Friday, December 25, 2015

The Experience Point System

One of the facets of fantasy role-playing gaming that has bothered us over the years is the experience point systems in games. Granted, these are a staple of role-playing games, with XP charts going up into the millions to reflect what it takes to be maximum level and all that stuff. But really, are they needed?

In casual games where I don't know if the group will be around the next week I am giving a level a session. In any sort of casual game I prefer giving out larger rewards, or have games where some improvement is reflected at the end of the night, even if it is Legend's 1-10% per-skill improvement.

Give me something here, game! I get s strange feeling sitting there and saying "nope, nobody improved tonight, nice session all!" It's not that I run gimme games, it is just that I want a game that awards something more than empty numeric progression at the end of the night.

Going by the book and awarding 900 XP when 1,000 would level everyone is a pretty dickish move, and I don't really see the point in having a system that maths every point down to the fraction, divides contributions, and generally goes out of its way to short players on XP awards. Yes, in these cases, I would tend to just give out the full 1,000 XP and be done with it.

The CR system out of D&D 3 and Pathfinder feels off to me. I am not a fan of math that tries to rate something as subjective and subject to roleplaying solutions as "challenge" and I don't find the system at all useful when it is used with a full mathematical calculation rating this, that, party level, composition, and so on. If you introduce one overpowered splatbook class or high-level mage to a party it throws the whole system out of whack.

I mean seriously, if an Orc is only worth 50 XP, make him worth 50 XP and be done with it. I do not want to sit here with a calculator to figure out encounter difficulty. If you can come up with a chart saying at level 1, an average encounter for a group of five players should be a total of 250 XP, then say that and rate everything accordingly. I can pick five 50 XP Orcs, or two Orcs and a 150 XP Ogre.

And don't have me dividing things or multiplying by something like 80% because of any factor either, keep XP simple and straightforward.

But then again, why? Just say "if you have a great adventure, give everyone a level" and then structure your level system around that. If you are worried about running out of levels too quickly, then make the game go 50 levels and set the bar there. Get rid of the whole system that just grinds on as levels go higher, and that grind forces players to become increasingly greedy themselves as they maximize their point earning opportunities. Make it about completing stories and adventures, and get rid of the math that punishes having fun.

Yes, there are tropes in role-playing, and an ever increasing XP pile is one of them. However, we shouldn't be blinded by keeping them around if they encourage a negative play experience, especially at higher levels. Leave tracking millions of experience points to video games and MMOs, where slow progression keeps you paying a subscription fee, and think outside of the box. Create reward systems that encourage play and reward coming back each week, and tailor them to a feel-good reward at the end of a long session.

To me, getting rid of the math and ever-decreasing rewards feels like a better answer than sticking with systems we held onto for far too long, and we need to engineer better end-of-night experiences other than, "Come back next week, I know you are 33 XP short of level 9, but you'll make it!"

Friday, December 18, 2015

You Just Save-or-Died My Story, Not Cool

One of the interesting things about the new D&D 5 edition is we are back to one-shotting players and taking characters out of the game. There are one-shot 'take you out of the game' spells, official podcasts with DM insta-kills, and the old-school feeling of deathtrap dungeons and random PC death is back big time. It is cool to see the old-school feeling back!


But, um, dude. What about my story?

What do you mean your story?

When I generated my character, there were these tables, and they were all like, hey, wow, you get a random story attached to your character when you spin him up. And I was like, cool, hey, that is pretty nifty, now I can be like those dudes from Lord of the Rings and all.

Then you made me make a save-or-die saving throw and insta-killed my guy.

Dude, not cool.

Hey, don't blame me, old-school is back. This isn't D&D 4, a game that goes out of its way to make sure nobody feels slighted or marginalized at the table, that everyone's contributions are important, and those "ruin the night for one player" moments were written out of the game. Those days are over. This is the return of the real, and we are back to the old way of doing this, so toughen up and get with us old-schoolers, right?

Dude, I liked my story. Why have a story on your guy if the game is telling you to run around and kill our player characters off like some psycho in a slasher flick?

