In this episode of the RPGBOT.Podcast, discuss experience and advancement systems in tabletop RPGs. We discuss classic experience points, milestone leveling, and other ways of tracking experience. We also look at RPGs that use that experience differently from DnD/Pathfinder, such as by using it to purchase specific improvements.
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Materials Referenced in this Episode
- RPGBOT.Podcast Episodes
- Articles from RPGBOT.Net
- Dungeons and Dragons 5e
- The One Ring 2e
- Core Rulebook (digital) (affiliate link)
- Core Rulebook (physical) (affiliate link)
Welcome the RPGBOT.Podcast. I’m Reynold James, and you know it really braises my Bahamut? Anyone seeking that advanced level lately? You? You? No? Yeah? These requirements are unreal! I need 20,000 experience at the level that I’m seeking to gain. How the hell do I get to that level? I tried taking a second class, they would have 700 years experience with gunpowder. Do I look like an astral elf to you? I have to spend eight years getting a PhD and Lich University to live long enough just to have the time in my afterlife to get the gun experience so I can multiclass!
Tyler Kamstra’s also here. It’s fine.
I desperately want you to post that on the the subreddit recruiting hell. Please do.
Just cross post it. It’ll be great. Yeah, no, with me is Tyler Kamstra.
And Random Powell.
All right, Tyler. What’s happening?
Well, tonight, we’re going to talk about character advancement. Now, if you’ve played a tabletop RPG for any lengthy amount of time, chances are you’ve gotten a chance to advance and improve your character. You might think yes, every system uses experience points. I go up X experience points, I have now gained a level, things proceed from there. But there’s actually a lot of diversity in the way advancement works between RPGs. So we’re going to look at both the history of D&D, Pathfinder, some other RPGs that we talk about on the show, and we’re going to compare and contrast experience systems. And maybe suggest some ways that you might use these experience systems in a way that’s more interesting than just “I have killed a monster. Give me points.”
Yeah, perfect. And you say like, most folks are familiar with experience point systems. I mean, let’s be real, if the only thing you’ve ever played is 5e, you might not know what an experienced point is. It may have literally never came up. You’re flipping through the monster manual and it’s like, uh, there’s these values here. I don’t know what to do with those.
5th edition is really interesting for that. At the beginning, they really stayed on track with what WotC had been doing, which was like monsters and traps generate a particular number and everyone present for the kill of that monster or trap (Don’t ask how you kill a trap) gets to share in the experience of pops out like a pinata when you, when you delete this thing. And then they said, you know, okay, if we’re trying to make this more accessible, what if we include this alternative thing, milestone leveling, where just you go up a level when the DM says you do. And then they sort of started writing all of their content to cater to that. I mean, basically every pre-written module in the past several years, minimum five years that I can think of, they’re all basically just going off the expectation that you are running it as milestone leveling, and they tell you, here’s where you should level them. Here’s where you should level them. Here’s where you should level them. So if that’s what you’re coming in from, and especially if you’ve only been a player and never been a DM, you probably are looking at us like we’re growing a third head because we are apparently an ettin.
I have a theory on this. But I think we’re gonna get to that in just a second. I suppose it probably makes sense. And again, I think anybody who’s played these games understands it, but let’s go and call it out. What do we mean by leveling?
In games like Dungeons and Dragons, where characters are defined by level among other things, your level is essentially how experienced and capable your character is. D&D classically goes from levels 1 to 20. And that has varied a bit between editions but mostly it’s 1 to 20. Other games might not have a level cap. Like, you can very easily compare it to video games. Like, World of Warcraft, you go from one to… what’s the level cap now these guys? I have, I have no idea. What 80, 90?
120 my dude.
Boy. See? levels! Basically, the idea is I have reached some milestone, I have achieved some thing. And now I am another level higher. I get some amount of things to improve my character in some fashion and I’m going to allocate those immediately upon gaining the level. So it it doesn’t really mesh with, like, real life where improvement is slow and gradual and takes practice, but it works really well in a game because you don’t want to have to be like okay, I I went for a 10 mile hike today. And now I’m going to like mark plus one on my hiking stat. And then I’m going to do that every time I do a 10 mile hike and it’s just going to, like, take forever.
I was, I was actually going for Morrowind, but… Skyrim. That too
Elder Scrolls. Like, yeah, I’m gonna jump up and down in place here until my jumping skill reaches 100 and I can power level my strength and anyway, yada yada.
No, I’m literally going to sit here for the next 10 years making armor until I have, like, level 100 armor and can make dragon scale armor. But I’m too weak to pick up a sword still and we’re just never going to resolve that. Another interesting leveling system, so if you think back to like the Diablo 2 days where you would harvest monsters, harvest monsters, harvest monsters, gain a level, but getting a level really just meant here’s points to spend. Except for, like, when I was in high school this guy knew the way that he played Diablo was he would hoard those points until he could not get through a level at his current skill to drive his personal skill with the character as high as possible. It’s kind of the equivalent of, like, Dark Souls playing the wretch, right? And then by then he’d have like 10, 15 levels of point buy available. So then he dumps those all at once and all sudden it’s like I am immortal! Like, just mowing through everything. And that’s a crazy way to advance your character. Please don’t ever do that. But yeah, experience points. Alright, that’s a pretty classic system. I think mostly most folks are familiar with it. I have this much experience. Or you might say that I’m resetting to zero every time. It doesn’t matter. It’s just how you track the math. You have to consistently challenge yourself. Most games work that, like, look, sure you had to kill, like, 20 pigs in World of Warcraft to get that first level, but to get from 100 to 101 if you’re trying to grind on pigs, let’s face it, that’s gonna take forever. So you can’t do that. You gotta consistently challenge, challenge yourself. In a lot of games, you do that by going to more and more advanced places. There are tougher creatures, harder enemies to fight. You know, in D&D, that’s kind of a funny idea to me because unless you’re playing a published module, which has scheduled the fights for you, like you have a playdate with a lich later today, and I hope you enjoy it. In D&D, right, your DM is the one making the decisions about how challenging every fight is going to be. And that ties into how you do pacing. It ties into how strong, you know, the the party is and what they can handle. You know, all of this kind of comes together. So it’s a little bit harder to accomplish this.
