Thursday, July 3, 2014

On Treasure and Experience

My 2nd edition campaign is winding down.  You'd think, with today's release of 5th edition, I'd be all stoked to try it out.  I really do like a lot of what I see in 5th edition, and it certainly looks more like D&D than anything WotC's ever put out before.  But the truth is, I've been away from Classic D&D for so long now that I'm starting to feel nostalgic for it.  My players have spent the last several months adventuring in a world, zipping over sweeping post-apocalyptic vistas in an ion-propelled airship. I miss the dungeon.

And Classic D&D does the dungeon so much better than any other edition can.  5th is pretty slick, and I love how it subtly incorporates things like "ideals" and "bonds" and other character personality traits or connections into the rules (I'll probably just go ahead and filch that idea for OD&D games), but it's still a pretty weighty game, mechanically.  I will say this, though: the way 5th edition handles skills has inspired me to do something similar in that area, which I'll explain in a moment.

First, I want to talk about experience and treasure.  It took awhile to bring me around to the "XP for GP" conceit that lies at the center of old-school play, but once I "got it", I got it.  I get it now.  It's not that getting rich is also making your character more skilled; it's that XP-for-gold is a particular kind of story award, meant to incentivize a particular style of play, one that puts a premium on exploration over combat.  As long as the DM is wise enough to make sure that the dungeon is where the treasure is, the players will go into the dungeon to get the treasure and the XP, and they'll be smart about it.

That said, I like a slow pace to advancement.  Since I took great care to balance all of the classes together in Engines & Empires, they can all use a single XP table.  At the moment, I'm leaning toward double the XP entries on the cleric table, viz:

Level; Experience Points Required
1 ..... 0
2  .... 3,000
3  .... 6,000
4  .... 12,000
5  .... 25,000
6  .... 50,000
7  .... 100,000
8  .... 200,000
9  .... 400,000
10 ... 600,000
11 ... 800,000
12 ... 1,000,000
(+200,000 XP per level thereafter.)

It's a pretty easy table to remember, as long as you don't forget to round up after doubling at 5th level, from 24K to 25K, and (as always in classic D&D) to quit doubling the XPs required at 8th level.

Now, I've spent a lot of mental energy wringing my hands and grieving over whether to use a gold standard or a silver standard in my games.  Aesthetically, I really like a silver standard; but the treasure tables in classic D&D use a gold standard, and I really like having all that work done for me already.  And the coins in classic D&D have some pretty weird proportions (halves and multiples of five and what-not), so it doesn't make sense to just shift each metal type one step down (the way that you might in, say, 3rd edition, where the values of CP, SP, GP, and PP are all related to each other by simple factors of 10).

In classic D&D, 1 PP = 5 GP = 10 EP = 50 SP = 500 CP.  That's a pain in the butt to try and change up in any sensible way.  But I really, really like a silver standard over a gold standard, so I'm gonna try it out.  (Needless to say, this means, for my games, all prices of items are based on SP rather than GP, and player characters earn 1 XP per SP of treasure fuond; gold takes the place of platinum as the rare, highly valued treasure, especially in terms of XP value for weight carried).

In fact, that's a good place to start: just up and replace platinum with gold, moving silver up into the "standard" spot.

1 GP = 5 SP.  There's even some historical precedent for a ratio like that, during the Middle Ages.  So now it's a matter of setting the values of the lesser coins, the ones that the player characters don't care as much about and have to lug out of a dungeon in heavy piles for a pittance of XP relative to the weight.

What kind of coin could replace the electrum piece, to be worth half a silver piece?  It seems natural here to use a debased silver coin, a coin that's mostly copper with some silver content.  A "billon piece".  That way, copper can take the place of the old silver piece, maintaining its ratio as 1/10 an SP in value.  And that just leaves something near-worthless, to replace the old copper piece.  Any number of base metals could be used here, but since it's supposed to be worth 1/10 of a CP, I'll use iron (over something like bronze or tin).

Thus, the treasure scale I'll be using my next campaign is as follows:

1 GP = 5 SP = 10 BP = 50 CP = 500 IP.  (Gold, silver, billon, copper, iron).  Now I can go ahead and use the treasure tables right out of the Basic Set, with the ratios kept intact, merely by replacing these coinage metals with the standard ones from the game.  (And it's pretty easy to throw platinum and electrum in there on the rare occasion where such odd coinage metals would be appropriate; if we figure that platinum is worth about double what gold is worth, and electrum about half, any treasure that would normally contain some gold pieces can be quickly converted to either type for a bit of flavor and variety.)

So I guess the ratios I'll actually be using are

½ PP* = 1 GP = 2 EP* = 5 SP = 10 BP = 50 CP = 500 IP, with the caveat that randomly rolled treasures won't generally have platinum or electrum, they'll only ever be placed in the dungeon on purpose by the DM.

* * *

So anyway, what other house rules might I need to cook up to get a new campaign off the ground?  Since I'm using that one, unified XP table for all the classes, I'm going to have to do something about non-human PCs.

