there’s experience in them thar hills


Here is an incomplete list of things that “XP for Gold” does:

  1. Makes treasure more desirable than its mere cash value
  2. Strengthens the motive to seek out lost treasure troves.
  3. Creates conflict between the player-characters and defenders of said treasure trove.
  4. Turns dungeon delving into a caper film – “Arneson’s 11”.
  5. Gives a further incentive to avoid (unprofitable) combat.
  6. Ranks monsters on profit-to-threat ratio: troglodytes are the proverbial Citadel of Millionaire Babies.
  7. Makes player-characters insanely greedy little devils – think: Daffy Duck level greediness.
  8. Creates ironic distance between players and their wildly money-grubbing, cowardly, sociopathic characters.
  9. Establishes that D&D is silly, maybe even preposterous, fostering a tongue-in-cheek attitude.
  10. (If used in conjunction with carousing rules, opens up dozens of new story hooks, plot twists, and NPC’s.)

Could an alternate advancement system meet these same goals more efficiently?  Perhaps.  Could an alternate advancement system meet different goals?  Certainly.  But it’s a pretty versatile little rule.


28 Responses to “there’s experience in them thar hills”

  1. April 4, 2010 at 2:32 pm

    That is an insanely great image, James. It’s hard to come up with a post that can not be overshadowed by an illustration like that, yet you have done it. Kudos, sir.

    I’ve often thought that old-school D&D is like a caper film instead of a later-edition’s action film; the long, wordless, still sequences of planning in “Rififi” or “A Man Escapes” are like the delicious moments of freaking out over trash on the staircase, building the tension that’ll be released when the heist finally goes off.

  2. April 4, 2010 at 2:57 pm

    I’ve no argument with #1-6, but #7-9 spin off onto a specific play style that many players do not follow. Playing a greedy, cowardly sociopath in accordance with 7 and 8 is a clear failure to Step On Up to the challenges of the game and its attendant glories. 9 does not logically follow, and I contend that those who play D&D as an exercise in silliness are injecting their own preferences into the game rather than acting hand-in-hand with the rules.

    It’s interesting to me that you lump sociopathic characters and a tongue-in-cheek attitude in with the other items as goals rather than as mere side effects. I smell an agenda!

  3. 3 James
    April 4, 2010 at 3:36 pm


    “9 does not logically follow, and I contend that those who play D&D as an exercise in silliness are injecting their own preferences into the game rather than acting hand-in-hand with the rules”

    I agree #9 doesn’t follow from #8, but surely some degree of absurdity follows from “Getting rich makes you a better swordsman,” doesn’t it? I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it turns D&D into an exercise in silliness, just that “1 GP = 1 XP” is one reminder among many of the game’s artificiality.

    “Playing a greedy, cowardly sociopath in accordance with 7 and 8 is a clear failure to Step On Up to the challenges of the game and its attendant glories.”

    Really? Maybe we’ve got a different view of Steppin’ On Up, because I see these as very compatible. Players and their characters are united by burning greed: the players want experience points, their characters want gold, and these are largely synonymous. Yet because D&D characters tend to meet sadistic fates, players can laugh along with the DM when the Boss gets petrified because the Boss was kind of an asshole (Praise the Boss!). I’ve got an incentive to gamble, and a way to cope when the gamble doesn’t pay off.

  4. 4 James
    April 4, 2010 at 3:43 pm

    Oh, shucks, I forgot to mention the other thing “1 Gold = 1 XP” does – it forces players to make strategic choices about encumbrance!

    This influences the rate of exploration, the occurrence of wandering monsters, movement in combat, being able to run away from monsters, and (in some cases) hiring retainers to carry the loot with attendant calculations regarding loyalty and appropriate shares.

    You would have these problems even if Gold was useful merely as cash, but because players want the experience, it becomes more pressing.

