XP for treasure

One oddity of AD&D 1st edition that had always seemed nonsensical to me, is to give characters XP not only for defeated monsters, but also for the value of treasures they bring back with them into town. Why do that? Picking up stuff that is lying around does not make you better at fighting or casting spells. And in those games I’ve been playing the most, treasure is there to be sold so you can buy better equipment and magic items. But in campaigns of a more oldschool leaning, there frequently are no more things for sale, which you don’t already have by 2nd level. So why bother with treasure at all?

Very often, and probably most of the cases, defeating an enemy also gets you treasure. But you can also defeat an enemy and not getting any treasure (because he doesn’t have any). And you can get treasure without defeating an enemy!

That’s what makes XP for treasure relevant. Sometimes an enemy can’t be fought, or the risk is regarded as just way too high. But if you can find a way to get his treasure while avoiding him entirely, you still created a clever solution to a problem. Which is rewarded with XP. Even in a game where money has no practical use, treasure still serves as a measure of your accomplishments. When you return to town, the treasure you bring back with you is your proof for your deeds.

You can’t make the player feel the comforts the money of the PC can buy him. And it’s extremely difficult to really play out the benefits of good clothing and a fancy house. To the character, being rich has great value and benefits. And when the chracter sees a golden idol, it is luring him with expensive wine and crocodile skin boots. But since comfort does not carry over to the player, XP can serve as a substitute lure. Instead of dollar signs in the players eyes, it’s saying “XP”. What matters is the emotional response.

When the GM describes a golden idol with ruby eyes on a pedestal, the player should think “I really, really want this. I hope there’s a way to get it without getting killed.” In other games like D&D 3rd edition and later ones, the player will want to have it because it can be traded in for magic boots or enchanted armor. So there is no need to add the additional lure of XP.

Lies! All lies!

I’ve been going over my ideas for my campaign setting again, this time specifically with a look at what kinds of reactions and emotions I want to evoke in the players. (Something I’ve read here, but never consciously gave much of a thought before.) Some themes I want the setting to encourage are trusting in what you think is right, and always questioning what hidden motives both enemies and allies may have.

And that of course means that NPCs will be lying a lot. Which interestingly, villains in fiction rarely do. When an enemy gets defeated and cornered and the protagonists start to question him, he usually will just tell them everything he knows, the heroes take it as truth, and it all turns out to be completely correct in the end. Players will probably not expect that NPCs will lie to them, which is good. But it also means that you can’t simply copy things you’ve seen before. So using lies in RPGs is something that can use a bit additional thought.

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A worthy Quest

I’ve been talking about the idea that a campaign in an RPG can be either following the entire adventuring life of the player characters, or be an episodic series of their greatest adventures. Though I’ve run all my previous campaigns in the “life story” style and all the games I’ve played where either this or one-shots, I am actually much more fond of the later one. Part of it is because most of my campaigns are short and never make it to a grand finale and I really want more opportunities to run adventures for Big Damn Heroes for a change. But I think in a campaign that is driven by events and developments in the game world, as opposed byfighting and treasure huting in isolated dungeons, it’s actually a more effective approach.

A common issue many people have with “epic” campaigns and adventure paths, is that no-name 1st level characters rise to be the most poweful people in the world in just a few months or even weeks, while NPCs supposedly take decades or centuries to get there. It works better in action movies, where an Average Joe only needs an extraordinary crisis to unleash the fighting beast that has always been sleeping inside him, and lots of videogames of the RPG genre make the samemistake, as they want to show off all the sweet high level abilities offered by the source material in a single story. Two games that handled this aspect reasonably well are Mass Effect, where you you start as an elite veteran and unlock new abilities over time only for gameplay reasons, and Dragon Age 2, which does follow the episodic format and has almost 4 different stories from various moments over a 10 year period.

In the context of a campaign, Mass Effect would be a case of starting at a high level with few increases of character strength, while Dragon Age 2 only shows the moments in the characters life where they made significant increases in experience and power. For myself, I’ve made the descision of following the episodic approach, skipping over all the uneventful patrols of the roads and borders, and explorations of dungeons that turned out to be empty. But what kinds of adventures are actually worth telling?

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Campaigns of Heroic Deeds

I’ve been thinking a lot about improving my recently started campaign over my earlier ones, and I discovered a new pair of approaches to campaign and adventure design. The Campaign of the PCs Career, and the Campaign of the PC’s greatest deeds. The former following all the characters explorations and fights, while the later one is limited to the highlights.

Career-based campaigns where kind of the default in early RPGs and are still the default mainstream among oldschool fans. The PCs learn about a ruin or mysterious place and simply go checking it out to see if they find anything interesting or valuable. Pretty much all D&D adventure modules from the 70s and 80s follow this approach and the same principle scaled up is essentially what most sandbox campaigns are about. Sometimes amazing situations happen, but mostly it’s about looking for treasure or doing paid mercenary work. If the PCs perform a great deeds and legendary battles, it’s often almost by accident and you’ll neven know when it will happen. Almost all campaigns I’ve either ran or played in also followed this approach. Self contained jobs that provide XP and treasure, but no deeds of note.

