Jan 15, 2012

Incentivising the Things We Actually Want PCs to Do: A Proposal

"Hey bros, let's go rob someone. I need a new ruff."

I'm curious about what modifications my readership has made to the principles of XP allotment in the various versions of D&D? I'm running Swords and Wizardry, which rules-as-written gives out XP for recovering treasure and a smaller amount for slaying monsters. The PCs are mostly between 4th and 6th level right now, and will soon be "name level", ready to settle down and become landholders (specifically, they are on a quest right now that if they complete, will result in de jure ownership of the Isla del Naufragio, which is Emern's Jamaica).

As this approaches, I've been thinking about changing or altering the XP system of the game to reward certain behaviours over others. Specifically, about the following additions to the XP rules:

1) Every man or woman under your direct command is worth 1XP per week you have them in your service. This means a single servant is worth 52XP a year, regardless of whatever else they do for you. This includes slaves.

2) Every gold piece you manage to kick upstairs to Governor Hesh (Admiral of Arkhesh, Lord Mayor of Heshtown, feudal lord to the PCs) above your annual fee is worth 1XP. This can be used to double-dip off a single gold piece.

3) Every rank, privilege, honour, organisation, fraternity, etc. you can receive or become a member of is worth a one-time 500XP bonus. This includes criminal gangs, semi-permanent bands of mercenaries, knightly orders, wizard conclaves, etc.

So, why these behaviours, and what kind of play do I think this will encourage?

One of the ideas in Emern that I've been presenting in the background is the struggle for prestige and honour. The New World is a pretty horrible place - it's filled with natives who hate you as invaders, pirates, monsters, deadly diseases, squabbling mercenaries and freebooters, etc. But people come out here to make their fortune anyhow, and try to struggle through the monstrous situation, often doing highly questionable things along the way, with the hope of profiting greatly and retiring as honoured gentlemen, all crimes forgotten. Prestige comes from your comites, your household, your rank, your proven competence to exceed the expectations of your superiors. The comites are relatively easy - as the party levels up, they become more of a collective force to be accounted for and appeased or challenged. It's all the rest that requires some reward, since the benefits are otherwise less tangible.

I chose these ones partially because they avoid locking the PCs out of adventuring. My initial idea, that I rejected, was to reward PCs for landholding they accumulated and improvements to that land they made. Each hectare would be worth so and so much XP to acquire, and then building a castle, or tavern or plantation or whatever would add to it. But I realised what I'd be doing there is encouraging them to play Simcity, and sit around calculating whether a tavern or a brothel would be the more optimal choice to maximise XP gain. I would also be locking them into just being marcher barons, sitting on the frontier in their castle(s) looking to grab more and more land, rather than adventurers.

A rank can travel, a castle cannot. These rules actually encourage PCs to be cunning and duplicitous chiselers - to hire on larger households than they can necessarily afford from honest income, to figure out how to chisel an extra 50 gold out of someone to kick up to Hesh, and to join organisations dishonestly with no real intention of fulfilling the duties thereof. Better yet, this kind callousness to others' dependence on one meshes well with both the themes of Emern, and the real life contemporary situation that was most similar to the period Emern is set in (early modernity). Knights would pledge to go on crusade, and then never quite get around to it. People would train as churchmen and then divert away from taking holy orders at the last second. Households would groan and strain under ruinous debt accumulated to show off. Taxes were ruinous, and landholders often engaged in highly ethically dubious fundraising schemes, from alchemy to robbery, to raise the money their lands couldn't provide. That's all stuff I want in my game, not just as background colour, but as things the PCs are at least tempted to do.

Anyhow, as I said at the start, I'm curious how any of you have changed the XP system in your Game of Choice to better incentivise the kinds of behaviour you want PCs to do, what that behaviour was, and how that worked out in play. Let me know in the comments!


  1. Interesting.

    I have come to regard XP not really as an incentive but more like a score of how well the PCs are doing what they already want to do.* So I would look at the PC's obvious goals and see how they compared to my XP structure. And if I want there to be an incentive for some behavior I would want to make sure there is some obvious in-world benefit that appeals to them. I think in game benefits like, being offered fat contracts, legal immunities, an understanding to screw over NPCs that hate are better PC motivators than just more XP. If they kick back more money to the governor, presumably the governor likes them more. What do they get out of that? As a player I would rather get "you guys are my bros, you can go kill this guy, he's rich, cut me in 10%," or "you guys are my bros, here's a treasure map, you have salvage rights, cut me in 10%," than just more XP. If the favors and contracts equal adventure and treasure I'm gonna get XP anyway if it's straight D&D.

    So what does a person in heshtown get out of joining a given organization? As far as "with no intention of performing the duties thereof" I figure if the PCs are scoundrels and chiselers anyway, they won't fulfill their responsibilities to the organization unless they get something out of that either, which is true whether or not there is an XP join bonus.

    *and in theory, measuring loosely how much adventuring the odds are good that they have done to get it.

  2. I'm agreement with you here, but I don't see it as an either / or situation. The PCs want to be in Governor Hesh's good books, for example, and this is a concrete mechanic that overlaps with less tangible goods like favour, opportunity, etc. to provide that extra incentive. It also binds them to the Governor, so he's not just an obstacle should he ever oppose them, but someone with whom they can have a complex relationship that has mechanical benefits beyond the intangibles.

    Organisations vary a lot. The most powerful ones right now are mainly criminal gangs and proto-capitalist companies, and the initial joining bonus serves to give PCs a reason to hunt out new ventures and join them, rather than waiting for the plot to come to them. My PCs are pretty good, but since we've got a lot of new roleplayers on board, I think it's more useful to lay out some incentives to guide them along until they're fully comfortable with intangibles, and to encourage a sense of agency and the active pursuit of opportunities for adventure.

  3. I think it's more useful to lay out some incentives to guide them along until they're fully comfortable with intangibles, and to encourage a sense of agency and the active pursuit of opportunities for adventure.

    This is a good point. Also, I was just now thinking about those downtime cards you give out - it might be cool to offer relevant card draws per X gold of kickbacks, or card draws for organizations to join. Kind of like a weaponized rumor table. Some of the cards could have bonus XP attached to them

  4. That's actually a good idea. Currently, some of the cards have bonus XP on them, but it's part of the "Wheel of Fortune" element, since some also have gold, or horrendous outcomes of various sorts. Having a "Random Quest" deck that was generally beneficial but required effort to access could be fun.

  5. I'm using "actually" here as an intensive, not a contrastive.

  6. I'm using "actually" here as an intensive, not a contrastive.

    No problem, that was clear from context.