Experience for Treasure & Fetishizing Balance

One of the cornerstones of the monster-treasure system I’ve been working on is that characters receive an average of 4 experience points from recovering treasure for every one they achieve by defeating monsters. This is essential enough that my previous post won’t make much sense without it. It’s also a significant departure from modern versions of the world’s most popular fantasy roleplaying game, so it’s probably worth explaining the logic to people for whom it may come as a suprising change.

To do so, I’ll borrow from a thread I was part of at the great NerdNYC forums. They’re great for a number of reasons, one of which is the diversity of roleplayers; conversations there often draw in people with many different perspectives and experiences who are willing to learn from one another. I’m copy-pasting from posts there not just because I’m lazy, but also because this environment offered supporting evidence that the way I advocated giving XP for treasure made sense to folks not caught up in D&D history (“I think you should get XP for your economic analysis of the editions. I don’t care much about the game, but I like this.”) and was convincing even to those who’d moved away from it in the past (“XP for treasure never was to my taste, although we kept to it back in the day. You make a good case for keeping it in the game.”)

The relevant part of the conversation started with an observation I made about the play experience of classic editions and their retro-clones:

You spend a lot of time prodding reality with 10' poles, building tension each time you turn a corner and see... a corridor! with doors! Until finally when something consequential happens it's a big release. I like old-school dungeon design principles for this, with lots of empty rooms and encounters that are either tension-building speed bumps or climactic insane challenges; not for me the 3e/4e design paradigm of just-right bites of XP you have to chew through level by level.
wanderer took issue with this last sentence:
You’re conflating editions. This was not the 3rd Edition (3.0) philosophy, as laid out in the DMG. Parties were supposed to encounter monsters both well above and well below their challenge rating. Stumbling into an encounter that the party would have no chance of overcoming was a by-the-book reality.
jenskot replied with the observation "that is technically correct, rules as written. But became culturally incorrect, in actual play" and pointed to the same article about fetishizing balance I linked to last post. I'd already started a longer response, however:
I bow respectfully to your scholarship before launching a counter-attack of pedantry!

In my opinion, the seeds of all this were sown by 3E’s decision to make XP come from combat only, rather than from treasure. If you get something like 4 to 10 times as many XP from treasure as you do from combat (as some evidence suggests was meant to be the case with by-the-book TSR editions), an unbeatable monster isn’t a waste of play time. You might find a way to sneak past it to get its cash, or make an agreement to split the profits with some other monster you lure to fight it, or whatever.

3E decouples treasure from the engine of advancement, but then re-introduces it again as expected wealth by level. So now it becomes a perceived problem if your 1st level guys sneak past the unbeatable 15th level monster and take the treasure that was balanced for people who could beat it, because getting lots of GP but not XP means you have too much wealth for your level. I see things like the fetishization of balance, the 4E idea of item parcels, etc. as all being unintended consequences of not giving XP for GP.

In 3E’s defense - I love the old slattern dearly, and am looking forward to having the time to read Justin Alexander’s Legends & Labyrinths’ new coat of paint smoothing over the wrinkes on her use-worn face - many people rejected GP for XP in older editions anyway. Lots of design decisions in 3E were just formalizing the most popular house rules.

Likewise, lots of criticisms of TSR D&D are aimed at the way people played it, not the way it was actually written. The fact that its writing is so contradictory & its intent so unclear that this happened a lot may or may not be a valid criticism. Both the encounter balance and wealth by level things are guidelines not rules, but because they were stated explicitly people gave them more importance than the designers might have intended. A certain degree of implicit design might have avoided these problems. OD&D’s refusal to tell you what its gnomic text had in mind allowed lots of interpretations to flourish; the make-your-intent-explicit modern trend is linked in my mind to the way D&D has become more and more narrowly focused and exclusionary of other styles.

It remains to be seen whether the degree of explicitness about wealth and advancement guidelines we provide in ACKS will wind up resulting in unintended consequences - worrying about this is no guarantee it won’t happen. Statements of the designers’ intent didn’t stop this trend in 3E, but for what it’s worth the calculations ACKS allows you to do about how much wealth a party of characters of a certain level usually have are, to my mind, important to the extent that they let you create scenarios that break those expectations with interesting results.