  5. April 4, 2010 at 3:52 pm

    Han Solo is the quintessential D&D hero. It’s obvious what he gets from acting like a mercenary who always puts preserving his own hide and getting paid before all else. What does he get from helping Luke and Leia? Only the knowledge that he’s doing the right thing *despite every incentive to do otherwise*. That’s what makes it interesting!

    If all the game design elements reinforced idealistic behavior, there wouldn’t be this tension. Heroism would be easy and, IMO, cheapened; I’d feel like I was heroic just because grinding the reward system made me that way.

    I like the way that, through play, characters go from being greedy toons with silly names to heroes who increasingly develop their own larger goals and identities. I think this is one of the big strengths of the old-school approach as compared to games where you already start as a full-fledged hero and there’s not the same opportunity for growth and change.

  6. April 4, 2010 at 4:22 pm

    Yep! The greedy sociopath is the path of least resistance. Playing such a character unalloyed with other qualities indicates that you’re not bringing anything else to the table.

  7. April 4, 2010 at 4:28 pm

    Note that an aspect of D&D as heist movie is that the protagonists are crooks. A trope of the genre is that both having ideals (heroism) or trying to make one last score (greed) will get you killed. Sooner or later you’ll be killed or jailed, and black humor or silliness (e.g. the pop culture dialogue in Pulp Fiction) leavens that heavy dough.

    Ken Hite famously said that Call of Cthulu is the only mature RPG because there’s almost no reward for heroics whatsoever. Going adventuring will make you crazy, dead, or worse. The only reason to do it is for the sake of the (fictional) greater good. All the in-game mechanics point to holing up in Tijuana and having a good time until the inevitable horror triumphs, so (as in real adulthood) players must decide why they struggle anyway in the face of certain mortality.

    By this logic, 4E makes D&D less mature. The fact that you get both XP and treasure parcels from battling, the reduced cost of resurrection, the removal of things like rust monsters, the promise of an immortal apotheosis at level 30, all make adventuring its own reward and minimize the tension between the unrewarding noble choice and the profitable selfish one.

  8. April 4, 2010 at 5:07 pm

    OD&D, lovely incoherent mess that it is, is not entirely a heist movie. I’m reasonably sure that the typical caper movie doesn’t involve building castles and establishing settlements in the wilderness.

  9. 9 James
    April 4, 2010 at 5:30 pm

    Neither does the typical D&D game…

  10. April 4, 2010 at 5:57 pm

    #9 is one of my faves. When we play D&D we start falling into these comedic tropes and it’s really a great time, but not exactly serious. With no setting information to explain why bands of armed homeless people rove through the countryside killing at will, well, we start to be silly at times. It’s really a lot of fun. :)

  11. April 4, 2010 at 6:29 pm

    @Eric: no, but that is in part because the mature (ie experienced) character in heist films rarely survives, yet he is the one doing it for the one last score to retire.

    Yes, the analogy is a bit stretched, but given the character fatality rate of low level OD&D, characters who are comparable to most of the heist movie characters that’s not surprising.

    The biggest place I see the analogy breaking down is the old mentor out for the last score (the name level – 1 character) is rarely in a group with the low and mid-level characters.

  12. 12 James
    April 4, 2010 at 6:36 pm

    I agree that in only rewarding enlightened self-interest D&D’s designers effectively adopted a “virtue is its own reward” view of morality.

    Whether or not this approach is mature, it can lead to problems if you expect the players to buck the reward system by acting like Good Guys, instead of Well-Intentioned-But-Ultimately-Selfish Guys.

  13. April 4, 2010 at 6:38 pm

    Eric, I’d claim the Godfather movies as the D&D endgame story of crooks establishing settlements in the wilds of America, doing heists to build their empire, and then committing increasingly cold-blooded crimes to maintain it.

    My vision for the baronial future of the White Sandbox is that due to all their prior achievements and alliances, the Grey Company will hold all manner of enterprises and fealties that regularly generate GP for XP. At that point adventures will be driven by the obligations of feudal ownership and the need to defend their interests in the world against the forces that threaten them. I don’t want name level to just be going into scaled-up dungeons and scoring ever-more-absurdly-huge hauls, but I see the initial stages of that greed-driven process as necessary to have the players generate the complications that’ll make the late stage richer and more complex than if I’d pushed players to make up their own entanglements from starting level.

