Monday, October 24, 2016

Towards an Arnesonian XP System Without the Gold

Anyone familiar with my musings on how to run a campaign is well aware of my long love-affair with Arneson’s rule of 1 gp of treasure spent = 1 xp. It is genius and it is the mechanical engine that makes a sandbox-style game purr. Handing over agency to a group of players is one of the true pleasures I have as a Referee because it guarantees an experience that I cannot get by writing short stories, novellas or novels: utter surprise. I had no idea stirge meat was a delicacy in the Lost Colonies until my players decided to ask a friendly monster NPC to cook one up. To this day, this fact and all of the various consequences that are derived from this fact are some of my favorite features of the Lost Colonies campaign world.

There is, however, one glaring weakness in Dave Arneson’s xp house rule: it assumes a gold-based economy in a post-apocalyptic world where treasure hunting is an inexpensive but lucrative (if dangerous) endeavor. It won’t work in the Third Imperium. Whereas there is a lost, ancient civilization, the locations of these ruins are often tightly controlled secrets or in places that are cost prohibitive to get to. In addition, the stuff that can be found is generally cultural and/or scientific, not monetary.

One of the reasons B/X is the one RPG I would choose if I could only ever play one RPG for the rest of my life is because it best expresses (and allows for) the madness of a sandbox campaign and players armed with the near-complete agency Arneson’s xp rule grants. One of the reasons I don’t regularly Referee games like Traveller, Call of Cthulhu and Champions is that these genres and systems lend themselves much less easily to the sandbox campaign (not that they can’t).

The discussion that followed my most recent rant about 5e and xp got me thinking about how it might be possible to marry the madness of Arneson’s xp rule and a sandbox campaign to another genres where Arneson’s assumptions about the world do not or cannot exist.

At the root of this whole issue is player agency. The way in which Arneson’s rule empowers players to advance exactly how they want to is a marvel to behold. The surprise factor and the world-building and world-altering factors are huge. Therefore, here is a stab in the dark at a framework upon which to build an experience system that could potentially give me the same kind of satisfaction in other games and genres that I get from Arneson + B/X:

There are six different methods of earning experience:

  1. Party Campaign Goal: This is a task the players set for themselves as a group. The expected time necessary to complete this task should be around the 2-5 session mark. For example: The party decides that it wants to figure out where the Tomb of Horrors is located. This would have a value of 2(x) for each character where x is an arbitrary number used consistently throughout this thought experiment.
  2. Player Campaign Goal: This is a task that the player sets for their character alone. Again, this is something they should expect to take 2-5 game sessions to complete. For example: The ranger decides that he wants to take out 20 orcs, while the Magic-user wants to visit the Great Library in the Capital City. Again, this would have a value of 2(x).
  3. Party Mission Goal: Similar to the Party Campaign Goal, but is something the party wants to accomplish over the course of a single session. For example: The party wants to get to the Village of Sages in order to find out the most likely place to find a map associated with the Tomb of Horrors. This would have a value of (x) for each character.
  4. Player Mission Goal: Similar to the Player Campaign Goal, but is something the player wants to accomplish over the course of a single session. For example: The Cleric wants to cast three utility spells that actually help the party. This would have a value of (x).
  5. Secret Player Goal: This is something to help me notch up the surprise factor for both players and referee. All of the above goals are assumed to be public knowledge so that everyone has a chance to negotiate with the other players to maximize their ability to gain experience. At the beginning of each session, the player’s also write down a goal their character has for the session that no one else is privy to, including the Referee. At the end of the session, these goals are revealed to the table and experience is granted for those who pull it off. This would have a value of (x).
  6. Referee Discretion/Secret Goal: This is also an attempt to up the surprise factor. The Referee could hand out (x) experience to players who showed exceptional bravery/cleverness/role-playing etc. and/or at the start of the session, the Referee could secretly write down a goal they hope the party accomplishes over the course of that session. This, too, would be worth (x) experience.

I think this would allow enough flexibility to just about any genre to pull off a sandbox campaign as well as offer enough structure to allow players to feel empowered on how their characters advance through the system and the campaign.