Tuesday 19 March 2013

The Underlying Game and AD&D 2nd Edition

It's often said that the "gold standard" of XP for treasure (pun intended) is at the core of older editions of D&D. It's certainly the mechanism by which XP is awarded in most of the retro-clones. And a narrative has developed in which it is said that D&D almost requires this mechanism: it provides a driver for player action - they have to go out looking for treasure in order to advance - and also a fun challenge in its own right (the logistics of handling treasure is in itself interesting).

All the older editions of D&D, but OD&D in particular, did a very poor job of explaining this, but it seems indisputably correct. You might go so far as to say that XP for treasure is the underlying but unstated assumption on which D&D is founded.

AD&D 2nd edition did not have this mechanism. Reading through the DMG, indeed, it is rather striking that the only time XP is supposed to be awarded for treasure is as an individual class award for Rogues. XP, in general, is recommended to be given for the following reasons:

  1. Fun. XP is for rewarding player involvement and making the game enjoyable for others (including, implicitly, the DM). It is correspondingly to be withheld if the players are disruptive or inactive. 
  2. Survival. Simply by the PC surviving from session to session, he or she should gain XP.
  3. Improvement. As players learn how to play the game better (the text states "players should also improve by trying to play more intelligently each session") their characters should be awarded XP. I'm reminded once again of Zeb Cook's exhortation to always try to improve as a player and DM.
It will be noted that two of these categories, 1 and 3, are totally external to the game world itself, and 2 is only partially connected to it. They are primarily meta-gaming awards. And they give the lie to the idea that the DM's job is to make the game fun for the players. Indeed, the "tyranny of fun", if anything, cuts in the other direction: it's up to the players to be the heart of things in that regard. It's their job to do interesting things and get involved, and it's their job to get better and better at playing D&D. I wholeheartedly approve.

There are also, of course, group awards (for defeating enemies and for "story goals" like rescuing the princess or whatever) and the aforementioned class awards. These latter are as follows:
  • In general, XP is awarded when a player has a clever idea, role plays well, or encourages others to participate
  • Warriors gain XP for individually defeating monsters
  • Wizards gain XP for using spells intelligently, researching spells, making magic items, and so on
  • Priests gain XP for using granted powers and "furthering [their] ethos"
  • Rogues gain XP for using their special abilities (i.e. thief skills and bard abilities) and getting treasure
What is the underlying game for AD&D 2nd edition, then? Surprisingly, given the reputation the edition has for a) focusing on plot/story rather than strategy/tactics; and b) softening the approach of older editions, you might say that, if anything, the XP mechanism for 2e is primarily concerned with player skill.

In that sense, it is not so far removed from the approach of the past, given that gaining treasure was, to a large degree, a clear measure of success and, hence, player skill. But the 2nd edition mechanism is more holistic; it aims to reward not just in-games success but also the more intangible elements of gaming success - doing stuff, getting involved, making the experience worthwhile for all concerned. That seems to be nested in a set of assumptions about players, and would also perhaps be seen as incentivising paternalism in the DM. But nonetheless, it is of interest to me as somebody who grew up playing 2nd edition but piledrivered XP for gold and monster kills. Lying between the two stools of New and Old Schools, 2nd edition remains almost totally ignored and very much under-theorized, which I don't doubt does it something of a disservice. 


  1. I don't see the argument for considering these criteria to be measures of player skill. Furthering a cleric's ethos, for example. How do you measure that? What about using special abilities? It's just kind of fiddly, and if anything not blowing a move silently roll is about as far as you can get from player skill. Knowing when to use the ability, sure; but the act of actually using it? Not so much. That's just the outcome of the dice, no? I suppose it's possible, but I remain to be convinced.

    I also started with 2E, and we did not originally play with either these rules or XP for GP (which I only discovered during the last few years, actually). The only XP rules that I can remember using were based on the Monstrous Compendium XP values.

    1. I don't think it's that fiddly. No more than, say, giving fate points. Somebody does something worthy of XP and the DM says, "Okay Brendan, your character gets 100 XP for that".

      It isn't just using the abilities, by the way - I think in all cases it is using an ability, spell or whatever to do something significant.

  2. The actual rewards, also, are problematic because by being class specific, they don't reward working together as XP for GP does. Rather, it becomes more like cooperating by focusing on the goals of different characters sequentially.

  3. In my 3E game, I explicitly treat XP like treasure. 1 Xp = 5 Gp, you can buy and spend it, and use it to make magic items or gain levels. The players really enjoyed making decisions about how to use their XP.

  4. Was reading through Dragon Magazine. This issue goes back to before 2nd edition. Having played through the era, I feel 2E just codified and united an underlying current in the hobby.
    Lenard Lakofka had an article in 1980 that outlined giving the player's experience points based on a variety of things, protracted use of equipment, for acts directly related to a character's profession, subduing opponents.
    Katherine Kerr had an article in 1985 that talked about ways of doing experience points that were not based off looting and killing.

