Why do we hand out experience for combat? No, I’m serious – this is a question that’s been preying on my mind as a consequence of an article I wrote earlier this year, “Experience for the ordinary person” – you should probably go and read at least the first section (down to and including “Reward-matching vs Reward Differentials”) before we go any further.

All caught up? Excellent. So now I’ll ask the question again: why do we give experience for combat at all? Why not shift entirely to objective-based XP rewards?

Objectivity In rewards

One of the major reasons put forward, time and again, is that because Combat is a procedure that is enumerated and quantified, it is inherently a more accurate means of determining the scale of rewards than an arbitrary number allocated by the GM for story progression and the achievement of objectives.

This is a false arguement. It starts by assuming that the GM is inherently unable to determine a just and fair reward if there aren’t numbers behind the system to justify and quantify the scale of the award.

Extending the functioning of the encounter-rewards subsystem in the manner described in “Experience for the ordinary person” makes plot-based rewards every bit as quantifiable as straightforward combat rewards.

The “objectivity” arguement also ignores the fact that the GMs placement of combat encounters is just as arbitrary. He still decides how tough those encounters should be, after all! It also ignores the hugely subjective fudge-factor on the part of the GM that is built into the process of determining the reward from any given battle (“easy fight” vs. “typical fight” vs. “difficult fight”). While the terms and specific subsystem are drawn from D&D 3.x, most game systems have some equivalent in place.

The more closely this arguement is scrutinized, the more it falls apart.

The Purposes Of Combat

Perhaps if we examine the purposes of combat within an RPG, we can find some better answers.

Random Excitement

One obvious purpose is to provide an adrenalin rush by actually putting the characters in a position where they have to fight for their lives. Random encounters or “wandering monsters” serve no other real purpose – except for forcing the characters to chew up resources that the GM has previously provided the characters. Can it be that the real purpose of wandering monsters is to provide adrenalin junkies with a fix, and the real purpose of some of the treasure-type rewards given out by the GM is simply a means of giving the characters enough survivability “coin” that they can afford to pay for that fix?

An alternative reinterpretation is that the GM has turned the players into treasure junkies and the purpose of wandering monsters is to make room in the PCs packs for their next fix of goodies. This isn’t a much more flattering notion, is it? But both of these addictions are strongly associated with the players of video games, especially when they come to tabletop gaming.

They don’t have the exclusive contract on such behavior, of course; in the olden days, when Zork! was the epitome of computer RPGs, some GMs fell foul of Monty Haul Syndrome in response to demands for more loot made by their players.

Realism

Verisimilitude is a far more potent reason for combat to exist in RPGs. If the players insist on going somewhere the local authority doesn’t want them to go, or doing things that authority doesn’t want them to do, they are sure to fall foul of attempts to prevent them from achieving these ends – and if they resist, that’s combat.

Even random encounters and wandering monsters, properly employed and not present merely for their own sake, have a part to play in enhancing the believability of a game setting and situation.

Get enough drunken louts together, and you are sure to get a barroom brawl. Get enough hungry monsters together in too confined a space and the weakest will be displaced; some will depart for greener pastures, but a few will wander around in desperate search of a meal. These don’t really serve any direct story purpose – unless you consider establishing and maintaining plausibility to be a story purpose in and of itself.

But that is a story purpose, and an important one. Perhaps the earliest article that I can recall reading in the Dragon magazine, back when I was just starting out as a GM, was one about using the placed encounters of a dungeon to determine a ‘wandering monster’ table that was inherently plausible and not a random roll for monster-of-the-week.

If it’s a story point, surely a GM could plan wandering-monsters-for-the-sake-of-verisimilitude better than leaving it up to random chance when one is encountered?

Only the dreaded “random wilderness encounter” – when the GM is traditionally and realistically under no obligation whatsoever to serve up balanced encounters that match the overall capabilities of the PCs – should be a truly random result, and even then the encounter shouldn’t come out of the blue. The effects of the presence of the ‘random encounter’ on the environment should be detectable in advance of the actual encounter, if you know what signs to look for.

When my dice indicate a “wilderness encounter”, my first thought is “What might logically be found in this region?” and my second is “What encounter would add to the verisimilitude of the campaign right now?”. If neither of those yield and encounter description – and sometimes they don’t – then I will roll on a random encounter table – and the roll will indicate not the imminent presence of the resulting encounter, but the first indication that such an encounter is in the vicinity. It might be a footprint, or bark scratched off a tree, or a broken branch, or a peculiar scent, or the body of the encounter’s last meal; it is extremely unlikely to be the encounter itself (though I throw that in occasionally as well, just to prevent the players getting complacent).

