Monday, September 13, 2010

Experience Points

A little while back, my buddy Dave brought up a very good point that cuts across nearly all editions of D&D.

Why do we get experience points for defeating monsters and looting treasure? (Certain newer editions only for the defeating monsters part.)

If I'm a Cleric, how does lugging gold out of a hole in the ground make me better at turning undead?
If I'm a Fighter, how does finding a diamond make me better at sticking things with my sword?
If I'm a Magic-User, how does throwing flaming oil make me better at casting spells?
If I'm a Thief, how does beating up kobolds make me better at opening locks or finding traps?

It's pretty illogical.

2E (which, I believe, Dave started with), used a system where only warriors got XP for combat, spell-casters for spells, and only thieves for using thief skills or finding loot. It makes sense from the perspective of real life, where practice makes perfect.

It's also a pain in the ass to track.

And it's ALSO also illogical from a game perspective.

If I'm a Cleric, why should I waste time battling anything besides undead? And once I've got spells (assuming a Classic game where there are no Cleric spells at 1st level), why would I go off to dungeons when I can get XP just for going around town healing the sick or purifying the slum's water every day?

If I'm a Magic-User, again, why risk my weak ass down in some ruins when I can just set up shop selling my services, and gain XP for translating documents with Read Languages and hauling loads with Floating Disk?

If I'm a Thief, as above, why risk my fragile self battling dragons when I get XP for sneaking around town, breaking and entering, and fencing the goods?

At least with the Fighter, there's some incentive to actually adventure. It's less legally questionable and more lucrative to battle monsters than townsfolk (although if there's a war, an enemy soldier is less likey to be able to turn you to stone or fry you to a crisp with his breath).

So the 2E approach is realistic, in some ways, but it's really just as illogical. D&D is an ADVENTURE game. Sitting around getting XP for casting Plant Growth on Farmer John's squash patch isn't very adventurous. Also, if everyone's got all these various things they need to do each adventure to advance, you get what the Forge folks call incoherent play. The party doesn't want to work together, everyone's out to do their thing first and foremost.

The simple XP system of some XP for monsters, a lot of XP for loot works because it's something everyone in the party has a vested interest in (getting the loot is good no matter who you are), and it spurs creative, adventurous, cooperative play.


  1. There's a big difference between people who want their games to be logical and those who want them to support their fiction of choice.

    There's nothing inherently wrong with gaining experience for discovering loot or slaying monsters, especially since what we're trying to reward is sticking your neck out in dangerous places where few sane humans have gone before.

    Like you said, it's not logical/realistic, but it does support the desired behavior for a damn fine game.

  2. This is another case—like death spirals and riddles—where I think the “more realistic/logical” option is so simplistic that it winds up being neither very realistic or logical.

    I could probably write quite a lot on that topic, but let’s just look at one thing: In D&D your combat prowess is much more represented by hp that your THAC0. Every class gets hp when they go up a level, so every class gets better at combat when they go up a level.

    If you’re building a simulation on simple, direct relationships, then you have to model a myriad number of direct relationships in order to get secondary, tertiary, etc. effects. That kind of thing is much too much work for a table-top game. So, we go with abstract simulation. It’s not perfect and may seem counter-intuitive and first, but it often gives more realistic and more logical results when you look at the big picture.

  3. The xp for gold should be thought of as an early version of "story award". The cleric doesn't get better at being a cleric because he looted a treasure horde, he gets better at it because of all the things he did supporting the party that led to them being able to recover the treasure at the end. Does that make more sense to you?

  4. Rhetorical questions, Anonymous.

    XP for gold makes perfect sense to me. I just wanted to get my thoughts on how to explain it to others down.

    It's simple, and rewards the desired play mode. And that desired play mode isn't simply the dungeon crawl, it can also be the wilderness trek, the caper, or any other way for the PCs to risk their necks to get treasure.

    Without it, there's no reason to really risk one's neck, except in the case of the Fighter who must fight to gain XP.

  5. A few comments.

    I actually started with "Classic D&D," which was an evolution off of Metzer's set, if I recall, and culminated with the Rules' Cyclopedia. We went to AD&D 2E about a year later (freshman year of high school), though.

    Part of it is that I'm a simulationist more than a gamist, and I was always under the impression that OD&D lent itself to a more gamist style of play. Part of the evolution of D&D from its simpler roots to the convoluted thing it became was driven by conflicting creative agendas amongst the gamers and the designers in what they wanted. D&D --> AD&D was largely a simulationist transition.

    Be careful of post hoc rationalization when justifying the reasons for why experience points were handed out for treasure and monster-killing. To be honest, as a wizard, I always felt that I didn't deserve any of the XP from monster-fighting because I had a knife and ended up cowering in a corner during every melee (except the boss fight when I cast magic missile once then went and cowered even harder). I discovered chucking oil and stuff later, but that was always riskier and brought fewer benefits than the fighters' bastard sword.

    If you pin all the XP on one or two avenues, all the post hoc rationalization won't change the gut feeling that "Marty's character doesn't deserve the XP, why should we split it with him, he just hid under the table while we bled."

    Like-it-or-not, it is a design flaw, and class-based bonus rewards and such were introduced in AD&D to mitigate the above-stated dilemma.

  6. Actually, Dave, I'd say that's a problem with your DM more than the game itself.

    If the game only focuses on combat, then yeah, M-U and Thief characters feel like they get a lot of monster XP for very little work.

    If the game focuses more on exploration (which a LOT of the early campaigns did, not that many of our pre-teen/teenage games did--I'm talking about Blackmoor, Greyhawk, etc.) then there's more for all classes to do.

    And I don't think it's a post hoc rationalization to say that exploration (which garners XP for gold) allows everyone to contribute and feel like they've earned that XP.

    Combat-centric games unfortunately can fall into that problem.