  5. I used those rules religiously throughout my 2E days (which were from 1989 right up to 2000). My players came to expect rewards based on good role playing, attentiveness and a focus on how they were contributing to the experience, so it ended up working very well. Then again, in the 80's I never used "treasure as XP" from 1st edition, finding it too nonimmersive for my even my ten year old tastes in 1980, when I was trying to use AD&D to replicate the fantasy novels I was reading.

    1. D&D has always had a fraught relationship with immersion. On the one hand, weapon speed factors. On the other hand, XP for gold.

  6. While I see your point (about 2E awarding player skill) my remembrance is that XP other than class awards was left as a 'judgment call' or what might be called 'DM fiat' which is abhorrent to me these days (I played a LOT of WoD back in the day). Give me an empirical measure of success any day...and like Brendan implies best to make it one that applies to all classes.

    I agree that 2E is an underanalyzed, red-headed step-child. But man O man, I dislike Zeb's adopted writing style for these books. I might have to reacquire these just to blog about 'em.

    1. "I dislike Zeb's adopted writing style for these books"

      I agree, I reckon the 2E DMG is a reaction to the badwrongfun people were having in the 1E days and is primarily concerned with what shouldn't be done. I laboured under the misapprehension that that was the best way to run a game for years and I reckon I'd have been better off without it.

      As to the XP sytem, I think it is logical that characters should get better at wizarding by doing wizardly things etc. but I am not always sure logic is the best measure of in-game awesomeness. I kinda like the idea that all power in old-school D&D is derived from plundered gold - it sets up a play style that creates Conquistadore-ish rapacity in the PCs and connotes a world that behaves in the same way. I'm not sure thae ramifications of such a system have been adequately explored.

    2. I dislike his style, too. At one point I went through and annotated sections of the books I thought were particularly bad, making fun of his writing, basically. The DMG is bad to the point it is nearly useless. Still, 2nd edition was my most played version of D&D growing up!

      As for the XP issue, I remember giving it out for monsters killed, not a lot else. There may have been some kind of additional bonus XP for whatever reason, but I don't recall. We tended not to play using or understanding all of the rules.

    3. Hm I'm gonna have to give the 2e DMG another read... not looked at it for years!

  7. The thing is when you try to give incentives for so many things it's a bit overwhelming and easy to piledrive into kill monsters = XP (especially if that's what people are used to from computer games).

    GP = XP works better (for me at least) since it's one simple measurable thing that doesn't depend on DM fiat that is easy to remember and provides incentives for a wide range of behaviors (not dying, working together, scavenging anything not nailed down, paying attention to logistics, being a greedy bastard, avoiding things that could kill you that didn't have money, etc. etc.). It's just a lot cleaner than trying to reward and track each of those things individually.

    1. That's true. I actually don't mind DM fiat, but I suppose it's a minority view.

    2. For me at least a lot of rule making is a balancing act between DM fiat, fiddliness and abstraction. You can almost never get rid of all of them and usually by getting rid of one you increase the others.

      XP = GP is very abstract (wtf? why does picking up a coin make me better at fighting?) but includes no fiat and no fiddliness.

      The 2ed system is abstract, requires DM fiat and is pretty damn fiddly (so many categories), which makes me leery about it.

      Also "bwaaahahaha, I found a throne of solid gold, I can get so much XP if I can just find a way to lug it out of here!" is just more fun. The 2ed system just seems, so, I don't know, flat in comparison.

      As for why 2ed gets the short end of the stick in general I think it's just that 90's RPGs (especially 2ed and WoD) and the style of play that they assumed are out of fashion in general. Just about the only thing that WotC-D&D, OSR games and Story Games can agree on is that they don't like 90's-style play.

      Probably the closest thing we have today to that is Pathfinder which shares a lot of traits with how WoD and 2ed approached RPGing but even that's a bit of a stretch.

  8. Nice. I like the XP for internal vs. external reasons. I tend to identify with the former, for the most part.

    Directly rewarding player skill sounds weird to me. Like competitive DnD tournament play. Doesn't really appeal to me.

  9. in my dmg, "story goals" are not amongst the group awards. they are just a seperate kind of goal that can change constantly, while the first 3 remain constant.

    anyway, i agree and i think the book itself says it best...

    "if anything, an ad&d player competes against himself. he tries to improve his roleplaying and to develop his character every time he plays."

    the common individual awards reflect this very well and this has always been at the heart of xp-distribution for me.

    also, gold = xp is still there (as an optional rule), being mentioned as a possible group rewards.

  10. OD&D originally gave out 100 xp / HD of the monster killed which is a fairly substantial number especially for low level characters. It was Gary's changes in Greyhawk that minimized this and focused almost entirely on XP from treasure. This association with Gary might explain why XP for treasure disappeared from 2e.

    Dave's Adventures In Fantasy game (1979) gave XP to fighters for killing stuff and to wizards for doing magical stuff. No mention is made of XP for treasure. In this game a character could lie about his heroic deeds and gain levels by virtue of "Reputation XP". I think this sheds some light on how Dave viewed XP.