Oh yeah, I forgot this isn't AD&D, or even a retro-clone like Basic Fantasy or Labyrinth Lord. In those games, some of the true old-school classics, your guy was just a couple 3d6 rolls and some hit points, and you didn't even get a story chart to roll on. Heck, you didn't even name your guy until he got to third level and was worth caring about.

Yeah, well. Dude, I grew up playing World of Warcraft, and I am pretty used to the idea that losing my guy warrants a call to customer service. He may be the same hero who saves the world along with 5.5 million other players, but that's my story, and I am entitled to it.

Well, we have to be fair here, would you be that angry if I, as DM, insta-killed your Pathfinder character?

Well, dude, yeah. I put a lot of time into that build!

As I recall, you copied that build from someone else's forum post.

Dude, not cool. Even though someone else came up with it, I punched it into Hero Lab. Plus the paper I used to print it out, and the toner. It's a lot of work.

So let me get this straight. You don't play the old-school games because player death is easy, the characters are too simple, and the story parts are more compelling than the mechanics?

If I am going to spend my Saturday playing a game, I want something out of it, dude. I want my character to be a part of something, to matter, and for my choices to mean something. Just 3d6 in six scores doesn't mean anything to me, I want to design my guy, and have those choices matter. I want there to be some story to play through, and for that story arc to be a part of character design.

What about the concept of 'you make your own story?' You know, where what you do in the face of impossible odds is the compelling narrative, and watching dozens fall before the one true hero rises is a part of the fun?

Dude, the first guy I spin up is the one true hero.

But D&D 5 has save-or-die!

The game also has built-in stories. Where is the fun in having my character get killed before his aunt finds out he is a thief? This is story-based game.

Story-based does not mean 'player protection' from bad decisions. Even story-based games are like that. You walk a tightrope here, if you make great decisions, you may get the satisfaction of advancing your personal story. Fair trade?

Not if it is save or die. Dude, even if I played this for the combat and tabletop side I would be pretty pissed if I failed a save-or-die saving throw. All that work, all those adventures, just game over. It's a pretty rotten thing taking a character off the board with one roll. If I fail, I want it to be because of my bad decisions, not a cheap "you lose, thank you for playing" 50-50 roll.

It's the cheap thrill of Russian roulette with my player character, not cool.

Where this Started

You know, sometime long ago these games used to be about the thrill of working through a simple rules system that was deadly and absolute, and working out a way to survive and profit despite the sheer impossibility of survival. Many characters did not make it, because they were just that, playing pieces in Monopoly where you laughed if one of them fell off a cliff and you chalked it up to "how the game works." They were easy to spin up because they were so disposable, and you weren't supposed to invest yourself in them all that much.

Nowadays, things have changed.

How so?

I agree that if you are playing a story based game, save-of-die sucks. I also think it sucks in a tactical game, because it robs you of your input, and it does feel like a Russian roulette mechanic for cheap tension. In a classic old-school game, I see its place though. Old school isn't about fair, and you stayed away from save-or-die monsters or situations, because you got XP directly from treasure, not the artificial challenge rating of monsters. Somewhere along the line someone introduced the concept of "if it is a good fight, players deserve XP" when that wasn't in the game.

The concept of XP for a good and balanced fight that you will most likely win comes from the admission that the game is mass-market entertainment. I feel it is a dumbing down of the concept, making the game more like a videogame, and putting in an artificial slot-machine constant-feedback reward system that keeps players coming back.

Save-or-die was in old-school games to discourage you from doing a straight-up fight with that medusa. It was better to sneak past her, find a way to deal with her other than combat. If you stole her 1,000 GP brooch, you got 1,000 XP. Any way you got it was fair game.

Nowadays, the medusa is engineered to be a fun encounter 'worth' the XP she is assigned. You get no XP for treasure, so you are forced to fight her for the XP. In a way, it is more bloodthirsty because you are putting a point value on a life (defeated however), rather than a goal or a treasure. This is a concept taken straight from videogames that reinforces the "kill for experience" sort of very basic and almost darkly sinister motivation for the game. Now, 'killing' means 'defeating in any way, knocking out, etc' in many games, but the points are 'owned' by the encounter.