Yeah, you touched on like advancing and then potentially subtracting experience points. And that is actually a very interesting and defining part of how experience works in a lot of RPGs. I’m going to put you both on the spot. I’m a level one character in fifth edition D&D. I reach 1000 experience points and I’m now level two. What happens to my experience points?
As I recall, and this is an explicitly different thing from 3.x, they reset to zero,
That’s what I was gonna say.
Yeah, I know. That is a surprisingly common mistake. The experience points don’t reset in fifth edition. In fact, from what I’ve read, RPGs that advanced based on, like, scaling experience, points generally don’t reset, because they don’t want you to have to go and do all that math again. But there are some exceptions. Most recently, Pathfinder second edition actually does do what I’ll call “subtractive experience points” where you reach the amount of XP you need to gain a level and then reset to zero. D&D 3.5, 4th edition, 5th edition all do the same thing where you gain experience points and have to reach an exponentially scaling number to reach the next level. So fifth edition, it’s like 1000 experience points for Level 2. 3000 for level 3. 10,000 for level 4, or something like that. It goes up and up and up. But the monsters also grant more XP on a scaling curve based on their CR. 3.5 used this really, really annoying and frustrating calculation where you had to put in like, okay, here are all of my monsters in this encounter. I am going to calculate the total CR of the encounter using a series of tables that sucked. Those were the worst tables.
You got the final effective CR of the encounter, and then use that CR and another table based on the average level of the party to then figure out how much XP they got. So like, if you want to figure out how much XP your party got, you had to do this series of mind-numbingly stupid calculations. And Pathfinder first edition came along and said, Hey, I’ve got an idea. What if you just had a flat numerical XP value for every monster? Fourth edition did the same thing. Fifth Edition did the same thing. Works super great. Very, very easy.
Whoa, okay. No wait, no, wait. So you’re saying in like the three and 3.5 days, monsters didn’t have experience point values assigned to them? They just had a CR and you had to do… That’s dumb.
It sure is.
Honestly, I mean, I think that that’s one of the things that Paizo came along and they’re like, “This is dumb. Let’s fix it.” And then WotC said “Oh, that’s way better. We’re just gonna do that forever.”
Yeah. Look at all of these successful Japanese RPGs that have been around for, I don’t know, 20 years. People sure seemed like him. What if we did it that way?
Yeah, you know, the feedback goes back and forth. So Pathfinder second edition got a little stupid on this in my opinion. So they, instead of doing the, like, classic exponential scaling curve where you have to get, like, some… some number to get to the next XP, they went to the every level is 1000 experience points. But in order to make that work, the amount of XP you get for fighting monsters has to scale up and down proportionally based on the challenge. So you have to go back to doing those stupid tables. And, like, considering how tight and solid the math is on PF2, personally, I find that decision mind-numbing. Like, it isn’t as bad as it was in 3.5, but the fact that I have to pull out a calculator to figure out how much experience my characters get still makes me a little salty.
Okay, so I’ve only actually done one shots and Pathfinder so far. I haven’t played a campaign. In most of the published modules that are coming out, are they doing experience-based leveling? Or are they using the other thing we haven’t really talked about yet?
You know, I haven’t looked deep enough to know for sure.
You’ve only run one shots for me.
I’ve run one shots, I’ve run the starter kit, I’ve like opened the first couple chapters of a couple of the published modules. But yeah, I haven’t dug far enough into the full length campaigns to give a definite answer.
Here’s what I’ll say about that. And, you know, I really hope that I’m not giving Paizo more credit than they deserve here. One of the benefits of doing this as a printed module is that you’re going to be able to print what the CR of a room is. That’s how printed module is always working 3.5. It’s like this room, you know, it’s not going to tell you Oh, it’s three purple worms and an angry dragon. No, it’s just going to tell you here’s the room, it’s got these monsters in it. It’s a CR 14. And that’s it. As long as you weren’t trying to, like, pull multiple rooms into the same combat, which then let me tell you about all the times that they do. And that’s gonna be its whole own other episode, I think at some point where I just rant about, you know, combat is loud. And if you’re in a room 20 feet away, why wouldn’t you go help your friends who are literally screaming as they’re being cut to death? But that’s a different story.
It’s good advice. That’s some solid advice.
As long as you weren’t doing that any printed module, you’re going to be safe. Because even in Pathfinder 2, if they go back to this insane leveling system, you still have that given to you. Where this gets really hard is if you’re trying to write your own content. If you’re trying to write a campaign that you have to break out all of those tables that Tyler was talking about. Maybe if you are trying to do that from Pathfinder, maybe then instead you should borrow something back from WotC and… milestone! Go!
Milestone XP! Yeah, so so we’ll talk about this a little bit later, we’ve hit on it a little bit before. Milestone XP is just the DM says when you level or the adventure says when your level and honestly that system works super well, in a lot of cases. It doesn’t have to be the only answer as we will talk about further in the episode. But it is a pretty good answer to a lot of the challenges with experience systems.
And so the idea here is that the campaign will generally have arcs. There are general, like, mini plots. And if we can get the party to go from point A to point B, solve a particular problem, there’s an a sense of accomplishment, everybody feels like you know, we achieve something because the yeti is dead. And we have the yeti horn. And that’s exciting. At this point, we can say great, take a level. Go, go ahead. And everybody feels good about that. Right? You go away, you come back with an advanced level, and you start the next arc.
Yeah, honestly, I mean, that’s speaking from a lot of 3.x experience. That’s honestly a thing that DMS would kind of do anyway, particularly in their, in like, in personal written content in homebrew stuff, you would get to the end of an arc, people would be like, Ah, man, I’m 156 XP short of a level. And you know, this is especially terrible if everyone else is ahead. We’ll also get there in a minute. And so DM says, Congratulations! Bonus XP for finishing the arc have exactly 157 XP. What a coincidence!
Yeah, Dumbledore steps out of the room, it’s like, aah!
12 points to Wizard-dore. All right. With the actual awarding of point-based stuff, you know, that sort of end of arc thing is a type of bonus you can give. There’s other things. I’ve talked before about how I would try and encourage roleplay by awarding a roleplay bonus to XP at the end. When the party isn’t even, there can be some real weird stuff. So in that same Rise of the Runelords campaign, one of the characters through a really bizarre set of circumstances and some really particular rolling on Rod of Wonder tables functionally defeated a demigod by himself,
Was that character a wizard?
