Thursday, January 30, 2014

Counting Goblins Over the Editions - A Look at James Wyatt's Latest D&D Article

Let me start out by saying that James missed a HUGE part of AD&D expo in his article - loot. Expo for loot recovered is more than what players can expect in by the book AD&D, which kind of throws off his numbers - and hit point.

Read the article without my insightful observations at the WotC website.

Level Advancement

By James Wyatt

I talked last week about the rate at which characters acquire magic items as they gain levels. So let's back up and talk about the rate at which characters gain levels! (lets back up even more - in AD&D 1e, characters gained expo from gaining magic items)

How Many Goblins . . .

I'm curious: How many goblins does a 1st-level fighter have to defeat to reach 2nd level?

In 1st and 2nd Edition AD&D, a goblin was worth around 15 XP. A fighter needed 2,000 XP to reach 2nd level. That's a lot of goblins—134 goblins would make the fighter 2nd level if you assume the fighter killed them all alone. (and completely discounting any loot that might have been recovered from said Goblins - the math is wrong right out of the gate)

In 3rd Edition D&D, a goblin was a CR ⅓ monster, so 3 of them were an appropriate challenge for four 1st-level characters. That means a 1st-level fighter would get 100 XP for defeating 1 goblin. All characters needed 1,000 XP to reach 2nd level, so 10 goblins would bring the fighter up a level. (alright, even taking into account loot in 1e, this really does show a change in the dynamics of leveling)

In 4th Edition, that goblin might be a level 1 minion or a level 1 lurker or skirmisher. If they're minions, each is worth 25 XP, so the fighter (who needed 1,000 XP to reach 2nd level) would need to defeat 40 goblins. If they're not minions, each is worth 100 XP, so the answer is the same as in 3rd Edition: 10 goblins to reach 2nd level. (is there really that much of a difference between 1st level minions and non-minions in 4e? they all die with one hit more or less)

That's a pretty random measure, but it certainly speaks to different expectations of level advancement in the different editions of the game, as well as some variable understandings of the threat presented by a single goblin.

How Many Encounters . . .

It's hard to judge what the pace of level advancement actually looked like in AD&D, for a couple of reasons. First, different characters advanced at different rates—the fighter needed 2,000 XP to reach 2nd level, but the thief needed only 1,250 XP and the magic-user needed 2,500. (it all balanced out as time went on) Second, there weren't any clear guidelines for what an appropriate encounter was. But a roll on the random monster tables for a 1st-level dungeon would yield an encounter worth, on average, about 90 XP. For a party of four characters, that's 23 XP each. So 87 of those encounters would bring the fighter to 2nd level! Any treasure found in those encounters would also contribute XP to that total, so the actual number of encounters could have been much less—possibly more like 40. (and don't forget treasure found outside of those encounters - and who rolled random encounters for ALL of the rooms in a 1e dungeon?)

Oy. I've said it before: I think one of the great advances brought to the game by 3rd Edition was a clear guideline for how to build an encounter to challenge a party. (I'm going to say it and I'm SURE there will be a large number that disagree, but that led to 3e's cookie cutter encounters for those that bothered with CL) And that guideline undergirded the math of character advancement. The charts were built so that a character would advance a level after 13⅓encounters of the same level. 4th Edition stayed on the same trajectory, but adjusted the expectation to about ten encounters—or eight encounters, one major quest, and one minor quest per character in the party. (I'm not much on formalistic adventure design - YMMV) 

How Many Sessions . . .

There's psychology behind the question of level advancement. Games reward you for playing: An opponent lands Park Place where you have a hotel, and you collect a fat wad of cash. You play a 7-letter word on a triple word score and write down 180 points on the score sheet while gloating over your opponents. You beat your previous high score, end up on a leaderboard, or earn an achievement. You get a power-up, finish a level, or send your opponent flying off the screen. (these are games where you are playing against others, not with others. No so sure how the examples hold up)

The rewards in D&D include experience points (earned after every encounter), treasure (earned after some encounters), new class features (earned each level), and new feats, spell levels, ability score increases, and the like (earned at some new levels). You might earn treasure or XP as a reward for completing an adventure. Many DMs award XP after every game session rather than every encounter. 4th Edition gave action points at every milestone (every two encounters). (too many carrots - holy shit)

