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D&D Burgoo (3.5): A Fox Swiped Our Experience Points

There’s a fox in the henhouse over at Open Design, Wolfgang Baur’s design project that produces d20 OGL and 4E materials for its patrons.

This particular fox is games designer John Wick, who was the principal designer for 7th Sea and Legend of the Five Rings rpgs and has recently released Houses of the Blooded through his Wicked Dead Brewing Co.
Wick’s been taking aim at some d20 sacred cows, such as re-envisioning core races for Kobold Quarterly, and in the Wicked Fantasy segment of their most recent podcast, eliminating Experience Points as a mechanism for character advancement.

Eliminate my precious XP? No advancement through levels?

While I’d like to pick a fight and say that XP is a valuable part of the GM’s toolbox as both carrot and stick, I’ll save that for another day. (Or maybe not. Wick thinks a lot more and deeply about design than I do. I’m more of a: “Do you think the Brain in the Jar is a good monster for this encounter?” type of guy.)

Besides, Wick pinpointed a long-acknowledged problem of D&D’s character level advancement systems. As characters advance and as they grow powerful in feats, abilities and skills, they “start looking like a Swiss Army knife,” Wick says.

His stated challenge to GMs and designers is to provide a reward system that encourages richer, more fully developed characters, not just some walking, talking example of rules bloat that keeps pace with the moving target that is “to hit” and difficulty class rolls.

And that’s a worthwhile exercise (and more productive than verbal sparring, anyway).

So, without further delay, he’s an outline for a campaign or minigame, using the OGL rules, that attempts to reach Wick’s goal.

“Fortune and Favor”

Goal: Go on adventures to gain treasure, then attempt to win the favor of your god, lord or master by advancing within the faith, martial, wilderness or arcane tradition/organization that best represents your chosen vocation.
Each of these organizations have traditions to be upheld, coffers to be filled, a storehouse that must be supplied, and allied craftsmen to support. It is through these organizations that magical and wondrous items must be commissioned, the very tools to be used to further your adventuring career.

Setting: Homebrew (Steffenhold, the barony town on the frontier of a magical medieval land that resembles 12th century France or Germany).

Starting characters: 10th level, except for starting gold, which is the average allowed for your starting class at 1st level. All races, feats, abilities, multi-class and prestige class options must come from the core rules and no more than two supplements of your choice.

New mechanics:

1) Favor dice. These are a pool of d6s that are awarded to characters who meet an obligations to their tradition during the course of a playing session.

Favor die can be gained by:

Any deed that advances their organization’s cause wins a 1d6 as a boon (likewise, any misdeed may require a player to sacrifice a die). Only one such d6 can be won per session.

Any single contribution in treasure or goods of 1,000 gp to the organization is worth a d6.

The commissioning and payment of any magic item worth at least 1,000 gp is worth a d6. (Lesser items can still be purchased through the organization, but even a cumulative accounting of such purchases does not qualify).

Each d6 gained can be used in the course of play to enhance a d20 roll, such as an attack roll, a saving throw or a skill check. Any time a d20 roll is made but before success/failure on the roll is announced by the GM, the player character can announce they are rolling a favor die. The roll result is then added to the the d20 result.
When the favor die is used successfully, the player has brought honor and favor to his cause, and wins a Favor Point.

2) Favor Points. Favor points represent a character’s “voice” or status within their organization or tradition. Any NPC interaction within an organization must be resolved by a Favor roll (d20 + Favor Points). Within an organization, this supplants any Diplomacy, Intimidation, Perform or Knowledge checks within the group that might normally be used to sway others through discourse or social maneuvering. Thus, the extent a character is “heard” within an organization depends on them gaining and successfully using Favor dice.

(Target DCs for Favor Point rolls should vary according to the level within the organization a PC is trying to gain sway or influence over. The Target DCs for Open Lock are instructive, and will be used here. Gaining favor at the entry level is a DC 20, at mid-level is DC 25, and upper-eschelon is DC 30 and with the leader(s) of the organization a DC 40).

What do you think?

