Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Rules Cyclopedia Oddities Part 5: Experience

I should sit here and write about something else. So here I am, writing about something else instead ... But did you ever think that the reputation D&D has for being about killing things and taking their stuff is unjustified? I did and there is yet another odd thing about the D&D Rules Cyclopedia that could shed some light on why that is so.

Just killing monsters and taking their stuff?

No, definitely not. Sure, you get xp for treasure and for defeating monsters and that makes a good portion of the low to mid-level game. But the fact of the matter is that you'll need far more juice than what you'll get for killing and looting once you enter, say, level 10 or higher. Actually, one wizard'll need to kill the equivalent of 455 red dragons or loot 4.350.000 gp (mix and match, of course) to reach level 36. That's ONE character. Just isn't happening by killing and looting alone.

On the contrary. Chapter 10: Experience is very illuminating in that regard. For starters, by concluding an adventure or quest, characters will get the amount xp they gained for defeating monsters during that quest again as a bonus. So just murderhoboing around won't double the monster xp like that. Finishing adventures does. And I agree, killing overcoming is still a motivator here. But the story gets a major highlight with those rules, so there you go.

And it doesn't stop with that. A character furthermore gets 1/20 of the base xp he needs to reach next level for "good role playing". A thief, for instance, needs 120.000 xp from level 16 to level 17 (incidentally that's also the level range between all following levels). 1/20 would mean 6.000 xp just like that per session. "Good role playing" covers a lot of ground here and you only get it once per session. But it shows the emphasis of the game towards playing a character well. And since it's individually connected to level, it's a bonus far easier to get on higher levels than killing beasties (a group of four characters without help would have to kill a monster worth 24.000 xp to get that kind of xp ...).

And here is the kicker. Characters also get 1/20 of the base xp they need to reach next level for Exceptional Actions, or in other words, clever play. It's also an award you can get more than once per session. Saving allies from harm or clever skill use are just two examples here. It sure is not an easy thing to achieve, but possible once per session. Especially in high level games, where wrong decisions will have a far bigger impact.

The book also advises to aim level advancement to every 5 sessions (with no indications how long one of those sessions might be ... I might have to check on that). Going with simple math here and the assumption that an experienced player is able to gain at least 1/10 of the base xp he needs to reach next level through role playing and clever play per session. And that means half the xp we'd need in 5 sessions (5/10) are not for fighting and killing and looting.

That'd be 60.000 xp for the thief mentioned above. The rest comes from defeating monsters, gaining treasure and fulfilling quests. If we take a third each here, that'd mean 20.000 xp for killing, quests and loot each. All in all killing and looting makes a third of the game, experience-wise. Two thirds is what you get for good and clever role playing and going on quests.

That's his 1/10 to reach next level right there!
The new equipment was a nice bonus, too ... [source]
Here is one last thing: Defeating Monsters and Gaining Treasure do not necessarily mean killing and looting. You don't need to kill a monster in D&D to gain the full xp award for overcoming it as a challenge. Actually, even losing a fight against a monster will net the characters a quarter of the monsters xp value just for facing it!

Now that's some stubborn rumor, I'd say!

I'm not saying there's no killing and looting in D&D or that it isn't fun (or can't be, anyway). But it is not what the game is about. Not by a long shot and not going by the rules. I'd think a DM might actually hurt his game, if he insists to reduce the game to it. It might work for the first couple of levels but it will get very difficult later on as the game shifts gears with huge amounts of xp between levels. That's the moment when those other aspects, like good role playing or going on quests, gain traction and need proper rewards.

You see, if the assumed mode of play as described above isn't established from the beginning, it'll be experienced as a different game as they hit mid-level and the players could lose interest because of that. Might very well be the reason why many campaigns won't last beyond levels 6 to 10 and that's a well known problem.

