Fiddling with XP, part 3: Apologia and Addendum

Last time, I outlined a rough proposal for an alternate XP system for a class-and-level RPG. This included how the DM determines awards and how the players can work to adjust their individual awards, and then how those numbers might fit into a realistic learning curve. This time I’ll try to explain my reasoning and then add on a little more.


The first choice I made, starting with a base XP award in the single digits, was in response to my dislike for the inflationary feel of standard D&D XP totals. It just feels weird to me to talk about hundreds of thousands, or millions, of points.

As per my inspiration from Dungeon Fantastic I had intended for the base award to be five points, at first. But these considerations adjusted the value: first, it seems Dell’Orto takes off a point for each dead PC. But old-school D&D play always carries the threat of something close to a TPK, so that seemed overly punitive. Second, I didn’t want the DM to ever give out no points: I wanted it so that showing up and participating always (if you don’t gamble on your abilities and lose) means you’ll walk away with some improvement. So in the end I decided what penalties I would want to include and made the base one point greater than their sum.

Initially I had a set of categories (parallel to those presented for player goals), each carrying a penalty or bonus based on party performance, but during the process the pluses and minus became decoupled and I ended up with three and two.

Here, too, I started from the DF example and adjusted things to suit my own needs. While I don’t intend on necessarily adding an upkeep-cost mechanic, the “loss of wealth/loss of life” issues seemed relevant enough to your typical dungeon-crawler or hex-crawler to keep them almost as-is. (For the “loss of materiel,” I’m remembering a specific time when a party I was DMing for angered and then freed a powerful evil wizard, who ended up tracking down their base and burning it to the ground while they hid in barrels buried in consecrated ground. But I digress!)

Bonuses were intended to encourage a certain feel of play without dictating a style. The XP-for-killing and XP-for-treasure mechanics of old-school D&D are both out. (I put in the Conquest and Acquisition goals for individual players who revel in killing things or taking their stuff, but this still relegates the whole “murder hobo” aspect so common to D&D to an option, rather than a requirement for successful play.) Instead, both the Victory bonus and the individual bonuses are meant to encourage a pattern of making a goal and then pursuing it. The party is also encouraged to plan together and work together as a team, and to come up with solutions to their problems that are creative, interesting, and fun instead of brute-forcing everything in a head-on way.

It remains to be seen, of course, whether actual play under these rules would take the shape I intended. There are probably any number of tweaks, or even a major overhaul, necessary before we get a best fit for the style of game I’m aiming for. That said, I feel that this XP system solves some perennial problems plaguing D&D: what do to about rewards for overcoming traps, puzzles, and other obstacles; how to standardize “quest XP”; how to reward a fun session just role-playing even if no fighting or looting takes place; and so on.

All that stuff about generating a learning curve was simply because, in my heart of hearts, I’m a sucker for simulationism. If I didn’t take care to gather inspiration and consider my goals, I would never not be descending into a fine-grained simulationist madness. 8^D

Addendum: Treasure and strategic resources

So I’ve gone and decoupled XP from treasure, but it’s still a fact that part of the fun of D&D is getting stuff for your character. While I would like to see a lot more variety in treasure types beyond X coins of precious metal Y and generic magic swords and armor, I have no intention of making a version of D&D where the party can’t do a lot of treasure-hunting.

So if the party is still going to be laying their hands on hoards of coins, gems and jewelry, sculpture, old books and maps, magic swords and other items, what will they do with their wealth? Simply buying equipment is a little pedestrian, and at any rate a D&D-style game doesn’t demand a lot of upkeep. Characters could save up, invest wisely, and buy things like property, titles, and trade goods, but we’re still designing an adventure game here, not a landed-gentry simulator. Simply saving up for manors or castles is too limited a goal for everyone to be satisfied with that alone.

This is where I sneakily insert treasure-for-XP back into the mix. The trick that makes it distinct here is twofold. First, buying training with gold is just one of several options for players to balance. And second, with the reward system described previously, it’s not necessary to spend any money at all to gain levels, and you can still pretty much keep up with other party members even if they do. Depending on the rate players decide to buy XP, this add-on could call for adjustments to the progression curve, of course – but that’s a matter for play-testing, if it comes to that. In any case, the biggest problem is the old exchange rate of one XP for one GP (or SP, if you use the silver standard). That isn’t going to cut it in a system where five hundred XP will see you near level 20, not without ridiculously tiny treasure troves.

The solution is simple: each 1000 coins’ worth of treasure can be banked and converted to a single unit of Wealth. It helps to think of Wealth as existing mostly in a ledger-book: characters are probably carrying around promissory notes, or deeds, or other portable representations, rather than sacks full of ingots or coin! Once you’ve gone to town and converted your treasure haul to Wealth, you can either save it away for later, or begin spending it on stuff.