As 10th level characters, the big goblins (with HD adjustments) and even some dragons should prove to be capable opponents. The PCs themselves have access to a strong suite of spells, feats and skills. Moreover, most prestige classes are open to them. At 10th level, the characters are, I believe, solidly in d20s “sweet spot” for game play — they have access to good tools but they are not yet overburdened by rules-bloated characters.

Please feel free to chime in and pick this apart. So, does this tweak meet the challenge? Would this provide an interesting roleplaying experience? Does my setting “sandbox” facilitate this adjustment, or would another setting be better suited? What problems do you foresee? Will this enhance game play? Will it be fun? And in what direction are players likely to go with their characters under such a configuration?

About  Troy E. Taylor

Troy's happiest when up to his elbows in plaster molds and craft paint, creating terrain and detailing minis for his home game. A career journalist and Werecabbages freelancer, he also claims mastery of his kettle grill, from which he serves up pizza to his wife and three children.

14 Comments (Open | Close)

14 Comments To "D&D Burgoo (3.5): A Fox Swiped Our Experience Points"

#1 Comment By Rafe On November 5, 2009 @ 8:51 am

I keep reading blog posts, not only here but elsewhere, about how to modify and change D&D. In many of these instances, the changes are not fundamental. However, messing with XP is core to how D&D operates. As you said, it is both the carrot and the stick.

At this point [quoted below]…

His stated challenge to GMs and designers is to provide a reward system that encourages richer, more fully developed characters, not just some walking, talking example of rules bloat that keeps pace with the moving target that is “to hit” and difficulty class rolls.

…how much fiddling can you do without simply looking at other systems which are more conducive to the kinds of gaming you’re looking for? I’m not saying that to be “that guy” who’s down on D&D. (I am, but that’s not my angle here.)

It seems people are constantly attempting to make D&D into another game that already exists, and yet still call it d20 or D&D. So… I guess I’m simply confused as to why people simply don’t play a different system that caters more to their needs, both for roleplaying and mechanics? Is there really a sense of brand loyalty, or is it a matter of ignorance of what else exists out there? That was the case for me. I stuck with D&D because I didn’t know about anything else.

Is there not a greater issue here, namely that a game can only be altered so far before it’s simply smarter to look at entirely new systems as alternatives?

#2 Comment By deadlytoque On November 5, 2009 @ 9:02 am

How would you address D&D’s other big carrot: magic items? Or can magic items only be acquired as favours from organizations? Actually, that might be a good way to motivate your players gain favour point: let them know beforehand that each faction has access to unique magic items that they will bequeath on their proven followers.

Rafe’s point is valid. Wick is also “down on D&D” and says so with some frequency (he says he doesn’t think it’s a “bad” game, just not one that suits his play — he designed Houses of the Blooded to attach itself to every play principle that D&D doesn’t). His point with this endeavour is that a lot of gamers never try anything else, and he’d just like to broaden their play experience any way he can.

#3 Comment By Rafe On November 5, 2009 @ 9:51 am

What’s really funny is that Troy’s suggested alternative is basically Persona, which is one of the three Artha rewards gained in Burning Wheel. The other alternative mentioned is essentially Reputation dice, or those gained through an Association. The means for which one earns such rewards are also very similarly reflected in what Troy suggested.

This seems to reinforce what I meant above about reinventing the game system wheel, so to speak.

Wick is also “down on D&D” and says so with some frequency (he says he doesn’t think it’s a “bad” game, just not one that suits his play […] His point with this endeavour is that a lot of gamers never try anything else, and he’d just like to broaden their play experience any way he can.

I don’t know anything about Mr. Wick or his writings, attitudes, etc., so that’s interesting to know. Thanks, Deadlytoque!

This question is aimed at anyone: So his attempt is to introduce D&D players, through a modified D&D, to other systems and use those D&D hacks as stepping stones to transition?