Anyway, this is a great experience system, allowing for several different ways of play and it's somewhat odd that people keep insisting on saying D&D 1e is nothing more but this or that. It's actually way more versatile than later editions managed to be (especially 3 and 4e) and not at all geared towards combat as ultimo ratio.

So what can we take away from this? How a DM rewards a game will give players an impression what sort of play is the most beneficial at the table and they'll start playing accordingly. It's something a DM needs to communicate as clear and careful as possible. Much of the same goes for a system: how experience is gained will have a huge impact on how a game is played. In case of the D&D RC I'd say play it as written and see what happens. It won't be the D&D some would make you believe it is.

If you liked this post, you might want to check out the other oddities in this series. Comments are, as always, very welcome. Especially if they praise the Rules Cyclopedia :)


  1. Honestly, (I have no idea why I like to start my comments with Honestly - I am always honest, maintaining lies takes way too much work for what it's worth. Maybe it's because I know I'm about to write something which seems a bit unbelievable but....) Honestly, I think the kill and loot approach to D&D didn't come from the game but was imported into it from the world of pinball and video games.

    All three had systems where what you did amounted to points which eventually rewarded the player with extra lives, extra balls, or a more potent character. In pinball and video games it was also a measure of player status. It put your initials to the top of the list and told everyone in the neighborhood who was best as Asteroids or Galaxians. I think players (such as myself and my generation) just brought it over because we were still of a mindset that games were to be won and someone had to be crowned the victorious best player.

    With it we also brought a more simplified version of where points came from - namely hitting things - and that simplicity overwrote anything the game had to say about level advancement. I think that if the bookkeeping could have been easier we would have simply added up the damage we did and the whole game would become one of picking up kobolds and bopping them on the head.

    Personally, I don't miss it. All the best games I ever played didn't give a rat's ass about experience points, and I like it that way.

    1. Of course that's a matter of taste and all. But I have made the experience that it really has a huge impact on the game how you handle experience. Ignoring it might be another good way to do that :) But seriously, how are you planning to do that in your game?

  2. You seem to be leaving out XP for domain management, which can be another kind of game entirely. 1 GP = 1 XP means just being a Lord of a domain will run you through the XP tables pretty quickly.

    1. Is that in the RC? That would be huge! Could you point me in the right direction, please? I believe it's not in Chapter 10.

    2. Great question. It made me think twice about whether that set of rules was indeed carried forth to the RC. It certainly was a focal point in OD&D; and extensive domain management rules appeared in the Companion rules.

      Looking again at the RC, I have it in Chapter 12 on page 140. An excerpt:

      "Dominion Income and XP

      PC rulers gain experience points through rulership,by collecting resource and tax income from their peasant subjects. A PC or NPC ruler gains 1 experience point for each 1 gold piece of resource and tax income, but none for standard income or "salt tax" income. Experience points are gained at the end of each month. As DM, you may want to make the PC work for the experience points—by fighting monster battles, worrying about drought, etc."

    3. Nice! Thanks, Scott! I wasn't aware of that one. Looking it up just now, I found it's taken word by word from the Companion and no one cared enough to put it into chapter 10 or index it or anything, which is interesting in itself. And you are right, it potentially has a huge impact on how characters advance in the later game (depending on how much in-game time characters have between adventures). Great! Thanks again!

  3. I agree with the overall theme, but quibble with how you're presenting RC-D&D as equivalent to all forms of old D&D. The RC came out in the era of AD&D 2nd edition, and like that version reflects the shift in TSR's policy in the years following the satanic-panic controversy and the ebbing of fad-driven sales. Both AD&D1 and BXD&D offer XP solely for monsters overcome and treasure won. The role-playing and story-based awards you reference were added in 2nd edition and the RC largely because TSR wanted to encourage more heroic (bluntly, "family friendly") play styles instead of the opportunistic profiteering of the earliest versions of the game. There's actually a strong argument to be made that AD&D2 accidentally encouraged the murder-happy paradigm, because it made XP for GP optional and thus left awards from monsters as the only regular source of XP (many DM's didn't fully grok the newer and squishier narrative-based XP system).

