Saturday, July 3, 2010

Holmes on Experience Gain

I spent the better part of my day unplugged from the Net re-reading the Holmes Basic Rulebook. I have to say that, every time I read it -- which has become a regular ritual for me -- I grow ever more convinced that it's an under-appreciated work of genius. While it lacks the diamond-in-the-rough charm of the LBBs, the expansiveness of AD&D, and the clarity of Moldvay, it has its own virtues, chief among them being that it's simultaneously a good introductory rulebook and a product of a hobbyist mindset. I suspect that many of the idiosyncrasies of my approach to D&D have their origins in Holmes, but that's a topic for another day.

Anyway, while re-reading Holmes I noticed a couple of interesting bits I'd forgotten. First is that, while Holmes adopts a Supplement I-descended "experience points for monsters overcome table" (rather than the LBBs' 100 XP per Hit Die), he also includes a sliding scale for XP based on the comparative hit dice of a monster vs. the level of the character who defeats it, just as in the LBBs:
If a defeated monster is lower in level than the character who overcomes him, less experience is gained. The experience points for the kill are multiplied by a fraction: monster's level/character's level. For example, of a third level fighting man killed a first level orc he generates 1/3 the experience points. The Dungeon Master usually takes all experience earned by the party, treasure and monsters defeated, and divides it equally among all surviving members of the expedition.
This guideline did in fact make it into AD&D as well, although it's less specific in its application and, in my experience anyway, no one ever used it. The rule is not present in Moldvay (or Mentzer) and a version of it is present in WotC's D&D III in the form of the Challenge Rating system.

Holmes later notes that
it should take a group of players 6 to 12 adventures before any of their characters are able to gain sufficient experience to attain second level. This guideline will hold true for successive levels. Note that it is assumed that the 6 to 12 adventures are ones in which a fair amount of treasure was brought back -- some 10% to 20% of adventures will likely prove relatively profitless for one reason or another.
Sounds like Holmes was talking about my Dwimmermount campaign! More seriously, this is a fascinating guideline and speaks powerfully about how assumptions about D&D have changed over the years. I can't imagine any new edition of the game being produced that assumed such a slow pace of advancement. Neither AD&D nor Moldvay made such an assumption and certainly no contemporary claimant to the name Dungeons & Dragons does.

I'm admittedly biased on this score as Holmes's guideline is very close to the pace I've used -- about 7 sessions per level -- but, even so, I think there's much to be said in favor of a slower rate of advancement than is typical nowadays, even among old school gamers. I don't use the proportional XP values for monsters defeated, mostly because so little of the PCs' XP comes from monsters (most of it is from treasure), but, taken together, the two guidelines I've discussed here do lead to a very different style of play and I can't help but wonder whether or not the subsequent development of the game might have been different had a slower, steadier approach to XP gain and level increases remained the standard.

21 comments:

  1. We always used the fraction of monsater lever over character level to determine what should be gained from experience in AD&D.

    3.X ed used the formula of 13 to 14 encounters to gain a level, but of course the levels were drawn out to twice (roughly 20 expected) as many as back then, and now there are 30.

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  2. I guess that was written back when people could game 2-3 games a week I guess. I'm lucky to have 2 a month at most.

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  3. Does "adventures" in Moldvay necessarily equate with "sessions"? Just curious.

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  4. In the Stonehell campaign that I play in, we've played 6 sessions so far. The thief and cleric are second level, and some of the other characters are nearly there. We've had 3 fatalities (character deaths are another factor to consider as once a character dies all his XP is lost to the party). We're probably just over halfway through the first level of Stonehell so by the time we move downstairs even the magic-user should be second level. I'd say 1 in 3 sessions results in us limping back to base with little or no treasure.

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  5. I like around 20 hours or 5 4 hour sessions to level. However I think that 1st level PCs are very fragile and I like rapid low-level advancement, around 3 sessions perhaps.

    Incidentally my online Wilderlands game has run for several dozen two-hour sessions and levelling has been rare, one PC has advanced from 3rd to 6th but he's a halfling and did it by stealing a dragon's hoard at 4th level!

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  6. Great stuff! Although I started with Holmes I've not read through it in many, many years - time to break out the old Blue Book!

    I am, unwittingly perhaps, following that advancement rate. My players are all in the 5th-6th level range after 43 sessions, which equates to 8 sessions/level (though not considering the high casualty rate early on, which has now slowed dramatically thanks to instilling a profound sense of caution in the party!).

    I like these sorts of posts - almost like D&D PSAs.

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  7. @S'mon:

    I agree with a previous poster that first- to second-level advancement should be a bit faster, just to give the PCs a little bit of sticking power.

    Didn't I read somewhere that a character can't advance more than one full level and all but 1 EXP of a next level from a single adventure? I would imagine such a rule is for just such clever players. Did you guys disregard that, or did that hoard just account for a good portion of his exp, and he earned the rest of it other ways?

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  8. I prefer the slower levels of advancement myself, so these guidelines are a comfortable fit for me. Of course, back when I ran D&D ew played at least once per week. Now twice a month would be considered an achievement, so perhaps the pace would feel too slow.

    @adventurematerials:
    I remember that "limit to advancement" rule, too. Maybe it was in the 1E DMG?