There are also 'story XP' which is a system that attempts to cover story-players as well.

I do feel D&D's reward system has been messed up for a while, ever since AD&D 2nd Edition where they started the story award XP system formally, and also reset monster XP along those levels.

If the game wants to be story based, then remove XP for killing things.

If the game wants to be hack-and-slash, then remove story XP.

Reward Systems

Personally? I like story-based XP systems. I think XP for killing is a bit cold and bloodthirsty, like a genocidal bounty system. I liked the XP for GP thing of old-school play though, in a fun sort of way because it encourages creative play. The goal is to out-think the monsters and grab the loot. You are like this group of Ocean's 11 thieves looting and sneaking your way through dungeons, each person with a special ability (healing, fighting, sneaking, magic) but with only one goal - grabbing the loot the easiest way possible.

If the king wants to pay your party a "story award" of 10,000 GP for rescuing the princess, then pocketing 10,000 XP is also your motivation. The XP are nice, but really everybody, we are here for one reason and one reason only, shiny gold coins.

In this context and the original game's motivation of "XP for treasure" a save-or-die mechanic makes sense. You are a playing piece out to accumulate as many GP as possible. Yes, some monsters and traps are "save or die," but the balance is to not fight them or be stupid enough to step into them. You certainly don't get XP for the artificial reward of "beating" them, so trick, avoid, and circumvent these monsters as best you know how and the tools given to you will allow.

So, save-or-die is in there, but it is something to avoid?

Exactly. It is a different design and motivation for the entire game. Balance issues clear up because there is not an artificial reward tacked onto a creature, so there is no need for a CR system to rate difficulty. An owlbear is an owlbear. Fight it if you think you can, or avoid it if the dungeon designer was smart enough to put another way around. Save-or-die was a disincentive, not a game design mechanic someone needs to balance.

The definition of "railroading" in pen-and-paper games changed too. In the old days, railroading was that a module designer forced you to solve a problem one way, or forced you into a fight you could not avoid. When RPGs went story-based, railroading was forcing you to play the story the module designer's way. In the old definition, railroading was more about giving the players choices in how they wanted to approach a situation. It was about the freedom to approach a problem and allowing for that.

It is partly D&D's problem because of its heritage. D&D by its nature is a "big tent" game that takes inspiration from many fantasy sources. This means the reasons people play the game are just as varied, and the game has to support many types of reward systems. It needs videogame XP for hack-and-slashers. It needs story XP for roleplayers. It got rid of XP for GP, which I think is a mistake.

Understanding Fairness

But yes, understanding reward and motivation are key to understanding why save-or-die mechanics work in some games and not others. It is ultimately about that feeling of unfairness, but to decide if something is unfair, you need to understand both the motivation for play and how the reward system works. Some games have simple motivations, so judging what's fair is easy. Other games are more complicated, and you layer in characters that take hours to design, or story systems on top of bounty systems, and things get more complex.

Fairness is ultimately judging if a reward is worth the risks, and not feeling cheated should things not work out. In a way, fairness measures how you feel about defeats and successes, and the satisfaction of the proportionality of a reward given a risk.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Bounded Accuracy vs. Simulation

For over 40 years D&D has had an issue with the to-hit system. At first, they had giant AC versus level tables for each class; then they switched to a system where different classes had different to-hit bonuses at maximum level, and they metered out the to-hit increases every level. It meant if you weren't a pure fighter, forget hitting anything at maximum level because all the monsters at max level were balanced for a fighter's attack bonus.

D&D 3 and Pathfinder follow the sort of design theme of great classes (fighters) get +20 at max level, sucky classes (rogues, clerics) get +15 at max level, and really sucky classes (mages) get a +10 at max level. Mind you, if you are fighting an AC 30 monster, great classes will hit at 50% of the time, sucky 25%, and really sucky will be like "5%, why even try?" Of course, mages will be flinging spells, so that 5% never really matters. Feats and proficiency make the difference, and one had to take into account damage output, but the base system is still set in an assumption of some classes are better than others when hitting a target. There is also a multiple attacks thing here with high attack bonuses, so damage output is linked in.