I've been thinking lately that giving demi-humans little lists of special abilities in exchange for slower advancement is kind of odd and annoying.  Annoying to the player, who doesn't want to advance slower just for choosing to role-play an elf.  Annoying to the DM, since there are all these little abilities to keep track of (and infravision is quickly becoming something of a pet-peeve of mine).  Which leads me to "odd", because most of these other races don't really have lists of supernatural powers in fantasy literature.  Well, except for elves, but fuck elves.  Tolkien elves are too powerful to be a PC race anyway, as commonly depicted, so I'm fine when them getting toned way, way down.

The point is, I'm thinking that I'll just use the plain old human classes and make race be a pure role-play decision, with a very minor mechanical impact.  Or maybe one very minor (and very "fantasy literature appropriate") benefit balanced by a minor disadvantage.  Halfling smallness, for example, can always balance itself out as a blessing-curse type deal, but you don't need to add a bunch of other little bonuses to halflings.  And I'm pretty darned sure that Tolkien's dwarves couldn't see in the dark!

But more than that, I want to keep the non-humans pretty rare and special.  To that end, this is what I'm thinking (using the list of races which will be extant and playable in the new setting that I'm cooking up):


  • Humans; no ability score requirements; no special features.
  • Dwarves; must roll CON 11+; dwarves can always intuit their depth underground and flawlessly retrace the steps of any path they've trod.
  • Halflings; must roll DEX 11+; halflings are small and can't carry as much gear or use big weapons, but they can squeeze into small places where others can't go, including right between large monsters' legs in a melee.
  • Elves; must roll DEX 11+ and WIS 11+; no matter where they are, elves always know the position of the sun, moon, planets, and other stars in the night sky (they can intuit time of day and day of year under any circumstances, even after having been knocked unconscious for an indeterminate length of time, or spending days down in a dungeon without ever seeing the sun); and elves are also strongly sensitive to magic and evil, such that in any place that would normally set off a detect evil spell will slowly make an elf sick, and any place that would set off a detect magic spell will slowly make an elf drunk.
  • Orcs; must roll STR 11+; a half-orc reduced to 0 HP in combat who survives the wound can roll a saving throw to stay conscious.  If the save fails, the half-orc is knocked out and dying as per the normal rules, but if passed, the half-orc goes berserk and continues to fight with a +2 damage bonus---and indeed must continue the fight, to the death.
Player characters will be expected to roll their stats on 3d6 in order, with the option to make one swap of any two scores, so they can at least get the race or class that they want to play, but not necessarily both (and, devilishly on my part, not necessarily elves >:-).  Note what that list of abilities up there doesn't assume: it doesn't assume that all dwarves are warriors or blacksmiths.  It doesn't assume all halflings know how to sneak or throw stones.  It doesn't assume that all elves like archery and wizarding.  I find this kind of liberating, because it's also simplifying the game from a mechanical perspective and shifting the burden of all this stuff onto the act of actually portraying the character at the table.

Now, regarding skills... I don't know why I never thought of this before.  I guess I was kind of myopically fixated on the whole 1 or 2 in 6 mechanic that suffuses Classic D&D.  In Engines & Empires (and Retro Phaze), I built on that baseline for the skill points rules.  But that also makes it near-impossible to integrate skill checks with ability checks.  You've gotta use either the d20 or d% for that; I'll go with the d20.

When you think about it, the 1 or 2 in 6 chance to hear a noise or spot a trap or whatever can be approximated by starting out at a base 5 in 20 chance on the d20.  Basically, whenever the DM calls for an ability check (and this should only be in rare situations, where the player character has a significant chance of failure---it's not just for rote actions---because the math is saying this is like a 3rd, 4th, or 5th edition "DC 15" ability check), the player must roll under 5 + his ability modifier on the d20 (instead of under the ability score itself).  That becomes the core ability check mechanic.  And skill ranks modify this check, with a +2 bonus for every skill point spent on a skill.  

You'll recall that in Engines & Empires, characters can spend up to 4 skill points on a particular skill to increase their odds of passing a skill check (and expert-class characters can spend a 5th skill point to "master" a skill).  For the sake of this little house-rule, I'll keep that intact; but instead of impacting d6 rolls, skill points grant bonuses to ability checks on the d20.  A character who has spent 4 skill points on a skill gets +8 to any pertinent ability checks involving that skill.  Since the maximum ability modifier in E&E is +4, and the maximum skill bonus for most characters is +8, with a base of 5 that adds up to a 17 in 20 chance to pass a skill check (only an expert with a 5th skill point spent on a skill and an 18 or better in the relevant ability score can surpass that---with a 20 ability score, the chance to pass a check reaches 19 in 20).  The worst a character can do is 5 - 4 = 1 in 20 chance to pass a check, which means that this system falls entirely within the bounded accuracy of the d20, barring a few odd edge-cases which don't really matter.

Heavy armor would, naturally, impose a penalty (we'll say -4) on sneaking and tumbling and what not.  And ditto the -4 penalty for untrained characters attempting very complex, trained-only type actions.  (If you have no ranks in Medicine, you can still make a Wisdom check to bind someone's wounds, but you'll be taking that -4 penalty if you try to perform impromptu surgery).

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