But you see what I'm getting at: rewards of different magnitude come at different intervals. That's good—our brains respond well to both small, frequent rewards and large, infrequent rewards, and a good game design offers both. Without frequent small rewards, players begin to feel like their efforts aren't paying off. They're doing a lot of work with nothing to show for it. Without occasional large rewards, encounters feel like pushing a button to get a morsel of food—a repetitive grind with no meaningful variation. (gotta love the imagery - if pushing a button to get a morsels of food is what game design comes down to these days, I'm glad I play games built on older rules systems)

So the trick to figuring out level advancement is figuring out how often players need that very significant reward. (here's the real trick - in a good campaign with a skilled DM and players looking to have fun, the fun is the carrot more than any other trick) A number of factors go into answering that question: How long does it take to get used to playing your character at a new level? How long do you want to play the character at that level once you're used to it? How big is the reward of going up a level? How do you ensure that players have a feeling of progress without feeling like they're getting rewarded for nothing? (overthinking... or maybe not. sometimes we don't want to know how the wizard behind the curtain does what he does, we just want the end results. when magic can be broken down by science, it is no longer magic. A good campaign is magical)

In 3rd Edition, 14 encounters would get you up a level, but how long did it take to complete those encounters? Of course, that depends: How long are your sessions and how often do you play? If you play four-hour sessions, how much do you get done in one session?

The 4th Edition DMG reveals some of the expectations that went into building the XP math for that game (an edition over done with the math behind the game to the point the magic was lost):

If you were to start a campaign with 1st-level characters on January 1st, play faithfully for four or five hours every week, and finish four encounters every session, your characters would enter the paragon tier during or after your session on June 24th, reach epic levels in December, and hit 30th level the next summer. Most campaigns don't move at this pace, however; you'll probably find that the natural rhythms of your campaign produce a slower rate of advancement that's easier to sustain.

At four encounters every weekly session, characters would reach a new level every other week, and we thought that felt about right. We also adjusted the scale so that you'd hit 2nd level pretty quickly—the first hit is free, so to speak. (nice! just like the crack dealers in the mid to late 90's in the South Bronx that I used to collar up. As if I didn't have enough reasons to dislike 4e already)

Where We're Heading

Our current design is going in a similar direction: advancing pretty quickly at low levels. It's a little tricky to nail it down, because our expectation of what an appropriate encounter is has changed somewhat. We expect every adventure to include a mix of easy, moderate, challenging, and really hard encounters (I so detest formulas). That said, a 1st-level character should hit 2nd level after about 6 moderately difficult encounters. (I'm not sure yet, but that might be 15 goblins' worth of XP.)

Compared to the previous two editions, an encounter can go much more quickly, so (again, depending on the length of your sessions) it's not unreasonable to think that you'll hit 2nd level after a single session. Another session might bring you to 3rd level, two more to 4th, and three more to 5th level. You might hit 20th level within a year of play, assuming a relatively steady rate of play. (i'm not going to say this is excessive or now, as I tend to enhance the expo the longer the time is between sessions - the more infrequent the sessions, the large the invisible expo bonus. Again, I don't like the formula, but that is my opinion. I have a successful blog, so my opinion must count more ;)


  1. 1) Did you just give out XP for getting a magic item? If so, that's not how I remember things, and that's not how Gygax wrote things in the DMG (p. 85; in short, you had to sell the magic items).

    2) Gold didn't give XP in 2e, aside from as a special for rogues (and it wasn't 1=1, it was 10 gp = 1 xp, IIRC).

    1. Page 121 of the DMG says you get the XP value listed for magic items if you keep them. Page 85 also says you get XP for keeping magic items, just that it is "relatively small."

