Gold for xp and vice-versa

I’m a big fan of the OSR scene, and always looking to do more old school gaming, so this post is overdue. I thought I’d talk just a little about attitudes to having the treasure that adventurers collect give experience points – people have already talked at length about this, so I’ll try and come up with some new observations that I haven’t seen mentioned before, and suggest a slight rework that solves some of the regular complaints.

First, lets deal with the pros. The big plus to having gold deliver experience points (usually at a ratio of 1:1) is that it encourages thoughtful, interesting play. This is of a piece with the idea, present in older ttrpgs and revived in the OSR, that combat should be a deadly, unpredictable last resort. In this kind of game, where this is really taken to heart, it wouldn’t make sense to give out xp for monsters slain, since monster slaying is a roulette. A lot of the time, the smart thing to do as an adventurer – the thing that makes you better at adventuring, hence that is worth xp – is to avoid combat if at all possible, reaching your goal by other means than by hacking through to it. And, since the goal defaults to treasure in these games, the experiential reward is directly correlated with it.

This actually makes the xp-for-gold method more similar to the GM fiat method used widely in modern D&D, where characters advance in levels every few sessions at the GM’s discretion, than to the now standard xp-per-fight method. Think about it: The party aren’t entitled to a certain number of xp each for killing monsters, or surviving a fight. Rather, they get xp rewards when they get to the end of an adventure, or checkpoints along the way, regardless of how they got there. I have my problems with the arbitrary feeling of the GM fiat method, but following the sort of advice I laid out here, xp by treasure could actually counteract that, and have the best of both worlds.

The other advantage to having gold equal xp is that it incentivises players to push just a little harder. If your party is tired and nearing their last ounce of energy, dropping a hint at an enticing path to a stack of loot through dangerous territory puts a delicious choice in front of them. They’re much more likely to call it a day with whatever spoils they already have if all they get is the money – one really doesn’t need much to get by in the fantasy world of an rpg, by and large. Xp-for-gold gives a clear success condition and an enticing reward at the same time. Every experienced GM remembers many failed attempts to get a party excited about either of these in isolation, when they know that all they have to do is weather whatever monsters pop up over the session to get their reward, and so don’t really care what’s at the end of the journey. Gold as xp could very well fix that for your group.

This also feeds (albeit tangentially) into the old school approach to story – namely, that it’s something that is generated organically at the table. Original old school and OSR games have it that the GM should give the characters a clear goal that they can pursue in an open-ended way, rather than playing a part in a loosely scripted narrative; the story, such as it is, emerges in play as the player-characters take actions that they determine to achieve their goals, and the world responds accordingly. Xp-gold fits into this equation as the strong incentive that gets the players fired up to go adventuring.

And now, the cons. One complaint that gets made is that gold and experience – as in in universe experience, the difference between a farmhand and a veteran adventurer – don’t track. At the outside, for example you could have a penniless adventurer, veteran of a hundred battles and dungeons, who is nevertheless just unlucky when it comes to finding treasure in those dungeons, or getting paid for saving the day. This person should be made better by their experiences, but wouldn’t with the 1gp = 1xp equation. On the flipside is the rookie who gets lucky, and makes it out of the dungeon with an incredible stack of loot, having done nothing other than lucking out to deal with the terrors within. It doesn’t seem like such a rookie would have accumulated the experience to make them better at sword fighting or magic or whatever, especially not compared to the veteran, yet they would advance in levels and leapfrog them. This highlights the lack of realism in the system (money, famously, doesn’t make one wiser), and puts strain on its believability.

So there’s the possibility of good or bad luck (in weaker forms than the exaggerated versions above) that skews the system. But the veteran/rookie problems actually runs deeper. The problem is that the phenomenon above restricts the sort of story you can tell with your game. The veteran’s story above actually sounds interesting, and like it’d be fun to play out at the table – it has an air of the penniless ronin story to it, like in Cowboy Bebop, where the main characters are exceptionally skilled, yet perennially poor. Similar stories include the reluctant Robin Hood, who pursues riches, but always ends up losing them to his better nature, and desire to do good. Really, though, any story in which accruing wealth is not the main aim is going to struggle for having gold be the primary means of advancement – it doesn’t suit every character to have them pay their way.

As a side note, another, smaller problem is actually using the treasure. Either your characters are going to have something to spend all that gold on or not. If not, accruing the gold seems a little empty. Even if your game isn’t as story-focused as the examples in the above paragraph – and it’s part of the old-school mindset that story is something that gets generated at the table, as above – it seems odd that a character would risk their life over and over again just to add to a pile of gold in their basement that they don’t need.

