Category Archives: Gamemastery

XP for death and failure; and other interesting uses for Experience Points

I recently came across an interesting post at Gothridge Manor about one of AD&D’s weirder rules: experience for death. The 1st edition Dungeon Master’s Guide rules that a character who dies and is subsequently brought back to life earns 1000 experience points (XP).

In old-school D&D, you generally got XP for defeating monsters and gaining treasure, with a few interesting exceptions like the above. These days, many games use a fairly abstract system of awarding XP wherein characters are awarded a set amount of XP for a combination of in-game success and good roleplaying.

The cover of the 1989 Rolemaster boxed set.

That’s a fine way to do it. But the “experience for death” rule reminds me of the quirkier and much more ambitious method of awarding XP found in the pages of the Rolemaster RPG. Rolemaster, itself pitched as a more “realistic” take on fantasy adventuring than its contemporary AD&D, awards XP for extremely specific individual in-game actions.

For instance, in classic Rolemaster (2nd edition, and perhaps in other editions too), your character gains experience not just for defeating an enemy, but for each point of damage dealt to an enemy. And going beyond that, you gain experience for each critical hit (i.e., severe wound) you inflict. In fact, you get XP for each wound inflicted on you. (And yes, you get experience for dying and then coming back to life.) Outside of combat, you get XP for every mile your character travels and for every impressive physical maneuver your character pulls off. There are specific XP awards for casting spells and even for coming up with good ideas.

The paperwork is oppressive; even my nerdy junior-high gaming group, always eager to squeeze as much XP out of a gaming session as possible, usually failed to diligently record every single blow landed in combat for later XP calculation. These days I’m lucky if I remember approximately how many orcs the characters beat down in the course of an evening’s game; I can’t imagine filling out Rolemaster’s intimidating experience tracking chart, faithfully marking down the severity of each critical wound delivered in the course of a routine fight.

But this hyper-detailed system has its charms, and there are some neat ideas to be extracted from it even if you recoil from the detail:

  • Experience for failure. It might seem odd at first that your character would earn experience for being struck or seriously wounded in combat. If your character is getting slapped around in a fight, isn’t he “losing”? Perhaps, but consider the educational power of failure in life. In a combat situation, you might fall for a feint or sneaky manuver once, but assuming you survive said failure, you’re highly unlikely to fall for it again. You’ve learned a lesson you’ll carry with you into future combat situations.
  • Decreased experience for familiar accomplishments. Another neat little twist in Rolemaster is that your XP earned for accomplishing something—say, defeating a goblin—is multiplied by a different value depending on how many times you’ve accomplished the task in the past. If this is your first goblin kill, you get five times the normal XP for pulling it off. After you’ve taken out a few of the green nuisances, that multiplier value goes down; you’ve done this enough that you’re not learning as much from it. And when you reach the point where you can singlehandedly plow through an ocean of the luckless beasts, you’ve probably got the goblin-whomping down to a science and are getting 1/2 of its normal XP value.

All in all, I’m fine with the more abstracted system of awarding XP. D&D 4e’s method of assigning experience points to the entire group based on the difficulty of a particular challenge is probably close to my ideal. But I do sometimes miss the very detailed method, and the slightly unconventional uses of XP it allows.

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My love-hate relationship with random encounter tables

Of all the skeletons in my GMing closet, perhaps the darkest is this: I almost never use random encounter tables, even when running games with a deliberately “old-school” vibe.

Why do I ignore this staple of roleplaying? Well, my experience with using random encounters can be summed up in these two memories, both of them from my early days of GMing.

Random encounter #1: the best thing ever. When I first started GMing (with Middle-Earth Role Playing, which was a trimmed-down version of Rolemaster), I followed to the letter all of those rules that, in later years, I learned to sometimes skim over: encumbrance, travel times, and—yes—random wilderness encounters. For one of our first-ever games, I ran the “Ar-Gular’s keep” adventure included with the MERP rulebook. Faithfully following the rules for wilderness travel, I rolled on the random encounter chart to see what, if anything, would happen while the party of 1st-level adventurers set up camp.

I rolled, did a double-take at the result, but never even considered “cheating” by ignoring what was almost certainly going to be a total-party kill: a troll.

In Middle-Earth, trolls are nasty. The party, caught unawares while they camped, was almost certainly going to die. But the encounter chart said TROLL, so a troll it was. (This was the Trollshaws, after all.)

A frantic, panicky combat ensued. Things were not looking good for our heroes. And then, in a stroke of awe-inspiring luck only possible when you’re using Rolemaster’s glorious critical hit charts, one of the characters did the impossible: with one frenzied jab of his sword, he killed the troll.