Of course, there will be remainders. A certain amount of loose coin can remain unconverted, and be spent on regular day-to-day expenses like equipment, supplies, lodgings, or paying employees. If the DM is interested in a world that grows and develops under the PCs’ influence, money spent this way can be added to the town’s economy pool. With sufficient investment, the community itself may become affluent enough to level up: people will move there from other towns or the surrounding countryside, opening up businesses and engaging in trade in order to get some of the money the PCs brought in. If the party makes one location their base and spends enough time and treasure there, they might see the town level up, increasing its population and size, and adding to the list of available goods and services. Useful specialists would move in: smiths and armorers, alchemists, wizards and sages, priests administering places of worship, and even a criminal class, for people who are into that sort of thing.

Meanwhile, here are some things that Wealth can be spent on:

  • On the most pedestrian level, Wealth can be invested. Yes, I scoffed at the idea a bit earlier, but mostly what I meant was that it shouldn’t be the only major money-sink avialable. If a player wants to be an investor, why not let them? I’m thinking of an abstract LotFP-style system where money goes into the machine, time passes, and depending on your luck either more or less money comes out. This could lead to adventure hooks when the party is called on to investigate a trade caravan going missing or guard a warehouse of goods they have stock in against thieves.
  • Slightly less prosaically, Wealth can be used for very expensive purchases, things with costs in the thousands of coins. Property is a big one: estates, houses in town, castles, magical laboratories, arcane libraries, ships, even specially-commissioned equipment like a fancy suit of plate armor. Perhaps Wealth could be spent on pay for armies, construction crews, and other mass-employment situations.
  • Wealth can be spent on training. If an appropriate teacher is available and willing, PCs may use a unit of Wealth (and spend an appropriate amount of in-game time studying under them) to buy a point of XP. This solves our order-of-magnitude problem that I was talking about before, and offers both DM and players some fine control over the rate of XP accumulation.
  • Wealth can be sunk into magical research or item creation, as per standard D&D practice.
  • And finally, a point of Wealth can be used to buy a point of Fame. This can be done through carousing (perhaps using a table like this, or one of its many imitators, to generate interesting results) or its upscale cousin schmoozing, or even through charitable donations, public works, sponsorships for artists or events, hosting influential guests, and all the other tricks of the trade. PCs with proper permission or politcal clout might even improve their Fame by using their Wealth to mint coins with their faces on them and distribute them into the economy as propaganda. While the method chosen is mechanically unimportant, in story terms the choice can be interesting and should be at least briefly detailed during play.

What can you do with Fame? At this point I only have a few vague ideas on the matter, but I’m thinking could be used as social capital: for influencing either The Masses or Very Important People. It might take a certain amount of Fame to attract the attention of the king, and even more to bend his ear. Fame could be used to “buy” rank and title even when such honors are unavailable for mere lucre. It might also be used to attract special followers: not just generic henchmen but squires for a knight, apprentices for a sorcerer, and so on; perhaps some with classes and levels of their own. Fame could be a meta-stat that attends the adventuring party and carries benefits or consequences depending on its level, and which the players could spend their Wealth to increase and maintain.

With all this Wealth business, I’m hoping to sketch out a distinct high-level economy. Low-level economics, in the desired feel, are going to be about the nitty-gritty demands of the adventuring lifestyle: buying and replacing/repairing equipment including arms and armor; hiring porters, lantern-bearers and other NPC party adjuncts; paying for meals, lodgings, passage on ships, and other necessities.

As the characters accumulate Wealth, things will begin shifting and players will be able to start making choices. Do I want to spend some Wealth now getting training (before I surpass the local fencing master and outgrow his ability to help me)? Should I convert it to Fame by throwing a party for the whole town, and then use the Fame to convince the duke to knight me? Should I assume a knighthood will come sooner or later, and save to purchase an estate or build a tower? If I save, should I invest my Wealth, or leave it safely in the bank?

Eventually, a party can begin moving beyond conventional adventuring. There comes a point when you’ve got the best weapons, armor, retinue, and array of magic that money can buy, and normal dungeon challenges such as monsters or traps aren’t an interesting challenge any longer. At this point, instead of the DM just increasing the numbers to generate new powerful traps and monsters, the characters can choose to concern themselves with bigger events and issues: castles, armies, politicking and so on, on a national or international scale. I’m thinking now of ACKS, which boasts a variety of detailed late-game activities and career paths to get involved in.

That’s all of this brain-dump for now. It’s been something like six thousand words and several charts and graphs, so thank you for bearing with me. I’ve been mulling over elements of the whole business for a while now. It feels good to get it all typed up and posted. ‘Til next time, then.

About Confanity

I love the written word more than anything else I've had the chance to work with. I'm back in the States from Japan for grad school, but still studying Japanese with the hope of becoming a translator -- or writer, or even teacher -- as long as it's something language-related.
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