Friday, February 18, 2011

Advancement Rules - the Easy Way!

As we all know, calculating and tracking XP can be a real hassle (based on the specific HPs of the exact number of monsters killed, plus the exact amount of treasure, and the exact worth of magic items, divided into the number of "worthy" PCs, etc...).   For those who want to skip all the paper work, here is the ultimate easy button:
Tally the Number of Completed Adventures.  You are ready to level up when you have survived a number of adventures (at your current level) equal to your current level.
Complete one adventure - level up to 2nd
Complete two more adventures - level up to 3rd
Complete three more adventures - level up to 4th
It sounds pretty simplistic, but in reality, it captures the holistic concept of "gaining experience", without getting bogged down in the many controversies of how to quantify it.   It also removes certain perverse "in-game incentives", like having to needlessly slaughter everything in sight, or rifle through every orc pocket for stray gold pieces, or make sure that every last bit of treasure gets carried out of the dungeon, etc.   
Treasure is as an indirect measure of experience in the GP = XP equation, so let's just dispense with it altogether.   Especially in a dawn of civ campaign, where coin money is not going to be widespread, it is unfair to punish players for the lack of coinage.  
The Inherent Subjectivity of XP
The only variable in my formulation is how to define "an adventure".  Well, naturally, that is subjective.  But think about it: the amount of treasure given to players is COMPLETELY UP TO THE DM, meaning it is TOTALLY SUBJECTIVE too.   The number of monsters available to be killed is also completely subjective, too.   
So, what is an adventure?  Hard to define precisely, but... we know when we see it!   A quest completed...  A mystery solved...  A treasure gained... An enemy defeated...   A territory cleared...   Many things would qualify, and they'd all be dependent on the context of the particular campaign.    Heck, even "A Significant Delve Survived" might qualify, even if no "boss monster" was defeated and no "monte haul" gained.  
For a thief, maybe "penetrating a labyrinth, pinpointing the lair, mapping a path, surveying the defenses, and returning to report" would be a huge undertaking and constitute a completed adventure.  Avoiding as much combat as possible, and taking not a copper, the adventure might still be a huge challenge, taking all of the PC's skill, and fulfill the very definition of a successful adventure resulting in much experience gained (even though it counted for nothing under traditional metrics)! 
In the end, even with all the bookkeeping of the traditional sort, the level-up decision still based on the DMs subjective opinion!   As Gygax makes clear in his opening paragraph on Gaining Experience Levels (1e DMG, p.86):
The gaining of sufficient experience points is necessary to indicate that a character is eligible to gain a level of experience, but the actual award is a matter for you, the DM, to decide.
So, what I am saying is, leveling up based on "the number of significant adventures completed" is no less subjective than "the number of XP gained".    Since the whole thing is based on DM subjective decisions anyway, let's just dispense with all the unnecessary paperwork.   
Real-time Measurements of Level Advancement
It's not like this is a formula for out-of-control advancement.  Let's say you, like many of us, enjoy a once-a-week gaming session.  
--After a month (4 sessions), your PCs would be 3rd level. 
--After two months (8 sessions), your PCs would be 4th level.
--After three months (12 sessions), your PCs would be 5th level.
--After six months (24 sessions), your PCs would be 7th level. 
--After a full year of play (52 sessions), your PCs would be 10th level. 
Sounds about right to me. 
If your 11 year old son takes up the game with his friends one summer, by all means, teach him to calculate and count XP.  It can be very gratifying and a fun part of the game, I remember enjoying it when I was that age. 
But if you are like me now, gaming over a table late at night... with loud music on... imbibing copious libations... being generally absurd... well, for me, dropping the detailed accounting requirements is a nice plus. 


The Jovial Priest said...

Thanks for this post I found it very liberating. I am trying to convince my novice friends to play once a month for three sessions. After session 1 they all had approximately 190XP. At the end of three sessions, assuming they find the 'boss' monsters and garner the loot at best the thief and cleric may make 2nd level. I know purists will disagree, and even I rebel somewhat but - how boring for them. How boring for me.

After your post, I think I might let them all advance to second level at the start of the next session.

I'll save proper XP advancement for a real campaign not a demonstration series.

Guy Fullerton said...

I can empathize with a DM wanting to make their life easier, but removing the conceit of xp-from-gp means you're removing some of my player agency. And if you aren't giving gp some other big purpose in the game to replace its use as an xp source, you are robbing yourself of a valuable motivational & emergent-story-inducing tool, both at a macro- and a micro-scale. If you were my DM, I'd prefer that you figure out some other way to reduce your xp calculation hassles.