But these, too, are better used by rolling in advance, not at the time – because that gives the GM time to think about and prepare those signs. If I have decided in advance that a “random wilderness encounter” is needed for reasons of verisimilitude, placing it carefully in a time and place when there’s nothing else happening except a passage from A to B gives a better result – and makes this just as much a plot point as the Giant standing guard outside the Mead Hall.

The One That Really Matters

The only conclusion that can be reached is that the only purposes that non-meaningless and unnecessary combat serves in an adventure are story purposes – an obstacle that can be overcome with physical mayhem, as opposed to one that can be resolved by clever roleplay, or solving a puzzle, or escaping a trap. So why should it be the basis of experience, instead of story-based awards?

But, Wait… What is Experience?

Before carrying these thoughts to their logical conclusion, and committing myself to that destination, we should take a moment to consider exactly what “experience” is and what it represents, in case there is a counter-arguement lurking there.

According to Wikipedia, “An experience point… is a measurement used … to quantify a player character’s progression through the game.”

Personally, I dislike this definition, though I found it difficult to enumerate any specific objections. Eventually, I realized that I had two objections:

  1. The definition is at a pure metagame level, without reference to what xp represents to the character; and
  2. I have a specific objection to the use of the phrase “through” in this context, because it implies that xp rewards should automatically follow achievement regardless of the difficulty of that achievement or character interaction with the objective a PC is attempting to achieve. Now, if the latter phrase had been “progression within the game”, I would have no objections whatsoever.

Here’s my alternative:

Experience Points are an abstract numeric measurement of progress in the development of character capabilities and expertise.

This definition operates at both a character level and a metagame level, and it carries a clear implication of a character “learning from experience”.

The word “abstract” is essential in this definition; XP as a quantification of “experience the character can learn from” contains a logical disconnect with in-game events. Whatever the conversion system that translates experience to new or improved abilities, there is no direct relationship between the abilities used to obtain the experience and the abilities that are improved! Handing out some NPC smack-down doesn’t logically lead to an improved ability to craft a musical instrument, for example – not unless the PC involved beaned the NPC with an example of the musical instrument in question!

Treating XP as an abstract representation of the “experiences that a character can learn from” wallpapers over this problem, implying that even while the character was running around humiliating NPCs, he was also sketching instrument designs in his head. The character becomes a collage of abilities that is more than his combat characteristics, at least from the point of view of the XP subsystem. The suspiciously-shaped lump under the wallpaper is the assumption that progress in one area (musical instrument design) is, in any way, related to the outcome of combat with an NPC – or, more specifically, that the experience received by the character for one activity is a reflection of the experience received by the character in another.

So, how does it fit?

It is this definition of XP that encourages the issue of Experience Points for activities other than combat. Any sort of conflict or activity can be considered an activity from which the character can learn, after all – so rewards for problem-solving and roleplay (interaction with NPC personalities) and non-combat achievements are all perfectly valid.

But there is a hole in this concept of experience points – this definition of xp assumes that all characters possess an equal facility in translating “learning experiences” into “lessons learned”. There is no allowance for relative intelligence, or even an instinctive equivalent (usually part of a wisdom or wisdom-like characteristic).

It can be argued that a greater innate ability enhances the prospects for success at a reduced risk to the character, so that having a high intelligence (or intuitive equivalent) will result in a greater ability to earn XP in the long run, indirectly representing that ‘equal facility’. But since the entire group will typically benefit in this way from the presence of a character of greater capabilities, regardless of the ability to learn of individual members of the group, I find that this is a flawed arguement that doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny.

Justifying Character Classes

Although they are often disparaged in comparison with point-buy game systems, the character class system of D&D and Pathfinder and similar games actually affords a plausible solution to this problem.

If it is assumed that a character has undertaken a career within a particular character class because it is in that class that the character achieves this ‘equal facility’ and that the character would progress less readily in any class that the character has NOT taken levels in, the “equal facility” problem disappears completely.

Indeed, it is not much of a stretch to employ this line of thought to justify the XP bonuses that AD&D used to hand out for characters whose primary stat was of a superior level, and it was in this context that I first encountered this arguement in one of many bull-sessions on the train to gaming each Saturday from the friend’s house in Lindfield NSW where we had played the night before.

Character Concept: A points-purchase equivalent

For players of games like Champions and Gurps, which operate by expenditure of experience points directly to obtain abilities, a house rule is usually needed to achieve the same justification.