How much impact introductory adventures have on a game’s culture is debatable - the adventure path modules like Forge of Fury designed to introduce players to 3E had a wide range of encounters, but this didn’t stop the fetishization of level-appropriateness - but the scenarios I have in mind for introductory ACKS adventures all involve putting the characters in the position of having wealth beyond their level.

The first is a take on Keep on the Borderlands, inspired in part by Beedo’s tales of his Gothic Greyhawk campaign in which the players have taken over Castle Ravenloft despite being far too poor to have built it themselves or even maintain it properly. In my version of the classic Red Box intro adventure, the Keep will be not merely a base for low-level adventurers but also a stronghold they may find themselves in charge of well before characters are normally ready to afford a domain. And the second is a “more money, more problems” city adventure that uses the ACKS wealth-by-level guidelines to identify who might become the adventurer’s adversaries when they come into possession of a treasure that is an appropriate prize for conquerors or kings.

>In my opinion, the seeds of all this were sown by 3E’s decision to make XP come from combat only, rather than from treasure.

It’s a good theory, but I don’t think it stands up to scrutiny. 2E had already eliminated XP for treasure (leaving it as an optional rule that the published adventures and games did not assume was being used). And that decision seems to have been made because most groups were ignoring the XP for treasure rules at their tables. But neither the widespread culture pre-1989 nor the explicit rules post-1989 seem to have created this fetish for balance.

With that being said, I wish I had some explanation for why this cultural decision to treat guidelines as shackles happened circa 2000. But I don’t. The encounter guidelines are just one part of the wider cultural gestalt: You can also see it in memes like “3E is difficult to house rule (because you’ll mess up the balance)”, too.

Maybe it was making the math explicit. Maybe it was cleaning up the game mechanics. Maybe it was marketing that emphasized the “new pace” that would allow people to actually experience high level play. Maybe it was the OGL, which resulted in people trying to figure out whether or not third-party products were “good enough” or “done right”. Maybe things would have been different if White Wolf hadn’t rushed the Creature Collection onto the market with builds that didn’t “get the math right”.

But I do think there’s a deeper psychology at work here: One thing that generally is under-appreciated by RPG players is that the rule system is only one-half of the game. The given scenario being played is the other half of the game.

Think of it like Monopoly: You have the rules of Monopoly and you have the Monopoly board. Change the board but keep the same rules and you’ll nevertheless end up with a game that plays very differently.

What this means is that GMs have a tremendous influence on how an RPG plays based solely on the scenarios they design. That’s a lot of responsibility and it’s not easy. By offering equations which could be “solved” (whether for encounter-building, monster-building, or character-building), 3E offered the illusion that designing a good scenario was just a matter of “figuring out the math” and plugging in the right numbers.

The encounter-building, monster-building, and character-building equations in 3E weren’t actually designed for that, of course, so the result is kinda sub-par. But 4E doubled down by specifically trying to take the DM “out of the equation”: If you put together the right mix of monster roles; solve the encounter-building equation correctly; and use the right number of encounters-per-day… then supposedly you’ll end up with a good adventure.

Speaking purely from a mechanical standpoint, 4E is much better at this than 3E. (Which is unsurprising, since 3E was never actually designed to do that.) And the allure of it is fairly obvious.

But I’m pretty skeptical. Largely because good narratives can’t actually be boiled down to “solvable equations”. And in trying to provide such equations, 4E ends up unnecessarily constricting the game to a very narrow (and very bland) definition of “acceptable”. (Nor do I think this is merely a shortcoming in 4E’s technique: Laws’ Rune and the boardgame Descent are other examples of the same approach, and they suffer from pretty much the exact same flaws.)

Bit of a ramble there, but tl;dr: I suspect that in breaking down the math and providing lots of customization options for characters, monsters, and encounters, 3E’s designers inadvertently created the illusion that there was a “magic equation” for scenario-design that could be mechanically solved. I also suspect that the exact same thing would have happened even if they left treasure = XP intact.

