Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Story Matters, But Loot Pays the Bills

My sweet spot for adventures are site-based locations with minimal overarching plot.  Those types of adventures let me supply any number of plot hooks or other forms of information for the players, tailored to my campaign, and then run the location like a sandbox.  That's my agenda; to enable a player-driven game.  More often than not, excellent stories emerge from the intersection of player decisions and the reactions by the inhabitants of the setting; the end result is greater than the sum of the parts, and endlessly entertaining to me.

It does raise the question, what motivates players to choose a certain adventure or follow a course of action in the first place?  A rational approach would go like this:  players "win" through level advancement; the fuel for leveling is centered on gold as XP; therefore, players responding to that incentive will choose adventures with the best risk-to-reward ratio.  The Autarch guys have a detailed post on the economic argument for player choice in D&D.  There've been a lot of posts about sandbox motivations, but one of my favorite is Zak's rogues in the sandbox.  Amoral looters will plan their own capers and are best suited for the player driven game.  Some of the more humorous terms I've seen on the interwebs include labeling adventurers as "murder hobos", or playing "mug the goblin".

Rather than weighing economic factors, don't players usually just follow the most interesting story and hope the gold piece fairy rewards them at the end of the day?  The DM preps something, the DM offers some intriguing plot hook, the players say, "That sounds cool", and off they go.  Outside of the large, multi level mega dungeon, or the wilderness hex crawl, most short adventures are chosen on the basis of story, and not rational economic calculations of risk versus reward.  Theoretically, the DM could prepare a lot of different small adventures, and try to create that same degree of transparency around risk versus reward, so an economic value can be attached to the plot hooks, but I'll believe someone is doing it when I see it.

Thus, there's a disconnect between the reason most adventures are chosen (story) and the reward model for playing (XP for loot).  I've bounced up against it a lot of times in the past few weeks as I discussed how a "Wide Area Sandbox" game would work as a weird fantasy setting; the plot hooks in that game would be story-centric - they consist of journal entries by a previous adventurer priest - so the players would make choices mostly based on story and not risk-reward.  Any loot gained is incidental.

I'm not the only person reacting to the dissonance.  Mister LOTFP himself alluded in a recent post that he'd consider dropping the level or XP system in a future LOTFP release (and my head promptly exploded); as LOTFP adventures evolve to invoke weird horror adventures in more of a quasi-real world setting than bog standard fantasy, the idea of having to dole out 300,000gp in loot to a mid-level party is jarring.  I get it, I really do.  Jack's new blog* had a follow-on post, suggesting that weird fantasy D&D keeps the level system but replaces gold-for-XP.

I don't have a clear takeaway yet; my gut tells me "D&D is Always Right", and folks are bouncing up against these problems because we're straying outside of the game's sweet spot with some of these niche campaign concepts.  Gold as XP solves many issues, and reinforces an interesting paradigm of exploration and problem solving.  It's also quantitative and doesn't require any subjective role playing rewards or  (barf) story awards.  So folks might say that running D&D in a quasi-real-world setting is a horse you can only ride so far without performing major surgery on the advancement system.  I disagree.

Real world history is full of plunder, loot, and riches - Teutonic Knights and Templars growing rich on trade and plunder, Roman generals building vast wealth conquering the provinces and returning home for their triumphs.  Even the early modern period has the pillaging of the New World and fighting over ships laden with Spanish gold.  What's wrong with the characters in that kind of game being the ones that win vast riches and move the dial of history with fortunes that bring even kings knocking at their door?  That's right, there's nothing wrong with it.  So the problem comes back to story and game focus.  If you're trying to run a game where the characters do "heroic" things, like stop evil cults or keep the Great Old Ones from returning, I hear there's not much money in that line of work.  One of the big differences between D&D and let's say, Call of Cthulhu, is the moral factor of "saving the world" is a clear imperative in Cthulhu gaming.  Returning home with wagons of plunder isn't really the point of the game.

Let's not get so engrossed in story or literary genre emulation that we lose the foundational elements of the game; otherwise we're just promulgating Call of Cthulhu with Magic Users and Clerics.  I'm right at that edge myself; my "elevator pitch" for the Library of de la Torre describes it as a mix of Solomon Kane, The Three Musketeers, and Lovecraft Country.  But the looting stays.

*Tales of theGrotesque and Dungeonesque…  looks good so far, go check it out.  You may remember his Flavors of Fear PDF from a few months ago with various Weird Fantasy setting ideas.


  1. A good piece, but for the me the answer is obvious: Away with XP.

  2. One of the things about Classic Traveller that I never got when I was young (though I lived with it) was the difficulty in improving one's character. It didn't occur to me then that gaining money and using it judiciously was the improvement scheme in that game. If I were to write a RPG of my own inclination (again), I would do away with abstract "xp" or "skill check" advancement schemes in favor of the use of money and time as currencies of advancement. Spend these on carousing to get chances of gaining contacts (and make these as significant as they are in the real world). Spend them on training and education for self-improvement. Spend them on equipment (shopping trips take time as well as money) for the obvious benefits. There are other ways to spend time and money, as well (relaxation, for instance).