Without xp-from-gp, I as a player am no longer able to focus on the goal of PC advancement at the expense of other possible goals*. Nor am I able to make decisions that help me focus my choice of other goals (so as to at least lean strongly toward advancement) based on game world descriptions; if I want to focus on advancement in an xp-from-adventures model, you'd need to break the 4th wall and tell me what the xp values of various adventures would be, including xp values for only partially complete adventures, so that I can choose the ideal adventures for me, and figure out a good time to cut my losses.

* Or vice-versa. Sometimes I want to focus on a non-advancement goal/adventure, because that's where my priorities are at the moment. In some cases, these other goals/adventures may come about because I played poorly and made mistakes during earlier adventures. I want to *earn* my advancement, so I don't want to be given advancement just because I completed an adventure that made up for an earlier failure.

Or to put it another way, completing the goal/adventure of "find the secret entrance to the crypts" doesn't necessarily imply that I've also completed the goal/adventure of "prevent the Duke from taxing us so much," or "improve my character's strength (stat)," or, "acquire the powerful magical cloak," and that's a good thing.

It's also a good thing that none of those necessarily imply or are implied by completion of the "advance my PC's level" goal.

Tedankhamen said...

I have had a similar idea, but I think the number of adventures (I prefer goals completed) should equal the next level, not the current one, for advancement to happen. For instance, a 1st level character would need to complete two well-defined adventure goals (i.e. find the Sword of Stan and bitchslap the Evil Lord Murkidor) before becoming second level. I am planning to use it for Heroic Paths in a BRP rip of Midnight, where it works well for PCs aiding the Land against the Shadow a la French WWII resistance fighters.

One thing I find chafing about D&D XP is the narrowness of the goals it encapsulates. Blood and gold are the only viable XP sources, and although this is in keeping with Beowulf and Old English fantasy, in a game it is restrictive. Isn't it strange Magic Users don't get XP for using magic specifically? Why can't a Healer PC get XP for every HP he heals, and a bonus for Resurrections?

Justin said...

Thanks for the comments, JP. You are smacking your head right up against the problem that leads so many people to just "start their PCs at 3rd level". Low level gaming, frankly, is not that great. It only makes sense in the context of a spring board to get the characters leveled up, where they will have more toys, more options, better villains, and harder challenges.

I say give them a short, sharp challenge, something that gets their feet wet, provides for some blood spilled, some treasure gained, a felling of real accomplishment... THEN GET THEM LEVELED UP.

After even ONE adventure, having faced down real monsters and fought for their lives, they have taken a huge step above the average schlub. I call that 2nd level.

Justin said...

Ted, you nailed it. By defining XP in such a narrow way, the Founders pretty much guaranteed that D&D would get the reputation it did: hack and slash, "kill things and take their stuff". Like you said, "experience" is way more holistic than that.

Defining experience by "goals accomplished" also allows us to understand how "the parish priest" or "the shut-in alchemist" could also level up. They are not about "blood and treasure", but they face numerous challenges to overcome that provide meaningful experience in their field.

I would say ONE goal accomplished is good enough to advance to 2nd level, because even one serious and deadly encounter with monsters is enough to really differentiate someone from the average person.

It's like getting laid. It only takes ONCE to lose the title of virgin. The way I figure, in D&D, completing even one sustained and challenging adventure means you are no longer the same person.

Justin said...

Thanks for the comment, G.F. One aspect of my advancement system you might appreciate as helping maintain the balance you described, is the fact that I require a certain amount of GP to be paid as "training fees" in order to level up. That amount is usually defined as about 2/5th of the total XP needed to level up. Thus, I have not at all removed the in-game need to acquire money.

You are describing a conversation with a DM concerning a bit of "meta-gaming knowledge" that I am not sure a character would have. How would a person really know when he is able to "level up"? His goals and motivations should come from other sources, and be integral to the narrative of the campaign.

In short, the "I only need a little more XP to level up" mentality should just not enter the game. I think we've all been there, emerging from a delve with 100 XP too little to advance a level... So we do what, go challenge an ogre to personal combat, for no authentic in-game reason?

In an authentic campaign, leveling up would simply never be a motivation. Accomplishing great things, acting the hero, the Conquerer, the Liberator, etc... would result naturally in great deeds being accomplished.

And lor, what do you do if you are playing a Monk, or even a Barbarian, who would have no reasonable motivation to acquire GP? "Heroic actions accomplished" is just so much better of a metric.