Ah, I never played 2E so it is a persistent blind spot in my theorizing! Thanks for the enjoyably lengthy & characteristically cogent breakdown.

Your post adds some grist for my reflections on the ways that ACKS is a work of modern RPG design, even if it’s looking to older designs as inspiration and a means to back out of some dead ends contemporary systems have worked themselves into. I’d known that our interest in how Moldvay and Gygax pay attention to the math of GP, XP, and character advancement reflects the modern concern with these same issues; I hadn’t thought about how their equally-admired procedural dungeon generator systems also presage the attempt to take the DM out of the equation.

That helps me identify one thing that’s different in our approach vs. WotC’s, which I will make into a new post!

JA> “With that being said, I wish I had some explanation for why this cultural decision to treat guidelines as shackles happened circa 2000”

That at least, is easy to answer because it didn’t happen circa 2000, it happened circa 1978. AD&D aimed to be, and was, a direct paradigm shift from “classic” D&D. Gygax made it clear, throughout, the AD&D books (have a look at the intro’s for ex), in Dragon mag, and in “official” publications that if you weren’t playing by the rules you weren’t playing right. Thus the '8o’s saw the rise of the rules lawyers and the endless arguments over rules and the acceptablility of houserules. Cook, in 2e attempted a 180 turn, advocating once again treating rules as guidlines, but the seeds were sown and habits already developed.

“Balance” as a concern of game design has everything to do with the growth of classes, starting with the thief, who was the first class to be deliberately designed to be “balanced” with the others (meaning MU, Cleric, Fighting men - who actually aren’t very balanced!). Each “new class” thereafter was a crapshoot attempt at fairness for players and game balance - a concept that makes no sense either realistically or within game considering the variations of ability scores.

Anyway the notion of balanced classes, and an ever increasing list of them, assumes a desireablilty for encounter balance overall.

That’s an interesting point, Aldarron. I often think that the tragedy of 4E is that it actually succeeded in doing the things Gygax said AD&D was supposed to do. Maybe the intermediate step was 3E, which attempted to do the impossible task of fulfilling the rules-lawyer expectations that came from Gygax’s stated intentions for AD&D while still remaining remarkably faithful to what was actually in 1E.

So the reason that the seeds were sown in 1978 but didn’t become visible until the turn of the century would be that this is how long it took people who grew up in the AD&D-dominated environment to become the bulk of players and post-3E-launch designer/developers, priming the culture to turn more-explicit guidelines into holy writ. That in turn paved the way for 4E to achieve Gygax’s goal of Hoyle’s rules that play out identically for every group by doing what he wasn’t willing to: jettison legacy systems from older D&D whenever they got in the way.

Both the ideas for introductory ACKS adventures sound cool : )

@Aldarron: I think that’s the interesting thing, though. As you say, this sort of thing had been emphasized before. As Tavis mentions in the original post, equation-based systems for determining “proper encounters” had also been created. Holmes had laid out explicit treasure guidelines. Even the culture of organized play had implemented the idea of “legal builds”. The 1991 Rule Cyclopedia even included explicit wealth-by-level guidelines.

So all this stuff had been out for at least 10-20 years when D&D3 came along. Is it just that it was all put in one place at one time? Is it the CRPG culture encouraging more rigid rules? Is it the influence of story games featuring narrative structure tightly controlled through mechanics?

Something else to toss on the heap: CRPGs also saw this move from strategic-to-tactical play. Or, to put it another way, from a style of play in which the expedition was the primary challenge to a style of play in which the combat encounter was the primary challenge.

In CRPGs, this shift can be pretty accurately pinned on the ability to save your game at will and the elimination of permadeath. FPS games saw a similar move circa-Halo: Doom was frequently a game about shepherding your dwindling health and ammo. Halo changed the paradigm so that long-term strategic play became irrelevant.

What caused a similar move in tabletop RPGs? Well, possibly the embrace of railroaded adventure paths. Once you’ve gotten hold of the idea that PC death can “ruin” a campaign, long-term strategic consequences get minimized. Plus, when the plot is “set” from Day 1, there are no long-term strategic advantages.