    But I'd need to have a good reason to do that again.

  3. In my Monday game the heroes (well, tomb-robbers would be more appropriate) are encouraged to go looting because they own a keep now and have upkeep and wage to pay; keeps them focused on gold for Xp and gives them an in-game reason too.

    @faoladh: I like that idea. Not too different from spending gold to train to level up in AD&D.

  4. faoladh raises a subject that occurred to me while reading the OP; that of expenses/spending. The problem a lot of campaigns that use GP as XP run into is the one of PCs accruing greater and greater wealth.

    While –theoretically– the characters might want that cash for things like building their stronghold at "Name Level," not every PC is into that path. So if 70-80% or so of their XP gains are treasure-based, even a relatively low-level fighter (e.g. 4th or 5th) might have had 10,000gp or more worth of loot pass through his hands!

    It's not that the PCs simply MUST be separated from their gains, but it seems that a few simple rules about expenses makes sense. You can go the obvious route and make things like magic items for sale, but I dislike that option because it often leads to reducing these supposedly fabulous objects into mere commodities. It also leads to PCs trying to sell things like their "old" +1 sword after they find that shiny new +2 weapon; which puts MORE cash in their hands. Potions and scrolls are an option, I suppose.

    Taxes are another option, but most hobo-murdering PCs aren't going to take kindly to it, and things can spiral out of hand quickly. A variation on this is the pickpocket who takes their pouch of 500gp gems. The players may be quick to call foul and have the party rampage through the streets looking for the offending urchin.

    Personally, I favor the idea of upkeep and cost of living. Equipment needs repaired, tabs at the inn need paid, horses need stabling, etc. This can bleed off a little cash, but not THOUSANDS. I'd like to say I'm consistent about this, but I often just move on with the session and hand wave the stay in town. "Everybody mark off at least 5gp for food, rooms, and stabling."

    Of course, the obvious answer is for the cash to be used in a PLAYER-DRIVEN way. Opening a pub, buying a pirate ship, etc. Not all players will think of that, though and sometimes they need hints or nudging.

  5. I am with you in not wanting to throw the XP/Gold baby out with the proverbial bathwater. It simply hardwires into play too much of what makes classical D&D classical.

    That said I wonder if there isn't some pushback coming from too much emphasis on a beancounter approach to treasure in adventure sites.

    Maybe I am projecting but when I read about how one needs to stock XXX amount of gp per XXX amount of rooms so that a character can advance at the proper clip my eyes glaze over. My treasures tend go where they feel "right" in my gut as to the "story" of the site--a big heap here because that's where the fungoid dragon sleeps, little bits there because those are the picked over upper works. Sometimes this means for boom/bust in the game, but I don't think it over-suffers for it.

    @Bighara does point to something that bugs me too, it takes mountains of gold just to get to the middle levels. Without some kind of mechanic for relieving them of said swag it tends to get a little absurd.

    But that's why Crom (and Arneson) invented burn gold for XP houserules. Ha.

  6. The upcoming ACKS rulebook has some interesting approaches for separating players from the their loot. It has an alternate form of the carousing mechanic (spending gold for XP), but more importantly, gives players a reason to invest in buildings, churches, workshops, and that kind of stuff in the mid-levels. I've never been worried about too much gold for mid-level guys, but it's true if the DM doesn't give them something meaningful to buy, it can get ridiculous. (It's a DM problem and not a game problem).

    On the other point - yeah, I'm a top-down guy, I like to plan some elements of the big picture. It's hard to break old habits.

  7. I tend to feel that the reward of loot should be the things you can spend it on; having most XP come from loot arguably over-rewards it, and you get problems such as what the hell does the ascetic Monk PC need 10,000gp for?

    I've generally found that giving XP for 'overcoming challenges' works best for me, whether the challenge is violent, diplomatic, strategic etc. Acquiring a bit pile of treasure while avoiding its guardians is certainly a challenge and should be worth plenty of XP, but the threat level of the guardians should have more impact than the amount of treasure acquired. Perhaps the Maguffin crumbles to dust on contact, like the book of all knowedge in that Elric tale - the quest to get it should still garner plenty of XP.

  8. Player driven game? Sounds like you have that wrapped up, but what about a Character driven game? Those are the ones that elude me!

    The Bane

  9. "Character driven game". Hmmm, I'd advise checking out some new school, indie RPGs and see what could be ported into your game of choice.

    For example, I own/run the occasional Trail of Cthulhu game. Trail characters have "drives" - personality mechanics built into the game that let them heal mental damage by following their bliss - in the context of the game, that could mean hunting for arcane lore, or letting their curiosity pull them into danger.

    The player might not want his character to go down into the dark basement alone, but the drivers that make their character work are encouraging him.

    Folks more knowledgeable about modern indie games would probably have other recommendations too.