Tuesday, April 5, 2011

E is for Evolution

...or Experience Points. I couldn't decide. But since this is a gaming blog, let's get the obvious one out of the way first.

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D&D uses Experience Points to track character advancement. Different editions do this in different ways:
- 0e and 1e award XP for GP, on a 1-for-1 basis, so characters' earned experience is a direct function of their success as treasure hunters. This incentivizes "recovery of gold, by any means" as the key rewarded behavior. Great for swords & sorcery; not so great for high fantasy, where greed is a vice and never a virtue.
- 2e awards XP for completing quests and good role-playing. It directly incentivizes the things that we usually want out of an RPG, but also renders the system highly subjective and puts all of the players at the mercy of the DM's definition of "good role-playing".
- 3e and 4e award XP for overcoming challenges and killing monsters. It incentivizes facing danger like a hero, but also picking and winning fights (which in turn makes it a good idea to build combat-optimized characters). Obviously, if you don't want your game to be all about dungeons and battles, this is just a bad idea.
- Then again, some DMs just dispense with XP altogether and let all the players "level up" when it feels right. I've never liked this: it's entirely too subjective a method for handling such an important game mechanic as character advancement. And it doesn't reward anything in particular beyond "showing up to play".

The key to picking the right XP mechanic is in (1) deciding what behaviors you want to emphasize as important to your campaign, and (2) coming up with a game rule that incentivizes and codifies those behaviors. For my part, I've tended to avoid using traditional XPs because I don't like the chore of tallying up such large numbers (and I don't usually bring a calculator to my games); but neither will I countenance the "everyone levels when I say so" method. I want to use numbers... but they've got to be very small numbers. Small numbers are easy to deal with and intuitive for everyone.

Engines & Empires is a case in point. One of the more dramatic departures I took from the classic rules with this setting was to drop Experience Points in favor of something called "Achievement Points". AP advancement is fixed: everyone gains a new level at every eight to ten APs. Given that a "level up" is supposed to happen every four to five game sessions, this supposes that on average, each character will earn 2 AP a session, with some wiggle-room for the referee to award 1 AP when the players perform poorly and 3 AP when they perform admirably. The system works well; it's just a matter of the referee deciding what to award AP for. In a campaign driven by role-playing, APs can be awarded for "staying in character" and "not metagaming". In a campaign driven by quests or by treasure, they can be awarded for "completing the adventure" or "finding the big score". It's flexible and dirt-simple. (And, as I found out two weeks ago after reading Savage Worlds for the first time, it's almost identical to the system used in that game! Great minds, eh?)

But I noticed a problem that developed during my last Engines & Empires campaign. This problem was rooted in the fact of an open table with a large number of players coming and going from session to session. In order to keep everybody on an even footing, I decided that all of the characters in the party would have the same AP total: APs were earned by the party as a whole, not by individual characters, so as not to penalize players who had to miss a session. Hopefully, I thought, this would also encourage cooperation: if everybody was assured of the same award at the end of a session, wouldn't everybody work together to make sure that it was the highest possible award?

Instead, I think it just encouraged laziness. Players who missed a session missed out on treasure for that game, but they still got their level-ups, and that was what really seemed to matter. Meanwhile, the shy players continued their wall-flowering, riding the coattails of the more enthusiastic or theatrical players who were actually pulling their weight. So, lesson learned: never again. The next time I run Engines & Empires, I'll still use AP (because it's always worked exceedingly well with my typical cohort of two to three players), but I'll make damned sure that APs are awarded on an individual player basis. It's the only way to encourage players to play one way or another, according to the campaign I want to run.

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Regarding my upcoming Retro Phaze campaign, let's take a look at how this game handles character advancement. It does use proper Experience Points, but the table involved is an arithmetic (rather than an exponential) progression, much like 3rd edition AD&D. In Retro Phaze, characters gain a level whenever they earn XP equal to (current level × 20). Meanwhile, because RP is a game designed to mimic the feel of old video games, it really is a game about winning battles, so points are earned in the first place by defeating monsters and other enemies. (Since character creation is a simple matter of determining ability scores and choosing a class, we hardly have to worry about players falling into the "character optimization" trap.)