    2. Huh, beaten to the comment by Tenkar.

    3. heh - I could have quoted XP and GP value for most any magic sword without even hitting the book - i lived in the 1e DMG for years ;)

    4. We definitely got XP for both gold and magic items..We could have been wrong, but its how we played..

  2. 1) DMG 1e page 121:
    The suggested experience point (x.P.) values are for characters who keep
    the items. Gold piece sale values are the usual sums which characters will
    be paid for magic items, and if so sold, the x.p. award should be based on
    the selling price of the items, not the x.p. value. Also remember that a
    character is assumed to retain an item, thus getting the low x.p. value for
    it, if he or she sells it to another player character. (See EXPERIENCE)

    That is what EGG wrote

    2) No part of the article was discussing 2e, so neither was I. 2e changed expo significantly from 1e for non combat expo.

    1. "In 1st and 2nd Edition AD&D, a goblin was worth around 15 XP." That seems like a part.

    2. I'll grant you that if you reread the parts of the 1e DMG you missed ;)

  3. DMG page 85:
    All items (including magic) or creatures sold for gold pieces prior to the
    awarding of experience points for an adventure must be considered as
    treasure taken, and the gold pieces received for the sale add to the total
    treasure taken. (Those magic items not sold gain only a relatively small
    amount of experience points, for their value is in their usage.)

    Expo was given for magic retained, and it went to the player that kept the item. Even 400 pts for a +1 swords was significant

  4. He neglects the inherent 'carrots' of ongoing play - magic item acquisition, money to purchase new gear and possibly hire henchmen, special character perks acquired through roleplaying... yes, we've always looked at the next level as the 'big' step, but you could finish a session with a sense of accomplishment just insofar as you defeated the goblin warlord who's been bothering you for two sessions, you earned the favor of the elf queen (she owes you BIG TIME), you picked up a potion of heroism, and you still have that green gem that gives off a magic vibe but which you have yet to identify. All told, I'd say that you got quite a bit out of that session, even though you don't have any new statistical advances for your character. These other rewards cannot be ignored for their value to the player in the ongoing play experience. One experience level could (and often will) yield many such perks that have nothing to do with your powers and abilities.

    1. I could not agree more with this. Why everything needs a "mechanic" or has to be represented by the mechanics of the game is beyond me.

    2. Well maybe the reason everything has to come out in points (XP, action points, whatever) for the newer editions is the emphasis on tournament style play? D&D Encounters at the FLGS and all that, as well as module-driven play ("adventure paths") because all those tend to minimize having an ongoing story beyond the plot of the module? I guess if my PC was not staying in one sandbox, I might be more motivated by stuff I can add to my sheet than in-game-world stuff? I never played that way though so it's still not something I quite get.

  5. In Hackmaster (the new one) there are some guidelines for encounters and handing out experience. There is a bit of math (about 15 encounters per level) but it is really easy to ignore that and just go with the fun stuff. The guidance helped get me started with the new system, but as soon as I felt comfortable with how the rules played I really started to ignore those numbers and run the game based on how my players played. Good players make the "standard suggested" encounter levels (based on total experience of the monsters) a cake walk - so i made everything tougher. More importantly, the players have fun and I as the GM have fun. Some guidelines on what the designers were thinking is good, but as you said, as soon as the entire thing is a formula it looses the magic. Reading that article made me sad that this is the way the game is thought of these days...

    1. Hackmaster (the new one) is a morass of rules, exceptions, and individual wound tracking. The DMG looks like its going to add even more levels of minutia to the game. If the flaw here in D&D is over mechanical then Hackmaster is a luddite's lowest level of hell. I was all for in for Kenzer for awhile, but 15 pages of discussion on barbed arrows and crossbow bolts being pulled out I'm going to pass and get back to storytelling.

  6. In my 3e game, I think I gave out 2/3s of the recommended amount of XP. I recall characters gaining levels before they had even had a chance to use all the new powers that they earned for the previous level.

  7. It is really frustration when you hear someone who should know better talking about how 1e didn't have guidelines for creating a challenging encounter. The way it worked was the players decided how much challenge they wanted by which dungeon level they stayed on. Too easy, go deeper, too hard go back up. It seems like the idea that the players should have input into the difficulty of the challenges is completely lost.

