another thing I find interesting is an experience point award for building something lasting in the setting. It's a neat idea. But in my experience, you don't need to incentivize this directly, since by the time the players can do it, they're so into it. (Far from something you have to incentivize, my own system of downtime activities treats the ability to do that as a REWARD in a certain sense.)

      One thing that I have more complicated feelings about in this system is that it incentivizes heroic goals, like saving a town or defeating a villain. While it's an objective success condition, it skews things a certain way, and suggests a world where it is presumed that the heroes will struggle against evil in the protection of other people. The world is a little less open in that way, and I guess I prefer play that is less about heroes and villains and more about jostling factions.

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  2. Milestones can work nicely around that 5th level arc, or if/when the players start pursuing goals that aren't 'loot this place', when the milestones are decided by the players, and the GM assigns them an XP value, or just gives them a level up when they complete it.

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    1. As introduced in 5E Milestones are awarded for "plot progress" on a pre-written campaign arc. Obviously that won't work with open-world sandbox play, and I know it's not what you're suggesting. But the version you suggest involves negotiating for XP by setting goals that the DM then attaches a price-tag to their completion. But what is the price-tag based on? Difficulty? But many difficult things are not good game material. So perhaps things that are hard and sound like fun adventuring material to accomplish? Perhaps things that constitute "meaningful progress" or "real achievements"? But progress towards what? My point is not that you couldn't develop answers to those questions, my point is that this kind of negotiated goals, with some kind of arbitrary price tag attached by DM evaluation of their merits moves play away from the paradigm of objective success conditions in an open sand-box, and a neutral referee, towards a more cooperative paradigm where the DM expresses a say over what players do, which I find at some tension with the pleasures of retro-game play. It also threatens to lock the players in to a pre-set list of goals. Or, if the goals can constantly change, then it becomes arbitrary in ways that would detract from the fun I would like to chase. Basically, what i want to get away from above all, is a thing where the DM says, "This conforms with my (arbitrary and unarticulated) sense of success to X degree".

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  3. I've been toying with the idea of driving character advancement off of winning the trust of NPCs. That gives a diagetic justification for higher-level characters commanding the loyalty of larger and larger bodies of followers, which leads in to the classic late-game of becoming a feudal lord or similar.

    If that's not the direction you want to push the game in, I think there are other ways that you could go with a public image approach to advancement. You could even tie gold into this, with a mechanic for winning the trust of others by spending GP on carousing or philanthropy.

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    1. Oh I have a whole set of systems for handling building ties with people, shaping institutions , and so on in my downtime activities! (search the blog for that phrase and you'll find my take.) As for the winning of trust of NPCs, it could go in different directions depending on how you were thinking about it. Humza was thinking about building trust and friendly relations with factions. It sounds like you're imagining something a little different: gaining influence, i.e. becoming a leader. I think both of these would produce a game with a very particular focus. But they're definitely interesting and I'd love to see them developed.

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  4. Good overview of possibilities.
    I'm not so much a fan of D&D's 'levels' and XP. Something like Traveller or Jorune, with advancement measured by in-setting reputation/connections/social standing, is much more my taste.
    I do like the 'cults' in Mythras as guilds/factions a PC can join and advance in. Advancement usually includes increasing commitment to cult interests and some amount of monetary contribution.

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    1. About tying advancement to increase in character abilities, I think it's largely a matter of preference. There is a lot of fun to be had (obviously) in seeing our character develop new skills and abilities over time, although it certainly won't fit with all games. The thing is that when you dispense with it, in order to maintain objective success conditions, you need to replace it with something else, e.g. Traveller's debt frame, or Jorune's becoming a citizen. I agree that the "social advancement" angle is interesting, and mystery cults, etc. are a fun version.

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  5. One technique I cooked up for my "Heresies Without Number" (Dark Heresy using the SWN rules) game that is still sadly little playtested is the idea of reputation as treasure.

    So, you're a band of acolytes for an inquisitor, and there are various factions you have to deal with, and you find various things that are valuable either because they give information or are useful. These things are valuable to different groups in different amounts - a piece of archeotech might be hugely valuable to a tech priest, pretty valuable to a rogue trader, and not so valuable to a fanatical preacher.

    Depending on who you give the treasure to, you up your reputation with them. I worked out an "acquisition" system where you don't actually buy anything, instead you ask other factions for them, and your reputation and the size of the ask determines whether you get it. I don't think I had linked "Reputation Treasure" to XP, but maybe I should have.

