Wednesday, October 22, 2008

He Do the Police in Different Voices

I can’t help notice that my bad habits are creeping up on me again. I have this tendency to start sprinting before I get the basics of walking down. That’s happening again. I’ve been spending a little too much time concentrating on grander plans than The Dungeon Not Yet Named™ and that needs to be checked before it gets out of hand. Look for a little more emphasis on the dungeon and house-rules concerning getting the beginning characters started in the near future. At least until I finish up Level Two and its associated sub-levels. Yes, there are sub-levels.

Some time ago, I was musing about the changes that I’m likely to incorporate in the experience point system for the hapless adventurers. I’d concluded that treasure=experience is a good thing, and that spending treasure for experience, while having its place in certain games, is not a viable system for what I have planned.

This leaves me with one last decision to be made: experience as role-playing awards.

By nature, I’m a role-player. I like the funny voices, the grand gestures, and the wearing of odd hats. For many years, I was right there in the battle of ROLE-playing vs. ROLL-playing, reading the ever-present missives to Dragon’s “Forum” pages regarding that fight with great interest. I saw the introduction of awarding experience points for good role-playing to be a long overdue correction to the rules of many role-playing games. After all, if you weren’t role-playing your character, you had no business being in this hobby. Dice-tossers and hacker/slashers need not apply.

In retrospect, there is a part of me that believes the entire Role vs. Roll-playing argument was detrimental to the hobby, or at least to the gamers that I knew personally. I, of course, include myself in that number. This was a battle engaged over just half of the definition of our hobby of choice. Where was the faction crying out, “It’s a role-playing GAME!”? Arguably, one can say that was what the roll-players were trying to remind us of. True to a certain extent, but I know a fair share of dice-tossers, hack/slashers, min-maxers, and munchkins who took the fate of their character just as seriously, if not more so, than the worst community theatre-reject role-player.

It’s a game! Game, people! This is not Art, as much as Mark Rein dot Hagen might have us believe otherwise. What we do around a table does not leave the world a better place than it was before we sat down. I’ll grant that being a good DM is more of an art than a science, but that’s little “a” art, not big “A” Art. Somewhere along the line we lost focus that this is a recreational activity, not high drama.

It is within this light that I feel I would be remiss if I started doling out bonus experience points for “good role-playing.”

Firstly, I feel that “role-playing properly” is too vague a criteria for the awarding of experience points. While it may at first seem to be a relatively easy thing to judge, I’m reminded of an event that occurred some many years ago in one of my games. For many, many sessions, I was less than impressed by the way one of my players was running his character. This was still during my “serious role-players only” period, mind you. He seemed to lack any interest in the events occurring around his character, especially during frantic moments when the guns were blazing and the bodies were dropping all about him. As such, poor Kit never got the extra-special bonus round role-playing experience award at the end of a session. It wasn’t until several months into the game that it came to light, not only to me but to the rest of the players as well, that Kit’s character has a Self-Control rating (we were playing V:tM) that was through the roof! The penny finally dropped and we all realized that he had been role-playing his character exactly how he had pictured him THE ENTIRE CAMAPIGN. Because he was choosing to emphasize an aspect of the character’s personality that wasn’t very overt or flashy, he’d not been fairly rewarded for his efforts. Granted, I should have been more aware of his character’s traits, but even had I been, the way that the player pictures his character and the way the referee sees him are often two different beasts.

Secondly, “role-playing awards” provide entry for a creeping experience point imbalance that I’d rather avoid. In my current game as a player, we are awarded extra xps for role-playing. More times than not, I find that I’m leading the pack in total experience earned at the end of the session, and this is even taking into account that as a veteran of the hobby, my bonus awards are smaller than those that are awarded to less experienced players. This even caused a slight kerfuffle some months back, and while the matter has been settled somewhat, it’s not territory that I want to explore when I’m on the other side of the screen.

Thirdly, but most importantly, I feel that awarding experience for role-playing is tantamount to requiring role-playing, whether or not one feels the desire to engage in such a thing. This, more than anything, has become very much a concern for me as of late. It’s a marked departure from my earlier holier-than-thou stance on role-players.

The reason for the sea-change is firmly set in a lot of my real life experiences over the last few years. Grudgingly, despite my mantra of “we all have to grow older, but we don’t always have to grow up,” I’ve become a little wiser and a little more laid-back, especially when it comes to the activities that I engage in for recreation. If someone wants to sit down at the table and play the game, that’s all I require from them. If they’re having fun playing as “themselves, only shorter” or any other permutation of a less than completely immersive gaming session, I’m not going to punish them experience-wise for not wanting to talk in funny voices.

What it comes down to is this: if you like getting deep into character, you’re doing so because it’s rewarding to you and you enjoy it. As such, no additional incentive is needed. If you don’t care for this level of immersion, and to do so would detract from your enjoyment, I’m not going to let you lag behind the group because of it. So no experience point bonuses for role-playing when I’m on the side of the screen with the most numbers written on it.

However, this doesn’t mean that I won’t reward players who take a great interest in their characters and my campaign setting. It just won’t be with experience points.

Anyone who provides a contribution to the game that goes abovemere regular attendance will see some sort of tangible reward for going the extra step. I feel this is a better way to encourage active participation in the game than the narrow confines of extra experience for role-playing. It gives the players a greater choice of how they wish to contribute to the overall setting, rather than just by encouraging role-playing, and allows for players who might be gifted in areas other than their acting ability to gain the benefits of bringing more than just their presence to the table.

