Monday, October 24, 2016

Towards an Arnesonian XP System Without the Gold

Anyone familiar with my musings on how to run a campaign is well aware of my long love-affair with Arneson’s rule of 1 gp of treasure spent = 1 xp. It is genius and it is the mechanical engine that makes a sandbox-style game purr. Handing over agency to a group of players is one of the true pleasures I have as a Referee because it guarantees an experience that I cannot get by writing short stories, novellas or novels: utter surprise. I had no idea stirge meat was a delicacy in the Lost Colonies until my players decided to ask a friendly monster NPC to cook one up. To this day, this fact and all of the various consequences that are derived from this fact are some of my favorite features of the Lost Colonies campaign world.

There is, however, one glaring weakness in Dave Arneson’s xp house rule: it assumes a gold-based economy in a post-apocalyptic world where treasure hunting is an inexpensive but lucrative (if dangerous) endeavor. It won’t work in the Third Imperium. Whereas there is a lost, ancient civilization, the locations of these ruins are often tightly controlled secrets or in places that are cost prohibitive to get to. In addition, the stuff that can be found is generally cultural and/or scientific, not monetary.

One of the reasons B/X is the one RPG I would choose if I could only ever play one RPG for the rest of my life is because it best expresses (and allows for) the madness of a sandbox campaign and players armed with the near-complete agency Arneson’s xp rule grants. One of the reasons I don’t regularly Referee games like Traveller, Call of Cthulhu and Champions is that these genres and systems lend themselves much less easily to the sandbox campaign (not that they can’t).

The discussion that followed my most recent rant about 5e and xp got me thinking about how it might be possible to marry the madness of Arneson’s xp rule and a sandbox campaign to another genres where Arneson’s assumptions about the world do not or cannot exist.

At the root of this whole issue is player agency. The way in which Arneson’s rule empowers players to advance exactly how they want to is a marvel to behold. The surprise factor and the world-building and world-altering factors are huge. Therefore, here is a stab in the dark at a framework upon which to build an experience system that could potentially give me the same kind of satisfaction in other games and genres that I get from Arneson + B/X:

There are six different methods of earning experience:

  1. Party Campaign Goal: This is a task the players set for themselves as a group. The expected time necessary to complete this task should be around the 2-5 session mark. For example: The party decides that it wants to figure out where the Tomb of Horrors is located. This would have a value of 2(x) for each character where x is an arbitrary number used consistently throughout this thought experiment.
  2. Player Campaign Goal: This is a task that the player sets for their character alone. Again, this is something they should expect to take 2-5 game sessions to complete. For example: The ranger decides that he wants to take out 20 orcs, while the Magic-user wants to visit the Great Library in the Capital City. Again, this would have a value of 2(x).
  3. Party Mission Goal: Similar to the Party Campaign Goal, but is something the party wants to accomplish over the course of a single session. For example: The party wants to get to the Village of Sages in order to find out the most likely place to find a map associated with the Tomb of Horrors. This would have a value of (x) for each character.
  4. Player Mission Goal: Similar to the Player Campaign Goal, but is something the player wants to accomplish over the course of a single session. For example: The Cleric wants to cast three utility spells that actually help the party. This would have a value of (x).
  5. Secret Player Goal: This is something to help me notch up the surprise factor for both players and referee. All of the above goals are assumed to be public knowledge so that everyone has a chance to negotiate with the other players to maximize their ability to gain experience. At the beginning of each session, the player’s also write down a goal their character has for the session that no one else is privy to, including the Referee. At the end of the session, these goals are revealed to the table and experience is granted for those who pull it off. This would have a value of (x).
  6. Referee Discretion/Secret Goal: This is also an attempt to up the surprise factor. The Referee could hand out (x) experience to players who showed exceptional bravery/cleverness/role-playing etc. and/or at the start of the session, the Referee could secretly write down a goal they hope the party accomplishes over the course of that session. This, too, would be worth (x) experience.

I think this would allow enough flexibility to just about any genre to pull off a sandbox campaign as well as offer enough structure to allow players to feel empowered on how their characters advance through the system and the campaign.


  1. Release us from absolutely having to seek treasure out. Great.
    Alternatives proposed have been XP per hex mapped, and such. But then we are just forced to travel all the time, in the same way we are forced to slaughter when XP is for monsters only.
    Your idea give the freedom to do anything. Want to retrieve 10'000 GP? Do it. Want to travel to Firetop Mountain? Go for it. Want to establish peaceful trade between the goblins and the elves? Good luck with that one, but ok. Loving it :)

    I want to get drunk! Do I level? *slap*

  2. This blog entry makes me happy. The described XP system is very similar to the one I use. :)

    A problem with such system is the difficulty of particular goals. The referee should review them so there won't be to big differences between players.

  3. I forgot to comment on your "I'm back" post. Great to see you blogging again about D&D!

  4. Interesting suggestion. Reminds me of a class based system some dud thought up, which made XP more personal.

    1. I remember that, but wasn't particularly interested in it, because it imposed the archetype instead of allowing players the freedom to fiddle with the archetype. What if I want a M-U who collects magic swords? Class-based XP punishes me for that, whereas both this frame work and Arneson's rule allow for it and might even encourage it...

  5. Have you ever looked at the Apocalypse World/Dungeon World system(s)? I think their ΧP system is pretty good.

    Basically, you get an XP point (minimum of 7 needed to level up) every time you fail a roll. While it would need some adapting to a d20 system from a 2d6 system with fixed DCs, it seems like a better starting point than "kill stuff, get good".

    1. I am not familiar with those systems. Whereas this basic concept does invite players to try new things, it seems to assume some kind of skill system. There are very few skill systems that I like, because they inherently delineate what players cannot do rather than what they can do. As such, conceptually this approach defeats my basic premise, which is to systemically empower players as much as possible.

  6. There is no skill system in Dungeon World (nor in Apocalypse World). I ran Dungeon World for some time so I know it quite well. XP for failure is an interesting concept, kind of consolation prize, but it doesn't influence the world like XP for gp spent or XP for goals. It is a system for real murderhobos/free (like: not connected) adventurers. And it came from another design philosophy - concerned mainly with pacing a session. It's good for a single session (maybe a few), but not suited for long campaign, in my opinion.