    I also harbor reservations against the massively inflated character-level range of BECMI and RC. D&D's core assumptions don't really hold together well past 10th level (thus OD&D topping out at 10, BXD&D at 14 and AD&D at 18) so of course RC basically has to turn into an entirely different game with a different reward system as it extenuates characters.

    1. I did have a sentence in the post asking for people with pre-RC D&D to chime in and tell what's with that, as I have no plan. But I deleted it for some reason ... I do know that men and magic not only had a really awkward way to handle experience (something about dungeon level divided by character level?) and it had no level limits (there is talk about having level 20 characters on page 19). But I have no clue how that went down in actual play. It was not to last, though. BECMI was complete around 1985 and early revisions started in '81, so the idea to go as high as immortality predates the RC by at least 6 years. But (again) I have no idea how xp had been handled in basic and when that change occurred. That it happened was, in my opinion, something that took hold very fast back then. Not only with other published games, but also with several homebrews. I need to do some more reading on that :)

      Anyway, I'm not implying that the RC is an equivalent of all forms of old D&D, but it is the definite end of an development process and as that I think it represents the first edition quite well. I see what you mean, though.

  4. It's true there's no explicit level limit in OD&D, but neither is there any direct support much past level ten. "You can get your character to 20th level and higher" is in the same vague hand-wavey area as the text's "you can play a Balrog" suggestion.

    As for being the end of a development process, keep in mind that it's not a straight line of development from 1974's OD&D to 1991's RC. More properly, OD&D leads directly to AD&D (OD&D with all it's supplements is mechanically quite close to AD&D) while the "Basic" line was something of a remix/reboot, a step removed and built to reach a different market (toy stores, pretty much).

    All of that is probably just picking over unimportant details, I admit. Mor substantial is that their were plenty of designs that went in very different directions from D&D's XP system well before the RC. Runequest is the obvious first example that comes to mind (though it sort of paralleled the same path by having characters spend the money they won to buy skill training), but also Traveler (which simply didn't bother with character advancement). The first story-based advancement I can think of was 1985's Pendragon.

    1. No, you are right, of course. Those details are not unimportant. I'm aware that the RC is often enough the odd man out and while the BECMI series is definitely in line with most of it, OD&D sure enough isn't. Anyway, you make good points and I have to think about that a bit (mostly how much they actually targeted a market with the RC, as D&D 1e was an unwelcome stepchild at the time, right?) and do some research before I can take any position on them :) Thank you for sharing your insights and impressions here! I linked to an interesting article about how D&D grew in the beginning, just a few weeks back. It might interest you if you haven't read it already:

    2. That's an interesting read, thanks for linking. It touches on something that is surprisingly little discussed, how the history if D&D is largely the story of its publisher(s) trying to figure out how to tie what is essentially a process of performance to physical product. The changes of each iteration have been as much about marketing strategies as evolving gamer tastes. This is really apparent in the transition from light, collaborative, accommodating pre-fad OD&D which was written by hobbyists for hobbyists, to officious, restrictive oh-my-god-we're-making-millions AD&D1 which was written to establish that TSR was the only source of "real" D&D. It's enlightening to view all editions through this marketing lens. What's AD&D2's angle? Tamed mass-appeal then later colorful settings for DM's to buy. D&D3? Tons of char-build options for players to buy. D&D4? An online subscription modeled after MMO's. D&D5? Screw it, it's the brand that sells, not the game.