Was that player Tyler?
Not this time.
No, keep going. Keep going. Sorry. This was our friend, Michael. And yeah, so it wasn’t so much that he defeated it as he was simply present for it dying and almost sort of caused it. Yeah, I mean, he gained the experience for like, it’s like a CR 18 monster, like by himself. That immediately put him two thirds of a level ahead of everyone else. Okay, so what do you do? And the short answer is, that’s hard, right? In those earlier systems where things were so finely tuned to, like, this is a challenge for this. This is a challenge for this. That became challenging and other things like Raise Dead. Fortunately, it no longer does this, but it used to just drop you a level in previous editions.
You come back from the dead, you lost whatever your last level you gained was. It’s gone.
Okay. Okay, this this doesn’t make sense. For there was a brief moment where when you said that I thought you meant if you cast Raise Dead on the living. What you’re saying is, if somebody dies, you cast Ray’s Dead, you lose a level. That’s fine once I feel like that has to have a cool off period because like I was just in a situation where I died. And probably you’re gonna make me go back in there.
Oh. In fact, for that very reason, that was the second time Tyler’s amazing paladin, Gilder, came back from the dead. That was the time that he just retired. He’s like, Nah.
I’m gonna go back to my wife and my four goblin kids.
These are the adopted kids?
Good on you, by the way, slaughter that whole family, making the right choice. Not the whole family, you kept the kids.
What a character. So we, we touched on getting experience from your DM’s mercy, essentially. So let’s talk about a couple other ways that you can get experience points in different systems because again, that is another defining part of how a lot of systems work. In the oldest editions of D&D, gold was tied directly to your experience points. If you brought home a gold piece, you got an experience point. And very early D&D, that was very much the point of the game was to go out, raid a dungeon for gold, bring it back, get more powerful, go out and raid a bigger dungeon. So that feedback loop, in a lot of ways, that is why being a murder hobo is a thing in D&D. Like, that early sentiment has just kind of permeated the game and never really went away. Newer people coming into the hobby are doing a really good job of breaking that concept. Even older players are frequently moving away from that. So being a murder hobo, like, still a lot of fun sometimes, but less of the, like, central focus of D&D.
I want to be clear right quick. So let’s say I go and I gather 100 hold, do I have a choice of using that for the purpose of leveling or buying stuff? Or once I get it home, I get to double spend it for XP, and then I actually get to spend the physical gold for stuff and things.
That last one.
The last one, okay, so that’s awesome. Okay. Versus like, if you take a Dark Souls style, where it’s like, you have the choice of either spending your souls on leveling up, or spending your souls on stuff.
Yeah, that’s actually a good comparison to how a lot of RPGs work and we’ll we’ll talk about that a little later. But yeah, souls is a great comparison if you haven’t played any of those games. So you could get experience from gold in early versions of D&D. You can get story experience for like your DM says so or it’s written into the module, like you have helped this person, here’s 100 experience points or whatever. The largest and most common source of experience points in D&D is typically combat, which means monsters are functionally an experience point pinata. You hit them until candy falls out and you hope you get enough candy to level up. And that makes that makes everyone very happy to beat a monster and get candy. It also means a lot of people don’t like to talk their way out of situations, because you get the problem of hey, stop talking my experience points. I’d like to gain a level now.
That’s exactly right. And again, talking about the murder hobo, like, you know, ranting and raving. If you walk into a place and somebody is, like, mildly distrustful of you or not quite cooperative, the easiest thing for the party to say is, like, you should look like 100 experience points to me.
Yeah. And so this is one of the reasons why, especially in older pre-written modules, they would say if you convince so and so to let you pass without combat, award XP as if you had defeated them in combat. Buried deep in the DMG where no one would ever read it was, if you defeat any encounter, regardless of how you defeat it, as long as it is no longer a challenge to you you get the XP for it. That can be I chop it into bits, or it can be I convince it to be my friend, or it can be, you know, I turn it into a tree and now it’s growing shadefull. Don’t ask. It’s an adj- an adverb. There we go,
I confuse it. I confuse it for a troll and it flies away.
So one more source of XP and then we’ll move on. Random did this in his Rise of Runelords campaign, and we’ve talked about it a couple of times, awarding experience at the end of the session for good role playing. If I remember, right, random, the way we handled that was at the end of the session, we would all vote on who had the most interesting role playing that session. For me personally, that was actually a really helpful growing tool as a role player, because it encouraged me to focus more on playing my character as a character, rather than, you know, being that murder hobo. You know, kill those monsters, get that gold, to bring it home, adopt goblin children. Even even that small, like, end of session, here’s a tiny bit of XP for being cool. Like, it didn’t have to be a huge number, but just that that carrot at the end of the session was a really good motivator to push ourselves to be better players. That in itself is actually a really good example of using the advancement system as a way to encourage good behavior and good roleplay in the game.
I do think, though, it’s also really rewarding to have the other folks at the table, be proud of you and think that you did a good job. That’s more valuable than actually getting, you know, some some little bit of XP that, you know, sure you’re gonna use a little bit. I think we’ve talked about in the past, I’m gonna bring it up against it’s such a good idea. Telling your table every session, you have the right to give away one inspiration or one metacurrency if you think somebody has just done a great job RP’ing and this seems like a even better version of that of, like, you might even get to a level a little bit earlier than other folks, because you’re doing such a good job role playing.
Yeah, that was entirely the point. Right? You know, metacurrency didn’t really exist in Pathfinder 1 in a way that was usable. One of the other things that I had people do is I, it wasn’t just saying vote, but I would require them to explain, why are you awarding this person that you’re with your vote for the day. And you know, it was and I only wanted a sentence out of them, but it got them thinking. And that meant that, like Tyler was saying, it got it got people thinking throughout the whole session about how they were playing, and then had people think about it again at the end, which was really the point of why I did it.