#4 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On November 5, 2009 @ 9:56 am

@deadlytoque – Although magic items can be picked up inthe dungeon along with all the other treasure, my thought, is yes, the organizations are the conduit through which magic items are purchased. Rather than going to the Medieval Mart — common enough in today’s D&D games — I thought that tying the characters more tightly to the organizations might reinforce the setting and lead to some interesting roleplay.
Honestly, what I haven’t figured out in this shortcut of D&D’s economic system, is the level of reward the PCs will find in the dungeons. Should they find 10th level treasure piles, should they be scaled according to the CRs of the creatures they defeat, or should they start small — 1st and 2nd level treasure piles, and see where that leads?

#5 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On November 5, 2009 @ 10:06 am

@Rafe – Burning Wheel, I’ll have to check that out. I was unaware of any of this.

I don’t know what Wick’s motives are — but he is good for the podcast. He’s very good in audio. He sounds interesting and doesn’t stumble. I think it’s healthy if someone with alternative views gets a chance to air them to the D&D faithful, even if he’s trying to sell product at the same time. Nearly everyone who’s got a rpg podcast these days is ultimately trying to sell something. I don’t begrudge that.

One thing. I think it’s interesting that d20 is so robust as a system that it allows this kind of alteration without falling apart. I’m not sure all rpg rules sets are so malleable. I don’t think d20 is truly universal — clearly other rules sets accomplish certain things better than d20. But d20’s strength is that it can withstand this kind of experimentation. For example, maybe D20 isn’t the best for cthulu style horror, but it can be pressed into service. That, in itself, allows players who are more conservative in their approach to experiment while still feeling they are in their element.

#6 Comment By Rafe On November 5, 2009 @ 10:35 am

That’s a fair assessment, Troy: D&D is definitely robust enough to withstand experimentation, and it has for years. We all know DMs with massive binders of house rules, alterations, fixes, changes, etc. :)

There is something I also realized as I’ve been mulling over my own question. There may not be a fidelity to D&D, itself, but to the core d20 mechanic (though those two things may be synonymous for many). This may be due to people just plain liking d20, or because they dislike d6 or d10 or whatever systems.

Sorry, just really curious about this stuff. If you’re interested in BW, I think your fellow Gnome, Martin, is a long-time player. (Might be wrong about it being Martin…)

Curious to see what other sorts of reward systems other posters suggest.

#7 Comment By Knight of Roses On November 5, 2009 @ 10:36 am

Wick is an interesting guy and I respect his skills as a game designer and as a storyteller. Does not mean that I always agree with him however. I was also not sure how “richer, more fully developed characters” were not going to be acquiring additional tricks and skills (“looking like a Swiss army knife”) as well. That is what people do, acquire additional ways to cope with problems.

Experience points are just mechanics and, in many ways, not a bad one for showing advancement. They are simple, easy to grasp in concept and they work. However, I agree that characters should be competent at the start of a game, though I think they should also change and progress through play.

Hope that all made some sort of sense.

#8 Comment By deadlytoque On November 6, 2009 @ 1:15 am

You can get more of John Wick here: http://www.youtube.com/user/LordStrange

I particularly like his “dirty dungeons”. I essentially _only_ run that style of D&D now (when I run D&D at all).

I hadn’t made the BW connection, but it is true. I heartily recommend BW, although you basically _can’t_ pick up a copy and play. The rules are dense and not incredibly clear upon reading. A much better approach is to find someone who knows the game and let them run you through a few sessions. I am a big BW fan, but it is SERIOUSLY crunchy, colloquially-written (nice to read, but tough to understand), and not laid out ideally (why are Skills descriptions in the “rules” book and not in the “character” book? Why is there no master skills/traits index?).

Something else you might want to use favour dice for: henchmen! “The Nightmare Syndicate owes me one; I’ve called in my marker and they’re sending some initiates over to back us up.”

@Knight of Roses: That’s a good point. _Some_ form of character advancement is often necessary for long-term play. But Wick’s point seems to be that you don’t need to tie that advancement to XP. Maybe once per season of game time, everyone gains a bonus from a chart of your choosing… or if you are using a favour system like Rafe has proposed, maybe you can cash in favour to get “trained” in a new skill, feat, or spell.