    Here's what I see that works well: it encourages faction play and finding out what these groups want, it supports the flavor of being players within a web of powerful groups rather than independent treasure seekers, but it still gives something valuable that's fairly holographic (you got the archeotech and the saint's relic, but not the xenos sample, so partial success).

    And as for what might not work so great: the value of the reputation items isn't necessarily known ahead of time, the game master might (sub)consciously skew the value toward the groups they want the group to work on/with, and it's a way of quantifying something that's might be awkward.

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    1. I like this a lot, but for a very particular flavor of game. (Blades in the Dark has an element that is like this, where your reputation goes up and down with the rival gangs.) Generally, anything that motivates faction play in a sandbox setting is fun, and the idea of "faction treasure" with benefits that accrue from good relations (like access to gear, services, location, etc.) is neat.

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  6. We never awarded xp for gp in our games back in the day. I think the general consensus was it felt like double-dipping - that the gold itself was it's own reward.

    That said I allowed players in my game to be able to buy xp with gold, either directly through training (if you can find an instructor of suitable proficiency), the purchase of class-related supplementary materials (such as the magic user's library and laboratory [which were measured by their gp value] or even troops for a fighting man), certain acts of philanthropy (such as bribing the local bishop for clerical preferment and promotion), and basically increasing the character's glory and renown (such as conspicuous consumption). [Turns out there was a reason for all those statues in the Wilderlands of High Fantasy, after all.]

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    1. I love what the feeling about double-dipping implies about your game: that the players had so many things going that just being able to get the funds to do them was the reward. But to be clear, were you giving experience points for fighting monsters?

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  7. In Mothership (sci-fi horror, retrogaming adjacent), the primary XP condition is surviving a session. That says a lot about what kind of game it is right there, I think. The GM ("Warden") is encouraged to provide a list of goals that will award smaller amounts XP (killing a significant enemy, being the first to set foot on a new planet, investigate a distress signal, save another crewmember's life, etc.)

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    1. I agree. Nothing says survival horror like: the objective success condition is not dying.

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  8. I quite like the analysis, and the follow on comments, but I do have a quibble about Traveller. It does in fact have an experience system (see p103, Experience, in the Traveller Book 1982), and I never got the impression that the default set up was being a ruinously in debt trader, either. I’ve never played one or run a campaign based on that since I started playing Traveller in 1980-ish. That aside, money and knowledge and survival and enjoyable adventures were their own rewards.

    All the people I started playing traveller with also played AD&D 1e, and Runequest, so we had quite different ways of progressing within those environments. Our favourite game for a long time was Flashing Blades (1984), and progression in that was rather like RQ: you gained skills, you could improve your stats, you got money/better gear & armour, and perhaps most importantly: status, and the power in game that came with that rank. Of course you also got responsibilities with that rank, and in game shirking or performing badly had consequences, generally more enjoyably so than real life. Even though the mechanisms differed between the games, it was a pretty similar end result in the way we played. Probably each game influenced the other more than we realised, via the behaviour of the players, whatever the mechanics. So it is interesting to compare these old school games with such different approaches.

    I’m not familiar with 5e - I am 5 sessions in to my first ever game of it - so I don’t know its take on milestones. However, I rather like Into the Odd’s simple milestones: surviving ‘x’ adventures levels you up, but then but then you have to survive AND add in having an apprentice, then you have to get that apprentice levelled up. I like that. The only other time I really saw that happening was in some of the early D&D when henchmen etc were improved to allow a pool of experienced characters to be available if a main PC died, and more often in Runequest 2 where, as a character in Glorantha, your PC would tend to start raising up apprentices, so Rune Lords and Rune Priests had a few followers to support them on their travels and again, provide replacements in the event of a main PC death. I like the way ItO achieves that with far less fuss in the rules, though I’m sure it will take my players just as much effort to advance their protoges, if they survive that long.

    Since I haven’t run any form of D&D for a long time (but played Traveller, RQ, GURPS, FB, Over the Edge, Amber and a few others) I’ve found it a bit hard to get into the headspace again for the one game I tried to run recently. I’m also not sure my players are ready either — but they’re willing to give it a try, so it will be interesting to see what happens. I have a feeling it’ll be a gold (or silver) for XP game, and I’ll be using my old Lankhmar setting. The city of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser seems an appropriate place for those sorts of mechanics to shine, at least at lower levels.