So I think we have a view other like advancing systems that we want to talk through. And then let’s kind of come back and talk about them all together,
You have the classic level-based experience, which is, you know, the D&D model, you gain points, eventually, you hit a level. In addition to that a lot of RPGs that don’t have a level system, so Fantasy Flight Star Wars, Shadowrun, Call of Cthulhu, lots of other- It’s a good question. I mean, C3-P0 is voiced by Anthony Daniels. So since we’re talking about in the real world, I would probably use “he”.
Mörk Borg, they don’t have a level system, like, you can’t look at a character and say I am a level X/Y Wizard, whatever. You essentially have a progressing quantity of experience points that your character has gained over time and that gives you a rough estimate of how long you’ve been playing that character, but not necessarily how good they are in a fight. Because in a lot of RPGs where, like, crawling a dungeon isn’t a central theme of the game, your amount of experience might not indicate some massive combat ability. Like Fantasy Flight Star Wars, C3-P0 is a mountain of experience points, and he can’t use a gun. He/it? Do we call C3-P0 “he”? They? Yeah, okay, let’s go with “he”. Alright
But “they” works.
C3-P0 survives nine movies.
In this case “it” is also…
Sure! It. C3-P0 survives nine movies.
We’re gonna have some hard conversations about sentience.
Yes. Accumulates all of this experience. Occasionally gets his memory wiped and gets reset to zero. But you know, other than that, lots of experience points, can’t fight in any meaningful way. Ton of social skills. Kind of. Terrible manners. Bad, bad protocol droid Anyway. So games where like the level-based capability progression, aren’t there offer a lot of flexibility and, like, that tells you on its own a lot about the game because again, that idea of crawling dungeons, getting loot, and then crawling more dangerous dungeons doesn’t really exist in most RPGs. And I feel like I’ve lost the thread here of what I was going to say next. But my point was, you gain experience points in these RPGs and then instead of gaining a level, those experience points become a currency and you use that currency to advance your character. Randall, like you were saying about your friend who played Diablo two would hoard those advancement points, you can essentially do that in these RPGs. You might get to a point where you can advance your character and have, like, some mountain of points that maybe you’ve been saving up for something cool. Or maybe you just haven’t decided what you want to do with them yet and just sit on them for a while. But you can spend those points in whatever way the game allows. Maybe you diversify your capabilities, maybe you get really good at one thing. Like Shadowrun, I might be mixing up fifth and sixth edition, but like, you can buy specializations in skills. You’d be like, I’m already really good at guns. What if I was even better just pistols? Pew pew pew, pistols. Fantasy Flight Star Wars, you can spend experience points to buy new skill trees, the character capabilities are their skills, there’s essentially ability scores, and then there are talent trees, that they give you specific benefits based on the talent. They get more expensive the further down you go on the tree, opening up new trees cost experience points, opening up trees from different classes cost more experience points. So like, there is motivation to spend that currency very wisely. And sometimes hoarding it for a little while until you’re ready to open up a new tree is a good idea because it’s so expensive.
Well and especially giving yourself a second to figure out what’s really going to be useful to me what’s really going to be useful to my party. You might get to a point where like, Okay, we have collectively enough experience to start actually specializing. But what do we really need here? Are we needing healing on a regular basis? You know, are we fighting a lot of undead and so we need to go down this path? Do I need lasers for eyeballs? If so, that’s a choice that I’m going to need to make. Preferably, I want to be anti-undead, pro-lasers for eyeballs. But that’s a…
So we should also talk about when advancement occurs because that is another… that’s another thing that people get kind of hung up on in a lot of RPGs. Because advancing your character in the middle of your character doing something is really confusing. If you end a session on a cliffhanger, like, you’re about to walk in and fight the boss or like you’re about to go talk to the boss or talk to your boss. Or maybe you’re playing like accountants and alliteration. And your next encounter is to go ask your boss for a raise. I see the face palms, I see them. Maybe your next encounter is to go talk to your boss about a raise, and the session ends and you’re like, Okay, I’ve got all these experience points, I really want this raise. Between sessions I’m going to spend my experience points and up my persuasion skills so that I can really do a good job asking for that raise.
I think in accountants and alliterations it’s called negotiating, but anyway, keep keep going.
I think that was a “yes, or”.
So when advancement occurs is frequently overlooked in RPGs. Like it’s… in a lot of games, it’s just never explained. Like you get experience or whatever, whatever the experience equivalent is called at some given point, like Shadowrun calls it karma, famously. A lot of games do just call it experience points. But it’s it’s the same thing.
I remember in, like, all the Elder Scrolls games, you have to take a nap. Which is really frustrating because you also have to take a nap in a safe place because you typically can’t sleep if somebody’s stabbing you. That’s my experience, at least. Wwonderfully frustrating, right? Because you’re like, I need to level up. Right now. I am so sleepy. On the other side of this door there is a rat trying to choose through it.
I’ve talked about this before on the on the variant rules episode where I would require my players to spend time in a city training and, you know, that’s one of the they called out variants. Like, you have to be trained to get your level. Now, I tried to make this easier on them, particularly when they were just utterly buried in a dungeon crawl for a couple of levels. I would give people the numerical bonuses of their level, and not the class features until they got home to train. This was again much… a much bigger deal in in 3.x. So like, you will get your hit points, you will get your base attack bonus your save bumps, you don’t gain your next spell slot until you can go train it. You don’t gain your sneak attack until you can go practice stabbing peasants or something.
Oh, what? Wait…
What do you think sneak attack is for?
Moving on. I do think this is a wonderful topic to talk about in a session zero with folks. Because some folks would really welcome that. And I think we’ve talked about in this past the idea of for instance, if you’re a warlock, maybe you need to talk to your patron and maybe there needs to be something that you need to do prior to taking advancement. If you’re a Wizard maybe, like, you need to let your DM, like, hey, I really would love to pick up these spells so they can sneak in like oh you find a sheet of a spell book. It’s just sitting here. It’s the one you’ve been looking for! Look at this! You know, if that’s what people would really relish like, they welcome that they think it’s a wonderful part of storytelling, build it in and, like, make it happen for your players, because that’s going to be an awesome experience. If everybody collectively is like, Nah, I’m gonna go to sleep in a snowdrift, and I’m going to wake up and we be like, guys. Figured it out. Fireball. Let’s go. That could be fun, too.
