Tuesday, 16 February 2016

The Elixir: Gold as XP in 5e

So in the new campaign that I'm about to start running, I introduced a version of Gold as XP into my house rules. My players, who all started playing with 5e, were naturally a bit confused, and one of them even expressed discontent and asked that I provide a justification for the system. I did, and I thought it was worth posting here as well.

Over the course of this blog, I'll be talking about my attempts to distil 5e into the hybrid between old-school and new school play that it is aspiring to be. This is technically not the first post I wrote on the subject (that one is on backstory, and it's still saved as a draft on this page) but this is the first one I'll post. I'm convinced that 5e was written to support a gold as XP rule, and in my opinion it makes the game work the way it was intended. The often ignored rules for lifestyle expenses and hirelings take on new life this way, and the math for it actually evens out the levelling pace to what it was meant to be (fast shot from 1 to 3, then slowing down from 4 to 10 which is the meat of the game, then a quick rise to power from 11 to 20).

My Gold as XP system for 5e is as such:
  • XP is earned through the spending of gold. A character levels up when they have spent the total amount of gold (1 XP = 1 GP) to reach a level: i.e., a character who spends 300 gold levels up to level 2, and from there would have to spend 900 gold to level up to level 3, etc. etc. This also means characters can choose skip levels and level up more "efficiently" if they so desire, i.e. spending 900 gold at level 1 to get to level 3, or 355,000 gold from level 1 to get to level 20.
This works in tandem with Matt Rundle's Anti-Hammerspace Inventory System, which keeps the PCs from stockpiling mundane goods to advance, and I tossed them a supplement for building strongholds to get their imaginations started.

And here is the justification I wrote for my players:

So, gold as XP, wtf does this mean? Why are you doing this?! What madness is this! It makes no sense!!!!!!!!

Well, dear player, this is not without precedent. Prior to 3e, this is the way XP was mostly handled. However, I am not slavishly devoted to nostalgia. Allow me to mount a justification for why I chose this system. 

1. It encourages players to add to the world through interesting choices. To whit:
"The rules subtly encourage Player world building via the XP system. Characters all seek to grow in survivability, and may only do so by plundering and then spending cash. They move wealth from ruins/lost places into a game economy. Since the characters can only advance by spending large amounts of gold they do large things with it.

In the ODD game I play on G+ PCs have: tried to invent spells, built hidden shrines to dubious gods, bought property, erected memorial statutes and now at 6th level are attempting to rebuild a road with a fortified toll post to skim off new trade. None of this was planned by the GM, the world was just open for it, and even if our party gets wiped out by the forces of barbarism that object to new trade routes - we'll leave something behind (in addition to a treasure trove of equipment)."

(hint: it's the reason why I included the supplement for building keeps and strongholds above)

1.1 "But what if we spend the gold on uninteresting choices? W
hat is "spending" anyway? If I pay someone to clap does that count as money? If I take a piece of gold and go up to another pc and just make each other clap can we get to lvl 20 that way?"

There really isn't any such thing as an "uninteresting choice" in this system. Consider it as a totality, in tandem with the more limited inventory system. Sure, you guys could buy hundreds of 50gp healing potions, but you can't carry them all? Where do you put them? Do people spread rumours about this? While you're adventuring do thieves raid your potions cache, and then flood the market with cheap, watered down healing potions? How does this affect the local economy? Your relationship with the alchemist you bought the potions from?

Say you go into a tavern and demand money from the patrons. If you succeeded, boom, there's a story about you. How will people react to you from now on? How will they treat you.

If you begin overpaying for goods and services, assuming the storekeeper accepts, how does that affect the local economy? Your reputation with the locals? You're essentially investing in businesses for free. 

Every transaction has an interesting effect on the world.

And if you and another PC pay each other 1 gp to clap, congratulations: you both earned 1 xp and had a beautiful character moment. I hope you two grow closer as a result (seriously though, try to cheese it like this and I will be upset. y'all are better than that).

2. It puts the player in charge of their own advancement. One could choose to hoard gold to level up more efficiently at the cost of immediate survivability. It's a risk/reward system. Acquisition of treasure means the players have more agency in deciding the pace of the game. As a result, this gives me as the DM a little bit more flexibility as I don't have to design everything to an "encounter budget".

3. 5e is already balanced around this! Don't believe me? Compare the XP charts to the CR hoard tables in the DMG. The math checks out. The fact that there's so little to spend gold on in 5e versus gold acquired in play tells me that this was something that was designed to be a possibility (Mearls still runs OD&D at home).

4. It turns gold into an important resource: do you spend it immediately and convert it into XP, or do you save it in case of emergency? It turns the decision to spend gold or not into an important one as opposed to a foregone conclusion. 

5. It flips the standard assumption that one gains XP through combat on its head. All approaches are equally valid.

Common objections that you, the hypothetical player may have and my defenses

1. "This system assumes every PC wants gold!" Not at all. This system is merely an extension of the assumption already built into 5e that the players will receive gold. 

