Monday, October 24, 2011

XP Requirements as (Dis)Incentive

Over at Jeff's Gameblog, Mr Rients has a nice post up today about Paul Crabaugh's Dragon article on "Customized Classes." Crabaugh's article presents a system for creating new character classes or modifying existing ones. One wrinkle in the system is that it never once recreates the XP requirements for the standard B/X D&D classes. In every case, trying to build one of the standard classes using the article results in XP requirements that are either less than or greater than those presented in the rulebooks, usually by a significant margin.

Jeff suggests that Crabaugh, rather than proposing a poor system, is in fact using it to critique the standard XP requirements. It's an interesting thesis and I think he's probably on to something. However, I still have a problem with Crabaugh's system and indeed most other build-your-own-character-class systems I've seen. The problem is that the system seems to assume that XP requirements are intended solely (or at least primarily) as a means of balancing the relative power of each class at first level. On this understanding, a thief takes so few XP to reach second level compared to, say, a fighter, because a thief is such a pathetic class at 1st level. Similarly, all the demihuman classes require more XP than their human-only counterparts as a way of compensating for their racial abilities.

I'm not convinced that's the truth of it. If that's the case, then why does the supremely wimpy magic-user require more XP to reach 2nd level than the hardy fighter in standard D&D? Likewise, why does the cleric, which is in many ways a "fighter plus," require less XP to reach 2nd level than either the MU or the fighting man? Crabaugh's system would suggest that the XP requirements in standard D&D are way off base and ought to be corrected by lowering those of the magic-user and increasing those of the cleric. That's a perfectly reasonable approach if you believe the sole/primary purpose of the XP requirements is to introduce some kind of rough balance between the classes.

For my part, I prefer to see the XP requirements play a different role: providing (dis)incentives for playing certain classes. For example, I'm told that, in many campaigns, it's hard to find players willing to take on the role of the cleric. I personally find this baffling, as the cleric is a pretty mighty class, but there it is. Might not the more favorable XP requirements make the class more attractive to some players? Similarly, could not the comparatively high XP requirements of the magic-user be a "warning" of sorts, intended to dissuade those looking for an easy-to-play class?

I should note here that all of the above is pure, undiluted ex post facto rationalization for a bunch of XP benchmarks that were, in all probability, made up without any rhyme or reason, or at least not as much as we might wish. My general feeling is that, in practice, the differences in XP benchmarks don't mean a lot till you're in the mid to high levels anyway. Likewise, I'm pretty dismissive of trying to balance one class against another based on some "objective" calculus, since, especially in an old school game, so much of any character's effectiveness depends heavily on his player and the referee. That's not to say I don't find articles like Crabaugh's interesting and occasionally useful, only that, as I get older, I find I care less and less about the fact that the buff cleric needs 500 XP less than the fighter, while the weakling MU needs 500 more.


  1. That's an interesting observation. I do wonder, though, how people saw Clerics pre-AD&D.

    And I agree. Clerics rock! They aren't just "heal-bots" unless you play them that way.

  2. It's hard to convince my players, who are thoroughly drenched in video games, that a cleric is not a heal-bot. In AD&D, clerics have to rely on Cure Light Wounds until they are fairly well advanced.
    Clerics simply are not intended to be walking heal machines, and it's hard to make a player who is used to playing a game like WoW understand that.
    An even larger issue is getting the players to understand that "party balance" is an almost non-existent issue.
    "What (class) does the party need?" is my second most hated player question. Right behind, "Do I level?"

  3. I discourage healbot (and sleepbot) syndrome by forbidding duplicate memorization of spells. (I.e. you can't memorize two cure lights at the same time.) And the BX spell list doesn't have a healing spell at every level.

  4. I think they do in fact function that way, but I suspect that, for the human classes at least, they represent the authors' opinion of how hard it actually is to gain proficiency in the class in question. With the racial classes they might have been thinking in terms of incentive/balance.

  5. @Jeff
    I've only had a problem once or twice with spellcasters spamming the same thing over and over. "Fireball, Fireball, Fireball". If you've seen it so bad that you had to add a rule to eliminate that behavior, I cry for you. The few times I had an issue with it I just said something and it mitigated the overuse.

  6. Every party I've ever played in, they organize attacks based on class. Many's the time I've played a cleric, where the battle's over before I've gotten to strike a blow or indeed do anything.

    I suppose that I should have retaliated by wandering off after visions in the middle of a battle, or going nuts and turning on the party, or at least by going to the kitchen for pop and never coming out. But the person who's usually shamed into playing a cleric, in a party which doesn't appreciate them, is usually "the dependable one".

