Monday, March 6, 2017

[CRIT] D&D 5e Gold-for-XP

This is a spiritual successor to my post about how I give out treasure in Lamentations of the Flame Princess. In that post, I stated that DMs can use the LotFP table for Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition by simply increasing the denominations used by one step.
The thing is, the LotFP table uses Moldvay’s assumption that three-quarters of a character’s experience points come from treasure. Now that my Dungeon Master Casey is using gold-for-XP in 5th edition, I thought I’d revisit this table and remake it to fit the expected experience point rewards in D&D 5e.
The main difference between Basic D&D and D&D 5e is that the burden of experience rewards isn’t placed on the monsters, but on the characters. Since the XP value of monsters is based on their challenge rating instead of on their hit dice, the Dungeon Master’s Guide has the DM construct encounters based on an XP budget determined by the level of the party, and those encounters are meted out based on what is considered a “full adventuring day” for that party. Essentially, Basic D&D is concerned with how powerful a monster is, while D&D 5e is concerned with how powerful the party is.
Taking this into account, the amount of treasure that the party receives also must be based on their level. Tankschmidt gives us a breakdown of the wealth a party is expected to accumulate throughout their level advancement (DMG 133). This table assumes four party members, even hoard distribution, and no individual monster treasure.
Expected GP (cumulative)
Expected GP (cumulative)

The simplest method would be to replace the Character Advancement table on page 15 of the Player’s Handbook with Tankschmidt’s expected wealth table. Then, a DM could easily use the individual treasure and treasure hoard tables in the Dungeon Master’s Guide to mete out gold at a suitable pace. This assumes that players will no longer receive XP from monsters and challenges, which I prefer: monsters and challenges are obstacles to a reward, not a reward in and of themselves.

How Gold-for-XP Works

Gold-for-XP has been implemented in the different ways throughout D&D’s history, including its re-imaginings by the Old School Revival movement:
  1. Every gold piece a character receives counts towards experience points on a 1:1 basis.
  2. As above, but only treasure recovered from uncivilized areas, abandoned areas, or creatures that have no actual use for it counts towards experience points.
  3. Every gold piece that a character spends counts towards experience points on a 1:1 basis.
  4. As above, but only treasure spent on frivolities (such as carousing) and/or great investments (such as building a keep) count towards experience points.
  5. Characters purchase XP on a 1:1 basis.
Let’s quickly go over what works for D&D 5e and what doesn’t:
  1. Works. When you get the treasure, you get the XP. Makes perfect sense if you use the expected wealth table above as the new Character Advancement table.
  2. Works. This means that in order to advance, the characters have to push themselves to extremes. No robbing caravans or taking rewards from kings to level up; they have to constantly forge dangerous frontiers in order to advance, which is very in-line with D&D’s themes.
  3. Kind of. The wealth characters get doesn’t convert to experience points until it’s spent. But if the DM doesn’t have a lot of sustainable options for you to spend it on, this can quickly become a mess.
  4. Kind of. This would be a better version of #3 since it narrows down the type of purchases characters will be making; it makes perfect sense to spend swaths of money in ways that can alter the game world, provide opportunities for roleplaying, even plant seeds for an adventure. However, characters will have to be generating more wealth than what’s expected for their level if they’re going to resupply and take care of adventuring expenses. Additionally, lower levels might prove tough unless the DM scales what is considered “frivolous” and “risky” as the party advances.
  5. Doesn’t Work.* Unlike #4, the expected wealth for characters must be spent on… nothing! This option forces parties to grind out more wealth than is expected of them with nothing to show for it. Also, throwing money into a bottomless pit doesn’t make thematic sense for character advancement: #1 has dragging treasure out of a dungeon; #2 has forging new frontiers; #3 has carefully investing wealth; #4 has world-changing spending binges. #5 either feels like purchasing levels at best, or like squandering money at worst, both of which sour the thrill players should get when gaining a level or claiming a horde.

*The Milestone Method

Casey is implementing an experimental advancement system in his game, an unholy merger of gold-for-XP and milestones. Basically, he uses #5, but when the characters toss money down the bottomless pit he has them describe what they’re doing with it. It could be anything: buying a shabby house in the upper slums, moving the extended family out of poverty, improving safety conditions on a main trade road, and so on.
This is cool because it solves a number of problems not just with #5, but with other gold-for-XP methods:
  • Buying XP is a huge investment, and having that investment feed into game-changing stuff fulfills the “world-changing spending binges” of #4.
  • What the characters buy is player-defined, which removes the mess of #3; the DM doesn’t have to invent prices or sustainable investments, the players just do it. The kicker is as XP thresholds rise, so does the potential of the characters’ investments.
  • Advancement under #5 takes up all of a character’s expected wealth, but because characters get game-altering milestones in addition to advancing, they’ll be willing to take risks to increase their income. This fulfills #2’s expectation of forging new frontiers.
  • This removes the “bottomless pit” effect of #5, which adds an extra heft to what advancement means. It doesn’t mean defeating challenges or hauling treasure, it means completing goals that are important to a character and furthers their development.

Why Gold-for-XP?

My D&D 5e house rules were written in an attempt to replicate the meticulous resource management and streamlined mechanics seen in TSR- and OSR-era Dungeons & Dragons. Gold-for-XP is one such mechanic that I’ve always wanted to implement, because I have a deep appreciation for what it does to the game:
  • Provides a Drive: Sometimes it can be difficult to get the players to go along a certain path. But I’ve found that when treasure is essential to advancement, the players dive right in; offering large piles of treasure is an easy and sure-fire way to get them to play along.
  • Promotes Creativity: Restrictions promote creativity. If the players have a constant, static objective in mind, they will come up with all sorts of clever ways to achieve it. Introducing obstacles to that objective becomes second nature for the DM to implement and the players to circumvent. Having one goal post to worry about makes for a tighter game.
  • Makes Decisions Harder: But the blinders that a single goal places on the players allows the DM to brew up some nastiness in the background. Once that nastiness comes to a head, the player will have to make a difficult choice: protect the caravan, or get the gold? Get rid of the rat problem, or get the gold? Overthrow the king, or get the gold? And every time the players choose gold, the DM gets enough ammunition for ten campaigns.