101 Days of D&D: reward systems

I spent much of last night involved in a long email conversation with one of the players in my Eberron campaign, we’ll call him “Tim” (which is convenient, since that’s his actual name). Tim sent me a link to the Experience section of “Sweet20”, which is Clinton Nixon’s (of Shadows of Yesterday and The Forge fame) first part of his D&D re-working. Boiled down to its essence, it involved yanking the “kill things and take their stuff” reward system and inserts a pretty elegant and simple system for players deciding what they’ll be rewarded for.

Part of my problem with D&D is that I like the flavor of D&D (especially in the Eberron campaign setting), the vast amounts of published support for it, the communities (both online and in “real” life), and the tradition/nostalgia factor.

However, I seem to want that D&D “flavor” in a game that gets beyond “killing things and taking their stuff,” though I acknowledge that is D&D’s core story. There’s just no way around that. I want something more complex and compelling from a story perspective. In my experience, most D&D groups do that sort of thing anyway if it appeals to them, there just aren’t any game mechanics to support it in D&D 3.5. They just do it and it doesn’t have any connection to their reward/advancement system. But, the Sweet20 Experience system seems to offer a pretty plug-and-play reward mechanic which does support play outside that considered by the D&D core story.

It does raise a number of important questions, though:

  • What’s the core story of THAT game? The answer is, um, I have no idea. I’m not sure you really need to worry about that. Most players don’t. I’m going to avoid that question for now.
  • What sort of implications does it have for a campaign if your players are custom-building their own flexible and changeable reward system? Can you use published adventures? I’m not sure. They’d definitely need a lot of work (moreso than usual) to adapt them to the campaign. It would certainly make it easier to craft adventures from scratch for the characters. I’ve played a lot of Burning Wheel in the past 10 months or so. I really like how the Beliefs, Instincts, and Traits (and Relationships) give the GM metric assloads of hooks to dig into. The Sweet20 Experience system would do much the same thing for D&D.
  • From a completely selfish, personal perspective, where would switching to that system leave this “101 Days of D&D” project? My goal — however artificial — is to make myself learn D&D inside and out, to really get to the guts of it. Abandoning even a drifted core story for the game would seem to undermine that significantly. Sure, what really matters in the long run is that I (and my group) have fun when we’re gaming, and there’s no reason to purposely avoid doing something that might help us have more fun.
  • Will the other players be up for it? In this group (which is new as of this campaign, though we’ve gamed together in different groups at one time or another), we’ve got a broad mix of agendas when it comes to gaming, and this might be a point at which there’s some conflict. I’ve had a bit of a tough time getting all the players to be vocal about what they want out of the game. Some of them aren’t used to approaching gaming that way. They’re more old school in terms of the player-DM roles. I’m not sure whether they’d be for it or not. It definitely represents a major paradigm shift.

I’m not sure about answers to any of the above questions. I need to study on it some more, and I need to talk it over with the players. Until then, I’m going to assume we’re not going to use the new reward system, but in any event, I’m saving it for a game and group for which it’ll be perfect.

8 thoughts on “101 Days of D&D: reward systems”

  1. I tried the Sweet20 system. The problem with the system is that it drags the game away from the kill things and get treasure. Also, unless the players and GM all equally buy into it, it’s possible for different PCs to early wildly different XP.

    And that’s the biggest problem. If your players don’t really buy into it, it won’t work.


  2. Frank:
    I think the whole point of using the Sweet20 system IS to get away from killing things and getting treasure. But, I completely agree with you that there has to be total player buy-in or it just won’t work. I can also see that it would be possible for players to end up with wildly differing levels of XP if the GM didn’t stay on top of things very carefully.

    I’m not sure if all my players will be interested in it. Heck, I’m not sure *I* want to do it in this game, but I can certainly see it working well for certain campaigns.

  3. Of course there’s a serious question of whether one should try and turn D&D away from killing things (getting treasure could be done away with more easily). Using D&D for a game that doesn’t focus on combat seems a bit of a misapplication since D&D is basically one big combat system.

    It’s interesting to note that Clinton hasn’t really made any progress on Sweet20 (and didn’t respond to any of my questions about it in the Anvilwerks forum on the Forge).

    Certainly an interesting idea though.


  4. Oh, you’re absolutely right, Frank. Why make D&D into something for which there’s likely a much more appropriate and useful system already?

    What I’d ultimately like to end up with is a way to keep the standard XP rewards yet find or come up with a way of rewarding players with a method similar to the Sweet20 system alongside it. A “Best of Both Worlds” method.

  5. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Emily is one of the players in my group. She plays Tamarind, the halfing druid who rides a dinosaur.]