    I've played something like seven clerics, all wildly different, but never got to do anything other than heal. Whenever I started to use weird cleric spells offensively (like create food and water, that sort of thing), the GM usually either bans it or stops doing that campaign because "it's not working out."

    The best thing turned out to be refusing to play a cleric, and happening to roll up a barbarian with insane stats. Unfortunately, while I was enjoying the heck out of myself and actually got to roll dice, our GM ended that campaign after all of two sessions. Because "it's not working out."

    (Though to be fair, all that GM's campaigns always ended after a couple few sessions. Perfectionist kind of creator.)

  7. @tepodon

    I've seen (and played) in plenty of games where the cleric was _expected_ to max out the cure spells. It made playing a spellcaster a lot less fun, either your options flattened out or some of your party members hassle you for your 'sub-optimal' spell load.

  8. It occurs to me that I could have claimed that my god wouldn't let me heal unless I had fought in the frontlines and tasted battle to the dregs, and done at least two other kinds of clerical activity that day. But that's the kind of thing that never occurs to me until years afterward.

    Also, I generally never got a chance to speak in character anyway, so there you go.

  9. I'm getting the impression that the above arguments are more about the Vancian magic-system and less to do with XP advancement.

    The simplest solution is to make all XP level caps for all classes equal. Everyone levels up at nearly the same rate. Therefore all classes are equally accessible for players in terms of advancement.

    Did Third Edition do this? I know it's a staple of Fourth, but can't remember if it was present in Third.

  10. As Joe said above, MMO's have pretty much cemented "Cleric = Heal-bot" in people's minds, and the class has been discriminated against ever since.

    However, even in the early days, I think the cleric class suffered a bit from confusion as to what, exactly, an old-school cleric is suppose to be? Are they supposed to be like the religious knights of Medieval times? If so, why not just play a fighter or paladin, who get better weapons and HP anyway? Are they some sort of spellcaster? Why not just play a magic-user who get the "cooler" spells?

    I think the cleric class confounds many younger players and GM's too. Combat-heavy campaigns (as many newbies will run) will invariably 'force' clerics to become 'heal-bots' almost by default.

    On the other end, like Suburbanbanshee said, many cleric spells simply derail inexperienced or poor GMs. The early spell "Silence-15' Radius" can, theoretically, completely disrupt a uber-experienced wizard that the GM might have turned loose on the party. The ability to create light and food via spell certainly takes away some of the dread of being trapped in a dark, underground cave. So, I've seen many GMs take the same route that Banshee has seen and simply say "it's not working out" and disallow clerics their spells for contrived reasons which makes the class way less fun to play.

    I love playing clerics...they can indeed be pretty mighty and a ton of fun to play in character...say, refusing to neutralize poison in a party member until they confess their various sins or agree to donate 25% of the adventure's profits to the church. Hey, the gods say I have to do it this way...

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  12. As a person playing a LL cleric for the last year and a half, I have to say if your cleric is turned into a heal-bot, or never gets to fight, or never uses all the really useful detection spells to make yourself like f'ing Van Helsing then a) you suck as a player, b) you play in a pretty sorry game, with c) other pretty sorry players. If you can't make a B/X cleric awesome and fun, you've got serious problems.

  13. "As Joe said above, MMO's have pretty much cemented "Cleric = Heal-bot" in people's minds, and the class has been discriminated against ever since. "

    Blame-MMOs is something that bugs me a lot.

    Long before MMOs were even an idea of a thing, I (and nearly everyone I've played with) thought of clerics as "heal-bots". When we cracked open the book and saw how easy it was to die, staving that off was just naturally the most important thing to us.

    This probably has more to do with the fact that we introduced ourselves (and each other) to the hobby than it does with MMOs. Without a good mentor the game really looks like a combat engine with a few extra bits tacked on.

  14. Why disincentivize the fighter though? You'd think you'd want most PC's to be fighter or thieves, not going by the XP chart, clerics and thieves.

    As for the off topic, its been expected that the cleric is a healer since I started and in general should take no more than one L1 spell thats not cure light wounds.

    This is not really fair but thats what was expected

  15. I'm a very good player.

    I'm just not very good at real life interpersonal interaction -- ie, elbowing in.

    Although, to be fair, most of the fun stuff mentioned by players posting on this blog has been stamped out by the GMs I've played with. (People making up rhymes to use as spells, for example, or bards singing little snatches of songs, or talking in character.) The GMs I know don't like anything too lively, because they want to keep the game moving, in a math sort of way. And all this comes from long before MMOs.

    If you've got a more fun GM and party, I'm sure you'll love playing a cowboy druid with tracking and weather knowledge and a deep understanding of cows. But if you play around here, "it isn't working out."