Requiring a character to explicitly define a character concept – a blueprint for what the character can do, what their personality is, and so on – and then mandating that purchases must reflect that character concept (or are penalized in expense – the equivalent of ‘cross-class skills’) solves the ‘equal facility’ problem by defining each character concept as a ‘character class’ in their own unique right.

Side-note: In a nice bit of negative feedback, the same approach can be used to restrict the choices of character class in a level-based system, ensuring that characters remain ‘true’ to themselves and retain the diversity that they originally represented when the PCs first started adventuring together. Without such restriction, it is altogether too easy for one character to start resembling another as they advance in levels – and there is the side-benefit that it is an impediment to min-maxing.

XP For Achievement

This train of thought has inexorably led to the conclusion that a far better model for RPGs to employ is one that rewards Achievement with Experience instead of basing rewards on success in Combat, because combat for it’s own sake is not deserving of reward. It is ironic that the proposal redefines XP to accord more closely with the definition supplied by Wikipedia, despite my objections!

This is a point that Da’Vane made in the comments of the earlier post – the distinction between combat and conflict. Having established the validity of the approach, it’s time to look at using it as a campaign planning tool, a means of making the GM’s life easier.

Ambitious Undertakings

The first step in making use of this principle is to define the high-level objective. To illustrate the process, I’ll be using the first adventure from my Shards Of Divinity campaign.

The first adventure had a number of objectives. I needed to establish that one particular PC had access to knowledge that no-one else in the world knew; I needed to establish that this information was going to be both useful to the party and going to get them in trouble over their heads. I needed to establish that this particular PC was the most wanted man in the game world (because of the circumstances that gave him that knowledge), and introduce some of the history of that world in a real and tangible way. Lastly, I needed to bring the PCs together, unite them, and let them experience the game rules of this particular environment, especially the fact that magic was failing and less reliable than they were used to – despite the fact (or perhaps because of it) that this was to be a world with a LOT of magic. (If it sounds like one character is central to the entire campaign, it’s because they are – by intent. I made sure the other players knew that this would be the case before the signed up for the game).

That’s a lot for one adventure, and I expected it to take quite a while to complete, both in game terms and in real life. In fact, I expected it to carry the PCs from 5th level to 10th level, possibly even 12th level.

At the time, that was just a guesstimate based on the scale of the problems that would confront the PCs in the process of achieving that long list of objectives. Under this new paradigm of adventure construction, it becomes a firm target.

Adventure Breakdown

The next step is to break the objective down into a number of smaller, logical, steps that collectively achieve the overall objective. Where possible, decisions should be eliminated altogether from this structure, they should still be more general than that. If you can’t eliminate a decision, it should be reduced to a simple ‘either-or’ and the adventure structure should accommodate both. That way, it doesn’t matter what the PCs decide to do, the campaign gets to the end goal. Here’s a breakdown of the Shards Of Divinity adventure:

  1. gather PCs – get the PCs together in one place by sheer coincidence. Include cannon fodder.
  2. recruit PCs – Lucius recruits the PCs as bodyguards/assistants. Barroom Brawl.
  3. where to? – offer PCs a choice of where to go through interesting rumors
  4. gang of thugs – while the PCs are making preparations to leave on an extended expedition, a gang of street thugs recognizes Lucius and tries to capture him
  5. reward poster – a PC recognizes Lucius’ face on a reward poster, the truth of his identity comes out
  6. official attention – the town guard investigate the disturbance (4 above), discover Lucius’ presence
  7. into the wilderness – PCs flee before they are captured, preparations incomplete
  8. failing magic encounter – an encounter designed to establish the unreliability of magic
  9. passage – the PCs travel to wherever they decided to go
  10. impenetrable dungeon – PCs visit a “known” dungeon with a puzzle-based entrance that no-one has ever been able to solve. Lucius’ extraordinary knowledge gives him the answer immediately but the player has to recognize the answer for what it is and work out how to interpret it.
  11. dungeon guardian – a guardian creature attempts to stop anyone from getting enough time to solve the puzzle
  12. puzzle solved – Lucius solves the puzzle
  13. dungeon – room 1 – a deadly trap designed to kill anyone who solves the puzzle and gets past the guardian. Arcane magic doesn’t work at all anywhere inside.
  14. dungeon – room 2 – ‘this is not a treasure-cache, it’s a prison’ – another trap, even more deadly, but this is designed to prevent people leaving, not getting in
  15. dungeon – room 3 – a stone golem impersonates a Drow prince, assuming that the PCs have come to rescue the prince
  16. dungeon – room 4 – history encounter – the Drow prince reveals the origin of Lolth, the early history of the Drow, and their current status concealed within Elvish society, and offers the PCs a bargain: carry a message to his followers, and they will reward the PCs with their entire treasury. Or refuse the offer and leave empty-handed. If they accept, he gives them a blank scroll which will lead them to his treasure cache. If they attack, they will discover that the Drow Prince is invulnerable to anything they can muster.
  17. dungeon – room 5 – the final trap confines the power of the Drow Prince – he could not have harmed the PCs if he had wanted to, the dungeon neutralizes his power, but they also keep him alive far beyond the normal lifespan even of his kind – years that will be instantly bestowed apon him if he ever leaves. But any PCs who expected to find a treasure-hoard hidden here will be sorely disappointed.
  18. the payoff – when the PCs escape, if they accepted the Drow’s Offer, the scroll will prove to be a magical map that will point the way to the Drow Treasure Cache. If not, they will find another dungeon where most of the defenses have been eliminated by another group of adventurers to get a much smaller payoff.