  8. In 2011, I did some calculations like this in regards to Frank Mentzer/Aaron Allston BECMI/Rules Cyclopedia advancement. Level Advancement
    Then in 2012, I extended to idea to what it would take to actually WIN Dungeons & Dragons

  9. a revision to Wyatt's math -

    Goblin = 14 xp on avg

    Carries 10.5 sp or about 1gp = 1 xp

    Looted weapons from killed goblins about 5 gp profit per gobby = 5 xp

    so, 20 xp per gobby, not 15, so 100 gobbies to level

  10. Good gawd.. Math is HARD!! We don't use strict XP rules here in either of our 2 campaigns. The other guy who DM's claims to keep track of everyone's XP on his own, but I have my doubts. In the campaign I am running a new level is achieved party-wide when it feels right, and no one has a problem with it, since it feels right to everyone at about the same time. Keeping track of XP was simpler AD&D since there weren't all these other fiddly bits to also keep track of at each level, like Skills, Feats, Saves, Abilities, Spells, Smite, Rage, Channel, BAB, etc etc etc ad infinitum. Ad nauseum is more like it... It's no wonder people need laptops and software to play D&D nowadays.

  11. "a clear guideline for how to build an encounter to challenge a party."

    For a very bizarre definition of 'challenge'. An encounter built with an EL equal to party level was _not_ a 'challenge'. It was a standard encounter and you were expected to be able to handle 4-5 of them before taking a rest and recovering expended resources.

    A 'challenging' encounter is presented as something to be infrequent and a carefully-considered occasion.

  12. "The rewards in D&D include experience points (earned after every encounter)"

    False if TPK

    A lot of weird assumptions in this article. If I'm playing D&D I don't want to have a guarantee to level in X amount of time. It doesn't hold value if I feel I haven't earned it.

  13. I don't want to number crunch when I game and I especially do not want players caught up in trying to work out game mechanics when they should be slavering with gold lust like Bugs Bunny jumping into mound of coins and gems that would fill a swimming pool. I don't give XP for coin and magic items, they are their own rewards as well as their own challenges, but I do toss it out in small, medium and large doses for the players doing things or at least trying to do things.

    If a player does nothing but stand there, stock still, and swing a sword at the goblin, the game becomes something like Arnold Rimmer playing risk with endless calls of dice rolls and the PC will earn minimal XP for the encounter. If a player tells me what they are doing, tries unusual attacks, like Erol Flynn fighting Basil Rathbone in Robin Hood, as the fight weaves back and forth with thrown chairs, torches tossed at eyes, biting, gouging, throttling, picking the little green goblin bastard up by its spindly legs and dashing its brains out against the wall, then I reward the player both for the attempt, the fun it brings to the game, the success and even great reaction to horrible failures. Killing one goblin well can earn the character a bucketful of XP, while just tossing the dice, swing and a miss, swing and hit, swing and miss style, is a piss poor way to play a fantastic game and I try not encourage it.

    And when a character does things that are just plain cool, out of combat, when they think of cunning plans, when they use the right words at the right time, bring a laugh or a cringe or shout of triumph from the group, then I reward them as well. I give out XP for doing and trying and the players making their characters come alive.

  14. New edition characters are girlie men. compared to 1e.

  15. I do have to call Shenanigans for saying 4e non minions go down in one hit.. That was half the reason why the game bogged down so much.. I just looked at an Encounters I'm converting to Next and a level 1 Bullywug skirmisher.. 26 HP, that's a far cry from a level 1 Minion with 1 HP.

    1. Yeah, I was going to mention this. A level 1 goblin lurker (Blackblade) has 25 HP. The minion has 1.

  16. It's telling that in the entire article there is not one mention of character death. Not one. You're not advancing because of, well, SURVIVING an encounter, since survival is a given. You're advancing because you've endured 3 sessions or 10 encounters or 200 die rolls or 5 bags of Doritos and 10 cokes worth of...what exactly? Pushing metal miniatures around a plastic tarp to arrive at a forgone conclusion? Are you getting experience points for killing monsters? That's precisely what's NOT happening. You're NOT killing 10 (or 20 or 50, or whatever) goblins. You're watching them die as you dance around them (and eat your Doritos and drink your Cokes). So in a sense, the logic of it is self-fulfilling. If I had to endure a year of THAT so I could get to 30th level (why I would ever want to get to 30th level is another question), I'd be angry too if I was slain at 29th (angry, would be an understatement). It would be like faithfully serving 364 days of prison time and then being told on the last day that I had to do it all over again. Not to be critical or engage in edition wars or anything. :)

    In fairness, here's the counter argument:

    "You're missing the point, Spalding, it's all about the stories you can tell afterward..."


