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Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Trouble with Experience

Timrod is firmly on the side of "XP for GP is bad". I disagree, but that's not the issue I want to address. The flaw, to me, is that we call experience points "experience points", which leads us astray.

In the original game, you get (some kind of) points for slaying monsters and getting treasure; when you get enough of these points, your character improves. We call these points "experience". But then, we start thinking of "experience" as actually representing experience, in the sense of knowledge or practice. You're getting better because all those risks you are taking are adding to your knowledge of how to deal with problems. And once you've fallen into the trap of thinking this way, it looks ridiculous when you bring home a bag full of rare gems and old gold coins, becoming better adventurers as a consequence.

And so, you get rid of the experience for gold equation, because it's "unrealistic". Even though around the same time people ditched XP for GP, they added XP for "good role-playing" and story rewards, and penalized people who deviated from their alignment. How do either of these have anything to do with practical improvement?

Take a look also at risk. Supposedly, XP for GP is bad because getting the gold does not always represent the same degree of risk. Consider four potential treasures:

  1. Five rats with 1200 silver pieces, randomly rolled.
  2. A giant spider with 100 silver pieces, also randomly rolled.
  3. A treasure chest with 200 gold pieces, trapped with poison needles.
  4. 400 gold pieces hidden behind a loose stone in the wall of an otherwise empty room.

Clearly, if an adventurer tackles the spider instead of the rats, the reward is lower, despite the risk being higher. The trapped chest has an even bigger reward, possibly with more risk than the rats, but also possibly with no risk (Knock over the chest with a ten-foot pole, maybe, then collect the spilled coins without risking the trap?) The hidden treasure cache has the biggest reward and no risk; you get the reward simple for exploring an empty room.

This is the kind of thing that sends some people into conniptions, even though the same thing happens when you just consider XP for monster-slaying. That giant spider might be worth, say, 100 or 200 XP... but you get that XP whether you fight the spider face to face or just torch its webs. You can lure monsters into a trap and collect the XP reward, despite taking less of a risk. And, in fact, the original playtesters say that the goal of adventuring was always to get those XPs with as little risk as possible.

My point is that experience doesn't or shouldn't represent taking risks and learning something from the experience. "Experience" is not literally experience, it's either just a meta-level reward or it represents something "real", but not literal learning. The meaning of "experience" was muddied by some early rules incorporated into the game... but I'll talk about those in a later post.


  1. Good point .. "achievement points" perhaps?

  2. I grant experience points for 'experience' more than coin for points. There are different level of points gained depending on the encounter. Most of its arbitrary, but it usually makes sense in my mind. Kinda like the old west wanted posters...$200 Dead, $400 Alive. One encounter if the players keep the guy alive and find out more information they will get more experience points. Most of the time the players come up with something and they would get extra points for doing something well. But I like to think of experience points as experience earned and learned.

  3. I like your four point-value examples. I think the XP for treasure is less about individual awards for cashes found and more about what dungeon level you were in when you found it.

    When you delve into Dungeon Level 2 you're taking a big risk. The traps the beefier, the monsters tougher, and wandering monsters can be really bad. Finding 400 GP in an empty room sounds easy and cheap in isolation, but to get to that room you had to brave other dangers. After all, there might have been plenty of dangers you faced with no monetary reward at all!

    Finally, if the XP is a reward for playing the game well, and if we agree that player skill is more important than character skill (as in, what you do with your Fighter-1 is more important than the fact that he rolled 6 HP instead of 8), then XP should reward player skill. In this case, player skill is reflected in gaining treasure instead of fighting monsters. Anyone can just walk in and start rolling for initiative. It takes player skill to lure the monster away and sneak in while it's eating the poisoned deer's corpse.

    As for calling it "experience points", Gygax suggested that new players should always start at level 1 and work their way upward, but experienced players could start with a higher level PC if the other PCs were so high that a 1st level would be a huge burden. Being able to use cool new abilities was a reward for the player, for his achievements in using his character well! Maybe it's not the experience level of the character we're talking about, but experience of the player. In that sense, awarding 500 points for stealing a treasure whether you kill the 100-point monster or not makes sense. The player of low skill will be unable to find a way around fighting the monster: either fight it and get the treasure or you don't get the treasure. An experienced player can think of a way to get the treasure anyway, so he has a choice of whether to fight the monster or not simply on the merits of its 100-point value. The experienced player must think: is this worth the real-time to do the fight? Or would I get more out of this game session by moving deeper into the dungeon? Is it worth the in-game time, which is balanced against various in-game resources like wandering monster checks, stamina, illumination. It is worth the risk that I would use up resources on this fight that I would need for something more important later?

    The player who has a character with more XPs has experienced more as a player.

    If he starts a PC at too low level for his player experience, his skills will make up for it and his PC's faster successes will allow him to gain XP faster.

    This kinda falls apart if you (A) force all players to start at level 1, or (B) allow newbie players to start high-level PCs.

  4. Or, I should have mentioned, (C) if you play a linear game where players don't have much choice and rewards aren't tied to player skill.

  5. I'm happiest with the name that Pendragon gave to its equivalent concept, "Glory". It makes the concept more explicit, and turns away the idea that character advancement is tied to any alleged "skill" - which also alters the understanding of "character class" as being something other than a package of skills.

    1. "I'm happiest with the name that Pendragon gave to its equivalent concept, "Glory"."

      Yes, that is how I treat Experience Points and Levels in my games - as measures of fame and legendary standing. That is why epic carousing, egotistical boasting, and conspicuous consumption all boost XP rewards. That is why important people are high-level NPCs. And that is why I'm thinking of making everyone's Prime Requisite Charisma - high Charisma accentuates the glory of adventuring.

      But, as with Glory in Pendragon, XP and Level are not just measures of reputation, but something more basic, essential to the 'physics' of the fantasy world.

    2. Exactly. Like the mana of Polynesia (in contrast to the much more limited concept prevalent in gaming), which is a description of something like how much a person inhabits the world. A king has a lot of mana just by being a king, but a craftsman has mana by being a skilled craftsman, a warrior by being successful in battles, and so on.

  6. i grant xp for spending gold - different classes spend on different things - warriors buy war manuals, training, castles; wizards buy labs, books, rinkets, sorcerers binge on drugs and orgies and incence, priests on holy stuff etc

    if i could learn by killing uni staff instead of study doesnt that make me some kind of vampire?

  7. You are dancing around the point.

    Experience points are your score; you gain levels for earning enough points.

    Gold is how you keep track of the high score.

  8. Part of the issue seems to me conceptualizing the word "experience" too narrowly. Remember that originally, levels was the short term for "life levels" or "energy levels" - hence "energy drain" is loosing levels. Experience points represent a gain in confidence, bravado and "life energy" through success. Vanquishing foes and getting rich surely is a great ego booster, encountering certain forms of death can just as surely strip all that away.