Monday, November 22, 2010

Experience and Character Advancement

Design Goal: Implement an experience system that rewards more than just killing monsters and earning money.

Handing out experience is another one of those components of RPGs that many DMs take a crack at modifying to meet their needs. My need in this area is the ability to reward all kinds of emergent behavior in a sandbox setting, not just monster slaying and loot hauling. Essentially, I want a system to reward everything that a player does that 'advances' his character. This could include any goal players could set for themselves from furthering their particular religious denomination, to acquiring political power, or helping to win freedom and concessions for serfs and peasants. You know, whatever goofy shit players want to do, especially if it doesn't directly require killing and looting.

I also want a system that can incorporate these qualitative goals with actual quantifiable rewards, all without using fiat. Let's face it, any experience award that requires a judgment call is going to run into bias at some point or another. That's the big appeal with standard experience systems, rewards are directly linked to concrete monster hit dice numbers and gold pieces earned.

So the system I want rewards everything and does it equally. A night of hacking monsters should be as valuable as proselytizing heathens.

This is highly antithetical to pretty much every D&D standard for awarding experience. But I think it will really open up and encourage sandbox thinking and play. There's no problem if the party decides that their goal for the evening/month/campaign will not bring them into mortal conflict or into riches.

I am going to use a roll to advance experience system (inspired by Lord Kilgore). Essentially, everyone gets 1 experience point per adventure. At the end of the night, everyone rolls a D20 and tries to hit a target number based on their class, current level, and race and adds any accrued experience. You hit the number, you level. Otherwise, you accrue more experience points to apply towards the next roll. Experience points are only lost if actually needed to level up.

Since this post is dragging on, I will go deeper into the mechanics in the next post.


  1. I continue to question this tactic; if the primary result of gaining experience and levels is the increase of one's combat ability, how does it work if experience and levels are not gained through the practice of combat?

  2. Two reasons:

    1) Not every advantage of leveling up is strictly (and only) combat based. Thieves gain skills, magic users and clerics gain spells, etc. This type of advancement is not simulated if those abilities are employed towards any other end outside of combat and gaining coin. However, for classes like a Fighter, this reasoning doesn't hold since they only gain direct combat abilities. I can live with that.

    Granted, you could theoretically have a session where no one DOES anything. But we are all playing a game together and we are not going to be have a session where we DO nothing. If this passive attitude really did manifest itself, I would level with my players and even go as far as to disband the group if somehow inactivity ruled over activity.

    This system is meant to reward all kinds of actions. However, without a stable reference point to monster HD or gold piece totals, it becomes increasingly difficult to systematically offer rewards. So we flatten it all out. Yes, it definitely changes the face of the game.

    2) It's D&D. The primary goal of killing and looting is to accumulate experience so as to enable the killing and looting of greater things. Even with a sandbox setting and divergent goals, this will still come back as the primary activity. I've just leveled the response, so to speak, and am awarding experience over all sessions whether or not the group commences with ye old hack and slash.

    I don't really expect the vast majority of the sessions to be combat-free. If it were, that's no problem either. We probably went through a lot of trouble by picking a D&D ruleset, but it would be easy to switch to another system that facilitated such play.

    In the end, I am aware of what I am giving up with this system, especially the thrill of the big kill or big haul. Those moments are still beneficial. I hope it reaps rewards regardless of decoupling individual successes and rewards.