Monday, 27 December 2010

Treasure vs Monsters: The XP Debate

Those of you who have been keeping up to date with my actual play, Karameikos posts will be aware that last session (played as part of our Christmas festivities) resulted in a near TPK. This brings me to focus on a certain quandary I've been mulling over for weeks. We've now had three out of five sessions where, because the characters looted no treasure, they have earned little or no Xp. Given the many lessons learned last session (listed below) it seems unfair that the characters haven't learned anything from the experience (even if the players have). So let's take a look first of all at the lessons they learned, then I'll go over the reasons I chose to run an "only treasure counts for XP game". Then I'll have have a think about what I'm going to do about it (if anything).

Firstly, here's what the players learned from last session:

  • Never trust a new party member (or members) until they've earned it.
  • Blowing most of your funds on hirelings is never a bad move.
  • When ambushed, don't try to fight your opponents when they have the advantage. Focus your maximum effort on breaking out in one direction, then come back for revenge later.
  • When bluffing for your life, don't show your hand. ESPECIALLY not once negotiations are over and have been resolved in your favour.

Here's what the characters learned:
  • 0 Xp.
Now I've mentioned before why I like the variant rules that characters only acquire experience points for treasure acquired. For the sake of consistency, but to avoid repetition, I'll go over them again briefly.
  • Encourages exploratory play and roleplaying rather than fighting to overcome non-essential obstacles, even in Dungeons.
  • Players try to avoid, rather than actively seek out, wandering monster encounters - quickening the pace of play. Mostly because they don't spend an hour checking every room for secret doors.
  • The slower pace of level gain keeps the players at optimum dungeon exploring levels (1-9) for longer and invokes a real sense of achievement with each level up.
  • At the rate we're sitting down for sessions (near enough every time all the members of both households are able and available -more often than you would think) we could conceivably reach name level within a matter of months.
However, that being said my earlier choice has so far had a lot to be desired. In the last session, the party learned a great many lessons about trust and tactics. In the previous session, the adventurers left the environs of their home to travel on a long journey for the very first time. In the other (near) Xp-free session, the party negotiated their first quest (and earned 50gp each up front -the only Xp gained in the session), began their first quest and had their first ever combat.

Now surely, all these experiences themselves justify an Xp award of sorts. Xp does stand for experience after all. Some of the were story experiences, some were combat experiences. Now, when it comes to OSR games I tend not to give out story Xp awards. After all, a sandbox campaign is not about me, as the DM, railroading the party down a specific plot line. But I'm contemplating issuing small Xp awards for good ideas and "first-time" events, such as the first time they fight a battle aboard ship, venture to another plane of existence, encounter a new type of monster (in broad terms: Demon, Undead or Ooze for example, as opposed to every time they meet a new type of humanoid). I'm not wild on this idea, as such awards could pile up really quickly. So if I do begin issuing them, it'll be at the rate of about 10 Xp per character level. Or something equally minor. Yes, I am a total experience point scrooge. Why? Because I like high level characters (NPC or otherwise) to feel special.

Secondly, there is the issue of Xp awards for defeating monsters. Now, I like this idea in principle. Of course you're going to learn something from every fight (hell, I do in real life). My concern is simply that, over the course of a single session, so many monsters bite the dust that I've seen characters go from 1st to second level in under three sessions. That's waaaay to fast for my liking -especially considering how often we, as a group, are able to meet. Five sessions in less than a month, remember? And we still might be able to squeeze in a sixth before new year.

In some OSR games, the Xp award for defeating a monster consists of a flat rate (usually relatively low) followed by a modifier of +1 Xp per hit point. This just seems way to high for me. Sure, the monster Xp ends up split between all the PC's and their henchmen, but combined with treasure Xp, the rate of advancement still feels too high.

So, what are my options:
  • Keep things as they are, an option I would remain dissatisfied with.
  • Add the occasional (small) story Xp award to the existing system -something I feel I should certainly do, as it's a system I've used in just about every non OSR game I've ever DM'd.
  • Give the PC's full experience for monsters and treasure. Something I definitely don't want to do.
I'm reluctant to even trial the third option. Once you've given players a bone like this it's extremely hard to take it away without annoying the hell out of the players. I'm tempted to initiate a rule where the characters receive the base Xp award for a monster kill (with no extra Xp based on hit points) but that feels like too large a first step.

So, here's what I'm going to do. For the next few sessions, I'm going to issue the characters with 1/2 Xp for treasure acquired and 1/2 the base, unmodified Xp award for creatures they kill. I hate to alter the focus of the game this way. While I certainly don't expect the players to actively seek out wandering monster encounters, I'm concerned that they are likely to become somewhat more blaise about time wasting.

If anyone has any thoughts or suggestions for a better idea than this I'd love to hear them. It's a common problem, and one I'm sure I solved easily enough in previous Old School games a good ten-fifteen years ago. If only I could remember exactly what it was I did then, I'd be a much happier bunny than I am now.

No comments: