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Saturday, February 22, 2014

Experience Points, Levels and the Demarcation Line of the OSR

Earlier this week, Mike Mearls had an article at the WotC website talking about experience points and levels in DnD Next. I am not going to critique the article here, but it got me thinking about the "line in the sand" that separates 2e and 3e, or OSR game rules from those that follow. It comes down to one thing, and it's not skills, feats or any one of a number of other things that annoy me.

Nope, it comes down to one simple thing.

Class based experience tables.

Prior to 3e, each class had it's own experience table and their own rate of advancement. Part of the balance between the classes was just that - the rate they advanced in levels based on experience points.

I do remember the houserule we used in high school for a bit - one level gained per adventure, no counting of experience points. It sure seemed to make leveling easier, less number crunching and the magic-users sure loved the idea. Multi-class characters were always an issue, and thieves got boned. We didn't use this houserule for long.

Now, Mike goes on to say that counting expo for more "open" campaign is fine, but for adventure paths, automatic or paced leveling is the way to go:
Tracking experience points and using them to award levels makes a lot of sense in open-ended games, where the players can go where they wish, tackle the specific challenges that appeal to them, and create their own goals as a campaign progresses. In this type of game, when the players decide to assault the lair of a blue dragon, their primary goal is most often the treasure and XP they'll gain for defeating it. 
In a more story-driven campaign, however, that lair assault could have a more complex purpose. The characters might serve as an elite cadre of spies and operatives for a king. The blue dragon might be a key villain who plots against the crown. Defeating the dragon removes a threat to the realm and creates a key event in the campaign's story arc. In this type of campaign, treasure and XP take second place in the characters' goals, behind the dragon's importance in the narrative.
That "story-driven campaign" crap reminds me of the old Dragonlance series of adventure.
No matter what the players did, they always ended the same way. The players were not part of the story, but detritus carried along by the pre-ordained story plot.

I suspect DnD Next will be heavily supported by "story-driven campaigns". Shame.

Not that I'm all that surprised. I'm not saying that Next won't support "open-ended", or home brewed campaigns out of the box. I just think the follow up products will be much like Pathfinder Adventure Paths, with even less wiggle room.

I may be wrong...


  1. Definitely one of the selling points of earlier editions for me, those different leveling points. Having barely touched 2e before I stopped playing D&D altogether, and skipping all of the 3.x years, I hardly noticed that it was gone in 4e.

  2. i ditched xp and made thieves tougher more like castles and crusades version - i have too many players that accountancy of treasure, encumbrance and xp is too much and at 10lv we spend sometimes a whole session doing accountancy or it cuts into play time too much that i less like high leval dnd (and this is after scrapping xp) - i just started putting an egg timer and calculator in my dice box to "egg" people on faster and speed maths

    sadly changes to cthulhu next is based on players unable to multiply or divide by 5

  3. I dunno, I've seen a few OSR games have a single XP chart. And it was in some early TSR games like Gangbusters.

    The different XP wasn't really for flavor, but an attempt to "balance" classes. Roger Moore had a series of articles in Dragon analyzing this (and then in 2e, you had the design a class rules in the DMG). But if you try to balance classes to begin with, you don't need varying XP.

    And speaking as someone who would play a lot of multi-class characters, it was always annoying because you'd always have one level higher than the other, which made hit points confusing.

    This is actually something that a lot of retro clones do weirdly. For instance, in Basic Fantasy RPG, a thief with a million XP would be 20th level. A wizard would be 13th. A cleric 18th.

    And in Swords & Wizardry, it actually takes more experience for a thief to gain a level(at high levels (130,00 xp) than it does a MU (only 100,000), and clerics only need 70,000 per level. You have thieves leveling almost half as fast as clerics. Does that make sense? Thieves reach 11th faster, but once there, they level slower than any other class.

  4. Class-based XP tables are indeed a hallmark of OSR games. But I always saw them as a problem. If a class levels faster it is more attractive to players, simple as that. People often shy away from the MU after they see the slow advancement. Giving all classes the same table speeds class selection for character creation--it's one less thing to consider.