The obvious thing to do, then, is to give the characters something to spend it on, but this introduces its own problems, mainly to do with balance. If characters are bringing thousands of gps out of the dungeon with each foray (ignoring the effect this would have of diluting the currency – a joke, honest) they’re going to be able to afford some fairly game-breaking stuff unless the GM keeps a very close eye on the amounts. A character wouldn’t have to save up for very many trips to hire a private army to go dungeoneering with them, for instance. Original D&D and many of its clones have rules for how many hirelings a character can have, based on their Charisma score, but it seems unrealistic that, given enough gold, sufficiently battle-hardened mercenaries or sufficiently desperate peasants couldn’t be persuaded to form a mob to go rooting around underground, especially if the player’s can prove that a) they’ve survived several trips, and b) ex hypothesi, there’s loads of gold down there.

Of course, you may want this sort of thinking from your players, as part and parcel of the “any means necessary” approach adverted to above. But this means that you’ll have to balance for it, and that, in systems that aren’t supposed to support bringing a full-blown militia dungeoneering with you (looking at you, Bastionland) is more headache than most GMs want, even assuming it can be balanced satisfactorily. Ditto magic items: If they can be bought in your game (they usually can’t in mine – I find it narratively unsatisfying, plus any magic-user powerful enough to produce them has no need of the money), you need to decide what magic the players can get for how much. This is a much smaller balancing issue than the unexpected militia, as many systems contain at least some magic item price lists, but it still has that curious feel of double-counting – as Ken StAndre (of Tunnels and Trolls fame) says, it feels as though gold should be its own reward.

Let’s look at some solutions, and see if we can’t get the good parts of the system while at least dialling down the bad parts. First up is an option I’ve seen mentioned before, which is to have gold for xp, provided the players waste the gold. “Waste” here doesn’t just mean spending it in the tavern, although it can do. Rather, it means spending it on something befitting the character. This could be something relating to their class, or just something relating to the character’s developing story. The best example is the cleric who puts the gold towards building a monastery, and who therefore gains experience as a measure of favour from their god, the tangible benefits of which are new holy powers gained from levelling up. The only caveat here is that the gold cannot be spent on anything that offers any benefit to the character other than the benefits from xp.

I really like this system, because it elegantly sidesteps several of the issues above. For one, it allows for the peniless adventurer storylines I talked about earlier; instead of building a cathedral, the cleric could be a Robin Hood, and give the money to the poor, thus ensuring that they never have any money themselves, but also that they level up, not in spite of but in virtue of pursuing the sort of story mentioned previously. It also gets rid of the double counting aspect, since treasure can translate to worldly goods or xp, but not both. This is a neat little solution by itself, but there’s a bonus: The system creates an interesting choice for the player concerning whether they spend the money on character beats that also get them xp, or whether they equip themselves with better arms, armour, hirelings etc. The agony of choice is a key factor in providing a compelling rpg experience. Plus, the player is no longer pursuing gold to add to that mountain in their basement – they’re doing it for their character’s god (/insert character reason here).

The other sort of system I’ve seen used here is a sort of hybrid system. Blades in the Dark provides one example: In order to level up the gang as a whole, players have to accrue not only Reputation, which works more or less like a stand-in for experience, doled out as the GM sees fit, but also Coin, an abstract measure of wealth. Going up a level involves spending a certain amount of each. Coin is extremely useful in Blades, meaning that the decision is an interesting one, but the system also allows the GM a greater measure of control, since either stat can be pressured to hold back a gang that’s leaping ahead.

The communal aspect of this system is an interesting twist, since it gives the players a reason to work together, and a debate to have over how best to allocate resources (a lot of ttrpgs basically boil down to this, in various different forms). I used a similar mechanic when I ran my own Star Wars-themed hack of The Black Hack; the players crewed a ship and ran various jobs for different criminals, à la Firefly, with the reward for each job given abstractly in terms of steps towards upgrading the ship. Any extra credits (money) the players made along the way, or anything extra they managed to negotiate out of their employers, was shared concretely between them. The crew levelled up as a whole, earning ship upgrades (which I largely nicked from the excellent Mecha Hack) every odd level and character upgrades every even level. This worked well enough, and gave the players the impetus to pursue jobs actively, although I think if I ran it now I’d give the players a concrete number of credits, and the choice of whether or not to put it towards maintaining the ship.

So, long story short, the best option is probably to give your players the option to spend their hard earned cash frivolously/piously/etc., or to invest in the latest arms and armour. To keep up the pressure on this decision, you can try implementing a system that applies damage to their equipment – or just throw lots of rust monsters at them. This still won’t work for every table, or for every game, but it’s worth considering; it puts a clear and graspable goal before the players that directly connects up with their characters’ aims, and provides an interesting bit of gameplay for downtime to boot.

Until next time then, spiderlings.

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