Contributions like a painted miniature of your character, an illustration of a party member/notable NPC, a website recommendation useful to the group, homemade “period” snacks, a song or poem about in-game events, and the like would all be rewarded in some way. Right now I’m considering awarding some sort of “marker” that could be cashed in for a tangible in-game result, be it a re-roll or invoking Jeff Rients’ “Thirty-Sided Die Rule.” I’m also partial to “controlled collaboration” in my games, so a marker could be burned to allow the player to insert a useful bit of lore in the game that assists the party somehow. The details are still vague, but I feel that a system like this, derivative of other gaming systems out there, is a better solution than bonus experience points. The effects are short-term and don’t upset the overall experience climb.


Sham aka Dave said...

Good read. I can remember as far back as 1982 playing in a campaign where the DM regularly adjusted experience totals based upon how well the player role-played, AND how well they actually played their role. I've never understood the ongoing debate in regard to handling XP this way. It's a method that has been around in D&D for a very long time in various forms.

As far as the method of 'markers', I enjoy this sort of 'outside the box' stuff. It helps to get the players involved in the game in a number of ways. I currently use a system of 'style points' which is a part of my entourage rules. Players collect style points and can use them in any number of vaguely defined ways.


Frank said...

Good thoughts.

As far as history of reward for good role play, consider that the DMG (in 1979) suggested basing the cost and time to "train" for a new level on the GM's consideration of the player's role playing.

I think a lot of the extra player contribution will generate it's own rewards but there are definitely lots of ways to reward. I actually wouldn't mind an occasional XP bonus for a good idea.

I think the key is to not detract from the central focus of play. So one consideration is that any mechanical benny should be limited, otherwise it will drive play towards earning those.

In the homebrew I used to play/run in college, there was a minor benny called "cookie crit pro." In that game, armor was rated with a critical hit protection value (crit pro). Cookie crit pro was single use and got it's name from being awarded often for the player bringing cookies (or some other snack, or fetching the GM a soda, or whatever). A very minor mechanical benefit, and thus a fun way to acknowledge a player's contribution.


Vanadorn said...

Frank nailed it.

I use a two fold system. The first is as Mike had pointed out - a small xp blip for coming up with something great in gaem, figuring out a key point, or just impressing the hell out of me. For the newbies and "least immersive" (ie - Jason) its a bigger piece, maybe 75-100 xp, for the experienced guys (ie - Mike) its about 25 xp a shot. Some of it is RP, some of it is RL, some of it is just figuring stuff out and some of it is making the DM go Ahhh!

This did rail a few hackles mainly because the bodies around the table had noticed two things: 1) the tank up front who was killing lots of stuff wasn't getting the most xp (he was in the top 2-3, but not top) and 2) one of the mid-level range players who had been used to getting more was not getting as much as he was used to seeing at earlier meetings (as he had become more ensconced in his character I dropped him from the newbie 75 xp slot to the 50/25 xp slot for cool things).

Still, no matter what, the bulktastic 85% + xp around the table comes from the group doing things, whacking stuff, getting swag.

The other "fold" is as Frank had pointed out - better RPing makes training take less time and less cost. Everyone gets a score from 1-10, and the higher the number, the less time needed to train and the less it costs.

Either way, Mike is right - this is a hobby and not everyone is a theatre major and as long as we all get together for a good time, we're doing something right.

My 2 coppers

Amityville Mike said...

Lest anyone get the feeling that I'm anti-role-playing, I'm really not.

Role-playing will have its rewards, such as a bonus to, or completely waiving, the reaction check with monsters and NPCs. It might influence the price of goods, but that's a slippery slope sometimes. Some players will turn every shopping trip into amateur hour at the Round, when all he needs is 50' of rope.

I'm just not sold on the idea of rewarding such things with hard experience points. There's just too many variables to it.

If I was to give 100 xps for a good role-playing moment, the value of that reward is dependent on the character's class and level. A 100 xp bonus has more value, to a 1st level thief than it would to a 1st level M-U. At higher levels, I'd have to increase the amount awarded for it to mean anything.

Once experience is awarded, it's a permanent addition, barring an encounter with certain undead. And that starts in with the xp creep I'm trying to avoid.

I've got no problem rewarding player interest and involvement, which was the point of me trying to organize my thought. I'm just not going to do it with experience points.

Alex Schroeder said...

I think my main problem is that I'd feel like a teacher grading my players. I don't like it as a player; I don't like doing it as a GM. I am trying to add more "store rewards" however, just so the party can go up in levels without there being monsters to fight or things to take. I'm mostly thinking about exploration and making sacrifices. I used to claim that such things resulted in "in-game" rewards such as more friends, allies, magic items, etc. But instead of just adding a sentence or two at the end of my session report, I think adding a line or two of extra XP will feel more natural.

Amityville Mike said...

That's where I used to be and how I used to dole out experience. The point of Ol' Nameless, however, is an experiment to get back to my gaming roots, so I'm trying to keep things as close to the original timber as possible, just to remember how things used to be.

As with any experiment, the whole thing could blow up in my face, but I'm interested to see how things are going to play out, and if classic D&D can still be enjoyed by folks without a basis in the wild and woolly days.

So no story rewards, treasure=xps, and no role-playings xp bumps. For now. I'm full believer in "No plan ever survives contact with the enemy," so we'll see how things develop.