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    1. I never read Into the Odd, but Electric Bastionland, which is Into the Odd 2E, has no leveling at all. You can get more hp from getting certain "scars", but it has no leveling mechanic. I'll take a look at the original ItO. As for Traveller, at least in the original black book (1977), you would only own your ship if you were in the merchant service and got the right rolls, which is pretty unlikely. Otherwise, you had your ship with a big loan from the bank, and a lot of the calculus was about how much it cost to pay for fuel, and crew, and repairs, while also paying for the bank loan.

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    2. I read EB once I got it, and saw that Into the Odd is quite different, which is why I decided to stay with ItO and see how we go. EB is likely to be done as a separate game, I think, because it does feel different. I may borrow things from it, but at the moment my ItO game has already morphed a little: as we decide something needs a hack or houserule, it is illuminating to see the group’s different rpg experiences surfacing in how they take to or address the percieved problem that we think needs fixing. The other reason I’m sticking with ItO is, strangely enough, because it is my way of getting back into a more D&D like headspace. I am not yet convinced that EB is ‘better’, only that it is different, and that time and experience with each system will tell: and then, of course, it’ll only be the way it pans out for our group. YMMV as they say.

      As for Traveller: we rarely ever had Merchant characters in the groups I was a part of. We were more likely to have a scout with a ship than be hooked up with a merchant, so Trade was never a thing in my gaming circles. It is interesting how different experiences yield quite different views of things.

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  9. I guess one question worth asking is how many times you want to be able to level up in a campaign.

    The kinds of conditions you can set if it's something that will only happen 3-5 times might be different from conditions you need to repeat 9 or 13 or 19 times.

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    1. Great point! I think where the rule breaks down is when players are having to pile up 500,000 gold for the party to level at a point where they're way past treasure hunting in terms of immersion in the world. So I think the problem I've experienced arises in a system (like AD&D lite) where (1) There's character advancement (i.e. getting more powerful over time), (2) With lots of levels to go up, and (3) with a steep curve on how much experience is required. But if there were fewer levels over the span of a campaign this might be much less of a problem.

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  10. So, my players have never been directly motivated by EXP gain. They understand that EXP is what causes them to level up, but they're motivated by various in-game conflicts and decisions more than they are by EXP values, and even if I structure all in-game conflicts to award EXP (such as setting up a hostage situation and rewarding EXP for various resolutions, regardless of how they resolve the situation), they don't really view this as a connected piece.

    To me, the two ways my players interact with EXP are as follows, and I may expand upon these later in a blog post.

    The first is EXP-as-teaching-tool. So, very early on, my players really enjoyed the Mutant:Year Zero methodology. We would end a session, and I would ask the party,

     Did you overcome a notable hardship?
     Did you find treasure (worth 1gp or more)?
     Did you learn anything new about another PC or NPC?
     Did you express or resolve any personal goals?
     Did you learn something true and significant about the world?

    Every yes earned 1 XP, and then each player also had 2 unique XP points they could earn by interacting with each other during a session.

    This was, I found, a good way to teach players what the game offered - by capping off each session with these, we would have a discussion about these focal points of the game, as well as about the potential worth of role-playing.

    Eventually, though, my players get confident enough that these guidelines are less useful as teaching tools and start to feel like restrictions. "Oh, we need to hit our daily quota of character interaction", for example, starts to be what the EXP system feels like.

    It's at that point that I convert to gold as EXP OR milestone, based on what I feel the group would go for more. Since my groups largely derive from players disconnected with the online RPG discourse, I just sort of take a stab at whether a more OSR or more storygame mentality is preferred, and make a choice based on that.

    But really, at this point, EXP is more a pacing mechanism for the game, a way for them to get stronger slowly over time, than it is something they pay attention to. That's the second interaction with EXP - as a pacer, not as a motivation.

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    1. That all sounds like it worked wonderfully for your group. The Mutant Year Zero approach wouldn't quite work for the kinds of games I run, since the play style involves objective success conditions in the world, the same for everyone (i.e. no rewards for personal goals), and an otherwise open sandbox setting. Learning about PCs is not really something I'd want to directly incentivize, since that's a story element that I would prefer to emerge organically from play as a side effect of the players being invested in the game. (Character development and backstory is not really at the core of the activity in the games I play.) What works better for me is the idea you mention of rewarding people for discovering things in the setting. I mention a couple versions of that, and I can imagine others as well--setting information as treasure, if you will. (You can see from my above comments why I don't like milestones.)