Yes. Yeah, and comparing it to the leveling mechanics in The Elder Scrolls games is actually really good comparison because… taking a long rest in games like fifth edition D&D, is a really really good time to handle leveling. Generally, your players will be at least somewhere relatively safe, somewhere that they can train like random suggested. Somewhere far away from monsters, so there aren’t dying giant rats chewing down the door. That’s never explicitly called out in fifth edition, Pathfinder, because they want to give you that flexibility of like, if you’re playing a mega dungeon or something where there is nowhere safe, you’re gonna have to level up in this 10 by 10 room that your players have boarded up the door to keep monsters from chewing through the door while they’re sleeping.
The rats exactly and hay super out of place and useless suggestion. But in Oblivion, you can beat the entire game at level three, if you figure out when to take levels two and three. And then you can just power level all your skills to 100 and beat the game very easily. Off topic. Anyway.
I’m into it. I’m just trying to think about what how that actually would manifest. But…
You only need to sleep to trigger the Dark Brotherhood quests.
Yeah, that’s right. And you still benefit from having the skills leveled up really high. But the difficulty in the game increases based on your character’s level, not based on your skills. So you can have all your skills at 100 and just walk through the entire game. The difficulty in that game does not make any sense.
Yeah, okay, that makes good sense. Somebody goofed.
Anyway, so games that do advancement timing really explicitly, the One Ring is a really, really great example of how to handle this. Now, the One Ring has this, this segment of the game called the fellowship phase. So you go out on your adventuring phase, you journey somewhere, stuff happens, you come back, and then you have the fellowship phase, which is functionally downtime. And while you’re out on the adventure phase, you’re accumulating experience points. That’s skill points and action points, I believe. It might be adventure points, I’m drawing a blank at the moment. Anyway. So you accumulate those two different pools of experience points, come back to town, have your fellowship phase, and you have that downtime. And that’s probably an actual game session where you’re doing downtime, talking to your party patron, doing other stuff, maybe exchanging gear, all those things, and you spend your points to advance your character. So One Ring never puts you in a situation where, like, I, the lore master, in One Ring, the Lore Master have built this precision engineered adventure for my players to go on. All of these encounters are built perfectly to challenge them, but not murder them. There’s cool stuff that happens, they meet cool people, things happen. What do you mean, they all leveled up and now none of that math works anymore? So One Ring will never put you in that situation, because you have to go all the way back to town, and like have a break between adventures to advance and, like Random’s suggestion and the DMG variant for going back to town and training and stuff. It works just fine in any RPG. Just say hey, you don’t get to spend points until this plot arc is over and you go home and say, “Wow, we saw some stuff.”
That sure was a lot. Awesome. So we’ve talked about a few different ideas for how to think about experience, we’ve talked about several systems worth of what it means to, like, level up or advance a particular character, whether that’d be something class based where you’re moving in a particular class, whether it be more of a point soend and I’m spending points to, you know, buy this feat, buy that feat, unlock this feat tree, this sort of thing. Let’s take it back and let’s talk about how we can apply these things in any game that we’re playing as long as we’re not breaking the rules or kind of breaking the game, and the offers that we can make to our players. So most of us are familiar with milestone leveling, we talked about it, most of 5e’s content is going in that direction. We can use it. And honestly I think that that’s a fantastic base. But sometimes it might make sense to say okay, look, we’re gonna go on a huge dungeon crawl. Like the next the next arc in the story. The next arc in my homebrew, we’re literally going to spend like a month in this dungeon. It could be fun to talk to your players and say, What do you folks think about I know we’ve been doing milestone level advancement. What do you think of doing monster experience for this dungeon? There’s gonna be opportunities where you can make choices where like, this hall sounds really quiet. This hall is really loud and the orcs sound mad. Make your choices. At that point, you’re, you’re incentivizing the murder hobo-ism, which can be fun for a period of time. You’re letting them know, like, you know, cut loose, you know, go ahead like burn some skills, it’s going to be great. With the understanding that once you escape that dungeon, you’ll go back to civilized society where you can’t murder the barkeep because he doesn’t have the particular beer that you enjoy. Or you had that, you know, he tried to charge you to silver and you’re used to paying one silver.
And that’s really interesting. that really touches the same heart string of the reason that I instrumented that or implemented that, that bonus XP in the first place is using character progression as mechanic beyond just, you know, what the game says. I guess using it as a tool instead of just a mechanic is probably the better way of saying that. I really like that because I’ve never really enjoyed milestone leveling. DMs have a lot going on, and if you’re playing a pre-written module, that’s great that like, you know, they have it written in there roughly when you should be leveling, but let’s be real here. No party has ever exactly followed a plotline the the way it was presented literally ever. I challenge you. Present me with that. And that’s fine. That’s the good storytelling. But it means that there’s going to be times when things more, you know, maybe don’t make sense. Like the the out of the abyss that I’m running, where we just abandoned teleported or murdered a bunch of the plot hooks and we gained two levels in not back-to-back sessions, but session, level, no, level again, because we were just advancing that that fast and that feels goofy. And no shade to my DM for that they’re doing a great job. That’s just… what do you do when the players skip all the story and the story is how you’re supposed to give them the stuff? So that’s where it becomes really important to maybe slow down. Like Randall was talking about maybe you give them like, Alright, we’re gonna do monster XP for this session. Maybe give them checklists, you know, maybe give them like, alright… And especially if you are running something more sandboxy, lik Phandelver, you’ve got like 10 goals, you’re gonna gain a level when you complete two of them, and just have that be a thing.
And actually, you bring that up. So we’re playing around with approximating now our DM hasn’t explicitly said this, but I think he’s heavily implied that actually some of their milestone leveling early in the adventure are exactly that. Like there are, I don’t know, this will surprise you. There are 10 towns in Ten Towns.