    I’ll start by saying that I’m often annoyed by the kill things/get experience mechanic. It leads to a lot of useless combat–not just random encounters, because the GM can feel that the only way to advance his players (make ’em happy) is to create villains that must be actually fought, rather than politically destroyed, converted to the side of good, etc.

    The Key Scenes mechanic would work well in a group that does not actively pursue plotlines–i.e. the players that can spend the entire session in the tavern roleplaying with each other and the occasional NPC. Obviously this would be frustrating for the GM, especially GMs who have a plot in mind WITHOUT consideration for who the players are. It just seems like a mechanic built for the immature PC set or the immature GM. But for our group (or any enjoyable group)? I don’t think this is an issue. I’d probably have loved it when I was GMing that party of 14 year olds.

    The other Keys? Hm. I wouldn’t want to rely on this as the sole-experience reward system. Augmenting the existing one would be fine. Or we could use it much like BW uses beliefs to artha or Exalted uses natures to willpower–as the alternate way of rewarding action dice to players. It wouldn’t mess with advancement (no player would end up higher level than any other through this) but it would allow those who really added to the game experience to get an edge when they needed it.

    You might want to look into story rewards. I’ve not had a GM outright adopt this system, but I’ve noticed that some GMs simply work a bonus in when they feel like the game went really well (the combats did not add up to the amount of XP we were rewarded, but we pursued the plot). If there’s a system in the DMG or something, you could rock that and still be delving into the world of D&D.

    Semi-off topic: I’ve actually really enjoyed the storytelling mechanic for experience–you come, you participate, you get a set amount of XP. It relieves that pressure to always go out and fight. There’s ample time to develop in character relationships, for one thing, or to tackle a problem from different angles. In an ideal world, you don’t play with people who won’t take part in the game, so you don’t have to force anyone to just DO SOMETHING. A couple of years ago this method really annoyed me. It’s how the LARP I helped with is run. We weren’t allowed to turn players away, because they were paying customers (not paying ME, it should be noted). That meant we had a lot of people who just sat around and didn’t do anything in the world, and the guys who went out and tried to get things done were, essentially, punished by having a higher rate of mortality. There were a whole load of complications that made it worse (we had to keep the town area “safe”, people could donate things out of game and turn that into in game resources or effects, people could whine and threaten to leave and get stuff, etc).

  6. After using the keys system for XP failed, we tried to use it for hero points for a while. Our healer character racked up hero points like they were coming off a printing press (it’s just too easy to take a key that fires when you heal someone – and without a more complete system backing up the keys, there isn’t good support for defining what the triggers should be – actually, that’s the problem I see with the system as applied to a non-narative style game). Eventually we gave up, and in fact, we never came up with a satisfactory system for awarding hero points, and the players really didn’t make much use of hero points (which was one of the clues that suggested we really were doing hard core gamism).

    I am becoming convinced however that D&D’s strict XP system isn’t the right way to go. Our Arcana Evolved campaign actually did just fine without much attention to how the XP was being awarded, so long as the PCs leveled up occaisionally (and I think we mostly agreed that perhaps levelling up happened a bit too often). Back in college, I ran some very successefull gamism using a GM discretion system, that rewarded “a good session” (and did so explicitly, I awarded challenge/what you did XP plus “bonus” XP). So the PCs could advance if we had a talky session that was still enjoyable.

    But there is a risk of incoherence in such a system. If the majority of the game becomes not combat and most of the reward is arbitrary “we had fun” XP, then the rules text is saying one thing (“This game is about killing and treasure.”) and the system in play (Lumpley principle) is saying (“This game is about talking up the NPCs and doing whatever makes the GM happy.”) If everyone is on board, it can be totally functional (though might be better supported by a different system), but it’s easy to imagine a player looking at the rules text and watching the actual system in play, and being very confused (especially when some of the talk suggests the rules text is actually important).


  7. This’ll probably surprise people, but I wouldn’t use the Sweet20 XP system in a D&D game ever. I wrote it one afternoon while sitting in a courthouse to testify against a former boss, and just tossed it up on my website because I wrote it, not because it’s good.

  8. Gee, now he tells us…

    Actually, in a way, I’m glad I tried out Sweet20. Sure, it failed, but it didn’t ruin our fun, which actually helped me see that the way XP is actually awarded is not a critical part of the reward system (nor was the way treasure was found – since I just gave the PCs appropriate treasure when they leveled up). The critical part of the reward cycle was the feedback loop of character regular improvement and better ability to kick tail in combat.

    Sweet20 demonstrated how giving the players the type of say over their characters and the game that keys give does not mesh well with the kill things and take their treasure model of D&D.


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