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  11. Speaking of the Carcosa guy, he wrote about treasure once: https://killitwithfirerpg.blogspot.com/2019/05/geoffery-mckinney-on-treasure.html

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    1. Wow, thanks for that Claytonian. I think that's super interesting! I agree about the richness of the treasure and how to spend it problem, a good system of downtime activities would really help here, keeping players in a space of hard choices throughout when it comes to both spending their money and time. As for the implausibility of treasure being around, I think that's just a setting issue--he was imagining a setting where it didn't work, but there are plenty where it does. I think placing the gold in the hands only of rich humans, if combined with the XP for GP rule, would lead to a campaign of heists, or perhaps revolution, or banditry. That could be a fun game for sure.

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  12. And now to pimp something I wrote. This telling stories to advance thing was very fun. https://killitwithfirerpg.blogspot.com/2017/07/you-shoulda-been-there-when-i-kicked.html

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    1. Oh, I remember that post! That's a good one for sure. Very interesting mechanic that ties advancement to emergent stories and storytelling! I worry about it not incentivizing overcoming objective challenges, since I find that way of playing a lot of fun, but I think it's amazing.

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  13. @AvashIslam on twitter posted the following amazing twist on the rule: "Regarding the point about it not sustaining a long term campaign, this has been my fix.
    Players get 1 xp for every gp wasted, or for when something of theirs becomes unusable through threat.This scales towards domain play too. Get deposed from your kingdom? Get xp for the kingdoms value. Now go on a quest to recover your crown.And it also is a nice bonus at the low level too. Your sword breaks? Your pack mule gets eaten? XP! Also gives an explicit reason for PCs to spend their gold drinking and carousing, which does aid a little bit in genre emulation. So if a player spent 1000gp setting up an inn, and through faction play or a roll of the hazard die the inn becomes threatened or burns down, they get xp for it.Usually they go on an adventure to fix this, and then the inn becomes reinvested, potentially with more value, creating a "renewable" xp source that's still tied to adventure but encourages investment in a sandbox setting."

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    1. Wow, that's an XP idea that I've actually *never* heard before. Really worth thinking about, and kind of similar to AD&D 1e's xp for magic items in one particular way.

      EOTB from the awesome but rarely-updated blog here https://csio.blogspot.com/ says he awards XP for consumable magic items (potions, scrolls, etc) *when the player uses them*. If the potion breaks or the scroll burns up in a fireball, that XP is gone. He said it was to encourage his players to use the damn stuff during their adventures instead of hoarding it, so he could give them something new. Pretty neat idea.

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    2. Yes that has a very similar vibe! In some follow-up post @AvashIslam emphasizes that Conan stories are not about him being king, but about him regaining being king after having lost it. The idea is that using or losing the thing is fun, either it means you're actually engaging with the game (i.e. drinking the damn potion), or it means you have a whole adventure right there in front of you: rebuild what was taken from you.

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    3. Those set of tweet, I believe, have been some of the most insightful about D&D I've seen in the last ~3 months. Certainly in the last 1.

      Its a great solution to a problem.

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  14. Like your overview.

    My playgroup were always under level 5 after 15+ sessions due to the "reward" of XP in games never fitting our playstyle. We got most of our XP from showing up or by summing up what had happened last session.

    At the table, players play the game that's right for them regardless of the "reward" and "growth" dangling cat-toy-ishly above.

    We were a bunch of lazy cats that would rather eat and design an inordinate amount of decorous food and read a bunch of books about the shitnope we ran away from as we collect firewood for money for food for the night and we'd dance in the streets and yeah the XP Disher-Outer would eventually blow the town up and yeah we'd try and save it by getting everyone to form a line and putting out the fires, but then we'd soon make it to another town and the whole cycle would start all over again.

    That said, we had great times.

    ---

    Say you wanted to reward that kind of play. Okay, fine. Maybe you want to introduce healthy delving practices to our group. Sure. I'd say give us:

    * the deed to a museum that needs filling or
    * our fav cafe needs ingredients during some shortage or
    * our library network needs people to move books around or
    * that mountain one of us likes to wake up and write a poem about every day one day just has a hole punched through it only to discover through a bunch of poetry checks the town needs to have less nightmares in order to fill the hole that has developed in the mountain's heart or
    * inherit us some fixer-uper vehicle of an NPC passing away who'd like us to take it on "one more trip across the land"

    or w/e.

    Takeaway: XP not tailored to fit your group goes ignored.