  16. I've always considered the XP requirements to be a balance of power, but not power at 1st level, necessarily. The magic-user is a long hard road because at the end of it you can cast disintegrate. Thieves are wimps so they level faster than any other class. Fighters are the standard, and clerics are important because they increase the party's survival chances.

    Re: the cleric issue, I've encountered the problem of players being reluctant to play clerics. In my experience, it's not so much about the cleric's expected role in the party, as players automatically pigeonholing the class as priests, which they consider restricting. They don't want to have to worry about what their god thinks, and they don't want to be the crusader-type that seems to be the default of the class.

    My solution: I renamed clerics to 'mystics'. I present them as "fighters with magical abilities"; it's stipulated that those abilities come from a supernatural source (inner peace, psychic control, ancestor spirits, divinity) but not necessarily a god. I expanded their weapon list to include a few edged weapons - spears, darts, etc. Finally, I require them to take taboos, equivalent to the wu jen class in Oriental Adventures, which if they break they lose their spellcasting abilities until they have properly cleansed or atoned.

    In the sole game I've run since making the changes, clerics were the most popular choice. Those were novices, though; experienced players may well complain that I've butchered the class. But I still believe that an image change is all that's needed to make clerics cool in the players' eyes.

  17. The simplest solution is to make all XP level caps for all classes equal. Everyone levels up at nearly the same rate. Therefore all classes are equally accessible for players in terms of advancement.

    Did Third Edition do this? I know it's a staple of Fourth, but can't remember if it was present in Third.

    Yes, 3e was the first edition of D&D to do this. I'm actually OK with it in theory, since, as I said, I don't think the differences between classes really matter enough to fret about a couple of hundred XP here or there. In practice, though, a unified XP table leads to an expectation that all classes are "mechanically balanced" with one another at every level. This eventually became the laser focus of WotC era D&D and was one of the many things about it that drove me away from it.

  18. Clerics are my favorite class in AD&D and B/X games. Like others here, I think that many peoples' reluctance to try a cleric is because they let other players pressure them into focusing on healing to the exclusion of other, more enjoyable things. When I play a cleric, I make it clear that surviving the battle is everyone's individual responsibility. Healing is for emergencies only, and if you can still take a hit with a good chance for survival, then it's not an emergency.

  19. Spontaneous casting of Cure Light Wounds and other healing spells (which I believe started in 3rd Edition) was a godsend, letting clerics memorize other spells.

  20. Clerics are the first character option (because alphabetically) in Moldvay Basic. I had barely every played any games - board, tabletop or video - when I read it, and almost all I had with combat had no means of healing. As soon as I knew they could heal, and no one else could, I was certain that was their primary purpose.

    I know one person's experience isn't going to change anyone's train of thought on this, but I find it hard to blame outside influence, much less MMOs, considering that "healer" was my "from scratch" childhood observation. One of my first ever moments of understanding a game involved me trying to piece together how a party could possibly survive until its Cleric was level 2, or died. But to play devil's advocate to even myself: perhaps something in Moldvay is to blame for that?

  21. You shouldn't really read too much into the Crabaugh article. It really just is eyeballing it. You cannot capture the strength of synergistic abilities with an additive build system like the one in the article. Heck, no one still has any clue how to properly balance character classes (and a lot of that depends on your meaning of "balance") and that is an easier problem that constructing different advancement scales.

    But related to this post, why rely on XP to disincentivize a class when you can do that much better by penalizing them socially in the game setting? The latter is a lot less artificial.

  22. So now we've got 2 heal debate threads going. (Bless you, my son :-) The one thing I will say is you have to admit that every edition of D&D through the AD&D line (OD&D, AD&D, 3E) found it necessary to increase the amount of healing available to clerics (and thus, reinforcement of that as their primary identity). WOW is really just a continuation of that same trajectory.

  23. Balance between characters in role-playing games is very illusionary. It's not something that comes out of the system, but rather out of the play. I could have one character that could deal well with the situation, whilst another character would find it impossible. It is the gamemaster (if they so desire) who should have the responsibility of balancing the game in this manner, not the rule system.

    An interesting point in this regard is that I've never ever seen a random encounter table that's been based on the experience points of a character class. Rather you are likely to meet an NPC of a given level, irregardless of their class or the experience required to reach it. So XP level costs generally only apply to PCs in practice.

    Similarly most tournaments (where characters were not provided) tend to specify characters by level rather than experience points.

    The only time where I've seen varying level costs actually make sense is when the gamemaster is running multiple players in separate sessions in a campaign. Which is, admittedly how many of the original D&D games were run.