Right. And I think one of the levels was like you had to visit so many of them, or you had to solve like a side quest in so many of the 10 towns before you took a level. At least it was implied that it was that way. And it was great, right? Because you’re not, you know, you’re not on a railroad. You know, you’re not literally being driven from point A to point B. It feels very Sandboxie. And yet, it feels like it could be normal. Now the counter to that, which he also warned us about repeatedly, is, you know, hey, you guys did great in that combat we just had with you being a level four. If you were unlucky, you would have hit this at level one. And that’s, that’s debilitating. And so towards your point of like, we burned through, you know, through through our wily ways, we were able to burn through like, you know, 1, 2, 3 little mini-arcs, and now we’ve leveled twice in three sessions. The problem is if you don’t take those levels, the next group of monsters you run into, because that’s what the campaign book says you’re supposed to face, What’s gonna happen?
There’s no good answer.
Well, you know, as as a DM, it’s like, the whole reason I bought this book was so I didn’t have to think about building these things. It’s like, I I’m, you’re gonna fight two and a half demons? I don’t…
Well, that’s where your players need to know to run away. Like, if you’re gonna play a sandbox game, in your session zero, you can just tell your players Hey, the encounters are not leveled to your capabilities. We’re going to be Morrowind method, not the Skyrim method. Like, the world is there. Good luck. As opposed to Skyrim, where it’s like, Ah, yes, all of the at least boss fights are scaled to your difficulty or something. But you’re still gonna get that one insane bandit who charges you in the middle of the road for no apparent reason.
You, halt! Who goes… Yeah, I, I do. I really liked the idea of that. And I think again, like we’re talking about the social fixes. This is again, something in a session zero and then I think repeatedly, like, pointing out you will have encounters that are too hard. And then encouraging maybe a roll for checking like, oh, you know, there is literally a giant coming towards you. It’s a frost giant. Roll for knows things about Frost Giant, somebody please. You know, or you know, okay, right. That’s lame. And we always talk about how lame that is. Instead, maybe it needs to be it’s like passive perception of 16. That’s good enough. You notice that it rips a Sequoia out of the ground and puts it over his shoulder and begins to carry it away the other way. Do you want to engage?
Hang on, let me google how big a Sequoia is first.
Oh, it’s enormous!
Not the Toyota. The tree.
Oh, well, where did it find a Sequoia growing? A Toyota Sequoia growing in the ground?
It was very well rooted. Anyway. Yeah, I think there have to be the cues to to let folks know, like, you have to get out of there. But yeah, rolling it back. I have one… Okay, so what did we just say? We said, you can mix and match milestone with experience in your homebrew. And in fact, that might be a way to sometimes engage your inner murder hobo. And then sometimes the milestone advancement and using things like the story advancement, or bonus XP for RP can be the way that you drive the table to more RP. And so in this way, instead of just using metacurrency, we can actually use the leveling system itself as a mechanic to drive our players to play the game that they talk about wanting to play. You know, in your session zero. And when you occasionally do your retros. They’re like, you know, I really loved it when we did that RP session. Okay, great. This is one more tool in your toolbox to drive that.
I want to pitch one more crazy idea. Talking about the a la carte, the point based systems where essentially what you’re doing is you’re gaining a pool of experience to then burn on feats. We know, you know, 5e gives you the optional of I can turn my ASI’s into instead of taking treats, right? That is an optional, I’m not crazy?
What would you say, to allowing feats more often, or maybe having like a bonus pool of experience explicitly to add feats? So we’re breaking the leveling system. Let’s let’s first of all, I’m torturing it at this point. But granting an additional feat in lieu… I guess what would you do it instead of though? That’s the hard part.
So let me let me try and take some of this and I and I think rein you in a bit based on some things that I have seen work. I just want to break the game, that’s all. Right? Well, so first off, that’s kind of what happens when you hit epic level, anyway. By the time this episode comes out, Tyler’s recent epic, er, Tyler’s recent article on epic boons will have been out for a few weeks. And so go read that. It’s really good. But basically, you know, at level 20, in D&D, when you make it to the end, they say *confetti noises* you did it! And you get some more ASIs, you know, if you would keep going. That is one way that you can handle it. You would have to be really explosive with this in your session zero, I think to get buy in from people. Because you’d want to say like, if you if we do like, like a vote system that I had, like, at the end of every session, you vote on it. If you get 10, you did the best role plays. You get a feat or something. That could certainly be a way. I wouldn’t call that great. Realistically, what-
I got it, I think you’ve inspired me and I have it now. There are lots of feats, which are explicitly not combat feats, right? And sometimes we look at these things, we’re like, why why even bother? A good example, Pathfinder two, we talked about the opportunity cost of advancing lore skills, either moving them up a notch, or taking additional lores are way too expensive. So maybe that’s a perfect example where let’s do something like that. And when you advance your RP tree, we’re going to let you take more RP feats, like an Pathfinder 2, your lore skills, or we’re going to let you advance them so that you effectively have, like, your own RP track. And I think we could probably do this in 5e as well.
Yeah. And I think that this is very much what Randall’s table would look like. There’s other options, right? You know, you can, you can do things like items. And this was actually… this long running Strahd campaign that I talked about a lot. Barovia is a pretty low magic setting, because it’s not like there’s traders coming in and out very much. Technically, the Vistani can sort of come and go, but it’s not like they’re going to help you a lot. You know, what do you do about, like, help, I want to gain magic weapons because, oh, God, these things have resistance to BPS if it’s not magical, right? And so, you know, maybe that’s like, oh, man, you you’ve role played really? Well. You did a session, you know, like, you made yourself weaker somehow for a session by this roleplay. And so, congratulations, you’re digging around in the basement and you find druid mjolnir, or, you know, maybe that’s like, Okay, I’m actually going to steal a very explicit example from that game. Our Druid at one point. And I hate this and Tyler, I’m sorry. Our Druid at one point, we, so we killed a large dire spider like- -large size horse like horse Fighter as part of clearing this up like haunted ruin. And her persistent ability to talk to animals will be triggered and she heard like a lot of hungry voices. Well, then she was suddenly wearing a cape made of spiders for the rest of the campaign.
Tell her you can turn off your headphones, you can take off your headphones. It’s fine.
And she did that intentionally and yeah, she-
Why would you choose that?
she put on a cape made of spiders and she wore that keep made of spiders and like it gave her But it gave her bonus AC and poisoned damage when she wild shaped because she was a circle of the moon Druid.
Wait, she took poison damage or she could give poison damage?
Like, her claws would do poison damage.
Like imagine if I turned into a bear that was covered in spiders.