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    1. I have a little trouble parsing what you're saying and the assumptions behind it. In my longest running game, we've player perhaps 100 sessions, and the highest level character is 8th level, with some still at 5th. Naturally, in 15 sessions my players were still below at 5th level. Probably most were 2nd, some were maybe 3rd and some were 1st. I think you and I have very different time scales in mind when we think about experience and levels.

      Also, I should say that the game I run is focused from the beginning on winning experience points in an extremely hazardous environment. If people mess around and don't take it seriously, their characters die given the challenges I've set up. That's the whole basis of the pleasure of the way I play. It sounds like you and your group set up a very different vibe from day 1. Basically, it sounds like we're not playing the same game. (No judgment of value there, just pointing out that it sounds like we're up to different things.)

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  15. I have thought about, and experimented with, a number of alternatives, and for me the beneficial aspects of XP for GP most difficult to replicate with other approaches are the in-world material granularity and the thematic fungibility. Most of the other alternatives are chunkier, making it harder to have partial scores, or less connected to material aspects of the game world, such as accomplishing quest milestones, or more thematically specific, such as rescuing prisoners. (Recovering treasure has some thematic ties, as you note well in the post, but it is easier to cast GP as a means to many different ends, whereas options with less thematic fungibility seem more likely to be ends as such.) No immediate suggestions, but perhaps we could get at some options by brainstorming around those aspects specifically.

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    1. I agree. Something I've failed to articulate, much less explain, in any of these discussions is the sense that in retro-gaming play, we want player goals to be *different* from the objective success conditions that they pursue. They're things that players do because they want to do them, in part using the resources they get from satisfying the objective success conditions. In a way, pursuing character or group goals is more like a reward, or an emergent byproduct of core activity, in OSR play. Instead, we incentivize a core activity (exploration, treasure) that doesn't really correspond to the pursuit of any determinate individual goal, but just says: interact with the setting in a mode of exploration and overcoming objective challenges. And then allow people to build goals on top of that as they become involved in the world. I think the comments to this post have brought out the fact that people don't understand why to incentivize particular goals messes with a certain kind of open-world play. There's something important about the neutrality of GP or even rewarding exploration (e.g. gamified uncovering hexes). Obviously, I've been at pains in this post to point out the limits of that neutrally. But I do think we want something that tells you to engage with the world in the mode of exploration and overcoming obstacles, while also letting you do absolutely anything else you want to do. Rescue the prisoners, or defeat the villains, or protect the weak, etc. are not like that.

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  16. I've been writing up a hexcrawl with the goal of keeping the feel of objective xp / xp-for-treasure, while offering a more heroic fantasy vibe.

    You're exploring the ruins of a fallen empire to recover the relics they plundered from your homeland centuries ago. XP is for discovering the location of and then retrieving relics. There relics of all different levels of power, so they are basically treasures with gp values, but they don't actually provide wealth (some do serve as magic items you can use). Wealth can still be obtained, and is useful for funding your expedition, winning favor from local factions, etc, but its up to you how much effort you want to devote to acquiring it. In addition to xp, the relics contribute to rebuilding the shattered spiritual essence of your homeland, and advancing the influence of your faction, toward shaping its future.

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    1. This sounds VERY COOL. I'd love to take a look at it.

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  17. As a matter of interest, is this the way you run Through Ultan’s Door? If so, is that philosophy in mind when you design your scenarios and settings?

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    1. I have run Through Ultan's Door for 4 years now using the 1 XP per 1 GP rule, about 100 sessions of the original campaign, which is still going, and about 15 sessions with a second group that I started to playtest the more polished material as I got it into shape for the zine. You can see the role of treasure as motivator in the zine with all the lovingly described treasure as the inducement to engage with different areas, like the tombs in the Catacombs of the Fleischguild, or the Heart of Haldicar.

      Speaking generally, the material in the zines is produced in the first instance with a view to retro-game play that involves a heavy emphasis on exploration, open-worlds, and overcoming challenges. Of course, you can easily take the material and go in another direction with it!