    1. On the flip side of that, in my group not even the fast levelling is enough to convince people to play thieves :P

  5. To be honest, I've ditched XP in my current Pathfinder campaign. The overhead is pointless when we get together less than once a month. I only played in one 2e campaign, so I wasn't aware that marked the conversion to a single Advancement table. Your point on different XP tables being a balancing mechanism is a good one. Also the XP costs associated with casting some spells and making magic items tended to keep M-Us from overpowering gameplay; they simply couldn't advance as fast as the others. Now once the party gets to 7th-10th level, everyone else fades into the background. I wonder if that's a big reason behind all the class variants.

  6. As someone who has played a lot of games for a lot of years I must state - as soon as I hear someone pushing 'character/class balance' I assume the game is effed up.
    Look at 3e, for example. A shocking amount of the mechanics and the splatbook escalation was not about playability but 'let's balance x'. 'Thieves aren't as effective in combat as fighters, so let's get some feats and a prestige...'; 'Clerics don't get enough offensive magic compared to mages, so let's add spells, feats, etc...'.
    Why? All because of two desires - one chart for XP and to make people feel like their special character was just as special as everyone else's special character.
    I *like* different XP charts; I *like* that some classes/characters just CAN'T do certain things. Why? because in Real Life people are different, people are unbalanced, and just like I can't sing, some people freeze up when public speaking, etc. Why do thieves go up in level faster? Why not? After all, they can't fight that well, they don't cast spells, - they don't need a lot of time in training with weapons or bent over a library desk. They tend to take insane risks and have a high mortality rate. It sounds like they might just learn their tradecraft a bit faster and, well, the bad ones get weeded out, too.
    Why do paladins go so slow? heck, they are highly trained warriors AND a type of cleric; lots of horseback fighting practice, lots of weapons, long hours praying, duty at the temple, very high standards. Sounds like progress might take longer.
    You get the idea.
    The *feel* is different - the difference between a paladin and a thief in 1e is far greater than the difference in 3e or 4e - The paladin will never sneak, the thief will never heal, and after 20 adventures the thief will be seen as a seasoned veteran (compared to the many thieves who died facing the same risks, and compared with the con men and pick pockets of the city) while the paladin is relatively inexperienced compared to his fellow elite holy warrior comrades.
    The thief will still cower behind the paladin when there is an ogre tribe about, though
    There is a phenomenon I have seen more often than I can count around a table where the game is about 'balance' (like 3e, etc) but almost never around the table at a 1e/2e table. That is,
    'I am playing the [x] but bob's [y] is a better [x]'.
    ('I am playing the thief but bob's bard is a better thief, for example)
    Which is more important - that everyone have a chance to shine, or that everyone can do everything evenly?

  7. Variable XP tables were added late in the design of D&D. Dave used one chart for all classes as does Empire of the Petal Throne. If Dave Arneson and MAR Barker aren't old school then neither am I.

  8. Sandbox adventures and sequel-based adventures tend not to play well together, IMO, so I don't think you're very wrong about WotC's adventures being "story-driven". I have some issues with that, since I've never run a game that doesn't have some kind of story, even if it's "we want to kill things and take their stuff", but whatever.

    On the topic of XP...everyone has opinions, and if you are having fun, that's what matters. Cliche, but still really true.

    IMO, class-based XP tables make some sense if a) xp is awarded objectively, and b) there is a difference in the effectiveness of different classes. I'm not convinced a) is possible outside of a computer game, and b) is circular. You need different xp because classes are different, classes are different because they have different xp. What keeps classes from being "balanced" (ugh, barf, hate that word. Strawman.) beyond a perception that the classes are written in stone? Nothing. Giving thieves an extra "thief" ability doesn't mean they're suddenly taking the fighter's slot. If a thief got an extra HD, would it rate advancement as a fighter? A cleric? Should fighters advance faster, and thieves slower, in a politics & larceny campaign, where you can't kill everyone and lots of doors are locked? If different xp charts are so important, why is the actual difference between characters usually non-existent, or at most, one level?

    My issues with S&W experience charts are laid out above, and better than I could have done.

    I've started putting them in my classes because people seem to expect them, but it's a potemkin affair as far as I'm concerned.

