Thursday, August 10, 2017

5E Embraces Sandbox-Friendly XP?

Rewards affect your decision making.  They increase your motivation to do things.  The psychologists use terms like operant conditioning, and the theories have been leveraged by video game designers to create rewards-frameworks to keep you plugged in and playing. Reward-based thinking doesn't feel as obvious in the table top space, but it depends on how transparent the reward system is to the players.

Old school game systems feature an experience point system where one gold piece (gp) equals one experience point (xp).  Characters also get experience for fighting monsters.  The ratio of experience from gold, versus experience from monsters, tends to be 3 to 1 or even 4 to 1 - meaning 75% or 80% of experience points in an old school game comes from treasure.

Players figure this out really quickly - even new folks.  Consider the old school "Dwimmermount" game I was running last year. After a particularly long Dwimmermount session, with lots of combats and encounters, the players eagerly waited to hear if their characters advanced in level.  "Um, no, not this time fellas - you really didn't find any treasure on this delve, and that's where most of the experience comes from."  Changes were made.  The group prioritized getting a 'Locate Object' spell, and they used it in dungeon areas they cleared to help find hidden caches of treasure that were missed.  They backtracked to previously cleared areas.  Treasure was prioritized over fighting.  The nature of the reward influenced their behavior.

Fifth Edition is all about the fighting, at least by the book; apparently the fine print in the DMG suggests using other forms of XP, but it's not featured the way combat XP is featured.  5E's experience system has complicated my plan to run a free-form exploratory sandbox, knowing that the players are going to prioritize fighting everything in sight because that's how they get their treats.  I was surprised this week to see the latest "Unearthed Arcana" article was about an alternative experience point model for 5E:  Three-Pillar Experience.

I like this alternative XP system quite a bit - it formalizes giving experience for exploring and winning important social encounters.  UA materials are playtest level stuff, not finished products, but it's a good start.  The rules suggest giving exploration experience for recovering items and finding special locations.  Pundits in the OSR have frequently proposed methods of rewarding exploration as an end in itself, and now we have a workable version for 5E.  (Good job Mearls.  That guy has a warm spot in his heart for the OSR).  The Three-Pillars also has guidelines for giving out social experience for achieving roleplaying goals in the game, like getting the support of an important patron or antagonist.  I don't remember seeing this pop up in our space much, although it's not unheard of for DM's to give out some XP for 'defeating' monsters through diplomacy or guile.  Of course there's XP for the combat stuff, too.

Compared to an actual old school rules system, this Three-Pillars Experience design still puts a heavier emphasis on combat versus exploration or social, but it's step in the right direction.  An entire game session focused on intrigue, or wandering the wilds looking for the Lost City, is still going to let the players improve their experience totals.

There's still an open question whether monkeying with the XP system will actually change what player's do?  The reward system needs to be transparent and create a link between the behavior and the reward.  I believe all it will take is a few examples of pointing out that the players have earned experience when they discover legendary or fabled places, or recovered fabulous items, and the value of exploration and looting will come to the foreground in your 5E game.  Since 5E is what my players are currently preferring, I like anything that brings 5E closer to the values we espouse running old school sandboxes and megadungeons.

The alternative XP approach for 5E is "milestone" or "story-based" leveling.  I struggle wrapping my head around that one.  What is the causal link between character behavior and reward if it's based on a DM's arbitrary story awards?  "Do what I want you to do, follow my plotted sequence, and I will reward you with levels?"  That sounds awful, so I'm thinking it can't be right - clearly I have some bias.  I took a look to see how folks responded to "Three-Pillar XP", and Reddit and Enworld are full of people loving on the milestone-based leveling and eschewing the very concept of experience points.  So if anyone wants to offer a cogent defense for arbitrary leveling (perhaps in the comments) I'd love to hear the other side; the obvious reason that jumps to my mind is that the DM/author doesn't have time to run a normal paced campaign, and story-leveling gives them cover to power-up the group and get them where he/she wants them (fast).  (Like in an adventure path type of campaign where page count matters, but everyone still needs to be level 10 for the boss fight).

Regardless of all that, I'm glad to see 5E's stewards continue to develop rules to support playing the game like the old days.  (We might be playing 5E, but we still use a caller and a mapper, too).  UA recently had a new initiative system that had elements of weapon speed and segments, and it felt like a regular throwback to AD&D 1E.  That one worked well at the table, too, so it's on my list to discuss.  I've also heard there are some upcoming rules to make 5E a little grittier, some kind of "hard mode" that will be featured in Tomb of Annihilation.