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.


  1. Milestone xp is useful in a highly plot- driven game where you're counting on a certain level of heroic capability from the PCs by a certain point in the story. It also makes sure the heroes don't out-level the party of the story they're in by "level grinding", ie searching out tribes of goblins and kobolds to murder for xp. By rewarding story progression rather than any particular action, milestone leveling seeks to dis-incentivize classic murder hobo behavior. Whether or not all that'sa good thing depends entirely on the table.

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  3. Hi! A bit late to the party, but the main advantage of "milestone" XP rewardsis basically saying : do whatever interests you, and you'll regularly level up anyway. The group can decide/adjust the speed they'd like (maybe as fast as once every session, or once every 2-3 sessions, etc.), and don't feel that they need to do one thing in particular to get there. Once session might be tense negotiations, another wilderness exploration, and another heavily combat oriented, and the PCs level up at the same rate.

    Of course, that means that XP is explicitely *not* used to incentivize any kind of action in particular, which may not be ideal. But if you like your campaign to have a little bit of this and a little bit of that while still seeing the PCs steadily levelling up, that can be useful.

    As an example, I started an 5e game where finding a magic ressource was the main way of getting XP (it was treasure-as-xp with a different coat of paint). It was meant to incentivize cunning and exploration (like treasure, you can get it by bypassing some monsters), incentivize careful strategies and powers-management (because it "costs" some of this ressource to make a long rest), and de-incentivize combat (because very little of this ressource is gathered this way). Unfortunatey, even by giving a bit more than what the 5e would for monsters, the rate of levelling slowed down to a crawl (started level 3, +20h of game, still no level gained).