I recently started following The Angry GM, and I love his work. He is D&D-based, mostly with 5th Edition but his ideas could directly or indirectly work with most other editions and games. His ideas have helped me shape my own thoughts on running and designing RPGs. But a recent series of his made me want to comment.
Angry has started designing a Megadungeon, and the first thing he's done is look at the XP system, and how to pace the flow of encounters so that the party should be around 11th to 13th level when they hit the final boss fight at the end. This has been an very long and seemingly difficult process, and here are links to the two relevant pages I want to comment on: part 1 and part 3 of his series.
Now, first off I want applaud Angry for doing such due diligence and really thinking through his design - that's the mark of a serious GM that he doesn't settle for a shortcut. Also, he's a really smart guy for how he explains and then takes apart and modifies the XP system in D&D.
What I don't understand though, is why bother doing it in the first place?
I mentioned in an earlier post how I have hated a lot of things about 13th Age, but there are also some things I really like. As a game mechanic, 13th Age does not have XP. There are no XP tables or awards for monsters or the endless debate of should xp be given for gold or how much is a bypassed but not defeated encounter worth - or any of that stuff that keeps GMs up at night. Instead 13th Age says: level up when you want to level up, and give some incremental rewards if you want to dole out smaller advancement packets. So, according to the game there is no XP. I have taken this a step further, I dropped gold as well, and all treasure really. My players don't loot the enemies bodies because I don't let them sell anything. I assume they have any reasonable non-magical items for their class and character, and they get 2 potions and 1 magic item at the end of every adventure. That's it.
Now, I used to count XP. Back when we were doing our rotating GM campaign with our regular Pathfinder group we were good little children and added up all the XP we earned according to the book. We got from level 1 or so (we may have started a bit higher, like up to 5, I honestly don't remember) to level 12. We decided that even the characters who we not a part of the adventure all got the same XP, so that we didn't have separate XP for all 4 or 5 characters each of us rotated through. We played a lot of games. We defeated a lot of encounters. So we did a lot of counting.
When we played the Rise of the Runelords campaign we decided to simplify things. We stopped counting XP, instead we just used the recommended levels that each chapter of the campaign had. We got from level 1 to 18, and honestly it felt like we leveled up a lot faster then when we were counting XP in our home-brew campaign. Even for RoR though, we did count gold. I, in fact, had to keep a running log of all the loot we found, and then at the end of the adventure ask who wanted to keep what, total up the values of the rest, divide that in half, and then divide that by the 3 of us players. It was a lot of very tedious work. It really sucked near the end, when we started killing a lot of high-level spellcasters and got their spellbooks. According to the campaign the GM could set the value of the books to whatever number he wanted, which was pretty useless advise. So I took the cost to write the spell into the book, and multiplied that by "every level 1 - 8 spell except the Illusion school" or some similar huge number, and took that as the value of the book. It was the closest to something I could put hard numbers to that I could think of. It took hours, all this counting loot in general - though the spellbooks took most of that time. I wasted several sheets of paper with my calculations. And in the end our level 18 characters had level 19-20 equipment since there were three of us instead of the usual four, according to the "recommended wealth by level" chart.
What struck me after all of that, when we switched to 13th Age and I looked back on Pathfinder, was one question - what did I get for all that effort?
Here's the thing, as someone said - it might have been Angry even - it's okay if something is complicated, as long as we get something of value from that extra effort. Nobody wants to waste time, nobody wants to pour a ton of work into something meaningless, so the more time something takes, the more work required, the more value that activity has to have. And what, really, is the value of all that complicated fiddling with XP and Wealth? What the hell do we honestly get from counting every point, modifying up for a "hard" encounter and down for an "easy" encounter and by so much for more than one monster and so on and so forth? The thing is, this is all random, arbitrary crap to begin with. Looking at one of Angry's tables for 5th Edition (because I don't want to bother to find mine for Pathfinder, I did the same thing once) it takes:
- 6 Encounters to go from 1st to 2nd level
- 6 Encounters to go from 2nd to 3rd level
- 12 Encounters to go from 3rd to 4th level
- 15 Encounters to go from 4th to 5th level
- 15 Encounters to go from 5th to 6th level
- 15 Encounters to go from 6th to 7th level
- 15 Encounters to go from 7th to 8th level
- 16 Encounters to go from 8th to 9th level
- 15 Encounters to go from 9th to 10th level
- 18 Encounters to go from 10th to 11th level
First and Second levels need the exact same, 6 encounters to level up. Then Third level needs twice as much (200%), 12 encounters to level up. So, Fourth level must need 12 encounters too, right, to keep the same requirements for two levels and then jump up? No, that isn't the pattern. Fourth level needs 25% extra, going from 12 to 15 encounters to level up. Then, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh levels all need exactly the same amount, 15 encounters to level up. We had a run of two levels that had the same requirements, now we've got a run of four instead. When Eighth level comes around and jumps up, do we get the same 25% jump, or the original 200% jump? No, instead Eight level needs one extra encounter, a minor 16 instead of 15 to level up, a less than 10% increase. Why? Why is that level any harder to reach at all, the last four weren't, and if it is then why by only 1 small, stupid encounter? And finally we go back down to 15 and then jump again to 18 to finish the section we're looking at, which is around our earlier 25%.
Where is the sense of this? What logical progression does it follow? What is it based on? Is it based on a study of human behavior or how we learn new tasks? Plenty of people have talked about skills in real life - here are one, two and three links found from the quickest Google search. Is it based on the amount of time that the designers want players to spend on the game? What? Where do those numbers come from? Because they don't follow any easy to read progression at first glance.
So, given that we're agonizing over some artificial construct it begs the question, what are we gaining from all this?
I haven't been running my 13th Age game very long. We've done 3 sessions, and my goal is to make the whole campaign last about 10 sessions, with everybody gaining a level at the end of each. We don't meet very often, it's taken the entire year to have three sessions, so I figured we might as well move at a good speed, and let everybody see how their character progresses from start to finish. This system works for me, it lets me obsess about other numbers than XP - and I'm glad. With Pathfinder I was starting any one-shot characters (not in our normal campaign flow) at level 5, since that was the first level they got their class-defining ability (wild shape for druids, ki pool for monks and so forth). That seemed fine. We didn't miss anything, the RPG Gods did not descend and punish us for skipping a few levels. And with a one-shot character why bother playing the 1st level wimp when you know you're not going to invest the time in developing them? The players you have, the story you're trying to tell, really mean a lot more for your pace of advancement then some crusty old table.
And everything I've said about XP applies just as well to GP, or wealth. Again, how much money a character should have for whatever level is a stupid and artificial creation. There is no possible way to accurately create an economy for any RPG, it cannot be done - because economies are so huge, so complicated, and involve so many interconnected elements that even modern economists have a hard time understanding or agreeing about anything related to our own; and we have detailed access to the data about our own, never mind some made up world that is lacking in all the necessary details. Like with 13th Age, you might as well set some general guidelines for what "feels right" and let go of all the number-chasing. What good is it really doing?
Anyways, as a former number-chaser who is now reformed, I really don't understand why I used to care, or wasted so many hours and sheets of paper calculating all the fiddly bits that don't really mean anything. How many encounters should you have? In my opinion, as many interesting and challenging ones as you need to tell the story or fill the time (if you have no over-arching story). And that number does not exist on any chart.