Recently Ian Borchardt wondered on Google+, what people thought of basing experience gains off of class. He was thinking of fighters gaining experience fighting, magic users gaining experience learning spells, and so on. Ian was interested in applying this to D&D solo play. I think the topic bears a wider discussion, however.
I see two things to consider. How will this rule affect gameplay at the table? How will this rule affect what characters do in the game world?
I remember playing Burning Wheel and related games from Burning Wheel Headquarters. These games usually tie advancement to successes and failures in tests. Therefore, every test you make takes a tiny bit of bookkeeping. How difficult was the test? Did I succeed or fail? Jot it down. That’s too much bookkeeping for my taste.
Example Key from Lady Blackbird:
Key of the Paragon As a noble, you’re a cut above the common man. Hit your key when you demonstrate your superiority or when your noble traits overcome a problem. Buyoff: Disown your noble heritage.
Each key also has a buyoff. If the buyoff condition occurs, you have the option of removing the Key and earning two advances, which you can use to buy another Key or two.
Whenever I ran or played these games I liked this mechanic because it gave players the choice to pick whichever Key they desired, implicitly telling the GM what they wanted the game to be about.
As players get to select the Keys and they get to change them as part of their advancement, Keys can be more fine-grained than just the character’s class, and yet they don’t require as much bookkeeping as Burning Wheel and all those games because not every roll of the die needs record keeping. Players actively try to trigger their Key, and when it happens, they mark it off. Easy.
It is pretty free form, however. As the referee of such a game, you should have a list of Keys prepared that serves as an implicit indication of where you see the game going. By agreeing on a set of Keys beforehand, referee and players can make sure that the Keys stay within the kind of game they want play. It doesn’t have to be an anything goes kind of game.
Mazes & Minotaurs has the kind of experience system that Ian Borchardt was suggesting. I’ve never tried it, it seemed reasonable on paper, but I had trouble imagining it at the table. After every encounter, the fighter player speaks up and says, “that was worth 3 XP for me, right?” The mage player loots the lab and says, “two new scrolls found, 2 XP?” If it happens a lot, it could be a lot like the bookkeeping after every test in the Burning Wheel Headquarters games. If it happens rarely, it could be like a permanent Key in Lady Blackbird.
Then again, something I like in role-playing games is changing gameplay over time. It seems to me that making this Key basically permanent prevents this to some extent.
In a D&D game with dungeons and wilderness adventures I’d say that rewards based on class lead to a kind of reinforcement that I don’t like. Fighters will want to fight monsters that don’t need fighting, thieves will want to steal from people we don’t want to steal from, etc.
To elaborate – and this goes for solo as well as party play – I think that doing a thing should not be rewarded. That’s going to go Pavlov quickly is what I’m guessing. What I want is players doing things in order to get a reward, in other words, they are doing something else in order to get a reward. The action and the reward should be orthogonal. Fighters fight in order to get treasure. Wizards cast spells in order to get treasure. This is how they get to choose their approach, quietly or forcefully, quickly or slowly, talking or fighting, and so on. It allows for more ingenuity in my book.
Anyway, this is what I expect to happen without actually having tried it, and only based on my D&D 3.5 experience. There, fighting monsters granted most of the XP. Avoiding a fight and going about the mission quietly was always an uphill mental battle. It was going against the affordance of the rules. The reward structure did not invite players to push harder, it invites players to optimize harder (since combat appears unavoidable, in a way, combat is the reward).