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  18. Ideas:
    1. Level cap. If the PCs are past the point of GP being a motivator, because they're pursuing in-character, in-setting goals besides "get rich / get gud", maybe they're past the point where XP is relevant.
    2. My 3X homebrew solution--scrap XP for Encounters. 3rd edition set an expectation of 13 1/3 level-appropriate Encounters to level. I rounded that off to 10 Encounters (100 XP each for math purposes), and stopped worrying about XP values at all--some encounters were Easy (50 XP) and some were Hard (200 xp).
    Counting encounters becomes a matter of enumerating what the party/PC did--was it trivial (no XP), easy, moderate or hard. You slipped past the goblins (easy? trivial?), cunningly evaded the trap (average?) bribed the ogre (average?), successfully ran away from the minotaur (average?) surprised and murdered the troll (average? hard?), Found the Treasure (average? hard?).
    Note that the same encounter can be Hard for a lower-level PC and Average or Easy for a higher-level PC.
    Obviously retroclones don't run on a 3X basis, but once you've decided that an Average difficulty encounter is worth 100 XP, you can convert the class XP tables easily.

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    1. You could do a level cap, but I find mid-tier or high level is fun now that we're getting into it. (The party is 5th-8th level now.) So I wouldn't want to cap it at the point where gold stopped being (as) motivating.
      About 2 I have reservations for the retro-gaming style of play I'm doing. First of all, in order to overcome objective challenges in pursuit of a reward, the players need to know what counts as a challenge in advance. (Your system seems very loose and to depend almost entirely on DM fiat.) Second, I think that scaling XP to difficulty could create strange incentives. For example, it incentivizes parties to do things that are hard, rather than to think about challenges so as to overcome them easily through cunning, etc. I prefer the rewards to be out there, and not scaled to the difficulty the party actually has in getting them.

      But you might be thinking, a clever plan counts as doing something hard, even if the cleverness of it makes getting the MacGuffin easy. Maybe so, but then we're really in the realm of the DM deciding by fiat what experience points people get based on "how well" they did.

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    2. DM fiat is a fair criticism. The system strongly biases towards "Average"--"Hard" generally means at least one PC dropped/died, "Easy" means that the party didnt sweat at all.
      I haven't found that PCs seek out Hard encounters to level faster--those are also the things that are more likely to flat-out kill you.

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  19. Hello! You asked for our thoughts, and it seems the conversation is ongoing, so I'll drop a link to a discussion of this that I had, thinking like you about the mismatch between the game mechanic XP=GP and character motivation.

    https://lichvanwinkle.blogspot.com/2020/06/xp-for-gp-versus-greed.html

    I have also proposed ditching experience points entirely.

    https://lichvanwinkle.blogspot.com/2020/04/ditch-experience-points-forever.html

    This is a great discussion here! It sounds as if a lot of variations are floating around.

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    1. Thanks for sharing those posts. I had forgotten that Dangerous Journeys doesn't use GP for XP (no surprise given how super-heroic players start out). Your final solution is basically: advancement for showing up. It's not a bad solution. I don't disagree that players don't need motivation through an incentive system to pursue goals in roleplaying (obviously). But I find the incentives allow for overcoming objective success conditions, which is a fun part of the game in the style I play.

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  20. Firstly, apologies if my last post went wonky, I can only seem to do this on my laptop, not my iPhone!... -_-;;

    Long time reader, first time poster. I'm not using a D&D-derived system so this might be too far from the discussion, but in my own Dreamland RPG I'm working on, "leveling up" is accomplished by spending Memories, which essentially = casting spells and also = taking risk.

    Basically, following an idea from the book version of "The Neverending Story", in Dreamland, you perform most of your coolest powers (spells) by spending your Memories of the waking world. Unlike in "The Neverending Story," you don't necessarily get them back.

    You can also lose Memories accidentally, sort of in the same way you'd lose hit points. Memories are divided into 1/2s, so a Memory can be "forgotten" or "half-forgotten".

    Each time you wake up, you have a risk of essentially losing Sanity and getting messed up, based on how many Memories you lost in the previous dream. So, the more Memories you spend/lose in one night, the greater risk you have of going insane (essentially -- it's not 'exactly' insanity) and eventually losing your soul.

    So essentially, the way you advance in the game is by casting cool spells and conjuring dream stuff (using Memories), which entails risk, but you don't want to cast TOO many spells at once (i.e. lose TOO many Memories) or you'll go insane too fast and your character will 'die'. So advancement comes from taking risks, but not TOO many risks too fast.

    Also, since you are literally losing your Memories of your waking life as you do this, you are becoming weirder and weirder as you advance in power, even though you may not technically develop any 'insanities.' So that's the roleplaying aspect.

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    1. That sounds amazing, and I can't wait to see what your game is like. Any version of adventuring in the dreamlands is near and dear to my heart. I like how this system offers experience points an an invitation to risk yourself by doing cool things while dreaming. That's my kind of gamble!

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