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  9. This guideline advancement is specifically at odds with my own style, as directed by Moldvay Basic (B/X). From page B61:

    "If no one reached the 2d level of experience in three or four adventures, the DM should consider giving more treasure."

    In a game that only goes to 3rd level (I consider Holmes its own edition), 7 sessions to advance may be appropriate. In B/X (14 or 36 levels depending on your perspective) the rate should be twice as fast.

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  10. Neither AD&D nor Moldvay made such an assumption and certainly no contemporary claimant to the name Dungeons & Dragons does.

    Actually, 6-12 adventures is the same guideline given in second edition, though it does not mention the 10-20% profitless aspect.

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  11. I guess that was written back when people could game 2-3 games a week I guess. I'm lucky to have 2 a month at most.

    I game weekly in theory, but, with work schedules, family events, holidays, and so forth, it probably works out to about 2 times a month on average and the pace of one level per 7 sessions or so has been fine.

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  12. Does "adventures" in Moldvay necessarily equate with "sessions"? Just curious.

    Do you mean Holmes? Regardless, I'm not sure if he means literally a single adventure or a single meeting of a group to play. I assume the latter but there's no evidence in the text one way or the other.

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  13. Didn't I read somewhere that a character can't advance more than one full level and all but 1 EXP of a next level from a single adventure?

    That rule is present in every edition of the game going all the way back to the LBBs. It's explicitly mentioned by Holmes but I didn't quote it.

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  14. In a game that only goes to 3rd level (I consider Holmes its own edition), 7 sessions to advance may be appropriate. In B/X (14 or 36 levels depending on your perspective) the rate should be twice as fast.

    I could be wrong but I don't get the impression that Holmes is speaking specifically about the Basic game here but more broadly.

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  15. Actually, 6-12 adventures is the same guideline given in second edition, though it does not mention the 10-20% profitless aspect.

    Good find! Yet more evidence for the argument that 2e's core rules aren't as far removed from their predecessors as some would have it. :)

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  16. Good find! Yet more evidence for the argument that 2e's core rules aren't as far removed from their predecessors as some would have it. :)

    Slight correction (my memory is apparently imperfect, who knew?); second edition says 3-6 adventures is the "average" pace, but depending on taste it can be as few as 1 or as many as 10 or more. I remember thinking this was pertinent in that A1-4 are all written for levels 4-7 and none of the pregenerated characters provided advance between adventures. Something similar might be said of G1-3 and maybe D1-3.

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  17. Would level drain change any of these figures significantly?

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  18. I, too, prefer a slower rate of advance. In my current 3E campaign we've played 55 sessions and the players are at level 8 (around 7-8 sessions per level), a pace I achieved by halving the XP awards.

    I'm interested in what these numbers tell us about what an "adventure" meant to Holmes.

    It takes an average of 1800 XP to reach 2nd level in Holmes. So if we assume an average of 9 adventures to level, that works out to 200 XP per adventure. Assume the standard-ish value of 80% of XP from treasure and we can see that the average adventure is anticipated to yield 160 GP in treasure and 40 XP from monsters. 1 HD monsters yield 10 XP, so we can conclude that a 1st-level Holmesian adventure would involve encountering 4 monsters with 160 GP in treasure (on average) per PC.

    But then advancing from 2nd level to 3rd level requires the exact same XP. If rewards didn't adjust to the level of the PCs, we would be forced to conclude that either the size or number of encounters would need to shrink. But by adjusting awards for monsters with lower HD, Holmes is basically telling you that you should be facing more monsters of a lower level than yourself as you go higher in level. (This is a piece of advice which was unfortunately forgotten, but still valuable to remember in all pre-4E versions of the game.)

    Doing a quick spot-check on B1 In Search of the Unknown, I discover that clearing this complex should take 4-5 Holmesian adventures for a group of 6 1st-level PCs. (If that helps to calibrate what Holmes meant by an "adventure".)

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  19. adventurematerials said...

    "@S'mon:
    Didn't I read somewhere that a character can't advance more than one full level and all but 1 EXP of a next level from a single adventure? I would imagine such a rule is for just such clever players. Did you guys disregard that, or did that hoard just account for a good portion of his exp, and he earned the rest of it other ways?"

    You are correct - technically he was 1 XP off levelling up twice (ie he went from 4th to 5th, 1 XP off 6th), but I gave him the extra XP point for free, pretty much a standard house rule of mine. We use Labyrinth Lord BTW.

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  20. Running 3e fortnightly, I did eventually halve XP awards to keep advancement at a reasonable pace, around 5-7 sessions to level. Running 4e though in sandbox format I find the RAW give what feels like too slow a rate, probably because it's designed for a more linear approach, so I give bonus XP.

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  21. S'mon: "Running 4e though in sandbox format I find the RAW give what feels like too slow a rate, so I give bonus XP."

    Are you handing out XP for completing major quests? I think somewhere in the DMG it suggests that 10% of XP handed out at each level should be for completing quests and advancing the plot.

    My 4e campaign advances levels every 3-4 sessions, depending on how much play time we have (and how much time people spend chatting.) We used a similar system in 3rd edition - in fact, one DM in our group didn't even hand out XP, we just got to level up every third session.

    I'm not sure if any of my players would tolerate 6-12 sessions without getting to level up. We play about twice a month, so that would amount to going 3-6 months without advancement.

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