About Me

My photo
Grumpy, yet verbose.

Thursday, July 4, 2024

Moldvay Musings XXII: Experience for Gold

Hello again! Assuming anyone is still out there. With the recent end of our latest Traveller campaign, I’ve stepped away from the gaming table for a spell. Some family matters have made the last several of months distracting, but I’ve recently begun a personal project that’s got me trying to get back into the old-school D&D mindset. Thus, I have thoughts to blog.

There was a recent discussion online regarding OSE (Old School Essentials), the excellent BX re-skinning by Necrotic Gnome. A DM new to the system (I think he had previously run 5e) was asking about alternative experience/leveling methods other than XP for GP.

Several options and house-rules were bandied about. But as I read through them, it reinforced my preference for the as-written method of experience being mostly from treasure found through adventuring. My impulse was to reply to the thread directly, but as I organized my ideas, I realized there was a bit more connected to the subject than I first thought. So I decided to fling them all onto the page here and get them out of my skull.

NB: This got… wordy, so here’s the TL;DR – A character’s XP level or progression is not the ONLY way they can become more powerful within a game-world. Using treasure earned through adventuring as the way to measure their progress as adventurers makes perfect sense in a game like classic D&D.

First of all, when I say I like the XP/GP model, I mean specifically for D&D, especially if there is a focus on dungeon crawling. Other games and systems use completely different methods of advancing characters, and they work great. I wouldn’t try to change Call of Cthulhu over to a level based XP system relying on treasure-hunting.

But why do I like XP/GP for D&D? Firstly, and this is the least of it, it’s the way the game was originally written. My overall game-mastering perspective is typically to change as little as possible in the rules as written unless I find a compelling reason. Also, as I have said before “You can’t ‘Fix’ D&D.” There is a point in the rules-tweaking cycle where one has to ask if it’s still the same game?

The next reason I like XP/GP is simply that it makes sense. If you are playing old-school D&D as I believe it was intended, then your game is a series of risk/reward exercises. When you break into an ancient tomb, most PCs would have profit at least partially on their minds. So if the gold is the reward, what’s the risk? The monsters, the traps, NPC rival parties and bandits. In risk management, the goal is to maximize reward and minimize risk. Making combat attractive by adding making it a bigger source of XP results in risk-seeking, not risk management.

Now XP/GP isn’t perfect. The question often arises of what does a mid-to-high level character DO with all their coin? Not all PCs are interested in building a stronghold, and if you don’t let them buy expensive magic items or similar, they can amass an alarming amount of cash. I’ve written in the past about PC wealth and ways to help them spend it. The truth is this all comes back to the attitude of the players (and the DM). Wealth can be a role-playing challenge. What would you do if you were your PC and came into that money? I know some folks would say “Not go out adventuring again, that’s for sure!” And if it fits your character’s story to retire at that point, who is to stop you?

I would counter that maybe that’s not being the best player that you could be in the sense that you are a member in a group of (hopefully) friends. Leaving the party high and dry as your experienced PC bails on adventuring to open a tavern might annoy the rest of the group.  I usually enjoin players to think of character concepts that include wanting to continue adventuring. Or needing to in order to reach a goal. What you might “settle” for in real life may be VERY different from what your PC would deem enough. We’re playing a game of imagination, we can figure something out that makes sense if we agree on things like basic genres and tropes. If, as a kid, you and your friends went out to play Cops & Robbers, the compact there was there were two main types of people in the game: police and criminals. If one kid then claims he’s Spider-Man and can just web-up all the robbers, that’s a very different game.

I should take a moment to stress that in my games, experience is earned by treasure earned through adventuring. If you invest in a shipping line or marry the old widow and you end up with a million gold pieces, you don’t suddenly shoot up in level. You don’t become a better adventurer by not adventuring. Which is another reason I mislike things like “Story XP.” If the story involves adventure and monsters and such, then building some treasure into that is simple enough. Even if it’s a reward the adventurers are paid by an NPC and not found inside a chest in some dungeon. If the “plot arc” resolves itself without your typical adventuring activities, then it shouldn’t result in your PC leveling up in their adventuring class. But if that’s the case, why wouldn’t everyone just turn full murder-hobo? Because, dear reader, another reason I like XP/GP just fine is that XP doesn’t have to be the only kind of in-game reward.

Did you ever wonder why there was no experience award for magic items in BX and other older editions? Likewise, they have no listed market prices. I believe it’s because magic items are intended as their own rewards. That magic armor doesn’t give you experience points. It gives you a freaking suit of magic armor! Actually, it technically does give you XP by increasing the chances of your survival. There aren’t set prices because magic items are, well, magical. I am not saying that I make it impossible for my players’ PCs to sell or buy magic, but it’s very case by case. Magic items do reward the characters, just not with XP.

Likewise for story goals that don’t include “normal” adventures to accomplish. There should be some reward, but it might not be XP. As I said before, if you thwart the Ice King and save Princess Bubblegum and then she gives you and your party 100K gold pieces, that’s earned by adventuring and 100% grants XP. But what if she names you all Heroes of the Realm and knights you? There’s no cash, and no XP, but that is definitely a reward. Everyone in the kingdom respects you and people seek you out for more quests and hero-work. You probably attract the notice of the court and access to all sorts of rumors and favors. You aren’t suddenly name-level, but your fortunes have definitely improved.

"Personal Goals" XP is no different. You’re finally getting the chance to avenge your brother’s death? Awesome! Let’s have a great scene where you get to confront the guy and have it out with nine-fingered man. When you win, maybe there’s loot, maybe not. Maybe achieving the goal contains an in-game reward like with the princess. Perhaps your vengeance clears the family name, and now you can restore your title? To me, personal character goals are meant primarily as RP opportunities and fodder for the DM to tailor the adventures to the player's interests, Not an XP source.

If achieving that kind of goal that doesn’t mean anything to the player because “it’s just RP” then maybe he needs better goals, or maybe these types of RP goals aren’t for him. Next time maybe he can say “My lifelong goal is to kill a dragon and take its hoard!” This is why I often have powerful NPC lords and ladies who aren’t necessarily name-level adventurers. They’re influence isn’t acquired by how many hit points they have. In less civilized places, “tougher” nobles (with levels) may be more common, though.

Remember, these rules aren’t intended to cover everything, so you need to decide how you want to handle the things that aren’t spelled out. Characters can do an awful lot in the game without worrying about what level they are, especially in a game as flexible and rules-light as BX. So before worrying too much about changing things like XP for GP, look a little deeper and ask how it can work for your games instead of how it can’t.

No comments:

Post a Comment