It was, as they say, a one-in-a-million roll, one that turned a nearly-certain party massacre into the most memorable possible introduction to roleplaying. And it would never have happened if I had massaged the random-encounter results or picked out a “balanced” encounter.

This was followed by another random encounter.

Random encounter #2: the worst thing ever. A few months later, the characters had been through many adventures in Middle-Earth and were coming into their own as true adventurers. One character, an elf ranger, had after much heroic toil reached 3rd level (dizzying heights of glory, from our perspective). I was growing more confident in my GMing abilities, and so when the player asked to head off on his own on a personal quest, I heartily agreed.

I spent time designing an adventure around his character’s backstory and goals. Accompanied by a few NPC henchmen, he set off on his quest, which took him through a vast swampland.

I faithfully rolled for random encounters as he journeyed through the swamp, and sure enough—he ran into an obstacle: an alligator. A regular alligator, not a Dire Alligator or a Sauronic Minion Alligator. Figuring that a quick battle against the reptile would get the action going (what is an alligator going to do to a noble elf warrior?), I set the beast loose against the player.

You can guess what happened. A few unbelievable dice rolls and several profanity-filled combat rounds later, the party was dead and the noble elf, hero of Middle-Earth, was bleeding out from a severed leg. With no help anywhere in range, this mighty Noldor, distant heir of Feanor, creator of the Silmarils in an Age long past, bled to death in an alligator attack straight out of late-night TV.

Remember that epic scene from Lord of the Rings where the Fellowship is mauled by a random alligator? Yeah, neither do I. Because that would be stupid.

It seems silly in retrospect, but at the time it was a severely frustrating experience. The player had spent months building up his character and it had all been thrown away not with an epic fight against the Dark Lord’s minions, but with a random and meaningless alligator attack. And the time I had put into adventure prep designing a quest tailored for his character were rendered rather pointless.

I realize now that there were plenty of things that both I and the player could have done differently to avoid stupid, non-heroic reptilian death. But the lesson I learned was that random encounters, while they had the potential to be memorable and entertaining, also had the potential to spoil a game session. Having seen random encounters used to good effect in games like Rogue Trader, I’m starting to accept that they do add something challenging and exciting to a game. These days I make use of what you might call semi-random encounters: encounters rolled randomly but then adjusted a bit for balance or storyline coherence.

But while the memory of that epic troll kill still warms my heart, it will be a while before I put my complete trust in the random encounter table again.

What about you? Do you adhere to random encounter results… and have you ever lived to regret it?

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I fought the law, and the law rolled a natural 20: staying off the grid in an RPG

I’ve been reading this week about the hunt for Evan Ratliff, a Wired writer who wanted to find out how difficult it would be to completely “vanish” in a digital society. He struck out under a false identity, and Wired readers were challenged to locate him. Ratliff managed to stay invisible for about a month before a clever person tracked him down.

I particularly enjoyed listening to Ratliff describe the experience of being “on the run,” and the growing paranoia that gripped him as the chase went on. By the end, he couldn’t stop looking over his shoulder wherever he went, and he began suspecting every person he encountered of being a potential hunter out to get him.

There’s a definite hook here for gamers to consider. Think about the number of roleplaying games (particularly those set in the present day or the future) in which evading the government or a similarly powerful entity is a crucial element. Maybe the PCs are criminals or freedom fighters trying to avoid the law. Maybe they’re secret agents, wizards, vampires, or any other type of being that wants to keep a low profile. Yet how many game books spend much time discussing what keeping “off the grid” actually entails?

Back in The Day, I GM’d a long-running Top Secret/S.I. campaign in which the PCs (secret agents) engaged in a whole lot of… attention-grabbing activity. High-speed chases on motorcycles armed with missiles and flamethrowers. Gunfights on the Golden Gate Bridge. High-rise buildings ravaged by running grenade battles. Typical James Bond stuff—and while we all paid lip service to the PCs’ need to avoid arrest, I really only used law enforcement as a loose, background threat. When it was time to wrap up a scene, I’d announce that sirens could be heard in the distance as a way of telling the PCs to stop dithering around and clear out. (A PC was arrested every great now and then, but we handwaved it away by having his spy agency get the charges against him dropped through an unspecified legal subterfuge.)

For most games, it works best to leave the threat of the law as a simple background element. It’s no fun, after all, if James Bond’s exciting adventures are regularly interrupted by police who tracked him down using spent shell casings recovered from his last gunfight against Soviet spies. But it could be fun to occasionally allow the “evade the long arm of the law” theme take center stage. Playing the fugitive could be a fun change of pace.