Now, while I do trust the players in this game to role-play their characters, I'm going to append a little house rule onto this campaign to further encourage it. At the end of each session, I'm going to ask each player to cast a vote: "Who, apart from yourself, do you think was the best role-player this session? Use your best judgement, but remember that 'role-playing' is not just theatricality; it's staying true to the character's background and personality; and above all, it's a diligent avoidance of meta-gaming." Then, the top two players who win this vote will receive a little bonus XP at the end of the session. With the referee abstaining from the vote, I think this will be a far less subjective means of encouraging good role-playing than simply assigning bonus XPs myself, according to my own biases. Besides, I'll have enough going on just running the game to also have to pay attention to who was role-playing the best. It's an experiment, but I hope that it'll work.

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Now, back to the actual topic of this post. Evolution. As in: the theory of, by natural selection. For some reason, this all-important fact -- an inescapable truth of the world we know -- gets very little play in most fantasy settings. Perhaps it's because most fantasy settings are created by fantasy deities (see my previous post), and a created world is utterly incompatible with an evolved world. Still, there's enough fuzzy, liberal theology out there that it wouldn't be much of a challenge to imagine a fantasy world with distant, deistic gods who started the universe like a wind-up toy and then let it unfold according to the laws of nature as we ordinarily understand them.

What I do find challenging is imagining a fantasy world that doesn't run according to most of the laws of nature as we know them. Fantasy worlds with flat earths and domed skies and Ptolemaic cosmology just don't do it for me. I want my planets orbiting their suns, thank you very much. As for the laws of physics and chemistry, why change them for a fantasy world? To keep the player characters from inventing gunpowder and internal combustion engines? If there's no modern technology in the setting, the DM just has to say so and be firm about it.

Which brings us to biology: another aspect of nature which indeed operates according to laws, chief among them being genetic inheritance and evolution by natural selection. Evolution is the inevitable, logical outcome of a few simple conditions which have long been known to occur in the natural world: (1) competition among living things for limited resources; (2) differential success at reproduction; (3) variation within species; and (4) introduction of new variations, i.e. mutations. Points #1 and #2 were observed by Malthus, and points #3 and #4 have been known to animal and plant breeders since ancient times. Charles Darwin's genius was in synthesizing these four observations and following the syllogism to its only logical outcome: evolution by natural selection must occur (and will produce new species, given sufficient time). Toss Mendel into the mixer, season lightly with Watson, Crick, and Franklin, and you've got modern biology in a nutshell. Evolution is a fact, as inescapable as the atom or gravity or relativity.

So, what are the characteristics of a world where evolution does not occur? Well, such a fantasy realm would have to be missing one of the main features outlined above. It could, perhaps, be a very young world, one with no prehistory or geological time. It could be an Edenic universe of unlimited resources and no competition or predation; or a static world of Platonic perfection, where nothing changes and DNA doesn't mutate; or else it could be a world without any DNA at all, which means no biochemistry, which in turn implies a world where chemistry and physics don't work as we know them -- and at that point, you're back to silly, fantastical cosmologies of the sort that just tick me off whenever I encounter them in fantasy novels or games.

I guess what I'm getting at is this: if you've never bothered to wonder how your particular fantasy setting came into being or reached its present state, go ahead and ask yourself a few questions. (1) Does it follow all the ordinary laws of physics: gravity, inertia, magnetism, etc.? (2) Does it follow all the ordinary laws of chemistry: combustion, oxidation, chemical elements and compounds usually occurring in the same forms we find in the real world? (3) Does it follow all of the really obvious laws of biology and biochemistry, like people needing to eat and drink and breathe, and all that good stuff? Well, if that's the case, then there's also probably a very good chance that your fantasy world is... well, let's just quote the man himself:

"There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."
--Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species

1 comment:

  1. I have to admit, I thought the idea of new players being the same AP level as everyone else was a good idea in concept, but not in execution. It's nice to keep everyone at the same level so you don't have the one newbie hopelessly outclassed by everyone else and unable to participate. But on the other hand, when a new PC is at the same level as everyone else without putting in the same effort.

    I would argue for all new characters starting at first level. But unlike D&D, E&E's advancement is linear, not exponential. So you would either have to scale AP awards based on relative difficulty, or accept that some PCs will always lag behind others.

    Though one has to wonder if a certain someone would rethink his choices if his new PCs had to start at level 1 while we were all at level 6.

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