    When you are dealing with a party you have the added complication of how you are going to split experience amongst the party members (do you weight it evenly and democratically, irregardless of their effective level of participation, or do you bias it by what they did). Either way leads to different certain set of possible player contention.

    Personally in a party situation I prefer the 3E approach of having each class have the same XP costs. Further formalised in 4E that the party was generally expected to be of a single specified level.

    [Oh, and if you want a 3E version of this, ST Cooley's Buy The Numbers did a good job of analysing the individual ability costs of the 3E character classes (which results in an even more complicated freeform class system).]

  24. Clerics are one of my favourite character classes in D&D, both in parties and in solitaire play. And I think it's my experience in the later that definitely shapes my experience in the former. After all, in a one-on-one game with the gamemaster your cleric isn't expected to be a combat medic.* And so there isn't the same expectation in party play either.

    In most of the games I played in divine healing was properly seen as a blessing rather than a right, and often accompanied by sacrifices to the cleric's temple/church in response (so as to stay on the good side of the cleric's god).

    [* Although most will still carry at least one cure light wounds (usually as a last resort). And one solitaire game I took bless. With a little inspiration and oration it came in quite handy.]

  25. The idea that clerics are a "healbot" is a "video game" conceit is ludicrous. Clerics have always been seen as a healbot, since the very beginning of the game, and this is the simple reason people didn't play them. If you don't want to play "support," don't take a cleric.

    This misconception is related to the (pernicious) idea that PC "niches" are a post-"video game" invention (or, in its most heinous form, that D&D4 imported the "video game" concept into RPGs). These niches - controller, healer, tank - have been around for as long as D&D and to say otherwise is to romanticize your early experiences of D&D.

    Furthermore, the idea that tinkering with XP progression in D&D is anything except just that - tinkering - is also a bit off beam. The XP system in D&D was broken and arbitrary from the very beginning. People tinkered with it because it begged to be tinkered with. It's not protest or critique - it's an attempt to fix the glaring errors. These errors really became apparent when AD&D introduced multi-classing (and thus showed up so many flaws in the system) and the problems weren't even recognized till 3rd ed.

    I doubt anyone was protesting at particular limits; they were just tinkering with what needed to be tinkered with.

  26. "These niches - controller, healer, tank - have been around for as long as D&D and to say otherwise is to romanticize your early experiences of D&D."

    I totally disagree. The only time I've felt the need to fill a niche (or somehow force my players to) in a fantasy rpg was 4th ed. The whole niche thing completely stifles role playing. I've always played and let my players play whatever class they want. It's up to the DM to make the game playable for whatever classes the PCs choose. It's up to the PCs to keep their characters from becoming walking stereotypes (i.e. filling a niche role).

  27. Regarding Clerics as Heal-bots: Someone please tell me what other class can heal in B/X or Labyrinth Lord?

    Other options might include the Druid (nature cleric) or the Paladin (fighter-cleric) if you allow that advanced stuff or even the high level Ranger might get in a druid healing spell occasionally. But healing is primarily the domain of the cleric. The only other options are resting for long periods of time or potions and magic items (which magic users can crate at level 9).

    There's a saying that goes, "when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail". Making clerics other than what the rules shoehorn them into being requires ingenuity on the part of the players or the DM.

    @Suburbanbanshee, That is a real shame that your DM's are so stodgy and inflexible. Have you considered running your own campaign?

  28. But healing is primarily the domain of the cleric. The only other options are resting for long periods of time or potions and magic items (which magic users can crate at level 9).

    It's worth noting that, in OD&D anyway, there are 46 cleric spells listed in Supplement I. Of them, only two -- cure light wounds and cure serious wounds -- directly heal damage. Clerics alone can cure disease, neutralize poison, and raise dead. Along with restoration, that's the entirety of their healing-type spells. So, while I understand the notion the cleric is the original OD&D class with healing abilities, I think it's a mistake to see those abilities as the be-all and end-all of the class.

    (It's interesting to note that the druid, which also has access to healing abilities, isn't usually viewed primarily as a healer. I wonder why that is.)

  29. "So, while I understand the notion the cleric is the original OD&D class with healing abilities, I think it's a mistake to see those abilities as the be-all and end-all of the class."

    And yet, "cleric as combat medic" as a primary role was there from the early days, at least here in LA. I think the lack of any non-magical healing skill or non-magical healing at all (other than rest, which could take a character out of the action for days or weeks, as I recall) provided the incentive for clerics to "stock up" on Cure-type spells, so comrades could quickly rejoin the game.

    "It's interesting to note that the druid, which also has access to healing abilities, isn't usually viewed primarily as a healer. I wonder why that is."