I own only one RPG book that deals concretely with the “PCs as fugitives” idea—Crusade of Ashes, from the official Orpheus campaign. In it, the PCs are on the run from the FBI, and so the book spends some time talking about what to do to stay off the grid (don’t use credit cards, take jobs that pay cash under the table, etc.). It’s more of a short primer on the topic rather than an in-depth treatment, but it’s an informative read.

I’m sure there are other RPG books that touch on this. White Wolf’s Tales of the 13th Precinct has tempted me for a while for this reason; and I have a vague memory that one or more Call of Cthulhu rulebooks went into some detail on how criminal investigations are carried out. Law enforcement is just one aspect of the “evading the grid” theme, but it’s an important part.

What other RPG books out there talk about running a game with PCs who must keep off the grid? What books (RPG or otherwise) explain the tools that governments/megacorporations/police detectives employ to track down fugitives?

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Insta-dungeon

Here’s a fun one: an automatic dungeon generator that creates not just a map, but also a complete list of encounters for a dungeon based on the parameters you set. The results are surprisingly game-able, in an old-school sort of way! File this one away for the next time you find yourself at the game table woefully unprepared.

No insta-generated dungeon could possibly be worse than a few of the completely-made-up-on-the-spot dungeons I’ve foisted on my players in the past. Of course, cobbling together random monsters and dungeon layouts is a time-honored D&D tradition, and is made easier by the fact that typical D&D dungeons tend not to be marvels of architectural logic. As long as the players think you know what you’re doing, it’s all good.

It would be a fun gaming challenge to auto-generate a half-dozen of these random dungeon maps and then play straight through them as one mega-dungeon, using the listed encounters as written and not worrying about internal consistency. I’d say that has about an equal chance of either being the most entertaining gaming experience of my life, or the experience that finally makes me consign my Dungeon Masters Guide to the flames and take up a normal hobby, like golf or LARPing.

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Resurrecting the Mountains of Madness

In my last post, I lamented that my youthful days of marathon gaming sessions were probably over, and resigned myself to a roleplaying future consisting largely of one-shot games and very short campaigns. But there is a part of me that secretly hopes against all odds that one day, a wealthy Patron of the Arts will shower me with so much money that I can quit my day job and devote all of my energy to running one monstrous, many-years-long roleplaying campaign.

I already have the book that I’m going to use to run that epic Campaign to End All Campaigns. It’s a sanity-blasting 400+ page Call of Cthulhu campaign called Beyond the Mountains of Madness, and it’s one of the best gaming reads you’ll find. I have no idea what would happen if I actually tried to run this beast, in which the PCs take part in a long and almost certainly doomed expedition to Antarctica. Based on this guy’s experience running it, I suspect it would both be awesome, and would permanently cure me of the desire to play another roleplaying game ever again.

I exaggerate a bit, I suppose. But still, I would love to run BtMoM sometime. What’s prevented me from doing so to date is simply the vast amount of time that would be required to run it; it’s not the sort of campaign you want to start and then drop partway through. Also, having read through it a few times, I’m not sure how even the most benevolent GM could get the PCs through the first half of the campaign alive, let alone all the way to the bitter end.

I mention this all because Chaosium has announced that they’re reprinting the long-out-of-print BtMoM in a nice (and nicely expensive) hardcover, and that’s got me salivating to once take this down off the bookshelf and fantasize about running it. Running such a thing would be my crowning achievement, and a worthy way to go out.

It’ll never happen, of course… unless you, dear reader, are a wealthy Patron of the Arts looking to finance the last hurrah of a bitterly aging gamer. I’ll try to keep my hope alive while I await your offer.

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The ultimate GM screen?

Now this is a real GM screen!

I spotted it while browsing a thread on the Call of Cthulhu forums at Yog-Sothoth.com. I’d love to get ahold of an evocative screen like that for use in CoC games–I don’t currently have a CoC-specific GM screen, and this would be perfect. Unfortunately, the designer’s website seems to be down and the hopeful email I sent to them bounced back.

Seeing a beautiful screen like this does make me wish that RPG publishers would put just a bit more effort into their GM screens. Most GM screens published today are functional, but not much else–and more than a few suffer from being too flimsy (or lacking important tables and information). That said, I am quite fond of the GM screens published for White Wolf’s latest World of Darkness games; I wish all screens were as sturdy.

Maybe the next CoC GM screen will be as sturdy and evocative as the one linked above. A GM can hope, right?

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