[d20] Thoughts On Experience

Continuing on from yesterday, a topic somewhat related to leveling: experience, how it’s attained and how it’s balanced.

The oddity I find with experience is that D&D is the only game on the market where you’re rewarded more for what you kill than what you do. It actually baffled me when I first ran across a non-D&D game, Alternity: wait, you’re not rewarded for each thing you’re killed? Right; there’s no incentive to kill everything then, other than the stereotypical gamer reason of “to take their stuff.” Which, I think, is part of the reason most other games don’t base their rewards system solely on what you’ve defeated in combat.

I can’t remember where it was—it’s been a dog’s age since I opened one of those books—but I swear Spycraft (2nd Ed) had a system which blew me away in its superiority. It still gave rewards for what you killed, but they were minimal—Spycraft’s use of mooks and all meant that the PCs should be outnumbered, but by baddies with no Wounds. (Only having Vitality Points and no Wounds meant mooks insta-dropped to crits, didn’t have action points, and had “minion” levels instead of real PC/NPC class levels.) A proper action movie has the protagonists outnumbered, but not outgunned—see any Bond movie—and Spycraft did a damn good job with that. Much better than d20 Modern, at any rate.

Instead, Spycraft rewarded you with a chunk of XP based on whether you succeeded on your mission objectives or not. It made a lot of sense for mission-oriented style of play, and was a helluva lot more interesting than going out into the killing fields to shoot some ultra-nationalist commies or neo-Nazis or mafiosos or whatever, to get the 300xp you needed to get another level in Ace Pilot. The downside is that it required the players to know what got them a reward: to use a bad pun, it took plot agency out of their hands and put it into the hands of the Agency. In short, it was built to reward established GM-devised missions, not so much player-directed ones.

It reminds me a lot of AD&D, and isn’t as far off from the game’s wargame roots as you might think. First Edition gave you XP for finding magic items/the amount of gold you found, which fit with the game’s mindset: in 1e AD&D, finding gold and magic swords was your mission objective. 2nd Ed had a bit emphasis on story awards, a stack of XP doled out once the group met story objectives or advanced the plot… of course, that might have just been my group, but I’d note it also showed up in the Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale games.

Spycraft 2nd still feels too crunchy to me, but I love it for some of the ideas it added: for starters, its XP rewards and damage saves for items, two things I want to add into Pathfinder. It’s the kind of d20 hack I wish Paizo had made into a core Pathfinder rule, trying to strengthen the actual mechanics. It might have distanced the game from 3.5 more, negating the “backwards compatability,” but Pathfinder as written drifts away from 3.5 enough to make it a separate game… yet one with many of the same flaws.

I think the concept might be a bit too “military” for a fantasy RPG, even with one wargame roots. Heck, I was reminded of Spycraft’s system when I was reading the rules to Force on Force, a new set of wargame rules built for ultramodern insurgency warfare, which tries to get away from note-taking chores and point-buy armies to focus on the scenario and mission goals. A storygame wargame, if you will. And the mindset, shared by both FoF and Spycraft, reflects proper military wargame doctrine: it doesn’t matter how many of the enemy you kill if you can’t achieve your goals. It’s also a lot less gamey in the traditional sense; instead of the traditional IGOUGO alternating turn-based rounds, it divides between the side with initiative, and the side that takes reactionary actions. Something I think D&D and Pathfinder could learn from.

I really want a tweaked D&D game that’s less kill-oriented and more goal-oriented like that, though it sounds like a lot of work to rebuild. (Damn, apparently I’m more narrativist than I thought.) Which, ironically, brings me full-circle to 2nd Ed AD&D and its story awards as a method for rewarding attained goals.


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