Sunday, April 29, 2012

Experience for Monsters Slain is badwrongfun

There. I said it. I'm an edition warrior. Getting experience for killing monsters is intrinsically bad.

Hyperbole? Sure. Right? Absolutely.

Here is what I have been noticing: as player's increase in skill (which in 3+ D&D largely means character optimization and ability on the battle mat, although my players are starting to pick up on my traditional D&D tricks a bit too) it becomes increasingly difficult to pose appropriate challenges to them. It seems that most fights wind up being one said pummeling the other.

Okay, you say, but why does that matter? I thought we OSR folks hate the idea of the "appropriate challenge?"

True! But therein lies the problem. In 3+ killing monsters is the only way to gain experience. That means that to progress players must figure out ways to kill the baddies. If I am doing my job as a DM they have to use their brains to kill them, but kill them they must. This means that player's have a big incentive to try to make their characters as combat worthy as possible. So if I place a monster that is truly too difficult for them I am basically cheating them. It would be like placing a dungeon with zero treasure inside in traditional D&D. In fact it is slightly worse, because I am not only wasting their time but I am going to retard their progress. An unkillable monster is much worse than a normal red herring because it slaughters the PCs as well.

Actually after writing that I a have come up with a better analogy for traditional D&D: imagine a huge chest brimming with gold and jewels. The chest is surrounded by horrific traps that you, the DM, know the PCs have basically zero chance to pass through alive, no matter what they do. We also know that the players will spend enormous amounts of time trying to get that gold. They will spend hours of real time and more than a few characters trying to get it. This is an unfair situation. Figuring out how to get that gold is exactly what we have told them they should be doing, and in fact it is heavily incentivized. They will be frustrated and confused if there is truly no way for them to get it.

Likewise, in 3+ they see a big fat monster, dripping with CR. We have told them that the purpose of this game is to kill as many monsters as they can, so of course they try to kill it. They can try to kill in a smart way or a dumb way. It might be a tough fight, it might consume many of their irreplaceable resources. It might even kill a few characters. However, if the fight is fundamentally unwinnable for some reason (monster is simply too tough/has too big damage output, damage resistance, nasty magical abilities, etc.) then we have cheated the players.

When x is the objective of the game, we should not create situations where going for x makes you lose. Sure it can be hard, there can be tricks, traps, and pitfalls. But the goal of the DM should be to create fun for everyone. Frustrating the very objective of the game for players is not fun.

That being said CR sucks. I am not going to spend a lot of time beating that dead horse, but suffice it to say that the idea of adventurers going out and encountering a series of fights carefully tailored to their ability levels is just dumb. Also Conan runs away a lot.

So awarding experience for monsters slain makes CR matter.

CR is badwrongfun because it is stupid. 

Therefore, experience for killing monsters is badwrongfun.

5 comments:

Brendan said...

I would agree that only getting experience from killing monsters is bad, but getting some XP from monsters might still be okay. The guidelines in the Pathfinder Core book are pretty bad: there is some language about XP for "overcoming challenges" but it really just reads like XP for killing monsters unless you read it very charitably. I think there are some more options in the GameMastery Guide too, but still not very well worded.

That being said, adding back XP for GP is the easiest thing in the world, and it is the first thing I did with my 4E hack game.

When x is the objective of the game, we should not create situations where going for x makes you lose.

Isn't that just another way of saying that all challenges must be level-appropriate though? Maybe the chest with crazy traps or the invulnerable monster could be revisited at a higher level. Assuming the players chose to engage with those elements (rather than being forced by the referee), I don't see the problem.

Josh D. said...

Isn't that just another way of saying that all challenges must be level-appropriate though? Maybe the chest with crazy traps or the invulnerable monster could be revisited at a higher level. Assuming the players chose to engage with those elements (rather than being forced by the referee), I don't see the problem.

Good point! I think that depends partly on whether traps are detectable/surmountable only by mechanical means. If so, then yes, the problems are probably analogous.

However, I try to avoid that scenario. My feeling is that traps should be relatively findable by careful players and that creativity in dealing with them should be rewarded with them - otherwise I think traps are generally fairly harmful to fun. That being said, if yeah, you aren't careful, death might come down to a die roll. Same is true with monsters. My problem is with scenarios where you don't even really have a die roll and what you are doing is exactly what we want players to do. So my chest example should really look like this:

"There is a chest full of potential experience. You have no reason to believe there is a trap a particular kind of trap. You search for a trap anyways and don't find one. You go to the chest and die to the trap you didn't find."

To me that looks exactly like this scenario:

"You see a monster you haven't seen before. It's ugly and scary, but well, all monsters are ugly and scary so you have no particular reason to fear this one more than others. Ooops it kills you in a single blow. Sorry, try again."

I'm just not sure how to avoid this problem when the stated goal of the game is to kill monsters to gain experience, while maintaining some mystery about monsters, and without evaluating their difficulty in some way.

That being said, I like the idea of adding xp for gold to 3+ games. That might just be the best solution.

Josh D. said...

It occurs to me that some people have no problem with the above monster scenario. I just think that it is a scenario that if repeated frequently will get non-fun pretty quickly. I try to bear in mind that evaluating risk is easy for the DM because we have perfect information but often difficult for the players because we are rightly more inclined to describe things to say "it's a wight." I want my players to be able to evaluate risks based on my description, not on game knowledge.

Brendan said...

Good examples. I think this concept of fairness in RPGs, especially in open sandbox games, probably deserves more thorough treatment. What makes a trap or monster fair or unfair? Should there be a concept of difficulty mode in tabletop RPGs analogous to how things are done in some video games? Like Diablo's normal, nightmare, and hell settings.

My players don't like setting info to come at the cost of PC death, so I would never put in a deadly trap which was only likely to be found by setting it off, though I think that would be legit in some games. In fact, for placing clues, I first place what I think is reasonable, and the triple it.

Josh D. said...

Uh oh. Now you really have me thinking about this. There is definitely a tension between the ideal of a dangerous world that adventurers tread at their peril and a fair and fun game. My instinct is that player agency is the key factor and that information is the root of agency. More thinking will be required on this.