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No time like the present

I’m currently reading again the Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding (it’s that damn good), and it got me once more thinking about the role of history in setting design. Lots of settings have backstories that cover thousands of years, while for the players the only thing that matters is the present. Past events only matter when they return and become a problem in the present day.

But stories of ancient heroes and how they shaped the present world are often pretty cool ones. Sometimes even more than the things that are happening right now. It’s a common standard that the golde age of great heroes is long gone and the present day is just a shadow of it. I understand why Plato and Tolkien loved the idea (to tell the rest of the world how much they suck), but this isn’t contemporary criticism, this is roleplaying! Why should we play in the boring times after the interesting things are mostly over?

So I was thinking, that I like the idea of campaigns where the players are not just drifting around in the wake of great history, but are actually riding the crest of the wave. However, paradoxically, I’m not a fan of epic stories. My interest lies much more in the outstanding individuals among the common folk. I also loath metaplots in campaign settings and am still considering the option of a small-scale public release of my own setting. How to solve these conflicting goals?

I think one quite interesting approach is to make the timeline rather short and most of the defining events rather recent. Why set the current year for a campaign in the year 2437 when you can also set the date to 437? The great city state does not need to be 900 years old. If it’s just 90 years old, thats still longer than anyone can remember. A setting does not need to be still entirely dynamic, but it’s sufficient to have things seeming to be settling down instead of being firmly established. Drastic changes like new empires or collapsing ones might be unlikely in the lifetime of todays people, but the long-term survival of recently established dynasties could still be uncertain and specific borders not yet be set in stone. I think one reason histories are often set at such long periods are because elves and dwarves live for so long, and something just doesn’t seem that ancient if your grandfather has told you how he has seen it with his own eyes. But the simple and obvious solution here is just not making such races that extremely long lived. If elves live only for 300 years, that’s still amazingly long for a human to consider. But a 150 year old elf wouldn’t ever have talked to anyone who was alive just 500 years ago.

Since I haven’t yet nailed down a clear timeline, I’m quite curious how it might turn out approching it from this perspective

How about not saving the world?

End of the World plots are popular because they are easy. Characters don’t need any personalty or background to save the world. Everyone wants to live and the end of the world is the one situation from which nobody can simply walk away. It’s the absolutely lowest common denominator, there isn’t anything more basic in storytelling than that.

If you want a different kind of threat, then the characters need to have something they want to protect. Bob the chaotic neutral human thief does not value anything but his life. Why should he care and not just run away?

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An alternative way to track character wealth

Coins in RPGs have always been something that seemed more like an annoyance to me than something that makes playing the game more fun. Sure, finding treasure and buying better equipment is often one of the most enjoyable parts of an adventure, but all the accounting that goes into keeping track of all your coins is right at the opposite end of the entertainment-scale. In many games, most mundane pieces of equipment have prieces that are completely negible, being counted in silver or even copper coins. When you’re carrying around thousands of gold coins, buying such objects isn’t even felt in your purse. And if you’re playing in a fantasy campaign in which there are no magic items for sale in stores, you can easily have the best weapons and armor that money can buy by third level. You have more money than you could ever spend on most mundane expenses like food, lodgings, and clothing. It is very tempting to simply tell the player not to bother with substracting the 2 silver pieces and 7 copper pieces they just spend. I’m also no fan of pure dungeon crawling, and the hunting for treasure isn’t a priority in my games. It’s something that happens more by accident at the side while the PCs are fighting their way through a place to find a person of item of special significance.

However, I am also a fan of the Sword & Sorcery genre and a big part of it is heroes being completely broke at regular intervals, being forced to get by with barely anything more but the shirts on their backs and having to climb back up towards fame and especially fortune. Especially in some OSR games, you also have some focus on hiring mercenaries and raising small armies of followers, who all need to be equiped, fed, and paid. And I don’t like to just handwave such things and let the players have whatever they want.

Encumbrance is a similar annoyance with all the fiddly accounting involved, and I’ve adopted the simplified Encumbrance system from Pencils and Papers, which has been working out really well for us so far. So I’ve come up with a similiar idea to simplify the tracking of character wealth:

Under this system, players do ignore any costs that are negible, but what constitutes a negible amount of money depends on the amount of money the character currently has in his coinpurse.

  • Platinum Class: A character who has more than 100 pp worth of coins (1,000 gp) tracks his money in platinum pieces. Any item or service that costs less than 1 pp (10 gp) is not substracted from the characters wealth.
  • Gold Class: A character who has more than 100 gp worth of coins tracks his money in gold pieces. Any item or service that costs less than 1 gp is not substracted from the characters wealth.
  • Silver Class: A character who has more than 100 sp worth of coins (10 gp) tracks his money in silver pieces. Any item or service that costs less than 1 sp is not substracted from the characters wealth.
  • Copper Class: A character who has less than 100 sp worth of coins (10 gp) tracks his money in copper pieces. Any prices the character pays is substracted from his wealth.