    It's been a long time since I've looked at the rules, but I wonder if that's due to a) the respective stereotypes, with the Christian-based cleric being seen more automatically as a healer and b) healing spells coming at later levels for druids. (As I recall...)

  30. It's interesting to note that the druid, which also has access to healing abilities, isn't usually viewed primarily as a healer. I wonder why that is.

    Because in OD&D the Druid has a much greater selection of direct offensive spells and they are the ones that tend to be taken. I've found that in general players have much more fun inflicting damage on others than they do in preventing damage to themselves. Defensive magics in any class are usually a secondary consideration; actually using spells on another is a tertiary consideration at best (but that is where many of the clerics spells lie).

    These niches - controller, healer, tank - have been around for as long as D&D and to say otherwise is to romanticize your early experiences of D&D.

    I disagree strongly. The idea that a party should be balanced is a very modern interpretation of D&D, and is often actually a lot less fun. It forces a stereotype on play that limits it and reduces play opportunities. [The formalisation of this philosophy in 4E is one of the reasons I detest the philosophical basis behind 4E.]

  31. Oh and the reason why players have more fun causing damage to the world is not that necessarily that they are homocidal maniacs, but rather in doing so they fulfil a psychological need by interacting and changing the imaginary world they are interacting with. Defensive measures, on the other hand, tend to insulate them more from the imaginary world by reducing the effect that it can have on them.

    All IMNSHO of course.

  32. This is only a minor variation on what everyone else has said, but for me, it's not just cure light wounds, but that at every spell level, there's one and only one spell that is bound to be useful in any particular adventure.

    Sure, you might get to have fun with "sticks to snakes," but you're bound to meet a human/humanoid adversary whom you would like to see "held". And your companions in agony over their giant spider bites have a right to hear you explain why you didn't take Neutralize Poison.

    BUT THEN AGAIN, fighters and thieves don't have many choices either. (One-handed or two-handed sword? Die in battle or when I "find traps" the hard way?)

    So, I think RP is on to something about players wanting to do soemthing rather than help someone else do something. In the campaign I play in, I have a cleric, and the fun is definitely in reminding my party members that their death is imminent and that they should get right with The Law.

  33. Myself, I've always liked playing a cleric as a necromancer. They can potentially cast animate dead at 5th level (magic-users need to wait until 9th level), and their weapon selection is pretty fearsome.

  34. @Brian

    I think your example kind of illustrates the difference between people who think clerics are "heal-bots" and those who see clerics with a broader view.

    I always found multiple cleric spells to be of great value in most every quest. From the level two spells 'Hold Person' is great, but so is 'Silence 15' Radius'. Silences and cripples mages or makes your party extra-sneaky. Cast 'Light' on a sling bullet and shoot it ahead to light up a room (and let the world know you're coming...) 'Find traps' can save the whole party after you lost your thief who was sure he'd found the last trap etc...And that's just from the Labyrinth Lord basic spell list.

    And, as for those party members dying of poison? Well, that's what they get for insisting that I go all "heal-bot" and use all my 4th level spell slots for 'Cure Serious Wounds'.

    There are lots of choices for clerics, fighters, etc. when it comes to how they want to play, but many players (not necessarily here) want to maximize combat/fighting so you end up with a bunch of fighters with plate mail and longswords/bastard swords and clerics with nothing but healing spells. That's probably always been the case, but I think it's been made worse by the later editions of D&D and MMOs.

  35. For those disagreeing about the "niche" roles of PCs ... I'm not saying this is a good thing or "good role playing" (whatever that is). I'm just saying they have always been there. I'm pretty sure that the book What is Dungeons and Dragons? recommended party balance, and lots of modules recommended taking a mixture of PCs into the dungeon to cover all roles. But most importantly, players for all of eternity have noticed this property of "balance" and how you need a healer in your party, as have GMs, and it's a pretty natural part of the game. Tactics have been created on the assumption of these roles, and people have been working on the basis of them for years. There's even an early letter to the Dragon magazine sage advice column by a wizard complaining that the fighters are using him as a tank because of his low AC.

    James, the Druid came out later and according to your own views of it, was originally presented as a monster in Supplement I. Maybe the presentation of that class as slightly malicious less supportive is the reason it doesn't get seen as the healbot? Clerics at low levels, especially, are almost entirely support characters, primarily there for their cure light wounds and bless capabilities, which (especially in early D&D?) were unique to clerics. Also Druids have weaker armour allowances, which maybe makes them less reliable healers in combat.

  36. I played a lot of clerics. What is wrong with being a heal bot? At low levels, you still get to fight; you have to.