Eighteen Acts. Notice that there it doesn’t make a lot of difference what the PCs choose to do; the first 6 Acts will convince them that they need to get out of town for a while; the nature of a couple of encounters (8 & 11) will change depending on where they decide to go; and the rest of the story is all about giving the PCs the background information to decide whether or not to accept the Drow Prince’s offer.

Ranking The Acts

Eighteen acts into an expected five-to-seven levels of character development – call it six for convenience – gives an average of three acts to each character level. This can be tweaked as desired, of course; some acts present rather more difficulty to be overcome than the others. Some present the opportunity for incidental roleplay encounters that might become important later, and many of them present opportunities for the PCs to make mistakes that will come back to haunt them.

Side-note to any of my players who happen to be reading this: I ended up with more players than originally expected, so there wasn’t as much need for Cannon Fodder to be included. As it happens, a couple of those players didn’t stay with the campaign for various reasons, and I would have been better off including them anyway. Oh well, we all make mistakes. :(

I would actually divide the levels up as follows:

Acts 1-4: Level +1
Acts 5-9: Level +2
Acts 11-12: Level +3
Acts 13-14: Level +4
Acts 15-16: Level +5
Acts 17-18: Level +6

Assuming that the characters start at level 5 (10,000 xp), that is the same thing as specifying:

Acts 1-4: 5,000 xp
Acts 5-9: 6,000 xp
Acts 11-12: 7,000 xp
Acts 13-14: 8,000 xp
Acts 15-16: 9,000 xp
Acts 17-18: 10,000 xp
Subdivide the Challenges

The next step is to take those individual assignments of xp and challenges to be overcome, and get specific about how much each is worth. The simplest method is to consider them all equal, but that’s not always the most reasonable answer. Consider the first 4 acts:

Act 1: story and roleplay
Act 2: minor combat
Act 3: story and roleplay
Act 4: serious combat

There are a number of approaches to performing a subdivision of xp award amongst these 4 acts.

  • Arbitrary – set the numbers to whatever sounds right. If the PCs get more or less xp than they expect, it will balance out in the end.
  • Combat first – set CRs and ELs for the combats, determine the likely awards, subtract from 5000 and divide by 2 to get the story-based awards. Leave a margin to use for the rewarding of good roleplay.
  • Absolute Challenge Rating – set CRs for each Act such that the expected total xp is about 5,000 (perhaps less a margin for use as roleplay awards). Then award the actual XP according to the standard rules for overcoming such challenges, as described in “Experience for the ordinary person”.
  • Relative Power Levels – my personal choice, this combines the arbitrary setting of XP with the determination of CR according to the amount of XP to be arbitrarily awarded.

Let me explain that last one again: the GM sets an amount of experience that they feel the events should be worth, in story terms, and then determines AT THE TIME, according to the then-current character levels, what the CR (i.e. the difficulty) of any combat or problem should be in order for the characters to earn that much XP.

Why is this my preferred approach? Because it doesn’t matter if the characters gain an extra level here or there in random encounters or interesting side trips or whatever. It doesn’t matter if a character incurs a negative level due to an encounter with a Vampire. It doesn’t matter if a prior challenge proves to be less difficult or more difficult than expected – because the actual difficulty of the challenge at hand gets adjusted for these circumstances at the time, the level is predefined relative to the PCs abilities.