Nope, I hate saying that.
Yeah, that would make bears scarier. So that’s good.
It sure would.
Spider bear…. In this sort of way, like you can, you can honor the good roleplay like that. So you know, the good roleplay of like, oh, I want to save these animals. Oh, there’s spiders. I’ll save them anyway.
Because spiders are people too.
well, only drivers and we don’t want them anyway, there are different there are definitely ways you can go with that, that are not just like straight feats or straight skill bumps. You can give… and, you know, like, sure that was actual combat power, but you could very definitely try and tailor something to be less combat power like that. That was the the makeup for they’re not being whole lot of magic items or availability of things. But, you know, if you want it to make it, like, oh, yeah, you know, let’s, let’s say at session zero, write me up like, three low level magic items that your character wants. You know, like, armor of shininess, whatever it is, I forget what it’s actually called. Right? Like, like a, like a hat of disguise, like, you know, things that provide cool utility, but not a lot of combat power. And just, like, you did some good roleplay today, here’s your hat.
You can also offer, if you’re going to reward good roleplay it might also be helpful to offer your players specific goals for their characters. Let’s imagine a system where you give your players a list of goals based on their character. Like, I am a Wizard. So one of my role playing goals is I need to find the spellbook of a famous Wizard and learn from it. So like cool stuff like that. And you can lay out a list for your players until like, once you get through some number of these, you’ll get this cool boon. Like maybe you use one of the epic boons, maybe it’s a magic item, maybe it’s a feat, something like that. If you want to make that idea extra spicy, make a bingo card. And this is going to sound a little ridiculous, but you got your five by five grid. Each space is a goal. The middle goal is kill a monster, so that’s essentially a free space. And if they fill up a line on the bingo card, you get something neat. And then you have a bingo card to carry around with character sheet. And who doesn’t want that?
Real quick. I’m going to touch us on a system that you don’t have to imagine that you are literally given goals by your game master. It’s Alien. So yeah, in so I’ve talked about how there’s, there’s two versions of play, right? There’s a cinematic and campaign play. In the cinematic play that’s meant to be more like one of the movies, it’s literally split into three acts like a movie. And in each act, your characters, which are pre-written, have individual agendas. And the way that you get XP, the primary way that you get XP in fact, although it’s not called XP, for the cinematic play, it’s called story points, which you can use to like automatically succeed even after you’ve already failed a roll. That sort of thing. You get that by playing to your agenda at personal risk. If you want a good example of that, go read the Alien stuff, read my review of it when it comes out soon. I’m working on it. Play testing is hard. Yeah, like that’s a really good way to look at an advancement system that is explicitly not about any of those things. Like, it… in the campaign play it is sort of like an accumulate points and spend them for talents. But the way that you get it is very much more just No, no, it’s just roleplay. Just be good at roleplay. That’s how you do it.
And I will say, so we talked about from time to time, like the idea that traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws. I think that’s something else that you could bring into this where if you’re gonna make that checkerboard, or even if you’re not gonna make that checkerboard, any time, like, you manifest all four of those things through a session, you’ve probably done a fantastic job role playing, especially if it is a personal risk or risk to the party. Or if you’re a rogue, risk to the party, but not personal risk.
Wait a minute…
All right. We have a question of the week this week. The rest of the week this week, allegedly comes from Lennie in Germany. Lynnie is allegedly in Germany, and we’ll deal with that later. Lennie over email. Great to hear from you, buddy. How do you use environment in your D&D combats? And what tips and recommendation can you give to make combat more interesting with use of the environment?
That’s a great question. So it’s very easy to overlook terrain when you’re planning combat in RPGs. So D&D, especially, it’s very easy to say this room is 20 feet by 20 feet. The ceilings are 10 feet high. The room is otherwise featureless, but there are monsters in it. Go get ’em. Don’t do that. That’s boring! He put some stuff in there. Furniture to hide behind. Tables to flip. Chandeliers to swing from. Difficult terrain because te part of the ceiling collapsed. Stuff to take cover behind. Think of it like putting a frog in a terrarium. If you give your frog just an empty box, your frog is sad. If you put, like, leaves and twigs in a pool of water and cool stuff to simulate their natural environment, happy frog. I don’t know how to have have a frog. Don’t take pet advice from me.
Are the players the frog in this case? Are the monsters the frog? Or… are we the frogs?
Let’s say players are the crickets.
Players are the… wait, what?
Welcome to Mork Borg! Feed your players to monsters!
Anyway, put stuff in the terrain. The fifth edition rules for balancing encounters specifically have guidelines for, like, if the enemies in the encounter have an advantage, you treat it as a more difficult encounter. So like if you walk into a room, and you have that feature list void of 20 by 20 room, then, like, that is just base, your normal XP calculation. If players walk into a room, and there’s a bunch of, let’s say hobgoblins on the landing above us. Something about the covenant on the landing above us. The hobgoblins are up above you shooting at you with bows. They have an advantage. So that encounter is more difficult and 5e’s encounter rules account for that. And then conversely, if the players have an advantage.
And as a reminder, when Tyler says advantage, he literally means advantage. This is one of those things that’s not often brought into play, but a way that you are explicitly granted advantage is if you are making a range attack from height on someone, you have mechanically advantage on that attack roll. You know, you could also say an advantage in a room might be there is a gap, like, a chasm between characters with range attacks and the players. Right? That is an advantage. But like in the case that he was talking about, that’s literal mechanical advantage. So that’s one thing.
I want to put you on the spot right quick. would arrange spell attack also gain advantage in that situation? Do you know?
Okay, cool. All right, keep going.
So that’s one thing. Teller also did a really interesting job on trying to focus on…
Like, Well, that too, but actually, it’s… No, Tyler did a really interesting job writing articles about, like, how to use terrain in the Doom style combat, which you should definitely check out. That’s a fascinating take on combat. Like he was talking about, and this is, this is another thing. So like we talked about, you know, if you have advantage, or if you have elevation range attacks advantage. But there’s also all kinds of other things like, you know, like he described chandeliers to swing off of. Absolutely. If your bard describes man, I’m going to take bonus action, acrobatics, like, do a neat flip off the wall, and rapier down at the top of somebody’s head as I pirouette over them. That’s dope. Give them advantage, right? Now, we talked about this way back in metacurrency, where like, there’s only so many times you can play out the same shtick. But the more you fill a room, the more you’re going to be able to let people be creative. If you talk to… who do we… I have forgotten his name and I feel terrible about it. But the guy who wrote the Monsters Know What They’re Doing.