It’s up to the GM to judge when a purchase is considered to be a single item or the character bought something in bulk. While a character in the platinum class might buy a shield worth 5 gp and not substract the amount from his wealth, buying 100 such shields (500 gp/50 pp) to equip his guards would be a single purchase that does get substracted. Similarly, a single roll of linen cloth wouldn’t count as treasure for the same character, but a whole wagon load of linen could still be sold and add to his wealth. If something is bought or paid for on a regular basis, I think a smart way to handle it would be to check how much it costs the character per month. In Pathfinder, the daily wage for an untrained hireling is 1 sp. So a character of the platinum class could have three such servants in his home, and since their wages total up to only 90 sp (9 gp), it would still be negible and not be included in his expenses. Another important thing to note is, that there can be a difference between the wealth a character has stashed in a vault at his home or is carrying in a coinpurse while on adventure. A character could easily have piles of gold stored in his home, but when his coinpurse gets stolen, he may have to pawn some trinkets just to get back to silver class until he returns home. And when you’re really low on money, finding cheap ways to get a place for the night is getting interesting again. Being a high ranking officer and having to sleep in a barn would be an indignity that greatly enhances the game. (Really, indignities are the best driving force behind great roleplaying. There’s only two ways to hurt a player: Stealing their money and hurting their pride.)

The Dead and the Dying

I was playing God of War again, which has lots of great bosses and ridiculous amounts of violence. And it got me an idea:

In many RPGs, player characters go unconscious when they lose their last hit point, but are actually dead only once they reach -10 hp. For the sake of simplicity, this is often ignored for enemies, and once they are out of hit points, they are simply dead for all intents and purposes. However, to add a little more gritt to my campaign, I plan to adopt a rule that any enemy brought to exactly 0 hp is not outright dead, but severely enough wounded to go down and lose the ability to fight, move, or even make any loud shouts. So at the end of a fight, there’s a certain chance that two or three of the defeated enemies are still not quite dead and semi-conscious. It’s then up to the players to finish off the dying, ask them a few last questions, use magic healing or treat their wounds so they will survive, or just leave them behind to die.

In Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea and probably most OSR games, a Trauma Survival check might be appropriate for enemies who are left to die, but the chace for that (default 75%) seems much too high. I probably go with an Extraordinary Feat of Constitution in AS&SH, which would only be 4% for most enemies, and maybe 8 or 16% for the tougher ones. Of course, if an enemy should survive, the GM would be pretty much obliged to have that NPC appear again later on in the campaign.

I can very much see why such a rule doesn’t appear in most RPGs, though I would kind of expect to see it in Lamentations of the Flame Princess. I’m usually not a fan of gore, but I think in this case some additional appaling consequences of violence can go quite a long way to reinforce the feeling of Sword & Sorcery, and also is a great opportunity for players to flesh out the peculiar personalties of their characters.

Character Sheets: Splitting the inventory

I made my first own character sheet yesterday, and having used them in our campaign today, one element I included already proved to be really quite useful. What I did with the space for inventory was to split it into two tables. One for items worn on the body, and a separate one for items in the backpack.

The reason for this is simple: If you are using Encumbrance in your game (and I recommend taking a look at this very practical system to manage it), players have many reasons to consider leaving behind most of their gear in a camp or with followers to explore and fight without being encumbred. It’s particularly useful for thieves, who often need to have no encumbrance at all to use their abilities and rarely have high strength, but can also become very relevant if the PCs have already collected a lot heavy treasure that could weigh them down considerably.

By making the content of the backpack a separate table from the rest of the inventory and writing down the total amount of load for each, it becomes a lot easier to see what difference it makes when the backpack is dropped. It seems obvious to me now, but I think all character sheets should structure their inventory this way.

I also made separate boxes for coins that are carried in a coinpurse on the character, in the backpack, or stored in a vault at a home base. In most games, characters can become ludicrously rich, and it would be nonsense to carry around hundreds if not thousands of kilos of gold and silver all the time. Also, it’s less painful when the characters happen to get robbed or lose all of their gear. (And allows for NPC burglarizing the PCs home while they are away.)

Function and Purpose, Part 3: Application

Now, after I made a list of the kinds of behavior I want to encourage in players of the Ancient Lands in the second post, the next step is to think about what elements would be required or very vulnerable to risk,  in achieving that. In a way, this is defining the Purposes I’ve been talking about in the first post. You don’t necessarily have to start with an idea for an element and then find a place for it to fit. Particularly in the early stages it makes s lot of sense to consider what roles there are that need to be filled.

As I outlined in the previous post, I want players to be suspicious about authority, stand up to their convictions, and question established structures, yet accept their limitations and coming to terms with doing things they are not proud of. How is that done in the works I mentioned as references? What makes those characters develop in the direction that they do?

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