    1. I think that idea is really, really cool.

    2. I have increasingly thought of D&D XP as 'Glory', a view based entirely on the relationship between XP and gold brought back to civilization. It isn't about getting better by doing – this isn’t RuneQuest – it is about growing more legendary. In the real world, being famous doesn't necessarily mean that you are good at anything. In a D&D world, on the other hand, legends are real things, so…

      Which is why I give out XP bonuses based on the Charisma modifier, not the Prime Requisite. A high Prime Requisite helps a PC do stuff better, a high CHA helps make them a legend. If there are two PCs whose deeds are equal, but one has CHA 18 and one CHA 8, the one with the high CHA will advance their reputation more quickly.

      And boasting, conspicuous consumption, and other ways of converting mighty deeds into legend all help too.

      All of which has been undermined now we’ve moved from a Labyrinth Lord/LotFP game to playing DCC RPG, which has XP by encounter danger. That’s a lovely slimmed down system that does lose a lot of the flavour of the D&D XP system (and a lot of the book-keeping too, so swings and roundabouts, and all that.

  11. I find it a great shame that AD&D2 is so ignored by the community. The discussion topics seem limited to "it's not 1e" and "the campaign settings were nice" and I think it deserves more than that.

    I'm no particular fan of the edition -- although I do love the Monstrous Manual and I'm fond of the weird colour and layout choices in the core rule books -- but its casual dismissal seems a bit of a waste.

  12. I like the concept of experience in 2nd edition but I don't think that it was really fleshed out in a very easily used way. I tend to use a combination of 100 HD/ level , GP value and a lot of DM fiat. The amount of treasure you have to give out under 1e rules to get to high level is pretty ridiculous.

    Rob Conley has a system that I have also used a bit. http://batintheattic.blogspot.com/2011/04/from-attic-experience-points-rules.html It makes a lot of sense for a campaign based game and more importantly doesn't make the DM have to add up a bunch of numbers at the end of the night!

  13. I grew up playing (and mostly DMing) 2e and I have to say that I find the XP-for-gold system of the retro-clones to be a lot more satisfying than the 2e system, mainly because of it being egalitarian. You kill some monsters, you takes their stuff, and everybody who made it to the session divides it equally.

    In comparison, the 2e system means that if one person is particularly good at gaming the system that 2e details, they'll get more XP than the rest of the party and those that get less are explicitly called out at the end of each session as being "lesser" players just because their playstyles don't fit into the mix of the 2e XP rules and their particular DMs subjective foibles when it came to interpreting them. I found that be very much not fun and much prefer a system that encourages players to play how they feel their character should be without worrying about whether it's "correct".

  14. 2E was and is my favorite game and I have long bemoaned its status as "middle school" D&D.

    My original group did not use XP at all. Levels were usually awarded for completing whatever our current quest (or more likely a series thereof) was and completing major "plot goals", if you will. The idea was to get to the heart of what "leveling up" meant and then only giving out levels once your character had done that.

    When we did start using XP, the rules for class-based stuff were seen as a guideline. Most of our XP actually came from completing objectives, roleplaying well, and doing things that made the DM say, "Fuck yeah, dude! That's an awesome."

    In the end, though, we weren't motivated by levels. Leveling was incidental. Treasure was an afterthought as well. The most important thing was whatever goals we had set for ourselves and/or what developed during play.

  15. Typical for 2E, the XP rules sound very reasonable and fair. But one of the things I just love about gold=XP is the possibility of serendipity and randomness -- you may stumble upon a motherlode of gold without any player skill whatsoever. On the other hand, after hours of intelligent resource management and immersive roleplaying, you may end up with squat. Like life, it's not always "fair." Nevertheless, in most situations, player skill and acquisition of gold do more or less dovetail -- but not always.

  16. AD&D 2E DMG (revised), page 69, last paragraph:
    "As an option, the DM can award XP for the cash value of non-magical treasures. One XP can be given per gold piece found. However, overuse of this option can increase the tendency to give out too much treasure in the campaign."

    As usual for the 2E DMG, it's hidden in the excessive and bad prose, but it's there.

    Yes, to get all the rules for AD&D 2E, you have to read through all the bad prose. At least the 1E prose is inspiring and interesting, and IMO there's much less of it. Or it just looks like less, maybe.

  17. One of the interesting side effects that I liked about XP for gold was that it served as a motivator. It really seemed to drive us players to come up with ideas for finding loot and treasure. Rather than sitting back and passively waiting for the DM to railroad the plot along, we were aggressively pushing for new jobs and new tasks.

    But then again, I played mostly sandbox games. In a more structured storyline scenario (Dragonlance or something like that), it probably wouldn't work as well. It might not be satisfying if the Heroes of the Lance set themselves up to ignore the Big Bads and instead spend all their time raiding the Dragonarmy's supply chains because that was where the loot was.