Employing this system, I would rate these four acts:

Act 1: story and roleplay – 750 xp
Act 2: minor combat – 1000 xp
Act 3: story and roleplay – 750 xp
Act 4: serious combat – 2500 xp

Assuming the PCs are 5th level at the time, the appropriate tables in the DMG give:

Act 1: story and roleplay – 750 xp = CR 3
Act 2: minor combat – 1000 xp = CR 4
Act 3: story and roleplay – 750 xp = CR 3
Act 4: serious combat – 2500 xp = CR 6 and a bit

…unless you divide the xp awarded amongst the characters instead of awarding that amount each, in which case for 6 PCs of 5th level, the goals are:

Act 1: story and roleplay – 750 xp x 6 = 4500 = CR 8
Act 2: minor combat – 1000 xp x 6 = 6000 = CR 9
Act 3: story and roleplay – 750 xp x 6 = 4500 = CR 8
Act 4: serious combat – 2500 xp x 6 = 15000 = midway between CR 11 and 12.

For the two combats, CR 9 equates to 10-12 brawlers of 2 HD each; CR 11 gives seven to nine 5th level rogues, while CR 12 would increase their level to 6. So maybe four 5th level rogues, and four 6th level.

For the non-combat Acts, three characters of the same level as the party who have to be overcome, one way or another – or some action of similar difficulty – would match the CR 8, as would 5-6 characters of 3rd level. So three untrustworthy NPCs try to join up and have to be turned away in act 1, or perhaps one of the three is a bartender who mistakes one of the party for someone with whom they have a grudge; and each member of the party gets to go shopping for one essential commodity and has to deal with a merchant who is the equivalent of a 3rd level character. That, in turn, gives the experienced GM some idea of the skills of the NPC merchant.

But if the PCs somehow gain or lose levels, it’s easy to adjust the CR so that they still get the same amount of XP.

Of course, the so-called “combat” xp are now “conflict” xp – the PCs will get this amount if they capture/kill the rogues or if they simply pull a clever dodge and run away successfully. The XP is not for overpowering the rogues, it’s for getting away from them, and any approach that works is perfectly and equally acceptable.

Advantages

I consider the Objective-oriented technique contained in this article to be a superior approach to the awarding of XP, at least in comparison with the standard method. Instead of arbitrarily deciding how difficult to make a problem, then awarding XP based on that decision, the GM is deciding how much XP he wants the encounter to be worth and setting the difficulty accordingly.

If adventures are designed in this way, it doesn’t matter when those adventures take place (relative to the experience levels of the characters) because the difficulty is automatically adjusted.

Of equal value is the ability to contain XP earnings to an expected scale – in another of my campaigns, characters who I expected to be at about 12th level are now in the low twenties, for all sorts of reasons. As a result, I have had to choose between upping the nastiness level of the encounters or boring the players with challenges they would find trivial and dull. The former perpetuates and exacerbates the problem, purely because the characters earn still more experience as a result. If the Objective-Oriented XP system had been in place in that campaign, some of the early encounters would have been a lot easier than they were (read “lower CR”), giving less XP, and the characters would still be on-track at 12th level.

Another example: In my first Fumanor campaign, I expected characters to get to 30th level at best. One of the PCs ended up being 54th level or something equally ridiculous – virtually all of it fairly earned (there were a couple of levels that arose from system migration, first from D&D 2nd Ed. to Rolemaster, and then from Rolemaster to D&D 3.0.

Disadvantages

There is a trivial increase in the amount of prep work to be done – a few seconds worth of effort in each game session. Roleplay awards don’t really fit – though these can be satisfied with other forms of reward, probably to the long-term betterment of the campaign. GMs will need to be reasonably proficient with basic arithmetic (or with the use of a calculator) and with the existing XP subsystem in order to determine what CR of encounter will yield the expected amount of XP – and sometimes the numbers simply won’t quite add up, and will require a little tweaking.

Conclusions

Usefully, if you don’t tell your players what you are doing, they will never know! That, of course, eliminates any complaints – not that there should be any, because you are still rewarding them according to the DMG and established protocols; you simply have a new tool at your disposal to determine how effectively your combats, traps, puzzles, skill checks, and NPCs should be at opposing the characters.

“Object-Oriented” in computer programming thinks of a system or piece of software as a set of ‘objects’ with defining characteristics that can be controlled and manipulated, manipulating the object in the process. “Objective-Oriented” XP does the same for an RPG.

I intend to implement this system in my Shards Of Divinity campaign ASAP. I can’t offer a stronger recommendation than that.

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