We’re not going to grant that. Keith Ammann.
Thank you. We talked to him and, you know, a lot of monsters of at least roughly, human average intelligence will do that sort of thing. Cover provides AC and dex save bonuses. And that’s huge. If you have someone hiding behind the table, because they can and then popping out to shoot you with arrows and then popping back, they’re real hard to hit. Maybe they’re impossible to hit. Maybe they effectively have full cover, which means you can’t see them. There are ways that you can play this. And you know, if you think about it cinematically, you’re very rarely going to see things of human-ish intelligence. Just ah, yes, we’re going to brittish square you and hope we kill you first. That’s a terrible strategy. Sorry, to the Brits 250 years ago, I guess.
Hundreds of years of military combat. Yeah.
Right? Think about it. No, you see people like pop up from behind cover, shoot a few shots, pop back behind cover. And that’s just, like, people think to do that. Just sort of instinctively. Give them the tools to do that. Because as a DM, do that, and I know that it’s a lot to remember with everything else you have going on and tracking initiative, HP, all that jazz. But if you remember, if you just stop and think, what does this look like? What does this actually look like that’s happening? And think about it, compare it to other media that you’ve seen. Movies, books that you’ve read. And think how do I make it more like that, that’s going to make it feel more realistic and use that environment to your advantage.
I think definitely like all of that is fantastic advice. I really want to highlight the idea of encouraging folks to use the hide and take cover mechanics in whatever game you may be playing. And I think it could even be worth, if this is something you want to get into your game, just having an open conversation like, Hey, does everybody understand how this works? Maybe before the session, hop in, like, really read through it. Let’s get together. Let’s talk about it. Because one of the things that can happen, for instance, talk about that situation where the bad guy is popping up, getting a few shots off, and then going back behind cover. You’re powerless, because they’re always behind cover, you can’t do anything about it. Except you can! You can say, I’m gonna hold this as a reaction. And when that person pops up, I’m gonna go after them. Well, now how somebody is thinking about structuring their turn is going to be a lot, I think, A different than typical combat and B very interesting in what they think and what they’re willing to risk. Because keep in mind, in 5e, I’m pretty sure this is true. Pathfinder, I’m not sure. If I declare I’m gonna use a spell as a reaction. I’m holding that spell. If the reaction never triggers, I lose the spell, right?
Yeah, and there’s, that’s very punishing. So,,,
Cantrips, right? Holding cantrips. You could also make it so that… and a thing that I’ve seen is basically, if the if it makes it back to your turn, make a concentration save.
I like that, okay.
If you pass it, you get to keep holding it.
Oh that’s much better.
But you burn your, you burn your turn again. So there’s still some opportunity cost, but not least don’t lose the spell slot for nothing.
Perfect. That makes great sense. And so even like, this is interesting, right? I think, planning a reaction because like, I’m gonna take this person in, like, you know, you’re calling out in the language only your person knows, like, you know, I’m gonna pop the one on the left. And hopefully, on the other side, they don’t know whether you meant your left or their left. They’re very confused.
Yeah, exactly. So… I, yeah. Theater in the round. I really, I really think the hide mechanics are something that I would like to experiment with more. The negative, I think, is that this could potentially slow combat down. But I think occasionally, putting the party in a situation like this would be a lot of fun. Everybody’s really going to enjoy the fight, especially if this is one of the big fights. And then maybe the rest of the time… Maybe, maybe there aren’t so many more tables to flip. What I want to add, I want to remind you that I think… maybe not a wyrmling, but at least an adult dragon has a burrow speed.
Some of them. Not all of them. Certain certain colors of dragons.
Okay, perfect. And so I think the idea that there are more than just dragons actually have burrow speeds, the fact that something can literally disappear into the ground, and then come back and haunt you. Like, I think that could be a fun long-running fight. We, you know, we did an episode way back on travel, like, how do folks get from point A to point B? And how do you make that interesting? Imagine if occasionally, an adult dragon kind of pops up and messes with your high-level characters. And then as soon as it hits like a third XP, third XP, a third health is like, I’m out. I’ll see you next session. Like that could be a little torturous, but I think also a little fun. And even if that creature chose to fight to the death, that creature popping in and out of combat between turns, I think could be very exciting.
I’m going to propose kind of a thought exercise. So if you’re struggling to come up with how to populate your encounter map, like, where to put things, stop what you’re doing right now, unless you’re driving car. Continue driving that car. Look around at the room you’re in. That’s your encounter map. Like, what is in that room? If you don’t like that one, go find a different room. Maybe go outside and find a nice park. Those make great encounter maps! Like, there’s trees in the way there’s benches to use this cover. There’s like shrubberies that could be difficult terrain. Like, you could just be like, uh, that’s no longer shrubberies, that’s gravel. That’s not a tree, that’s a cool obelisk. Yeah, dress it up. You can even reuse the same park and just, like, invert the map, and nobody will ever notice the difference. But yeah, just steal encounter maps from real life. It’s super easy.
I’m now tempted to start talking about digital elevation maps have geotiffs. So depending on where you live, you might actually literally be able to find, like, a 3d map of that park that he’s describing. And you could just use that! It’d be a great terrain map. But I digre- I digress? I digest sometimes. I’m Randall James. You’ll find me atamateurjack.com and on Twitter and Instagram a@JackAmateur.
I’m Tyler Kamstra. You’ll find me at RPGBOT.net. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at RPGBOTDOTNET and patreon.com/rpgbot.
And I’m Random Powell. You will find me frustratedly calculating CR tables. But mostly I’m here on RPGBOT.net contributing of course to the podcast and also some articles. And in places where people play games I am frequently there as Hartlequin or Hartlequint.
All hill the Leisure Illuminati.
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Welcome to the RPGBOT.Shenanigans
Perfect. You know, we should just…. we should just call this that.
I’m not ready. I’m not good.