      But having said that, it's unclear how the RC was being marketed and to who. Part of the justification for the Basic line was to offer a simpler alternative to AD&D, but the full BECMI rules were actually denser than the contemporary "advanced" game. Another justification was that the boxed sets were appealing to toy stores and casual game shops which didn't want to carry hardbacks ... but the RC was a hardback. The closest thing to an explanation I've read is that TSR corporate culture was so focused on AD&D (and later novels) that the small "Basic" staff was pretty much left alone to do its own thing. Also, I don't think the Basic branch was unwelcome so much as it had grown away into its own quirky audience that, due to the slight mechanical incongruities and unique setting, was subtly disinclined to cross-over with the AD&D audience. I guess the Basic line was comparatively the more laid-back younger sibling who became modestly successful in their hometown while the Advanced branch was the ambitous older sibling who roared away to Hollywood for fame and fortune.

      (Pardon if I'm rambling, I'm unexpectedly engaged by this line of discussion.)

    3. Not a problem. I've seen rambling and that ain't it :) On the contrary, I think your arguments are sound. I'm actually not sure they knew what they did with the RC. But what it turned out to be is quite remarkable in it's own right, I think. It's to this day the only version of D&D that can claim to be "complete" in one book and with a scope that's even beyond core publications of later editions. I mean, they could do the same for AD&D, 3e and even 4e, but I'm not sure it's even discussed. Retroclones did some of that and I think a huge part of the appeal of those new books is the fact that they condense and collect all of that goodness in one place and with fresh eyes. Anyway, I digress. Thanks for your thoughts on the matter. Lots of food for thought!

    4. I took the time to check the Basic, Expert and Companion rules for hints and what I could find might be interesting in the context of this discussion :) First things first, it's not as detailed and specific as the RC and giving rules for "role playing" is a late addition, it seems. That being said, I'd say my original assessment still holds true, as D&D at least since Holmes in '77 always gave xp not only for killing, but also for "just" overcoming them. Moldvay Basic goes one step further and allows xp for clever and heroic gaming (p. B22). I'd like to stress that those had been examples, so the rules already give (as loose as they are formulated) a wide range of possibilities for awarding bonus xp. Couldn't find anything new in Expert (nothing obvious enough to find in such a short period of time, anyway), but the Companion does offer, as described in the comments above, xp for gold earned from the domain game! So there had been a wide variety of gaming styles other than killing and looting at least possible by the rules as written between 1977 and 1984. And that's very early in the D&D 1e publication history. And I'm not quite sure how modules added rules to this early on (which might be worth some research, I guess ...).

    5. Okay, one more and I'll leave it at that :) I just happened across an entry in B2 - Keep on the Borderlands where good aligned characters get 600 xp for destroying some evil books (p. 22). That's 1979 and clearly an award for role playing :) I'll stop spamming you now ...

  5. The idea of offering amounts based on the base XP needed to advance in level might work in higher-level play, but in the first few levels it seems like it might make things a little bit too... "smooth" is the closest word I can think of. With a group of good roleplayers, they might notice the disparate XP awards, and if everyone advances at roughly the same rate, the balance of varying XP amounts for different classes might be thrown off. After all, the big reason to play a human magic-user instead of an elf is that the latter takes almost twice as long to level up - which seems like a deliberate design decision, seeing as elves can use any weapons and armor *and* cast spells, and have more hit points than magic-users. The other disadvantage - lack of access to the highest-level spells - is one that most players won't take into account, since a lot of campaigns don't last that long.

    That said, offering tailored amounts for "exceptional actions" does seem like a good idea, as long as the players don't try to game the system too badly. At lower levels especially, they would probably be discouraged from constantly trying to one-up each other by the high risk involved, so I might give this a try in the next B/X session I run. Re-awarding monster XP for completing quests is also a good idea, as it reflects the dangers faced (or lack thereof) better than a static "100 XP per average party level, per character" award like I typically use.

    1. My theory about that would be that with higher player skill it's more rewarding to play a class that needs more xp to advance. That's why I introduced at least 20 more classes to the group in our RC game, with enough options to chose for every level of player skill :)

      And I really don't mind when the players "play the system" as I see it as a challenge to keep them busy and on their toes anyway!


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