D&D 4 sets everything on a sliding scale, using 1/2 your level plus your ability score DRM to give you your attack bonus. You must have a high ability score, maintain it, and have the recommended magic items for your level to "keep up with the Joneses," aka the monsters. If a monster was 4 or more levels above you, forget it. If a monster was 4 levels below you, you could care less about them. It was a very MMO feeling game that was balanced "on the levels" and had a flat balance.

D&D 5 preserves the flat MMO-style balance, and puts everyone on the same to-hit chart, but makes the maximum bonus a +6 for everybody. Everything else, monsters, magic items, and combat, has been realigned to fit within this new model. This is called "bounded accuracy" and it is the central design premise behind the new D&D, to get those numbers back in control and make everyone feel they can contribute. There are plenty of problems with this, such as the lowest-level monsters being able to hit high-level heroes (in the context of this system), and high-level heroes still having a high miss rate that still feel unsatisfying for many. The system also breaks with mass attacks and does not scale well with larger groups or attacks that add conditions on hit (poison).

Then again, it feels like they have been wrestling with making the abstract AC and level-based to-hit system for 40 years and they still haven't got it right.

Abstract Accuracy

It is difficult to criticize the D&D to-hit system because it is intentionally abstract. You can get into a long argument with other players and fans of differing editions, and all you will be doing is arguing over is if mauve or thistle is more "purple." Because the system is so abstract, the designers need to carefully "code" AC and attack bonuses in with each edition to make the game work. In computer programming speak, D&D's combat system is spaghetti code and a mess of special cases, and it needs to be hand-tuned any time they move to a new edition or they make a new expansion or book for the game. The AC and to-hit numbers have to be directly balanced against the monsters from level 1 to 20, or everything breaks down.

In D&D 4, it did not feel like the later levels were as well-playtested, and things felt like they broke down the higher level you went. There were so many erratas and rules changes over the life of that game it spun your head, along with a second version of the monster manual coming out in Essentials that changed the math again. Every monster manual changed the math, and it hurt the experience for us.

Simulation Games

Contrast this with a more simulation based game with a less abstract system. If my fighter has a 60% chance to hit with a sword, it doesn't matter if I am swinging it at a level 1 goblin or a level 30 dragon, I am still making that piece of metal strike that other shape no matter what that other shape may be, 60% of the time. The effects of what happens will vary greatly upon what I hit and the personal power I have, If I am as strong as a hill giant I will expect to splatter the goblin and hurt the dragon. If I am as strong as a human, I expect the goblin to take a wound, and the dragon to laugh and say he didn't even feel it.

Most of the time. Exceptions and great rolls always exist.

You can give a rogue and a fighter the same to-hit, and work out the differences with powers, techniques, and ability scores. You can do away with abstract levels and subjective armor class values entirely. You can rate armor on protection, and let the dice fall where they may because you created a simulation system where things in your world work a certain way.

Your characters exist within themselves, not in the context of a carefully balanced level system.

Level Systems

Now, level systems are great because they let you change the math and put out a new edition. The only exception was AD&D 2nd Edition, where they cleaned up the original AD&D rules and improved the presentation greatly. They really didn't change the math, but they streamlined it and created the "I don't understand why nobody gets this" THAC0 system, but I guess many had a problem with it. THAC0 (to hit armor class zero) was easy enough to understand, but they should have made AC increasing and flipped those around, and just said to-hit is your base plus target AC, like they did in 3rd Edition.

Negative AC in AD&D sucked, and it was likely nobody ever thought ACs lower than zero were ever needed. Explaining negative AC felt like explaining THAC0 to the uninitiated.

But part of the problem with an abstract system is linking level to to-hit, especially when it starts blowing out your dice range. Having a +20 to hit at 20th level, plus ability DRMs, plus magic item bonuses, plus feat modifiers, plus situational modifiers can get you to a final to-hit bonus of +30 or more easily. On a 1-20 scale, a +30 makes the entire number range of your randomizer meaningless. You are rolling between 31 and 50, and trying to hit an AC of 42.

The mind boggles, the numbers are so high, and the DC and AC numbers are again on that meaningless, super-high if +10 is better than give me another +20 MMO number scale that never ends.