One of Wick’s big design philosophies is to constantly tie game mechanics back into what the game is meant to be “about”. Experience points aren’t _prima facie_ about anything. If you want your game to be about gaining reward and reputation, then you should tie your character advancement to that as well. If you want it to be about “fighting for what you believe in” (one of BW’s taglines) then you make the roleplay of your beliefs necessary for advancement (in BW, you improve skills by use, but you can only reach the highest levels of skills by spending Artha points, which are earned by playing to your character’s beliefs, or against them in interesting ways).

#9 Comment By Seurat On November 6, 2009 @ 9:19 am

It is curious that there would be talk about advancement in power for character development that does not include XP, or at least that is what I am getting from this article. The concept of favor dice is cool and I like it, but it does not answer a reward system outside of XP that does what XP does.

Part of the fun of games is increasing in power, ability, and levels. These are integral in many games. They mirror advancing in life. As I advance in my career I gain in prestige which gives me more credibility even if I don’t change anything about how I do my job. I can’t measure it as easily as XP but I gain and I advance. XP is simply a mechanic that represents increases in power and ability and mimics what happens in real life.

In the Castles & Crusades campaign that I am currently involved in, our GM has a system of reward similar to this. Tokens are handed out for doing something the GM thinks is really worthwhile and the token can be traded in for an extra 1d8 added to any role of our choosing (skill, saving throw, attack, damage etc.). This is much like the favor dice concept and is really fun.

Many other reward ideas are out there and help make the games fun and different. None that I have seen yet (and there may be some out there) attempt to replace the XP type advancement. I like the XP reward system and don’t see a need to change it. Other reward concepts like the favor dice are great additions but do not really solve the issue that this article, as I understand it, tries to enlighten us to.

#10 Comment By deadlytoque On November 6, 2009 @ 9:49 am

@Seurat – Without getting up I can think of 4 RPGs that I have on my bookshelf that don’t use xp-type advancement, and I likely have more.

I’m going to go out on a limb and make some guesses, that the reason Wick made this proposition, and the reason Rafe attempted the experiment is that xp systems a) don’t work for everyone, since they don’t tied specific advancement to specific events, but rather generalize it, and b) level-based advancement in the D&D style is illusory advancement anyway, since as you get better, you are expected to take on enemies that have advanced just as much. The old rats->kobolds->goblins grind. And c) it’s a fun thought experiment.

Also, as the article says, as level-based characters grow in experience, they become cumbersome piles of stats and special rules. Characters who are “static” from this perspective don’t get harder to play well as time passes. That in itself might act as a replacement for the (illusory) power-growth over time, since you (the player) would learn to squeeze the most out of your (the character’s) skills and tricks.

#11 Comment By Scott Martin On November 6, 2009 @ 6:41 pm

Spirit of the Century’s “advancement” is a great example of characters that change but get no more complex. As you go through adventures, you may shuffle the skills that you’re best at, but you’ll always have one Superb, two Great, etc.

It runs directly into the problem that advancement is expected, out of habit– even though they emphasize again and again that the PCs are the peak of humanity. (There’s also a good description about how you should handle upping the pyramid if you do decide to advance… and how the game should be a whole new level of play, not bringing the world with you. It’s a good couple of paragraphs.)

#12 Comment By Nojo On November 8, 2009 @ 9:32 pm

Growing complexity can be fun, people like new.
Of course, it could be increasing social complexity as you gain more contacts, friends and enemies.

#13 Comment By deadlytoque On November 10, 2009 @ 11:27 am

@Scott Martin – One of the best alternative advancement systems I’ve ever heard proposed for SotC was at the end of every session, let each player add one “World Aspect” or change one that was previously set. So, if you manage to free Burgistan from the rule of the Tiger Khan, you can add the aspect “The Tiger-Khan is in exile” and that can then be tagged in future games.

The characters may not change, but they certainly change the world around them.

#14 Pingback By Running A No Character Advancement Game | John Arcadian On March 20, 2015 @ 6:04 pm

[…] do a no advancement game, and it might not be for everyone. This isn’t quite the same as Troy’s article on taking away experience points and favoring other types of advancement, but there is a lot of synergy here. Instead of replacing advancement with some other system or […]