    1. I think you just perfectly described the MMO experience translated to PnP. Maybe that's what is so unsatisfying about WotC's handling of tabletop D&D? Either they keep trying to infuse the game with collectible card game mechanics, or they're aping the "lean back and watch the game play itself," stupor inducing, game-play of level-grinding computer games.

      No wonder I feel so disengaged when I sit in with an old group, who are still playing out the string with 4e.

      Paint by numbers vs. freehand.

    2. Oakes and N.A. present my perspective exactly. I'm running a group using Next rules right now. We're having fun. We were previously running 4E and had a great time with that. However, some people have become accustomed to not really feeling like their character is at risk of death. And not for lack of giving them over level encounters in 4E. I often gave them encounters 4 and 5 levels higher than they were. The end result was simply that combats took 3 hours instead of 2 because so many turns were spent granting healing surges to other players. Now we've had multiple character deaths, everyone's levels vary and difficult combats take 30-40 minutes at a maximum. Hopefully, with more practice, I can get people in a better frame of mind that I can crank up the risk factors a bit more to make their decisions have more weight. None of this is accounted for in a calculation that only cares how many of something have to fall in battle to grant a level.

  17. "I'm going to say it and I'm SURE there will be a large number that disagree, but that led to 3e's cookie cutter encounters for those that bothered with CL"

    Agreed, though that's in large part due to people misinterpreting those guidelines. Justin Alexander does a great job of explaining this. The DMGs wilderness encounter chart for the Dark Mountains (p. 136) is a pretty good example of how varied encounters were supposed to be in that system

  18. Has anyone managed to work out the antinumber for one goblin. That is the XP you get for escaping, subverting, co-opting, evading or simply ignoring one goblin?

    Like "I trick the goblins into leving their guard post with a distraction, sneak past and steal the gem."

    1. That reminds me of an adventure one time where we encountered some surly orc tribes. The fighters were all for charging in, slicing and dicing. The rest of us had another idea. The orcs were from two different tribes and didn't really care for each other. Guard duty rotated among the tribes. What we ended up doing was killing a few guards and framing the other tribe for it. It was quite reminiscent of the Cirith Ungol fight in Lord of the Rings.. In fact, I think that was our inspiration. Ah, those were the days.

    2. 0 XP

      Whaddya think this is, Dungeons & Dragons?!

    3. Yeah! LOL Actually, I think there was a "story reward" or something given for that, but regardless of that, it was just so much friggin fun! Nothing like sitting back, watching your enemies get rid of themselves for you. Of course, if I recall correctly, the real challenge still lay ahead... a dragon. (Why do I feel like an old adventurer sitting around a tavern telling tales??)

  19. I'll continue doing experience the way I have since the early '80s; I give the players how much I want them to have based on the events of the session(s) involved. :D Less math that way.

  20. That article bothered me on many levels, not the least of which was that once again we're going to get XP lightning-rod focused on combat awards. The only edition I liked for XP gain was 2nd, where monster XP wasn't the be-all and end-all and the game included a multitude of additional XP options that were class and activity specific. As far as 1E and the gold standard of XP goes I always preferred the T&T motto of "treasure is it's own reward" and never once gave out XP for gold in the old days.

    On the plus side, this article has me reconsidering the Pathfinder XP = monsters methodology in my current games. Think I'm going to ditch it for an older 2E-based approach.

    1. Oh and FWIW a minion in 4E is indeed a cheap one-hit kill, but the regular monster of same level will likely require four or more hits from the fighter (or one or two dailies) to take down. So yeah, there's a huge difference (goblin, for ex, might be 1 HP minion or 36 HP bruiser).

  21. I thought the role play and the story were the game, not roll play. What's the rush to get to 30th level and when you get there what do you do? start another campaign of formulaic and flat encounters?


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