Bounded Accuracy is the New Coke

I am not convinced D&D 5's bounded accuracy does much to solve the problem of D&D's abstract system other than change the numbers again. There were some D&D and Pathfinder mods (E6 most notably) which put a level cap of 6 on the game, and this appears to be where the bounded accuracy idea originated from. E6 is a laudable game modification for D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder, it assumes that 6th level characters are the most powerful in the game world and lets the monsters past that be the world's "boss creatures" and teamwork is needed for beating them.

You throw out the entire upper three-quarters of the game to do so, but it does get that sense of scale and challenge back that D&D loses when a thief levels past the power of an adult red dragon. Where D&D 5 and E6 differ is that in E6 there is a huge world out there more powerful than any single hero could ever be. In D&D 5, every hero can be a level 20 monster some day, yet they still need level 30 monsters out there that are even more powerful than that.

But limiting everyone to the same to-hit chart and capping it at +6 (plus mods)? Really, none of my players really like advancing that slow, and it feels like a grind. Your hit-points go up normally, so you have these hundreds of hit point monster characters walking around with a +3 or a +4 to-hit, and your sense of heroic scale is all skewered. I would prefer the level cap to six to a slow grind to twenty and a +6 when I get there.

Yes, bounded accuracy makes the numbers meaningful again, no question.

But I feel you give up too much. High level characters lose their sense of "being good" and the harsh d20 and its variability stomp all over a modifier range that starts at a +5% to-hit bonus and ends up at a +30% to-hit bonus for epic characters. Even with ability score mods and magic items it doesn't go much higher, and high level characters feel like they are just talented normals. It feels like you are just fooling with the numbers again instead of fixing the problem.


It all feels like D&D's power curve has been messed up since the original box set that level capped you at three, yet the monster lists had 9 or so hit die dragons. Sooner or later, you could level past those dragons, and we entered a strange fantasy land where we needed bigger and bigger challenges to overcome. D&D has always had this "videogame in pen and paper" feeling to me, where of course characters are entitled to incredible amounts of hit points and power, and the sense of scale between normal people and high level characters reaches absurd levels.

D&D 5, despite bounded accuracy, I feel does not address this problem, as the higher levels in that game still entitle characters to massive amounts of hit points and damage output that boggles the mind compared to a first level character. The difference between high-level and low level has not changed, only the dicing model has gotten flatter and everyone can hit each other now.

It still feels like a videogame to me. I feel that a dragon like Smaug out of the Hobbit is beyond the power of any single hero in that world, and any hero could ever be. In D&D and Pathfinder, this isn't the case. I get this World of Warcraft feeling where characters are driven primarily by advancement than story, and personal power is the name of the game. It isn't down, it doesn't feel realistic, and the abstract system keeps you from ever understanding or balancing it because it is so carefully tuned and system-wide teeter-tottering on the sum balance of its parts.

If you disagree with two-handed weapon damage and change it, you break the rest of the game.


It isn't D&D or Pathfinder that is at fault, I feel, it is the abstraction and the magnitude. Once you abstract one piece, you have to abstract everything, and then the balancing act begins. Level based to-hits and ACs that could mean everything from a high dodge to tank armor along with out-of-control hit points and damage make the entire system feel more like an ever-higher level Facebook game requiring more time and clicks than something that models reality.

If there was a D&D game out there that got it right in terms of comparative power and the weak against the impossible, I would be all over it.

I want games that make me fear the dragon, not know that someday I will out level it. I want games that give me a basis in reality, rather than hand wave it away and apply an arbitrary number to it. This is likely a personal preference thing with me and my players, and I try my best at explaining it, so don't feel bad or get angry if you enjoy these games. These are systems that within their own spheres, work, and they are tuned to work well.

But they don't feel real, they feel like videogames.

But a character with 200 hit points when a normal person has 5? I lose it. I can't relate. That number is meaningless in reality, and really only has a place in electronic gaming to me. Same thing with wildly high to-hits, damage outputs, or world-ending spells. It is an unrelatable world-crushing Superman to the common-man Batman.

It is having it all versus being a hero without.