Saturday, October 22, 2011

Pathfinder House Rule: Simple Experience Points

As a Game Master, I have always hated experience points. It is one of the most frustrating and poorly designed aspects of many role playing games. Including my beloved Pathfinder.

I understand function of EXP, and why it's valuable. Players enjoy being rewarded for their work, and (along with treasure) experience points are the most direct and tangible form of reward in an RPG. Watching the number of accrued XP grow larger and larger, bringing a character ever closer to the threshold of the next level, is not only encouraging, but it gives players a sense of control over their own progression

For the GM, though, it's nothing but a pain in the ass. Every encounter in the game needs to have an encounter level applied to it. Each encounter level is modified by the variables in combat. If the giant slime had a challenge rating of 6, and each of the two dozen skeletons had a challenge rating of 1/2, what was the encounter level of the combat? Should the characters gain more experience because the floor was covered in pit traps? Should they gain less because they have that powerful magic item which kept the giant slime pinned down for most of the combat? Should the total amount of experience gained change if the players find it unexpectedly more or less difficult than the GM expected they would?

I don't shy away from using a complicated system if I can be convinced it needs to be complicated. But experience gain never struck me as having that kind of need. Almost every game I've run as a GM has used a kind of ad hoc experience distribution system. I look up how many experience points are needed for the characters to reach the next level, and I give them whatever percentage of that number which I feel like they've earned. Most of the time I base that percentage on what speed of progression is optimal to keep the players in-step with events in my game world, rather than basing it off of challenges they have overcome.

At best, the method I've been using make experience points redundant. At worst, my method reduces player agency. It's an arrangement I've never been happy with, but not one I never thought of a good solution to. Maybe I was just being dense about it, though, because the solution seems damned obvious now.

Last week during my morning blog reading. I found this post over at Blog of Holding. According to Paul, Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition is normalized so that each level requires roughly 10 encounters to reach. So, instead of bothering to calculate large XP numbers, Paul simply gives his players 1 experience point for every encounter, and once they reach 10xp they get to level.

I immediately fell in love with the simplicity and elegance of the system. But, not wanting to rush into things headlong, I ran the numbers for Pathfinder's own leveling graph. My formula was simple:
[(Amount of XP required to reach next level) - (Amount of XP required to reach previous level] * (XP awarded to a character in a party of 1-3 when overcoming an encounter with a CR equal to the Average Party Level.)

This should produce the rough number of combats required to reach each level. While it is possible to raise or lower this number by having more members in the party, or dealing with encounters with a CR above or below the APL, this should provide a reliable average.

Since Pathfinder provides groups with slow, normal, or fast leveling progressions, I punched in the numbers sixty times, and lo and behold, the numbers are consistent.



Slow progression levels every 22 encounters, normal progression levels every 15 encounters, and fast progression levels every 10 encounters. I have to admit, as the results started to become apparent, I started to get angry. It seems ridiculous to me that leveling is actually based on such an exceptionally simple system, which is hidden behind needless layers of complexity. I can understand that large XP numbers are perhaps more fun to talk about, but couldn't they have let GMs in on this? Knowing would have saved me a lot of work.

Having now shown that leveling is simply a function of the number of encounters players have overcome, I will now be using a modified version of Paul's Simple XP House Rule in all of my future Pathfinder games:

At slow progression, each level requires 44 experience points.
At normal progression, each level requires 30 experience points.
At fast progression, each level requires 20 experience points.

Characters receive 1 experience point for: overcoming an easy battle; escaping from a difficult battle or boss battle; overcoming a non-combat challenge such as a trap, or diplomatic negotiation; other misc tasks the GM would like to offer rewards for.

Characters receive 2 experience points for: overcoming an appropriately leveled combat encounter.

Characters receive 3 experience points for: overcoming a very difficult encounter or boss battle, or completing a major task such as saving a kingdom.


The major difference between my system and Paul's is that while his system converts the number of encounters into the total amount of required XP, I doubled the number of encounters to get the amount of required XP. This allows for more more nuanced experience rewards. The baseline for most of the experience most characters will receive is 2, which means that the average number of encounters will remain unchanged. Characters who only fight monsters appropriate for their level will still reach a new level every 22, 15, or 10 fights.

However, with my variation on the system, a GM is better able to reward players for more minor actions. Something like successfully disabling a complicated trap, using stealth to avoid a ferocious band of orcs, or convincing a band of marauders that it's not in their best interests to raid the village which is under the PC's protection. I've never liked RPGs which punished players for skillfully avoiding combat. As a guy who likes to play rogues who rely heavily on stealth, I've experienced this in essentially every class based video game I've ever played. It's just poor design.

Let me know what you think. I haven't actually play tested this system yet, so I'm sure I'll have cause to update it eventually.

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