  14. 14 maldoor
    April 4, 2010 at 7:24 pm

    What a weekend to be away from my computer, not posting!

    > The greedy sociopath is the path of least resistance. Playing such a character unalloyed with other qualities indicates that you’re not bringing anything else to the table.

    Actually, I think this is very realistic, sadly. I see a majority of the name-level, castle-owning people -especially the good/lawful ones- getting there with merciless, grim determination.

    Once there, they can induldge in all the great things an enlightened ruler can do, in an end-justifies-the-means way. Think about Morgan creating the public library system, or Gates and the incredible charitable works he is up to now.

  15. April 4, 2010 at 8:35 pm

    Great Post, James.

    Whether or not classic D&D “really is” like a caper movie, the idea does work pretty well within the system. There’s a great rules framework for running a caper if you leverage the rules for the passing of 10 minute game turns, checks for wandering monsters (patrols), the reaction roll, and so on. At the risk of just popping in with a self-serving link to my blog, I have some thoughts about this here. My current BECM/RC campaign has been partly an attempt to foreground “caper” style thinking in classic D&D, and it’s been fairly successful for us.

  16. April 4, 2010 at 8:55 pm

    Rich, I like that you cite the Great Muppet Caper! The linked-to post about ten-minute turns looks cool too. I’ll delve into that when time permits.

    Note that my idea about heists doesn’t come from a theoretical analysis about what D&D is like; it’s derived from reflecting on how our adventures tend to turn out, especially thinking about pacing in the White Sandbox games given our must-leave-the-dungeon-at-the-end-of-the-night meta-rule.

    While we’re self-promoting, check out an earlier post about friction points for a subsystem that could work for caper-style games. I’m going to be doing something with this for the thing I’m working on for Fight On, although it’s not overtly structured as a caper or infiltration.

  17. April 5, 2010 at 12:28 am

    I see what you mean about how the adventures tend to naturally turn out, and that does ring true for me, too. We played some straight up B/X D&D before kicking off the caper game, and our first game didn’t have a particularly “caper/heist” style feel. It didn’t emerge naturally from regular play, really. And I have to admit, even though I haven’t technically changed a bunch of rules in our more caper-style current game, I think it would be fair to say that I’ve changed the system at the table in the sense that I’m specifically emphasizing certain subsets of the rules in certain ways to emphasize D&D’s caper-ific potential.

    I dig that friction point idea, by the way! I have some relevant intel, too — a friend of mine has the Top Secret/S.I. supplement “Commando” (TSAC5, description halfway down the page here). It could well be that the “Brushfire Wars” module develops it even further, but I do remember hearing about something like these friction points from my friend as being in the “Commando” supplement itself. That’s the limit of my actual info, though — all hearsay since I’ve never owned that supplement myself.

  18. 18 Scott
    April 5, 2010 at 1:40 am

    I can’t stand players who aren’t greedy sociopaths when dungeoneering. If you want to tell me about how your character wouldn’t stab that Orc in the face, take an improv class instead. When I’m in your party, warriors better Swing that sword and get with the Plan, time’s a-wastin’. Otherwise, I’m betraying the party in the middle of a fight when I can do the most damage, eliminate my rivals and re-iterate my demands.

  19. 19 Scott
    April 5, 2010 at 1:47 am

    BTW, it’s obvious in the illustration that the VERY POWERFUL gem is being hidden in plain sight, with some corpses from another room strewn around it to scare the weak-willed.

  20. 20 James
    April 5, 2010 at 1:59 am

    When we were playing Dogs in the Vineyard with Jenskot and Forager, I had to write in big letters, “JAMES, DON’T PLAY LIKE SCOTT” to remind myself not to murder and rape everything in the SIS.

    I can see why you gave up on “Blood Meridian” – too much like your autobiography.