Also, if we take verisimilitude into account, every PC does want gold the same way all of us enmeshed in the capitalist system want money: we need it to survive. Lifestyle expenses are built into 5e for a reason. At some point the PCs are going to need to get gold. When they get more gold than they need in the short-term, this system encourages them to actually do something interesting with the surplus gold they've recieved.

Not only that, this system makes less assumptions than the standard XP system in the PHB. That system assumes that you'll be dealing with "encounters": i.e. monsters that you defeat through combat. Sure you can talk past them or sneak around them but the standard assumption is combat. This system doesn't even assume that you'll be dealing with combats, traps, dungeons, exploration, anything. Just that you'll be on "adventures", broadly speaking. Political intrigues? Exploration? Murder mysteries? Crime thrillers? This system supports all these genres straight out of the box. Standard 5e XP does not.

2. "Gold will become an artificial motivator/my PC has no reason to spend gold"

Well the reason y'all are playing in my campaign is because I trust you all as gamers.

Also ignoring the fact that all roleplaying is nothing but artificial motivators, there's always something your PC will want that can be accomplished by gold. You can give succour to the poor, or build churches, or invest in business, or just drink, party, and gamble. If your character has motivations and goals, I'm willing to bet 99.99% of the time those goals will either a) involve gold or b) be aided by expending gold. Gold becomes a facilitator of a character's motivations, rather than the motivation thereof. Effectively, this XP system levels up your character by roleplaying your character! As your character advances along their goals, or even as they just act like themselves and do the things they want to, they gain XP for doing that. How about that.

3. "If you want to reward us with XP for roleplaying our characters/have flexibility as a DM, why not use milestone?"

a) This is a sandbox campaign. Milestone doesn't work as well without a metaplot.
b) Milestone takes away player agency and puts it in the hands of the DM.
c) This kind of is milestone, since I decide how much gold gets put in the game. But unlike milestone, you as players have an element of choice in deciding how much of that gold to uncover and why, and then you can actually do something interesting with it. There's nothing interesting you can do with XP other than level up. There's a bunch of interesting things you can do with gold.

4. "So I can become a level 20 wizard by selling wooden cups?"

*Sigh* okay here is where you have to take a leap of faith with me you guys....

Theoretically, yes. But it would be incredibly slow, and there's no guarantee that your wooden cup business would ever take off to the extent that you could earn enough gold to get to level 20. 355,000+ gp is a lot, you would need to be the equivalent of a multinational corporation for that kind of gold: and that sort of thing requires lots of luck, skill, and political manoeuvring. And I'm sure there would be rival cup companies to deal, trade deals to be made with kings, protectionism, extortion. What's this? *Gasp* Is this the beginning of...an adventure? One that might require you to use your skills as a wizard and level up in the class? SHOCK, HORROR, BETRAYAL!

So yeah, you could sell cups. Would you want to, though? It's not very game-able or interesting (and thus is unlikely to come up/survive at the table) unless it's an adventure. Because that's the implicit assumption behind D&D: that your character, and you, want to go on adventures. 'Cause if not, you're sort of playing the wrong game.

Adventuring is also by far the most lucrative, and most dangerous, career. A high-level treasure haul is enough wealth to form one's own nation: it's certainly more gold than you could ever get without adventuring. GP becomes a sort of material representation of the adventures you've gone through to acquire that gold.

Gold, glory, and deeds. These things will make you well known. You'll notice that 5e tracks tiers of play by renown: Local heroes, Heroes of the realm, heroes of the universe, heroes of the multiverse. The best way to get famous is to have wealth and to do stuff with that wealth: build a big tower, publish a line of books, whatever (you'll notice that these are "fluff" things and not "crunch" things: they have nothing to do with your stats). You gain wealth through your experience adventuring. You gain experience though spending that wealth. It's a beautiful tautology that makes explicit the driving logic and force of the game when removed from an unnecessary shackling to story or combat or whatever for its own sake and allows the game to live and breathe on its own and create a dynamic emergent story through sandbox play based on player action, decision, and choice; a merging of "role-playing" with "game".

I know this concept seems foreign, but I have thought long and hard about it, and so too did Gygax. If one pays close attention to my arguments, you'll see that more of the rules as written (lifestyle expenses, treasure hoards, hirelings) that are in the game make more sense and flourish more in this system than they do under standard XP/milestone. I firmly believe this is the way 5e is meant to be played. In relation to the history of the game, the other system for XP is the anomaly, not this one. I'm confident that this'll create a more dynamic and interesting scope of play. 

EDIT: Callum from Hack & Slash is probably one of the bloggers in the DIY D&D community that has the best understanding of Type V D&D. His post on the Economy of 5e vindicates many of my points here. Downtime activities were baked into 5e to provide the impetus to adventure that Type III and IV D&D forgot about (and it's even more elegantly realised than in TSR-era D&D, I'd argue).

EDIT 2 ELECTRIC BOOGALOO: The design ethos behind Snow Witch, Shield Maiden's XP Orbs is really interesting and similar to what I've got here. To be honest I prefer the simplicity of gold though. Interesting that they bring up the Souls games, which are basically the most Old-School D&D games ever made.

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