  9. I can see the advantages to both approaches. On the one hand I loathe the sort of "everybody is equal in every way and you're all special snowflakes" implication that I perceive in some modern game design, but on the other, meticulously tracking experience and other such bookkeeping (counting arrows, torches, spell components, etc.) has always been one of my least favorite aspects of running/playing in RPGs.

    I don't believe characters have to be equally powerful at every level in a class and level based RPG, but explaining to a new player why the word "level" doesn't quite mean the same thing from one character to another in an old game or retroclone, isn't always easy; especially for players whose fantasy game "literacy" is mostly rooted in World of Warcraft and Diablo.

    Maybe this is why I find myself increasingly drawn to skill and careers based systems, like BRP or Runequest, that do away with the whole "levels" thing altogether?

  10. I favor single-xp charts, it seems to be fine for my players; I think the idea of class balance is a ruse...there was little balance in 1st edition, and it was more of a holistic approach to class design that led to features like slow leveling wizards and fast leveling rogues early on.

    The issue of story games is a ruse, however; there is no D&D game worth playing that doesn't have a story, whether that story is something the DM serves up or the players create through their own actions. When you complain about a module like Dragonlance it's not the story part that's the problem, it's the fact that it's a railroad module. Railroading is the culprit, and story-based modules get lumped in as a group when it's really this segment that pushes the players through from point A to B to C without any options...or even worse, doesn't even make them the stars of the show in the process. If WotC relies heavily on that sort of story based railroading then yes, we're in for some bad modules. However recent releases suggest we'll see a bit more diversity.

    1. "When you complain about a module like Dragonlance it's not the story part that's the problem, it's the fact that it's a railroad module."

      Well, to be quite honest, the "story" of Dragonlance is pretty bad even without the railroading, because Tracy Hickman is a hideously awful writer - one of the worst to ever make the bestseller list in my opinion, and that's even including people like Danielle Steele and Jackie Collins.

      '...there is no D&D game worth playing that doesn't have a story, whether that story is something the DM serves up or the players create through their own actions."

      A "story" the players create through their own actions is fine; that's just the narrative of a game. A story "served up" by the DM is better known as "a railroad". The DM has to railroad the players when he's telling a "story", otherwise they might "ruin" it by actually playing the game. And we can't have that, can we?

  11. I wholly agree with Tori here. That's exactly my take also.

    On both the xp issue and the story vs sandbox issue. Well said Tori!

  12. For my Swords & Wizardry game, I ditched the elaborate charts and adopted a single chart that gets reset every level. Depending upon class, a PC has to earn from 7 - 12 XP to get to the next level. A thief has to earn 7, while a magic-user has to earn 12. I award XP per adventure.

  13. Tori,
    I can't speak for everyone but far too often I find "story-based" means "the entire thing is on rails".

    1. In effect, it does mean that.

      If the adventure has a predetermined "story", the only way to keep the "plot" going as "planned" is to railroad the players. Otherwise, they're going to do what they want, and there goes the DM's precious "story".

  14. I was just looking at an old Rifts rulebook. Thinking about the contempt Siembieda has expressed for game balance between classes, it's strange that he bothered to have different experience tables for each class.

    1. There's a reason the design philosophy behind RIFTS can be summed up as 'WHEEEEEEEE!!'

      RIFTS doesn't have linear-warrior/quadratic-wizard problems, it has linear-Hobo/FTL-capable-Cosmo Knight

    2. As I recall, XP/levels didn't do all that much for a Rifts character. You pretty much decided whether to be a demigod or a weakling at character creation.

  15. I do appreciate games where accomplishing in-game goals takes precedent over gathering treasure and items that make the numbers on your character sheet go up (as long as the goals are determined by the players, rather than laid out by the GM).

    But one might easily give out a set amount of XP for various goals. Defeating a worthy nemesis? *Gaining* a worthy nemesis? Joining the seven keys of Maguffinar together? All worth a lot more XP than hacking up orcs--at the most extreme, you might even make fighting and stealing treasure worth a trivial amount of XP, while advancing personal or group ambitions is the main mode of advancement.