  21. April 5, 2010 at 4:38 am

    Scott: “it’s obvious in the illustration that the VERY POWERFUL gem is being hidden in plain sight, with some corpses from another room strewn around it to scare the weak-willed”

    I think it’s a gem of undead fascination. If you carry it, skeletons won’t attack, they’ll just follow you around, bathing in its radiance with big bony grins on their faces.

  22. April 5, 2010 at 6:15 am

    I’d love to see some Muling about getting players to engage with the setting, and/or creating a sandbox setting that players can get involved with.

    I don’t know whether it’s the silliness that James talks about, or the fatalistic and/or sociopathic emergent playstyle, but nobody in Vancouver gives a copper piece about the Black Peaks.

    Well, not entirely true. There is one guy who is rebuilding the tavern that his character burnt down while carousing. But that is the only player who doesn’t treat the setting as anything more than travel times between dungeons. Which is probably my fault for not giving them more to sink their teeth into.

    p.s. HUGE fan of Superhero Necromancer! September to January was a frustrating time for my RSS reader…

  23. 23 maldoor
    April 5, 2010 at 12:29 pm

    As the (I think) oldest and least-informed member of the Mule, my observation is if you build it, they will come – but they will not care about it much.

    If you let them build it, or build it with them, they will have ownership and a higher level of interest.

    As I go back and try to catch up/get a sense of the several decades of games and gaming product I missed, I confess being amazed at all the “Gazetteer” and “Setting” products. Maybe I am not getting something basic here (probably I am missing the forsest and the trees – yay ignorance!) but these products do not seem to be useful for gaming. They do seem to be fun reading – really dry fiction, and an illumination of some cool ideas. But any attempt by a DM to info-dump such material onto players is going to flop. (Not accounting for an awesome story-teller DM who can pull it off; I have seen one or two.) Sure, they are supposed to be used to flesh out a world, and act as a backdrop to fill in answers for the DM, etc., I get that, but in practice those are activities better done at the table as a collaborative effort.

    Thus does even the DM get amazement (Roc dung!) and the players more sense of engagement.

  24. April 5, 2010 at 1:30 pm

    I think #10 turns out to be a pretty genius effect/implementation and I think that’s where the “buy in” to the setting can come from.

  25. 25 maldoor
    April 5, 2010 at 1:47 pm

    @ Jon – yeah, in both Glantri and Tavis’ white box campaigns it seems the majority of world/content creation has happened as a result of explaining the dice rolls from carousing.

    Carousing (as we have been doing it) provides a place for the sort of “authorial control by players” in a space out of play – where the DM and player can both contribute and then both make decisions about what makes it back into the game. The players can contribute and decide a bit about the world their character lives in while the DM still has a firebreak.

    That “firebreak” bit is important (to me, at least) in terms of the “D&D is always right” ethos – the DM should retain some control over what does and does not make it into the campaign, at least until the DM and the players are together happy to give that up.

  26. April 5, 2010 at 1:51 pm

    As the (I think) oldest and least-informed member of the Mule, my observation is if you build it, they will come – but they will not care about it much. If you let them build it, or build it with them, they will have ownership and a higher level of interest.

    On a more general level, they’ll be more engaged with things they want to be engaged with. This sounds tautological, but there is a point to it. Those setting supplements you’re talking about? They work, not because the DM gets the players to read them—as you observe, that doesn’t work—but because players read the material in their own time and then want to see it in play. This has the same effect as letting them design their own setting elements, in that both let the player engage with material in which they have a pre-existing interest.

    Also: some people are more interested in setting material than others. I personally like engaging deeply with the setting. Others, like Crom’s players, may view the setting solely as color—that is, as nothing more than “travel times between dungeons.” Both are perfectly good approaches to play as long as all of the players (and the DM) are on roughly the same page. Putting players of both persuasions in the same game may lead to frustration.

  27. April 5, 2010 at 4:01 pm

    I just wanted to say thanks for the kind words, Cr0m!

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